Remembering Martin Luther King Jr. with acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni

Giovanni is keynote speaker at UCSC's 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation.

The acclaimed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni will speak to the crowd about "The Privilege of Serving: Art and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”
The artist Jim Urban created this hand-painted sign -- using a dry-brush technique -- to get the word out about the upcoming convocation. This painting appears on the front of the Barn Theater at the base of the UC Santa Cruz campus.

Nikki Giovanni, renowned poet, writer, commentator, activist, and University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech, will speak at UC Santa Cruz's 28th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on February 2.

Giovanni will speak on "The Privilege of Serving: Art and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, the convocation will begin at 7 p.m. (doors open at 6:30 p.m.). The event, which is free and open to the public, is part of the campus celebration of Black History Month. Campus radio station KZSC (88.1 FM) will broadcast the event live.

One of the most widely read and anthologized American poets, Giovanni prides herself on being "a Black American, a daughter, a mother, a professor of English."

Giovanni is also passionate about the written word. Over the years, she has incorporated the American vernacular, and, more recently, the cadences of rap and hip-hop into her poetic work. Giovanni once remarked that rap music is “the modern equivalent of what spirituals meant to earlier generations of blacks.”

Born in Knoxville, Tenn., in 1943, Giovanni says that she comes from “a long line of storytellers,” and that her grandmother profoundly influenced her lifelong love of stories and poetry.

Read a Q&A with Nikki Giovanni

During a candid chat with UC Santa Cruz News & Events, she described the origins of her work.

“It's always been with me," Giovanni said. "That's how poetry enters your life—your mom, your aunties, and your grandmothers do these little rhymes for you. Some of us keep it, always, and some of us, unfortunately, push it out of our lives.”

Giovanni first came to prominence after writing poetry responding to the loss of Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X.

Giovanni was also galvanized by the nonviolent resistance and bravery of Rosa Parks, who was a good friend of Giovanni’s for more than two decades. Giovanni has repeatedly called for a “Rosa Parks Day” commemorating the civil rights hero.

Joy Lei, assistant campus diversity officer for UCSC, and chair of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation planning committee, praised Giovanni’s ongoing commitment to equality and mentioned her direct connection to the civil rights movement.

"Nikki Giovanni can help us think about how we can take on the privilege of continuing the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,”  said Lei, who mentioned Giovanni’s emphasis on individual responsibility and standing up against injustice. “Traditionally we have lots of high school students from Santa Cruz and Monterey come to the convocation; it’s a great message for them to hear.”

Giovanni made her first big impression with her early collections Black Feeling, Black Talk (1967) and Black Judgment (1968). 

She has also published nonfiction, including an autobiography that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and works for children, including a highly praised book about Rosa Parks.

Among her many honors are several NAACP Image Awards, the Langston Hughes Award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters, the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award, and more than 20 honorary degrees from colleges and universities around the country. Her memoir was a finalist for the National Book Award. One of her biographies notes that Giovanni has even had a species of bat named after her, the Micronycteris giovanniae.

UCSC officials will also present the fourth annual Tony Hill Award at the convocation.

Hill, a beloved community leader and mentor whose gifts as a mediator promoted the causes of justice and equality, died in 2007. He was a tireless volunteer who served on the convocation planning committee for many years.

The Tony Hill Award committee will give the award to a nominee who demonstrates the hallmarks of Hill's life: mentor, inspirational leader, gifted mediator, and bridge-builder in the community. The 2011 award winner was the Reverend Deborah L. Johnson, founding minister and president of Inner Light Ministries. Past award winners are Luis Alejo, former Watsonville mayor (recently elected to state assembly), and Santa Cruz City Councilman Ryan Coonerty. The recipient of the award will receive $500 to donate to the charity of his or her choice.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation is a community event that reflects the partnership of the UC Santa Cruz campus and its neighbors, Lei said.

The convocation is sponsored by the UCSC Chancellor’s Office, Inner Light Ministries, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Good Times and Santa Cruz Weekly, and supported by the Santa Cruz branch of the NAACP.  

For more information, visit the King Memorial Convocation site.

UCSC shuttles will be provided for students’ transportation to the Civic Auditorium and return to campus after the event.


See Also

Q&A with Nikki Giovanni

Tony Hill Memorial Award