Writer's relationship underscores literary success
A decades-old grade remains a slightly different memory for Kwame Alexander and Nikki Giovanni.
“She will tell you to this day that I never got a C,” said Alexander '89 of his grade in Giovanni’s course. “She will tell you that, but she did give me a C.”
And the former Virginia Tech student is correct, at least in part.
“Now he says I gave him a C, but I can’t imagine giving him a C,” said Giovanni, University Distinguished Professor of English. “He always had his head down taking notes. He was always a good student, I just wanted him to work a little harder.”
The truth of the grade is perhaps best left to lore, but the positive result of the friction it caused is clearly evident.
“She challenged me in a way that caused me some turmoil to the point that I think we clashed,” Alexander said. “That [grade] was the worst thing you could do to this super confident, well-adjusted, a bit cocky writer who’d been raised on literature.”
“And it was the best thing you could do because it challenged me in a way that made me say, 'Oh no, I got this',” he said.
More than three decades later, Alexander is an award-winning poet and New York Times bestselling author of 35 books, including the novel, "Becoming Muhammad Ali," which he wrote with bestselling author James Patterson; the Caldecott Medal-winning picture book, "The Undefeated"; and the Newbery-Medal-winning novel, "The Crossover," which is in development for a television series on Disney+.
Alexander was also a featured guest at Virginia Tech’s 2021 spring commencement. He delivered a poem dedicated to the graduating class, following in Giovanni’s footsteps, who gave a similar gift to the Class of 2020 during the virtual ceremony last spring.
“I would not be the writer I am without my literary mother, Nikki Giovanni,” Alexander said. “Virginia Tech gave me the opportunity to sit at the feet of one of the greatest writers to walk the planet, which I did for three consecutive years. It’s unheard of to have that opportunity.”
Alexander grew up in Chesapeake, Virginia, surrounded by books and poetry thanks to his parents, Barbara and E. Curtis Alexander, who were also educators and accomplished storytellers, poets, and authors. He said he chose to attend Virginia Tech because it was just far enough away from home and his friends had reported having positives experiences there.
His first experience in Blacksburg was as a part of a summer transition program for Black students, which allowed him to explore campus, take classes, and meet fellow students, many of which became lifelong friends.
“Because of that, we felt like we belonged,” Alexander said. “Even though Black students were only like 1 percent [of the population at the university] I never felt alone. My best friend, Marshall Johnson, and I often reminisce of our time there. We never felt like 1 percent. We had a tight-knit community.”
Originally studying biochemistry with the hopes of becoming a doctor, Alexander said encounters with two women altered his path.
“Junior year, it was the week before school began. I was walking in the Upper Quad and I saw this woman who I knew from the previous year. I remember going back to my efficiency apartment, which was a retooled trailer – a trailer that had been divided into three parts – and I wrote her a poem,” he said.
Around the same time, Giovanni became a visiting professor at Virginia Tech and Alexander, who grew up with her works in his home, immediately took notice.
“I knew who she was, I’d read her books. My sister was named after one of the characters in her poems,” Alexander said. “So, I took her first class. It was called advanced poetry … and that class with her, that was a defining moment for me.”
As poetry and writing began to become a larger part of his life, so too did activism, especially related to the Apartheid in South Africa.
“I spent a great deal of my last year and a half [at Virginia Tech] writing poetry, organizing rallies, and planning events all in an effort to get Virginia Tech to be more aware of what was happening in the world and ultimately just to do things that were right,” Alexander said.
At the time, Alexander was also a columnist for the Collegiate Times, where he often wrote about the intersection of social issues and the university. He said there was much resistance to his advocacy.
“That experience was one I found a bit stressful, but necessary,” Alexander said. “I’ve always felt our efforts weren’t necessarily appreciated while we were there marching and protesting on campus.”
He said being asked to speak during commencement helped fill that void.
“When I got asked to deliver this, to write a poem, it felt like that acknowledgement. Like my contribution to Tech mattered. Like I matter. All of me,” Alexander said. “Not just the Newbery. It’s those rallies, it’s Nikki, it’s all of it, together. And that’s all that you want in this world. You want to be seen. You want to be heard. You want to be recognized. You want to be appreciated.”
Alexander found a similar peace between him and Giovanni a few years after graduating.
“We sat down at her table in Christiansburg and ate grilled tuna and scalloped potatoes and brussels sprouts – this was my first time eating brussels sprouts – and I apologized for us clashing. The tension that I sort of acted out on,” Alexander said. “She looked at me and said, ‘Kwame, I didn’t give that stuff a second thought. My goal was to help you become the writer and the man that you needed to be.’”
Leading up to that conversation, Giovanni had continued to help Alexander as his career climbed to new heights and evolved into different arenas. In 1996, she invited him to submit a poem for her book, "Grand Fathers," and in 2004 she recommended him as her stand-in to speak to the New York State English Council.
“What was monumental about that is I had been trying to break into the world of authors speaking at conferences because it was a way to promote your books and make the gatekeepers of children’s literacy – teachers and librarians – aware of you,” Alexander said. “So, she recommended me for my first paid gig. I remember I got paid $2,000. It felt like a million dollars to me.”
Years of writing and speaking took place prior to Alexander’s breakout book, "The Crossover," in 2014. He often compares this period of his career to an airplane awaiting takeoff, saying it’s the people with whom he surrounds himself who help keep the plane’s motor running.
“Nikki was one of those people who was just constantly giving opportunities and opening doors, which I was walking through happily more and more,” Alexander said. “All of us artists deal with self-doubt, but in the midst of all that there’s this philosophy I learned from Nikki about saying yes. You say yes to opportunities even if you don’t know what’s on the other side of the doors you’re walking through … You say yes to the opportunities and then you figure it out.”
Saying yes to being in Alexander’s circle of supporters is something Giovanni has had little trouble doing these past three decades.
“I find it hard to believe that it’s been 30 years that he and I have kept in touch,” she said. “We’ve worked together, but mostly, I just think we like each other.”
She recalled them sharing many important moments, including the time she was hospitalized about the same time Alexander learned he won a Newbery Medal, an annual award given since 1922 for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.
“He stopped everything he was doing and came and sat by my bed until I woke up,” Giovanni said. “So, the first person I saw when I opened my eyes was Kwame and he said, ‘Nikki! Nikki! Guess what?! I won the Newbery! You have to get well; I won the Newbery!’ It was just so wonderful.”
Giovanni recovered in time to make the trip to California to see Alexander receive the award. She said his emergency bedside visit illustrates what sets him apart from others both as a writer and a person.
“He’s a good writer, let’s start there, and he has a good story to tell. There’s lots of love. If you just look at 'The Crossover' there’s a lot of love in it,” Giovanni said. “And he’s kind to everyone and I think that’s important too because it’s one thing to be talented, but it’s another thing to be kind. To be polite. To care.”
While the pair of poets may remain in polite disagreement about Alexander’s course grade, they both seem to agree on the results of the accompanying hard work and their appreciation for one another.
“[Without Giovanni’s influence] I may not have pushed myself. I may not have worked as hard as I needed to to prove myself to myself,” Alexander said. “My parents introduced me to literature, to books, and Nikki showed me how to make a living as a good writer.”
“What pleases me is that he’s always thinking … he’s always thinking of the next thing,” Giovanni said. “And I like that he continues to find other ways to touch people. He’s a flower that grows no matter what the weather is.”