Nikki Giovanni on Truth and Tragedy : News & Views Farai reflects on her interview with poet Nikki Giovanni.
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Nikki Giovanni on Truth and Tragedy

Poet Nikki Giovanni photographed at NPR West studios. Bettina Wiesenthal-Birch, NPR hide caption

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Bettina Wiesenthal-Birch, NPR

Black revolutionary, feminist, artist, cancer-survivor, smack-talker, and healer ... those are some of the titles you can apply to poet Nikki Giovanni.

In April, Virginia Tech student Sung-Hui Cho massacred 32 professors and students, and then took his own life.

Nikki Giovanni was not on campus at the time, but she was Cho's professor.

I asked Giovanni about Cho's psychiatric record and whether the university could have done anything differently ... or if she could have done anything differently.

She replied: "I requested that he be be taken from my class because of his behavior. I don't know what we could have done differently. I've taught students who were clearly psychotic ... You can't kick people out of school because they're different, and you can't kick them out because they would be weird."

Giovanni added that there was not one faculty member or administrator who would not have taken a bullet for the students — and that five of them did.

Giovanni emerged from the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and then went on to wide success. On her 30th birthday, Giovanni performed at New York's famed Lincoln Center with a gospel choir.

"I had no choice but to sell out [the venue]," she said. "If I didn't sell out, there wouldn't have been any other black people at Lincoln Center..."

She also has the words "thug life" tattooed on her left arm ... the same words that rapper Tupac Shakur had across his abdomen. Giovanni says that Tupac "always stood with his people" — and so does she. "I would always rather be with the thugs than the people talking about them ... I'd much rather be with the Jena 6 than the people who put the nooses up."

You can hear our interview with her, and a reading of her poem "Ego Tripping."