End of a poetic era: Nikki Giovanni retires as English professor at Virginia Tech
From NFL athletes to business leaders and professional writers, Hokies have gleaned years of wisdom and life lessons from Giovanni.
Nikki Giovanni rarely looks back. But when she reflects on her time at Virginia Tech, her accolades as an award-winning writer and visionary are not first of mind.
“I hope that I’ve done a good job,” said Giovanni. “I hope that I’ve done at least my fair share.”
It’s hard to imagine Virginia Tech without Giovanni, but the legendary poet has decided that it is time to close the classroom chapter.
As of Sept. 1, she is retiring after 35 years as a professor in the Department of English.
“In all fairness, I’m getting old,” Giovanni, 79, said.
Even so, the poet is not hanging up her pen. In fact, her newest children’s book, "A Library," is set to debut this fall at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It recounts her weekly visits as a child to a segregated library near her home.
Giovanni is known around the world for her poetry, essays, and written work that delve into social issues, including race and gender.
Among her many accomplishments, she has published 11 illustrated children's books, received 30 honorary degrees and seven NAACP Image Awards, and has been a finalist for a Grammy and for the National Book Award. Oprah Winfrey has named her one of 25 living legends. Giovanni is a sought-after speaker and public voice, most recently appearing on CNN’s "United Shades of America."
In Blacksburg, she has used her written and spoken work to mark significant events in Virginia Tech history, creating poems for the April 16 tragedy and for the Class of 2020’s commencement ceremony, which occurred at the height of the pandemic.
“Nikki Giovanni has been an important and deeply valued presence on our campus, giving voice to the spirit of Virginia Tech and helping us celebrate, mourn, learn, heal, and be better,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “Her words will continue to inspire us and touch readers around the world, and while we will miss her regular presence on campus, she will always be a beloved member of our university community.”
Many faculty and students know her for more than her awards. From NFL athletes to business leaders and professional writers, Hokies have gleaned years of wisdom and life lessons from Giovanni.
Giovanni landed at Virginia Tech in 1987 after receiving an invitation from Ginney Fowler, a faculty member in the Department of English who recently retired. Fowler recruited Giovanni after hearing her speak at a conference.
Giovanni said she had never heard of Virginia Tech. But she accepted the offer made over the phone and moved her mother and her son with her to the New River Valley from Ohio.
Giovanni was hired as part of the Commonwealth Visiting Professor program, which sought to bring artists and scholars from minority groups to the university. By then, Giovanni had established her name as part of the national Black Arts Movement while making a living speaking and reading her work. Some nicknamed her the "Princess of Black Poetry," Fowler said.
About a year after Giovanni came to Blacksburg, Fowler said she began to see glimpses of the ways that the author was different from other faculty.
One day, Giovanni decided to organize a fish fry on the Drillfield. She purchased flounder and bread, talked to kitchen staff, and invited the whole campus for a free fish sandwich.
“She was talking to me about the fact that students and faculty needed to get together more,” Fowler said. “I thought ‘She has lost her mind. Who’s going to come to a fish fry on the Drillfield?’”
But people did come, including legendary football coach Frank Beamer and many athletes.
“That was the first time I realized that she could really change things,” Fowler said.
Another example of Giovanni’s unique nature was when she was asked to keep the minutes at an executive committee meeting for the English department. Rather than note the meeting’s main points, Giovanni documented what kind and color socks people were wearing.
“Quite naturally, nobody ever asked her to take minutes again,” Fowler said.
All along, as Giovanni’s reputation as a poet and activist was growing, so was her work shaping students’ lives — in more ways than one.
Take Kwame Alexander, now a New York Times bestselling author and winner of the Newbery Medal, which is given to authors of American children’s literature. He took his first advanced poetry class with Giovanni when he was a sophomore at Virginia Tech. But he could not understand why she spent the majority of class talking about life and current events with students. They were not learning how to write, he said.
Eventually, he figured it out. Giovanni told him, “Kwame, I can teach you how to write, but I can’t teach you how to be interesting,” he recalled.
“When I look back, I learned everything,” he said. “That’s where I got the tools to be able to write.”
Will Furrer, a former Hokie and NFL quarterback who majored in English, said Giovanni taught him how to find his voice.
