“Have you heard of Nikki Giovanni?” I ask, and the woman volunteering at the sponsorship table at a local event laughs. She is African-American, and she laughs, “Do I know Nikki Giovanni? Do you know Nikki Giovanni?” I am white, and I begin to put the pieces together. “I think maybe white people don’t know of Giovanni,” I tell her. She shakes her head, but she is smiling, and she comes over and sits with me on a bench where we talk for a few minutes about Star Trek and space travel and race and racism — all things Nikki Giovanni talks about in her 1994 essay collection, Racism 101 .
“I didn’t know she wrote essays. I’ve only read her poetry,” my new acquaintance says. “I haven’t read any of her poetry yet,” I confess, though I would soon rectify that. I did know Giovanni was a poet of the Sixties, a part of the Black Arts Movement, a voice that black Americans, at least, have been listening to for decades. I stumbled across her by chance at a library book sale. Her name was familiar because she is now an English professor at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, where I used to live. At the library sale, her book Racism 101 was organized near Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. Both seemed like good additions to my reading life, mostly because my understanding of being black in America is almost nonexistent. And that’s not okay.
I have been reading these essays now for the better part of a year, and I haven’t finished them yet. It isn’t because Giovanni is difficult to read. Reading through this book is like sitting next to her on my porch swing and listening, listening. But what I’m hearing is so different from what I saw growing up in the North Atlanta suburbs, and is sometimes so at odds with the histories I learned in my largely-homogenous high school, and is obviously so deeply important to understanding and loving people in my own life, in my own city, that I keep having to tell her,
“Can you say that again?”
Giovanni writes about the legacy of the 1960’s, integration and Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, and her recollections of it all. She writes to black college students who study at mostly-white colleges. She writes warm recollections of growing up, of her family, and of friends. She writes about her interest in space travel and the cultural implications of shows like Star Trek. She writes about being Black. As I read, she gives me a long list of histories to research and events to read about next, so I can rewrite my terribly white-centric understanding of my country’s history. Often I bring my husband, who looks like me, in on what she says. “Listen to this paragraph,” I say to him, “about her sister Gary’s experience in high school in the Fifties.”
“Her teacher in civics, a still-needed course that is no longer taught, discussed the Emmett Till case with his class. “Till got what he deserved,” he declared. Gary and [a friend] walked out, and [our father] made another trip to see [the superintendent]. Apologies all around. Shock and sadness that this could happen. I was sent to Knoxville, Tennessee, to live with my grandmother when [my current] school district was integrating. Our family had already given a soldier to the war to make white Americans better people.
After that sucker punch — and I feel it — the essay moves on. It’s more of Giovanni’s childhood memories, growing up in both Cincinnati and Knoxville during the Civil Rights movement. “Is she saying her family didn’t support Civil Rights?” my husband asks about that last sentence.
“No, the opposite. Something else is going on here.” I am trying to work it out.
“Her sister was the soldier, integrating her high school first. America was starting to do the right thing with integration legislation.” I’m getting there.
“But black citizens were still bearing the burden of the country starting to get things right.” Something different comes to mind. I recall the videos that made the rounds of Facebook during the week of July 4th, this year, black mothers responding to the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. One mom in particular , whose words I can’t forget, is wiping tears off her cheeks and crying out, “We are dying here.” She pleads with any white Americans watching her video: “We need you.” She hates having to say that. You can see it on her face. But she cries out again. “We need you.”
It isn’t that Giovanni’s family didn’t support Civil Rights. It is that they were finished sacrificing their children on the altar of trying to get justice and fair treatment. Another mom in another video last July said, more angrily, “I am tired of having to explain this to you.” I tell my husband what I am seeing, that African-American citizens in the Nineteen-Fifties, that our black neighbors now, that people of color in the Nineteen-Nineties when Giovanni was writing these essays, have been bearing first the burden of mistreatment, and then second the burden of the painfully slow process of things being made right. And now they’ve got the added burden of having to explain their experience to white folks so that we might understand. They’ve been doubly burdened, for a long time, and have had to heft the weight themselves because the rest of us so easily think everything is fine. “Talk about this to your white friends and neighbors,” the second mom says, “so we don’t keep having to. We are sick of explaining this to you.”
At the local event in my current city of Lynchburg, Virginia, sitting on the bench, chatting with the woman I have just met about how, like Nikki Giovanni, we both enjoy Battlestar Galactica, I tell her that Giovanni thinks the voice of Uhura in the original Star Trek was important. “It was so right, it made such sense,” Giovanni says in her 1992 interview of Mae Jemison, the first black woman to orbit space, “that the voice of the Federation would be the voice of a Black woman.” In her essay “Black is the Noun,” she says more: “The black woman’s voice sings the best notes of which earthlings are capable. Hers is the one voice that suggests the possibility of harmony on planet earth.” And why does she love Star Trek so much? “I love Star Treks,” she says. “The television series . . . marked a new era in television by obliging audiences to respect — and even to admire — differences among people.”
My new acquaintance shares the story of how Nichelle Nichols, who played Uhura, planned to leave the show after its first season for Broadway. But then she ran into Martin Luther King, Jr. at an event, and he strongly urged her to stay on and continue being that black female voice on television in America. I looked up the anecdote later, and found the 2011 NPR interview  with Nichols. The interviewer points out that staying on Star Trek in order to be the one African-American female leadership voice on television must have been “a heavy responsibility. . . . I mean, the fact is you did put aside some of your own personal dreams to stay in that role.” Nichols agrees. Later, she talks about how African-Americans in entertainment are still mostly cast as “the friend, the buddy, the secondary role,” even though things are changing. The interviewer asks, “How do you interpret Martin Luther King, Jr.’s challenge today?” Nichols acknowledges that we’ve come a long way, but still: “I think it’s as valid today as it was when he declared it. His work isn’t finished. It’s only just begun.”
On the bench, my companion and I are quiet for a moment. I hesitate. I want to do the thing so many people who look like me are inclined to do once our eyes are opened to these sufferings of fellow citizens in our country. I want to talk about race. I want to confess to her what I don’t know about race and racism. But not every conversation between a white and a black person needs to be about race, or racism, in America. Probably more conversations, for our black brothers’ and sisters’ sake, need not to be. I may be seeing things anew, finally seeing them aright, but this woman doesn’t need to bear the burden of what I’m just now learning. She’s been living it every day. Still, I tell her, “I am learning so much about racism that I didn’t realize. I’m just starting to learn.” She is very gracious. “I’m still learning, too,” she says. “I’m always learning.”
I am thankful for her, and I am thankful for Nikki Giovanni and the words she has put down on paper — often for different ears than mine, in magazines like Essence and The Black Collegian. So I tread respectfully as I go through the pages. In one place, Giovanni says, “You do not have to have had an experience to sympathize or empathize with the subject. That is why books are written . . . We learn from experience, true; but we also learn from empathy.” It is an honor to get to listen in and learn. It is also a responsibility. Perhaps another time, I can have the same conversation about Battlestar and racism with a white friend, and then that friend may start reading the likes of Nikki Giovanni (or Lorraine Hansberry or Jacqueline Woodson, if I may make further suggestions), and her ears will be open, and she, too, will begin learning about race and racism in our country — and collectively, maybe we can take on some of our black neighbor’s burden.
 Giovanni’s book can be found here on Amazon.
 View that mother’s video here on Facebook.
 Read that NPR interview with Nichols here.