Social Issues Explored by Nikki Giovanni


The United States has always been a home to numerous talented poets who created their art in different time periods. On many occasions, the American poets reflected the circumstances which surrounded them in their poetry and used their writing as a tool to explore the current social phenomena and events. Yolande Cornelia Giovanni Jr., also known as Nikki Giovanni, is an African-American poet who lived in the 20th century and is particularly known for her unique poetry. Specifically, unlike many other poets of her era, Nikki Giovanni focused on social themes such as race relations, protest, and gender and expressed her concerns, experiences, and views through her poems.

Racial Issues

As an African-American woman living in the United States, Giovanni was, to a considerable extent, affected by the racial inequality and tensions which existed in the country during the 1960s-1970s. For instance, her poem called “Poem for Black Boys” reflects her thoughts on the treatment of African-American males in American society. Giovanni compares African-Americans to Indians by writing, “Where are your heroes, my little Black ones. You are the Indian you so disdainfully shoot” (98). Giovanni implies that the condition of the Black people in the country are similar to those of the native Americans during the time when they were exterminated by the white settlers. At the same time, Giovanni tells the Black men to overcome the social pressure, “You must invent your own games and teach us old ones how to play” (99). Essentially, Giovanni states that black men, especially young ones, must persevere despite all challenges in their lives to achieve their dreams and lead others. The poem enables Giovanni to express her point of view about the condition of Black males in society and underline the need to improve it.

“Nikki-Rosa” is another poem in which Giovanni exposes the issues inherent to relationships between Black and white Americans. In the poem, Giovanni states that during her childhood, she did not have comfortable conditions such as an inside toilet and regular (108). Yet, it did not matter to her because she enjoyed the love of her parents and was, therefore, genuinely happy with her life. At the same time, Giovanni says in the poem that when white people write about her childhood, they will only talk about how difficult her life was. Giovanni believes that white people will comprehend that the lack of amenities was not a problem when she had her parents’ affection (109). Essentially, in the poem, Giovanni highlights the idea that white people cannot understand the experiences and values of African-Americans. Giovanni raises the issue of racial misrepresentation of the Black community by the white majority (De Roche 435). In other words, Giovanni implies that whites’ perception of Black people in the United States is shaped by stereotypes and, to a considerable extent, rather racist.


Protest is another theme Giovanni explores in her poems, and it is intertwined with racial justice and equality. “A Litany for Peppe” is the most notable poem which is related to the issue of protesting. In the poem, Giovanni exhibited her dissatisfaction with the slow pace of the social change which was happening in society. As a result, she insisted that the African Americans had to accelerate the establishment of racial equality by taking radical measures to defend their civil liberties. For instance, in “A Litany for Peppe,” Giovanni writes, “All power to grenades that destroy our oppressor” (106). Essentially, she openly justifies the use of weapons and arms by the Black Americans in order to protect their rights as equal citizens of the country (Mitchell and Davis 146). Giovanni expresses her concern about the situation and believes that the only way to achieve racial justice, writing, “Blessed is he who kills for he shall control this earth” (106). Giovanni presents her vision implying that acts such as murder can help African-Americans fight against the oppression they have been experiencing for centuries.

The theme of protest is not limited only to one poem by Giovanni, and there are many others in which the author shares her perspectives and thoughts. The poem “The True Import of Present Dialogue Black vs. Negro” contains a clear message that African Americans need to start a revolution and earn their rights and liberties by force. Giovanni writes, “We ain’t got to prove we can die. We got to prove we can kill” (59). Such words highlight the attitude of Giovanni toward the established social order and the status of African Americans in it. Essentially, Giovanni says that African Americans have for a long time been victims and died at the hands of the white people (Fielder and Senchyne 38). Yet, now, African Americans must revolt against such an order and kill their oppressors to show them that they will no longer tolerate an inferior status. Giovanni is certain that a peaceful resolution is not an option because it will take a substantial period of time and will entail the deaths of the African Americans who will still be subject to oppression.


The theme of gender is important for Giovanni, and she has dedicated numerous poems to it, exploring the issue from different angles. The most notable poem on the topic of gender written by Giovanni is “Woman” since it comprehensively encapsulates the views of the author. In the poem, Giovanni asserts her pro-feminist position and states that women must stop being submissive and should embrace independence and freedom from the social norms which are inherently patriarchal and discriminatory. Giovanni writes, “She decided to become a woman and though he still refused to be a man” (435). The idea which Giovanni presents in the poem is that women, unlike men, are willing to change and adjust to the needs of their partners. Yet, despite their readiness to do so, they do not get any reciprocity and subsequently become dependent on their men’s actions, who do not respect them and do not recognize their sacrifices. As a result, although Giovanni does not mention it in the poem, women need to address the existing inequality and stop being dependent on men and build their free life instead.


Nikki Giovanni is one of the most influential African American poets of the 20th century who has devoted most of her poems to the exploration of social issues of race, protest, and gender. In her poems, Giovanni portrays the African American community in the United States as the target of racial oppression by the white majority and highlights the inability of the latter to understand the former. Giovanni shares her own life experiences and states that despite not having basic amenities in her household during childhood, she still experienced the love of her parents and was happy. As a result, Giovanni proposes embracing radical measures such as uprisings and revolutions to challenge the status quo and earn freedom from tyranny. At the same time, Giovanni promotes the idea that there is oppression in the relations between the two genders where men dominate women, and therefore females must seek independence. Overall, Giovanni’s exploration of social themes always entails radical viewpoints, which many readers may find inflammatory, yet her unique perspectives stem from personal experiences of being a part of the African American community.

Works Cited

De Roche, Linda. Twentieth-Century and Contemporary American Literature in Context. ABC-CLIO, 2021.

Fielder, Brigitte, and Senchyne, Jonathan. Against a Sharp White Background: Infrastructures of African American Print. University of Wisconsin Press, 2019.

Giovanni, Nikki. The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni: 1968-1998. HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

Mitchell, Verner D., and Davis, Cynthia. Encyclopedia of the Black Arts Movement. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

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