Legacies by Nikki Giovanni discusses the passing down of knowledge from one generation to another. It touches on themes of family, independence, and death. The grandmother wants the granddaughter to be more independent, but doesn’t say that directly. Similarly, the granddaughter refuses to learn to make rolls, deep down not wanting to learn how to do something by herself, so that once the grandmother dies, she will still be dependent on her spirit and therefore have a link to her grandmother. Giovanni suggests that no one ever really says what they mean.
Legacies explores a close family dynamic, with the grandmother wanting to explain to the granddaughter how to make rolls. The granddaughter says openly that she doesn’t want to learn, but deep down only doesn’t want to learn so she will need her grandmother’s spirit for something once she is dead, keeping a connection to her family member. Similarly, the grandmother wants to teach her granddaughter about independence, but does this through a layer of teaching. Both don’t say exactly what they mean, with Giovanni concluding that this is something everyone does to an extent.
You can read the full poem here.
Speech and use of dialect is a large portion of what makes Legacies so interesting. The characterisation of the grandmother is entirely based on the contractions and manipulations of language within speech. For example, ‘chu’ isn’t of ‘you’. These changes to language reflect a piece of who the grandmother is, characterising her without the need for description.
Although written from a third person perspective, Legacies has almost no punctuation, and flows quickly through the lines. This is a representation of the younger speaker within the poem, her young naïvety being reflected through the freeform grammar and punctuation.
Legacies by Nikki Giovanni is split into 18 lines, with no rhyme scheme. Several of the lines within the poem contain elements of speech, with the grandmother character talking to her granddaughter and vice versa. Although short, the poem effectively fits in an anecdote and also Giovanni’s own take on the scene – presenting a more complex idea through the simple story.
The title works as a catch-all describing what is going to come up in the poem, yet doesn’t directly detail the events. In a way, this is a further reflection of the poem itself. Legacies argues that people never say what ‘they mean’, instead going around things and talking under layers of distractions. The title represents this idea, the ‘legacy’ that the grandmother wants to pass down only beginning to uncover what actually comes up in the poem.
The first four lines of Legacies effectively set up the whole narrative. The granddaughter is ‘called’ in from ‘the playground’ in order to be taught a lesson about ‘how to make rolls’. The scene of a ‘playground’ suggests a childhood innocence, with this being the thing the grandmother wants her granddaughter to move away from, learning new skills and becoming more independent.
The double repetition of ‘her’, ‘her grandmother called her’ demonstrates that there is a connection between these two women. The connection of grandmother and granddaughter being emphasised through this double ‘her’, with unified spellings – and as we see by the end of the poem, unified minds.
The grandmother is proud of the idea that her granddaughter becomes more independent, shown through the statement being said ‘proudly’. Although discussed through a layer of teaching, the grandmother takes pride in the fact that her granddaughter will be able to do something for herself.
These lines reveal the younger girl’s actual thought process. She doesn’t want ‘to learn how’ because she believes that once her grandmother dies, having something to learn or need from her spirit will connect them, meaning she can ‘depend on her spirit’. In her youthful attitude, this is a way of avoiding her grandmother’s death, knowing it will eventually happen but being able to, in her mind at least, cheat death and continue to have a connection with her grandmother.
The use of enjambment adds a sense of pleading to this section of Legacies, the quick flowing from line to line demonstrating the naivety of youth as she speeds through her private reasoning.
Instead of revealing the truth about why she doesn’t want to learn in order to remain connected to her grandmother, she says ‘I don’t want to know how to make no rolls’, shutting down the topic and stopping it from moving any further.
The characterisation of the granddaughter, ‘with her lips poked out’, is a typical image of a stubborn child, further demonstrating her young age.
These lines discuss what the grandmother says in response to the child’s disregard for her teachings. The grandmother says ‘lord these children’, suggesting that she is annoyed at the stubbornness of the child, with the invocation of ‘lord’ compounding her sense of dismay. The use of ‘these’ also suggests that the grandmother has come across children like her granddaughter before. Indeed, children are generalised here, all been painted as stubborn and uncooperative. The irony is that the grandmother is also being stubborn by not saying what she means, she just doesn’t realise it.
Legacies then moves away from the narrative, with Giovanni becoming more introspective as she philosophises about human behaviour. She points out that neither the grandmother or the child ‘said what they meant’, both hiding the truth of their words under little misdirections. While the grandmother wants her granddaughter to be independent, she instead just pretends she wants to teach her to make rolls. On the other hand, the granddaughter doesn’t really not want to make rolls, but she is just scared of losing her dependence on her grandmother, loving her very much and fearing for their connection after her death.
Indeed, Giovanni summarises, ‘I guess nobody ever does’. She believes that no one really ever speaks their mind, having hidden reasons for almost everything they say and do. Instead of stating the truth directly, people come up with layers of distraction, saying one thing and meaning an entirely different thing. Giovanni doesn’t suggest this is a bad thing, it is just the way we are.