Honoring the Best in African American Poetry

When working on “The 100 Best African–American Poems”, award-winning poet Nikki Giovanni decided to cheat.

“Including just one hundred would only get me to the 1970s,” says Giovanni, a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech. “I definitely wanted to get some younger voices in too so there are actually 220 poems but they’re only numbered from one to a hundred.”

And so Giovanni’s diverse collection of poetic voices includes poems not only by Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks and Mari Evans but also Tupac Shakur.

“Anybody who knows anything about me knows that I love Tupac and I’m not the only one,” says Giovanni. “This is an incredibly important young man. Tupac’s been dead 10 years and people still treat him as if they know him. Because of the power of that young man, we had to include him. My admiration is based on his talent. How could we not honor him?”

Accompanying the book of poems is a CD where such luminaries as actresses Ruby Dee and Novella Nelson as well as Giovanni and the president of Virginia Tech read some of the poems.

“It’s so you can read the book and also stick the CD in your car and hear them,” says Giovanni. “That’s great for people who like to read poems and for those who like to hear them.”

The book is dedicated to “The Aunt” by Mari Evans, a poem that Giovanni describes as one of her favorites.

“That’s what I used for the dedication –– my only living aunt. Instead of writing something, I used that poem,” says Giovanni. “I just love it. First of all, my mom has passed. I’m not a little girl anymore, but after losing your mom, your aunt is the one who comes in and let’s you know you are loved and helps you bury your mother. Mari wrote that about her mother. It’s a lovely sentiment. I could have stuck it anywhere in the book, but I wanted it where it is, because you open up the book and you get this poem as a dedication. It’s just beautiful.”

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