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Nikki Giovanni doesn't think about her legacy. But here's a moment she felt proud

Nikki Giovanni takes part in a Q&A following a screening of the documentary <em>Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project</em>.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images for FLC
Nikki Giovanni takes part in a Q&A following a screening of the documentary Going To Mars: The Nikki Giovanni Project.

A note from Wild Card host Rachel Martin:

There are so many words I could use to describe Nikki Giovanni: poet, revolutionary, queer icon, feminist, space enthusiast, mother and grandmother, legend. Giovanni is all those things. But she is also a woman who figured out really early that she did not have to apologize to anyone for who she was – or what she wanted from her life.

She can write poems that look directly at all of the pain and hatred in the world, and she can write children's books about feeling safe and loved. She can also conjure what it will look like when humans set up shop on Mars, and Black women lead the way.

Nikki Giovanni just turned 81, and her first eight or so decades of life have been about as accomplished as anyone could hope for. She has been doing it her own way all along. And writing it down so the rest of us can start to see beyond ourselves and whatever hard thing we are stuck in.

This Wild Card interview has been edited for length and clarity. Host Rachel Martin asks guests randomly-selected questions from a deck of cards. Tap play above to listen to the full podcast, or read an excerpt below.

Question 1: Were you obsessed with a particular cosmic question as a kid?

Nikki Giovanni: Yes. I wanted to know why Mars was red. And my obsession was that there was a war on Mars and that they had developed atomic energy so that Mars burned itself up. And as I lay in bed for most of my life, looking out the window, I have seen Mars, which is why I talk about it a lot. And I would like to go to Mars because I think that as a Black woman, my sisters and I could build a community.

Rachel Martin: When did Mars first come into your head? Do you remember?

Giovanni: I shared a bedroom with my big sister. She wanted the bed by the wall, I don't know why. That gave me the bed by the window. And so I would look out the window and watch the stars. And the stars haven't changed. So you have to ask yourself, what are they telling us? What am I learning?

Martin: Did fixing your gaze upward make you feel safer? You had a tough home life. You've talked and written a lot about that. Did that help you escape whatever was going on at home?

Giovanni: Well, my parents had what I would call, in nice words, a troubled marriage. And space let me know that this could not be the end. When you start to look at the stars and you think about the other life forms, you think, "Well, there is something else. I can't quit now. There is something else."

Question 2: What emotion do you understand better than all the others?

Giovanni: Patience. I'm incredibly patient.

Martin: Where does that come from?

Giovanni: Well, I don't know. I'm the baby sister of two. So you're always watching your big sisters because they're always so wonderful. They're prettier, they're more intelligent, everything. And you want to say, well, one day I'll grow up or whatever.

But I also have a great love of old people and old women. I have very few friends my age. I'm 81. Being 80 kicked my butt. I mean, if it could be wrong with me, it was wrong with me. And I was thinking, okay, I had lung cancer, and I had breast cancer, and I realized I don't want to be sitting in hell – because I don't think I'm going to heaven – but I don't want to be sitting in hell, and have people say "she fought cancer for 20 years." I'm not fighting any disease. I'm learning to live with it. And I want the disease to live with me.

So every morning that I wake up, me and cancer, we're in good shape. And I say, well, let's take a shower and go about our day. And one day, we won't. And then that means that I'll be transitioned. I'll be in another place.

Martin: Yeah. Are you afraid of anything?

Giovanni: Well, I'm – I'm very cautious around ostriches.

Martin: Nikki, what are you talking about? Ostriches? You're afraid of ostriches?

Giovanni: Well, yeah. Have you ever been on a safari? They are mean. And that kick will kill you. Ask a lion. If you had to put a lion against an ostrich, the lion is gone.

Martin: That's just not where I thought we were going to go. [laughs]

Giovanni: I'm not afraid of lions because lions are an intelligent being that, unless you're threatening them, they're not going to bother you. You have to be careful around ostriches. People need to know that.

Question 3: Do you think about the legacy that you will leave behind?

Giovanni: No.

Martin: Wow. I'm surprised by that answer.

Giovanni: Because it gets you caught up in your life, and your life is not about your life, your life is about your duty. And so, no, I don't think about it.

Martin: Have you seen people get too caught up in preemptively analyzing their legacy?

Giovanni: Oh, I've seen a lot. I know a lot of famous people, and they'll say, "I wonder what my stamp would look like." I'll be dead. So it doesn't matter. I'm just glad when me and cancer wake up. And one day, we won't.

My friend Tony Morrison whom I love so very much, she wrote in Sula, when Sula is dying, she says, "oh wait till I tell Nell it doesn't hurt. Wait till I tell Nell."

Martin: Let me ask this question in a different way. I get what you're saying, that you don't want to get wrapped up in your ego. But are there moments when you think back on your life and allow yourself moments to feel proud?

Giovanni: Oh, there are moments that I feel proud because I've worked hard. And when I went to the opening of the African American Museum in D.C, I had forgotten we gave permission to use my poetry. And when I turned a corner, there was a photograph of me. And it brought tears to my eyes. And I turned over my shoulder and said, "Look, grandmother, I did my duty." And that still amazes me. It's like she was there. I did my duty and that's what matters to me.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.