by Cynthia S. Becerra, Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Chair of the Liberal Arts Department.
Having to justify the importance of teaching African-American literature seems as unnecessary as defending that literature should be a part of the humanities curriculum or any college program. Moreover, the African-American voice is vital to our understanding of American literature, in general, and the Black struggle throughout American history, in particular.
There are several black authors who deserve to be honored; however, I often apply the following criteria to acknowledge them at our Black History Celebration called the African-American Literary Read-In: quality of work, universality of theme, historical significance, and the transformative factor. One writer that captures all four criteria is Nikki Giovanni.
Nikki Giovanni, an activist and poet, embraces her journey from the 1960s Black Arts Movement to a 21th century writer with a global reach. Essential to her work is articulating the female vision of herself as a Black artist who refuses to be silenced or controlled.
In her collection Bicycles: Love Poems (2010), she uses bicycles as a metaphor for love, which “requires trust and balance.” Giovanni captures the diverse types of love, including romantic, friendship, and self-love. Through 65 poems, she identifies the dynamics of personal relationships, chronically their ups and downs, honestly and with humor. However, it is her focus on self-love, exemplified in several poems, including “Dinner at Nine” and “My Muse,” that is at the heart of this collection and its transformative theme.
For to love oneself as a woman and a woman of color is not only important but necessary for survival in the midst of a society that has historically demeaned and minimized both of those identifying factors. In fact, to feel happiness in being with oneself is the ultimate self-actualization. For example, in “My Muse” the poet is comfortable in her position as poet, confirming her delight in her role: “I am my own/Muse.” She is her own inspiration without reservation and without conceit.
In the final poem of her collection, “We are Virginia Tech,” she pays reverence to those lost in the April 16, 2007, massacre at the college, where she has taught since 1987, and urges strength and courage for those of Virginia Tech. She challenges the college community to prevail and to be open to possibilities with the final lines, “to invent the future/Through our blood and tears/Through all this sadness.”
Finally, for me the most important part about Black History Month is the following: Hearing my students talk about their selections and connecting the importance of each with their own experiences are the most important elements of the African-American Read-In, which the University’s Liberal Arts Department coordinates in conjunction with the Black Caucus of the National Council of Teachers of English. Their diverse, authentic voices encapsulate the importance of this celebration.