“The duty that we had to ourselves was to develop our own voice and learn how to tell our story so that we could do something other than sports,” Furrer said, explaining that this was a point that Giovanni honed during her classes to which many athletes at the time flocked.
Her advice resonated with him, in particular now in his job as chief strategy officer for Q2 banking in Austin, Texas. The company builds banking apps.
When he was a student, Furrer recalled sitting in Giovanni’s office in Major Williams Hall and listening to her stories about Aretha Franklin, Toni Morrison, Morgan Freeman, and many other famous U.S. novelists, artists, actors, and leaders. She was close friends with many of them.
In fact, Giovanni organized an event to celebrate Morrison’s legacy in 2012 at Virginia Tech, and among the attendees were Maya Angelou and Rita Dove, literary legends.
“She has been a new and different voice on campus,” said Furrer, who recently visited Giovanni to interview her for his company’s podcast celebrating Black History Month. “She brought different people, different actors, different influencers to campus so that people in Blacksburg and Virginia Tech could experience diverse points of view.”
Even students who could not get into her classes reached out to her — and she responded.
Christal Presley was one of them. As a student, she remembers approaching Giovanni with her manuscript of a children's book in hand to ask for feedback. Giovanni invited Presley to her office and insisted that she call her “Nikki,” rather than “Ms. Giovanni.”
Shortly after that meeting, Presley received a typed page of feedback about her manuscript from Giovanni, along with the writer’s home phone number.
“Call me anytime,” Giovanni told her.
“She was the first writer who ever really told me I had talent and who I felt sincerely believed that,” said Presley, who went on to publish a memoir about her father in 2012 for which Giovanni wrote an endorsement. “I was a nobody. I believed what she said about my writing, and that’s one of the things that has carried me through the years, through a bunch of rejections.”
Giovanni’s presence has drawn aspiring student writers, such as Honora Ankong, to Virginia Tech. Ankong completed the university’s Master of Fine Arts program this past spring.
“She was part of the allure of Virginia Tech for me,” said Ankong, who met Giovanni several times but never took a class with the writer. “I was able to be in community with this living legend.”
Similarly, Giovanni was one of the reasons Rebecca Weaver-Hightower, professor and chair of the Department of English, accepted a position at Virginia Tech in 2020.
“You don't find such recognizable poets much anymore across the generations,” said Weaver-Hightower, who remembers being “star struck” while having dinner with Giovanni and Fowler during her campus visit. “Her work in poetry, in diversity, in social justice have made her name a household word and made her a model for aspiring poets, young women, and people of color, as well as others.”
In 2005, Giovanni created a poetry competition named for its benefactor, the late Charles Steger, former Virginia Tech president. Later, the event was renamed the Giovanni-Steger Poetry Prize competition. The annual contest recognizes poetry by students of all disciplines and carries a large cash award.
Giovanni was named a University Distinguished Professor in 1999. The honor recognizes Virginia Tech faculty whose scholarly work attracts national and/or international recognition.
Her most challenging time at Virginia Tech came in April of 2007, when Giovanni was asked to speak at a campus convocation the day following the April 16 tragedy.
“I didn’t know how it was going to be received,” she said. “You just did what you had to do. It still brings tears to my eyes.”
In her retirement, she said will miss talking with Virginia Tech students regularly.
“I do enjoy talking to sharper minds, and Tech has good minds,” she said.
One of her goals, along with helping to mentor students, has been to teach them to dig deeper.
“I want my students to not accept what they are hearing, but to look and say ‘what kind of sense does this make?’ and ‘what is going to be the end result?’” she said.
Her work with many Hokies has come full circle, in particular with Alexander, who calls Giovanni his literary mother.
Nearly 10 years after he graduated from Virginia Tech, Giovanni asked him to submit a poem for inclusion in her book “Grand Fathers,” published in 1999. At the time, Alexander was struggling to make ends meet as a writer.
“That letter she sent me with the $50 check to pay me for the poem, those two things secured another three years of confidence in me that I could do this,” he said. “It gave me a three year boost, like a booster shot.”
About seven years later, he was invited to speak at a conference for English teachers in New York. Since he was an up-and-coming author, he wondered why the conference organizers chose him to speak. Afterward, he learned that Giovanni had recommended him for the role.
“This is what a real teacher does,” he said. “They give you what you need, they inform and inspire you, they put you on this path, and they do these little things to give you a leg up."