Saturday, October 1, 2011

One Unshakable Line: Summarizing a Worldview in Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa”

By Cindy Lyles 

Words that make a powerfully unforgettable impact on an audience tend to take up residence in the minds of its readers. For me, the most memorable phrase from Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Nikki-Rosa” is “Black love is Black wealth.”

The speaker in Giovanni’s poem reflects on life while growing up. She shares some of the difficulties she faced as a poor, Black kid, such as having “no inside toilet,” witnessing her “father’s pain as he sells his stock / and another dream goes,” and her father’s drinking that caused familial squabbles. Most notably connecting these and other childhood recollections is the single critique that if she became famous, a white biographer would have focused solely on her hardships instead of choosing to recognize how happy she was in spite of the obstacles of her youth.

Considering the premise of the poem, the line “Black love is Black wealth” is so resounding because it embodies the poem’s main argument that even though her family lacked modern material possessions and fought with one another, they were happy because they had the company and love of family. With a declaration like “And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that / concerns you…only that everybody is together…,” the speaker asserts that a family’s love and togetherness rather than material resources is the foundation of genuine happiness, and that is difficult to understand if one has never encountered continuous periods of material lack.

I realized the reason the “Black love is Black wealth” expression replayed over and over in my head is because it is the story of so many other black people who grew up poor. It is an acceptable and longstanding understanding among many black people to lavish each other with love, especially when that is all one can afford to give without limitation.

Every now and then, a lyric from a song, a quote from a film, or a line from a poem comes along and takes up residence in the minds of its audience. In this case, “Black love is Black wealth” does so because it speaks to an unmistakable, long lasting practice within black communities.

Cindy Lyles is a poet, graduate student in literature, and program coordinator for Black Studies @ SIUE. In addition to producing verse, she writes about black women and urban space, African American poetry, and her hometown East St. Louis. This past summer, Cindy participated in a Sonia Sanchez Seminar sponsored by the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison.

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