My First Memory (of Librarians)
by Nikki Giovanni
This is my first memory:
A big room with heavy wooden tables that sat on a creaky
A line of green shades—bankers’ lights—down the center
Heavy oak chairs that were too low or maybe I was simply
For me to sit in and read
So my first book was always big
In the foyer up four steps a semi-circle desk presided
To the left side the card catalogue
On the right newspapers draped over what looked like
a quilt rack
Magazines face out from the wall
The welcoming smile of my librarian
The anticipation in my heart
All those books—another world—just waiting
At my fingertips.
I had written this post pre-Uvalde as a tribute to libraries and librarians and somehow didn’t get around to putting it up. Then came the slaughter of innocents and suddenly the poem reads like a fairy tale. Public libraries and school libraries were the calmest, safest spaces for me growing up; I wonder if that can still be so for children reared on active shooter drills.
Setting that aside, here are my original thoughts from two weeks ago, back when the pressing issues of the day were different. Reading it over I’m reminded of an old Japanese poem—
I may live on until
I long for this time
In which I am so unhappy,
And remember it fondly.
Perspective is everything, people.
Is this the best poem Nikki Giovanni has ever written? No. The most representative of her work? No again. But it’s a sweet poem, a poem that brings childhood back in full sensory force. Unfortunately, it’s timely in a way Giovanni could not have anticipated when she wrote it in 2007.
Of all the upside-down things happening in the world, librarians under attack seems the silliest. Librarians should be busy promoting reading and enforcing civic duties (silence for the sake of others, returning books undamaged and on time), not dodging crossfire in the latest culture war. (Books and masks are the problem? Maybe some people haven’t noticed that screen-raised children face much bigger hazards from a lack of social interaction, and do I even have to mention the access they have, with the mere touch of a finger and a few fibs, to a massive porn emporium?)
I am a lover of libraries and this poem brings me back to when that love began. Giovanni captures the magic of discovery and the feeling of being small in a big person’s world. The child’s entrance is cinematic. We follow her as she navigates her way through the library. The poem becomes a treasure map of sorts—up four steps, card catalogue on the left, quilt rack of newspapers on the right. It’s not surprising that Giovanni calls the library another world. She’s been “obsessed,” she says, with space exploration since she was a little girl looking out her bedroom window at night. As a black child she saw space as an equalizer. No alien life would know race or even gender. To them we would all just be earthlings, period. (See relevant quote in biography below.)
Among its many wonders, a library is a small planet of books for earthlings.
Poet Giovanni found a welcoming smile at her library, but I never had such a greeting. Mrs. Law, our school librarian, had the lugubrious demeanor of a basset hound. She was orderly above all—her neat, belted dresses and brown helmet hair were as carefully arranged as her stacks. The quiet she presided over was rich, calm, and freeing, an unspoken invitation to wander and explore.
Nikki Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee but moved to Ohio as a baby. When she was a teenager she moved back to Knoxville to live with her grandparents and attend school there. She was accepted in an early-entrant program at Fisk University, her grandfather’s alma mater, and began classes before she graduated from high school. Shortly after she was expelled because of a clash with the Dean of Students over missing paperwork. Out of school, she helped take care of her nephew and worked at Walgreens.
She went back to school a few years later and graduated with honors. Soon after, her grandmother died, and Giovanni started writing poems to cope with her grief. She did graduate work at U Penn towards a Masters in Social Work, and then at Columbia for an MFA.
She founded a publishing company to help other black writers, organized the Black Arts Festival in Cincinnati, appeared regularly on a television show called Soul!, was active in the civil rights movement, published at least 28 books of poetry and is sought out nationally and internationally as a speaker. One accomplishment not usually listed in her biographies is her happy demeanor—I’ve never come across a picture of her where her face isn’t lit up with a smile.
She had a son who she raised alone, which led to her interest in children’s literature. She published six children’s books.
Among her many honorary degrees and awards: she was named one of Oprah’s “Living Legends”; she has a species of bat named after her, the Ecuadorian Giovanni’s Big Eared Bat; she was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal; she won a Grammy for a poetry recording; she’s had seven NAACP Image Awards.
She’s taught at Rutgers, Queens College, Ohio State, and now at Virginia Tech. She was at Tech during the 2007 shooting. The shooter had been a student in her poetry class two years earlier, and she found him so menacing she asked that he be removed from her class and referred him to counseling. The day after the shooting she was called upon to recite a poem for a university gathering. Link here for a newspaper article about her experience with the shooting and take a few minutes to listen to her speech—
She had lung cancer in the early 1990s, and her 79th birthday is tomorrow, June 7.
Love this quote from a 2013 interview with NPR’s Michelle Martin. Asked about losing friends and family as she ages, she has this to say:
Well, the world gets smaller, but, you know, one of the advantages of people my age – I really love my age. I so recommend old age. It’s such a wonderful thing. And I grew up in the Baptist church, and so you didn’t ask the Lord to solve a problem.
You asked the Lord to give you the strength to handle it, to find some comfort in it. You never said, you know, Lord, pay my rent or give me my car payment or something. You said Lord, let me understand walking is good. And so when you deal with the old people – you know, if you deal with people my age and people my grandparents’ age, all we ask for was the grace to come through it. And I think that I’m just really lucky to be a part of that generation and to have come through the generation that says we can handle it. It is well with my soul. No matter what else it is, it is well with my soul. And that’s what that’s about. Life is good. You find a way.
Here’s another Giovanni gem, this from a 2021 interview in the New York Times.
You know, with Christmas, I said to my students, I hate the little drummer boy. This girl just had a baby, she’s in a manger, she’s got a bunch of animals, and he’s coming in saying, “Can I play on my drum?”
Finally, her thoughts on earthlings from a 2021 interview with Public Books:
It’s time that when somebody asks, “What are you?,” you should say, “We’re Earthlings.” If anybody asks you who or what you are, say that. We’re Earthlings. If there is life on Mars or Jupiter—and I hope that there is—if they come down to Earth and ask, “What are you?” our answer has to be, “We’re Earthlings,” so that they can understand. Because if my answer was, “Oh, I’m a Virginian,” they would look at me and ask, “Well, what the hell is that?” That doesn’t make any sense.
We have to accept the fact that we are on this Earth together. It’s time that we moved out of that 10th-century crap.