Nikki Giovanni, best-selling American poet, awarded honorary degree

Ahmad Ijaz     
Arts & Entertainment Editor

Each semester, the University of the South highlights accomplished professionals in diverse fields by granting them honorary degrees at convocation ceremonies. Nikki Giovanni, one of America’s most renowned and widely read poets, is the latest addition to the line of honorees. Giovanni is the University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and has taught there since 1987. She has published two collections of essays, several illustrated children’s books, and 10 volumes of poetry for adults, including New York Times best-seller Bicycles: Love Poems (2009). On January 13, she read her work to a rapt audience of Sewanee community members, who filled all the seats available in Convocation Hall. Her longtime friend, and the other recipient of the honorary degree, Gen. Charles Bolden, a former NASA administrator and astronaut who flew on four Space Shuttle missions, accompanied her that afternoon.

Nikki Giovanni
Image of Nikki Giovanni courtesy of

In their introduction of Giovanni, Creative Writing and English double major Plum Champlin (C ’23) read Giovanni’s poem Mothers and said, “Though so many lessons I received in my youth were focused only on black pain, Ms. Giovanni was one of the first to help show me that, in fact, black joy is where liberation lies.” Acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner also spoke briefly on Giovanni’s achievements and the influence of her poems on American people. Giovanni gave a talk and poetry reading that was, by turns, both powerful and hilarious. She spoke about her affiliation with Sewanee, her experiences of speaking at colleges and companies around the United States, and praised Gen. Charles Bolden for his achievements. She read four poems, including a poem she wrote for Martin Luther King Jr. a day after his assassination. Her poems knitted beautiful images of family, grief, and growth, and were deepened by the rhythm and timbre of her powerful voice. Giovanni’s poems are often personal and intimate, whether the work arose directly from her own life or that of her family and community. Her speech was followed by a question and answer session, where her experience and knowledge were highly appreciated as she answered five questions from the audience on a variety of topics, including her poems, family, and advice for young individuals.

On the morning of January 14, I had the chance to join Giovanni for breakfast at The Sewanee Inn. Calling herself as a ‘big fan of earthlings’, she encouraged people to look past social, racial, and national differences and come together to serve the country. Advising Sewanee students, she said, “It is so important people keep their minds open and it is so important that everybody reads. They are the two most important things.”

“Nikki is a force of nature. It is hard to not be influenced by her,” Academic Dean and Professor of Classics Terry Papillon says, “Seeing her sense of moral courage, learning to be better, saying the thing that is needed to be said, and doing the thing that is needed to be done, she is interested in important questions and she is going to say what she thinks is right about them and she is going to speak the truth, and that has always been incredibly inspiring about her.”On January 14, at the winter convocation ceremony, Nikki Giovanni and Gen. Charles Bolden were presented with honorary degrees by the University. At the occasion, Gen. Charles Bolden urged the students in attendance to recall and reflect on the opening lines of the documents that lay out the premise on which the U.S. was founded — the introduction to the Declaration of Independence and the Preamble to the Constitution. “Each of you can help rebuild an America that provides opportunity for all,” Bolden said. “It’s your responsibility to make ours a more perfect union.”