For years, author and poet Nikki Giovanni couldn’t cry. Even as a child watching her father punch her mother, she suppressed her tears.
“I watched my parent’s marriage and I had to make up my mind and what I decided that it wasn’t any of my business,” Giovanni told NBC News. “So I had to step back from it and fortunately I had an incredible grandmother and so I went to live with my grandmother but one thing I was never able to do was cry.”
Giovanni, 74, said she spent months — even years — of soul searching about the heartbreaks and enjoyment in her life before putting pen to paper, the inspiration for her new book, “A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter.”
Giovanni remained stoic for decades while dealing with personal adversity, but when her mother passed away, Giovanni said she experienced an unforeseen catharsis.
“I finally learned crying was proper when my mother died about twelve years ago,” Giovanni said. “It helped at the church but then there was so much to do with the burial and all the other arrangements. I learned to respect tears but I didn’t have time for them until I began writing this book There was so much in my heart, I had to write it.”
Her poetry is so profound, that Oprah Winfrey named Giovanni one of America’s 25 “Living Legends.”
In an excerpt from one of her more intense new poems, "Baby West", Giovanni writes in unsettling detail about her father’s persistent abuse:
All I knew then
Was the sound
Of my father hitting
My mother every Saturday
Night until I heard
Her say “Gus, please
Don’t hit me.”
And I knew my choice:
Leave or kill him
Both were sad…
I have seizures because
I am thinking of my mother
Being hit by my father
It will not be
So I must learn
“I like a good cry,” Giovanni said while reflecting on her early years in Knoxville, Tennessee and Cincinnati, Ohio. “It’s also about surveillance. What I have done most of my life is I have watched. I’m always the little girl standing in the corner. I’m always watching.”
Giovanni is not a little girl anymore, but she remains a brilliant societal observer. She has an intrinsic ability to blend wit with ideology and past reflections with present-day revelations — all with her keen sense of humor.
“I realized that after I had a seizure, my doctor and I have been arguing ever since,” Giovanni said. “He said I have high blood pressure, he told me I eat too much salt. I told my doctor my problem isn’t salt, it’s that I never learned to cry – and to let it out.”
“So I told my doctor he needs to invent a symptom called ‘The Nikki’ – so when patients come to him with high blood pressure he can tell them ‘You have the Nikki!’ ”
“A Good Cry," published by William Morrow, is a thoughtful and illuminating compilation of Giovanni’s new works. She writes passionately about her family, education, space travel, the Black Lives Matter movement, Fisk University, Civil Rights demonstrations, and people who have impacted her life, including actress Ruby Dee and poet Maya Angelou.
“I also wrote about things that made me happy and things that made me laugh,” Giovanni said, giggling like a teenager. “So I wrote a poem about Big Maybelle, the blues singer.”
Mabel Louise Smith, known to her fans as “Big Maybelle,” was a popular blues singer. Her 1956 hit single “Candy,” received the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999.
“I remember a guy named Nate who was a numbers runner and he would take me to nightclubs,” Giovanni said. “I was 15, he would take me to nightclubs in Newport, Kentucky, and I got to see people like Big Maybelle and she was incredible. I loved the blues.”
"What I have done most of my life is I have watched. I’m always the little girl standing in the corner. I’m always watching."
A Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech, Giovanni still enjoys teaching and takes great pride in helping her students prepare for life after college.
“I love teaching,” Giovanni said. “I would be lost without my students.
Giovanni pays close attention to the current social justice protests by black athletes – and the hypocrisy by some fans.
“I watch these football games and everyone cheers and everyone wants to win, but when it’s over they can’t stand the black boys,” she said. “What kind of sense does that make? It makes you crazy.”
“I really appreciated the athletes saying, ‘We won’t go to the White House.’ Why would they go? I appreciate our athletes,” Giovanni said. “If [President] Donald Trump wants to talk to me, why would I talk to [President] Donald Trump? It’s a waste of my time.”
Giovanni said America’s school-age kids also need stimulating reading – both fiction and non-fiction.
“What we have to remember is the most important literature is children’s literature,” Giovanni said. “We have to do right by them while they are little.”
“I don’t think there is anything more important than children’s literature,” she added. “We need to teach them how they look at each other and how they should regard each other.”
Giovanni has been sharing her stories through poetry and essays for more than three decades. A graduate of Fisk University, she has received 19 honorary degrees from colleges and universities, numerous humanitarian awards and given the keys to more than two dozen cities.
Giovanni still passes along lots of wisdom, boldly challenges conventional social norms, and insists that old-school emotional purging is healthy for mind, body and soul.
“We all just need a good cry,” Giovanni said. “Most men haven’t had a good cry either. Think about it: When is the last time you had a good cry?”