Nikki Giovanni's 'Rosa'

Poet and political activist Nikki Giovanni discusses her children's book, Rosa, which pays tribute to the late civil rights icon Rosa Parks.

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ED GORDON, host:

Poet and political activist Nikki Giovanni's latest work is a children's book simply called "Rosa." She says the inspiration for her book belongs to everyone.

Ms. NIKKI GIOVANNI (Poet, Political Activist): I wanted to share the woman that I had the privilege of knowing with younger people. Mrs. Parks, of course, is an icon, and when you become iconic, you become bigger than life, and I wanted to show that she was--I hate to say it like this, Ed, but she was an ordinary women who did an extraordinary thing. Who would have thought that a seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama, would, in fact, be the first woman in the United States to lay in state, that the entire nation would agree that we are mourning this death? Who would have thought that? I mean, it's so wonderful, and she's the only non-violent person--you know, you look at--there were 30 people who have lain in state since the Civil War; 29 were politicians who were men, military men and policemen. And Mrs. Parks.

GORDON: Do you think that people will be surprised when they pick up this book and see on the author line your name?

Ms. GIOVANNI: No, not at all, because anybody that knows anything about my work knows that I've always been in love with little old ladies, and that would include Mrs. Parks. And I had the pleasure of knowing her for 24 years. I had written about her before. I wrote a poem called "Harvest"; it was in my third book. I was privileged to be invited to write the 80th birthday celebration that they had in Detroit. So I don't think so at all. But again, my work--if there's one group of people that I am totally in love with, it's older black women. So no. No.

GORDON: Nikki, let me ask you this as it relates to just the literary world we know today, particularly within the black community: With what you see that is--I don't want to say popular, because we can't regulate what people find interesting, but what is pushed, if you will, by publishers and the like, how do you see the state of literature today?

Ms. GIOVANNI: I think it's fabulous, Ed. I think that the urban literature is very, very important. It's a whole level--you know, "Gang Girl," you know. It's a whole level. And people say, `Oh, we don't think that that's really literature,' but people didn't think the blues was really, you know, music. People didn't think the spirituals were really classical. So we learn in this business--people didn't think--when I started out, I was 24 years old. People didn't like me. So I think all of it is about what survives. I like what the kids are doing. They're in control.

GORDON: Talk to us about the illustrator, Bryan Collier.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, my. I was so lucky, you know. Bryan Collier is only 38 years old, so it was a pleasure. He's an extremely wonderful illustrator. I mean, it was wonderful to work with him. We had the honor--we, being Bryan and I--have the honor of being chosen by Time magazine, and I'm so pleased because I really think, as they said, it's Bryan's understated illustrations, because Bryan just sort of took on the personality of Mrs. Parks. And I try to take on her voice, that quiet strength that she had.

GORDON: When we take a look at the historic celebration, the golden anniversary of the Montgomery boycott, we know, through our remembrances of childhood, that these kinds of books become living memories and often instill a pride and ambition in kids.

Ms. GIOVANNI: As an author, I certainly hope so. I wanted kids to learn about her at a young enough age, when somebody says, `Name a hero,' `I think Rosa Parks is a hero,' you know, that kind of thing. In all fairness to everybody, Mrs. Parks and a number of people got sort of lost in Martin Luther King's shadow. And Martin was such a giant of a man, it was very easy to be lost there. So I think it's important that we start to bring out essentially the people who really paved the way.

GORDON: Do you write every day?

Ms. GIOVANNI: No, I don't. No, no. I read every day. And there's always something that I am researching. And I made the mistake of going to the grocery store recently without a book. All of my life, I never go anyplace without a book, and I'm standing in the grocery, and there's, of course, a line. I said, `That's what you get.' But I always have a book with me. I'm a '60s person. We used to never know if you were going to be arrested or something, so you always have a book with you. And I'm always trying to learn something, and I'm always turning something in my head. But I don't write every day, because I don't think you have anything to say every day.

GORDON: You sound so vibrant right now. So many people have followed the scare that you had with cancer and knew...

Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, yes.

GORDON: ...that you battled it graciously. How are you feeling?

Ms. GIOVANNI: I'm feeling fine, Ed, but unfortunately, on June 24th, my mother died, and on August 10th, my sister died. So it's been a hard year, and both of them had lung cancer. And I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with it. And so I think that I'm very fortunate to be alive because cancers tend to run in families. And I just sat down to begin my Christmas cards, and this year I wrote--I think it's a sad Christmas card, to tell you the truth. I had my printer print it up, and it says, you know: `Back hurt? Cancer alert. Get your MRI and CT now.' And I think that people don't realize that you can catch these things. I was very fortunate. From the time I felt that something was wrong and we started to pursue it to the time I had an operation was like 14 days. And neither my sister nor my mother would pay that kind of attention. And I remember both of them complaining about their backs. And so I thought--I don't have that many friends, but the 200 people I send Christmas cards to, I thought I needed to send this message to say, `You know, you need to take care of yourself.'

GORDON: Well, we can only hope, as 2006 rings itself in, that the year will be better for you on a private note, but we are so happy to hear you sounding so resounding in what we are used to, that wonderful spirit that Nikki Giovanni has brought us for so long. The new book, "Rosa," if you are looking for a great Christmas gift for your young people, this is one of those books that you want to make sure you put in their hands.

And, Nikki, it's always great to talk to you.

Ms. GIOVANNI: Oh, thanks, Ed. Thank you so much.

GORDON: That does it for the show today. Join us tomorrow as we continue our broadcasts from Montgomery. We'll speak with Congressman Artur Davis of Alabama, and we'll look at the changes to a once thriving African-American neighborhood. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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