I always loved English because whatever human beings are, we are storytellers. It is our stories that give a light to the future. When I went to college I became a history major because history is such a wonderful story of who we think we are. English is much more a story of who we really are. ~Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni was among the most prominent African-American poets of the 1960s and 70s.

Giovanni was born in 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee. From an early age, she was a reader; she writes that she was often sick and had to stay home from school and would fill her hours with books. She describes her childhood aspirations on her webpage: “My dream was not to publish or to even be a writer: my dream was to discover something no one else had thought of. I guess that’s why I’m a poet. We put things together in ways no one else does.”

Giovanni’s relationship with school was turbulent; she dropped out of high school, but was later admitted to Fisk University. She was expelled from Fisk, but was readmitted with the help of the Dean of Women, going on to become editor for the school’s literary magazine and active in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. She also did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University, although she did not complete either degree. She’s gone on to receive twenty honorary doctorates.

Her first book—Black Feeling, Black Talk—was published in 1968, the year she graduated with her B.A., and was followed closely by a second book, Black Judgement. Her work responded to the assassination of civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. Although some criticized her work as aggressive and militant, it was enormously successful, rising Giovanni to prominence as one of the pre-eminent African American poets of the time.

In the 70s and 80s, Giovanni taught at Rutgers University while continuing to write and publish, diversifying her work to include several works of autobiography and numerous books of children’s poetry. Meanwhile, she became highly regarded as a speaker and was invited to give lectures across the country. She has won numerous awards, including the Langston Hughes Medal, the NAACP Image Award (several times), was nominated for a Grammy Award, (for her Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, a spoken word poetry album), and the first person to receive the Rosa L. Parks Women of Courage Award.

Until recently, she has continued to publish poetry and nonfiction prolifically. Today, at 71, she is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.

Video: Giovanni talks about her latest book, Chasing Utopia