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Nikki Giovanni gets it right

(Update Wednesday April 18th: today her speech is on the internet. I see now that much of my enthusiasm had to do with her delivery, her energy during her performance of the speech. But I will leave the rest of this post as it was when I wrote it. I seem to have added quite a bit of my own to what she said, but I still think her intentions were what I heard.)

After classes today I had to get the oil changed in my car, so I was forced to sit down in a waiting room with a television on, just as Nikki Giovanni made the concluding talk at the Virginia Tech Convocation, and although part of her speech was a little too much hooting “school spirit” for my taste, she said what I haven’t heard anyone else say and what is, in my opinion, the best possible thing anyone could say. I will just use this space today to celebrate her wisdom and courage in saying what she said.

I wasn’t going to mention the Virginia Tech incident on the blog. The shooter and those shot are all our children, the parents and friends of those who died are all our friends, and the teachers who died are all our colleagues, so it is natural to grieve for them. But the media frenzy has been exploitative, opportunistic, and horribly out of proportion: a kind of glorified gossip-mongering, as the so-called “news” often is. While so many other horrors are being committed all over the globe, while corporate greed murders so many more people every day, while political violence and corruption (speaking of which, what is Alberto Gonzalez saying while the media turns all its cameras and microphones to this?)–while political violence and corruption continues to destroy uncounted, unnamed, and unmourned “innocent lives” (as the news people like to call them), every moment–while all that goes on and we have no opportunity to mourn it, hours and hours of high-priced commercial airtime has been devoted to this. For those of us in the USA, all other news has been completely eclipsed. The gun-control people and the anti-gun-control people have pulled out their stock speeches. Politicians and celebrities have grabbed their chance to strut before the cameras. I am both moved and revolted.

But Nikki Giovanni, who has been teaching at Virginia Tech since 1987, in a very short speech at the very end of the ceremony, connected the losses at Virginia Tech to the global picture. She said it shouldn’t have happened. No one deserved it. But, she added, neither does anyone deserve to die of AIDS or of hunger, or because of political violence; or because–I wish I had better instant recall–because, as I heard it, of the greed of others. She situated this loss in the context of other losses. She mentioned Africa, Appalachia, and homeless people in American cities, I think, and she called up specific and important images of suffering. She invoked compassion for all who mourn, for all who suffer; she asked that we use whatever grief we feel to connect with others who are grieving.

I sat there watching her and gasped. She looked butch and powerful. She spoke quickly and with passion. She got it. If you have a chance to listen to her quick explosion of sanity and caring, do.


5 responses to “Nikki Giovanni gets it right”

  1. Casey says:

    Re media coverage of the school shootings, certainly the proliferation of 24/7 news outlets spawns the excess. (Or did demand for such coverage spawn the growth of this segment of the industry.)

    I was sickened a bit when one of the local TV stations told us that one of their reporters was en route. (Probably the other main local stations — plus umpteen such people from other major media centers in the USA — sent people also.) Why not just a few pool reporters. Is there a TV equivalent of the AP and UP and INS that used to feed out-of-town news items to local papers?

    Finally, as tragic as this was, we lose that many servicepeople every week in the Iraq Occupation. And, probably that many every day among the Iraqi citizens. Also, probably that many every month in traffic accidents of college kids en route between home and campus. But, like airplane crashes, when death happens all at once the ghoulish media rush in, and the ghoulish viewing public eagerly watches or reads about it.

  2. admin says:

    I, too, wonder about supply and demand. I’m also concerned about the shooter’s contribution to the media frenzy and the ways this may inspire other messed-up kids to become anti-heroes. NBC has played right into his hands. But then so did I. I watched his videos with my own ghoulish horror, and I wept at the stories of those who died. At the same time 190 people died horribly in Iraq…. Deep sadness about all of this.

  3. Kim says:

    Here is a clip of Giovanni’s speech on youtube.

  4. Ivy says:

    If you watch Giovanni denouncing the fact that she couldn’t help him, i don’t think u’ll have such a good impression of her.

    After what she said on CNN about Cho Seung Hui being the incarnation of evil, and that she couldn’t teach someone like him, and really just couldn’t bother with trying to help him…I have lost all respect for her.

    Isn’t it a professor’s job to take care of her students?

  5. admin says:

    Thanks for a different perspective. I’d like to understand more clearly what you’re saying. Is it denouncing a person to say that you can’t help him? What do you mean by “take care of”? I didn’t see what Giovanni said on CNN, and I would not personally label anyone as “the incarnation of evil,” but I have come across some students who are so profoundly disturbed that I can’t teach them. They need something that exceeds my skills as an English or drama teacher. I have, on a few rare occasions, asked a student to leave my class. I feel it’s my responsibility as a teacher to prevent one disturbed student from disrupting the learning process for everyone else in the class. Teachers create safe spaces in which students can develop, and I can believe that it was impossible to create a safe space with this student in the room. We can refer a disturbed student to someone more skilled than we are (a psychiatrist, a counseling center), but our job is to create a safe environment in which a roomful of students can explore, risk, and support each other in developing their skills. I think the young man needed more than any English teacher could give him.

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