‘Nikki-Rosa,’ considered one of the best-loved and oft-quoted poems of Nikki Giovanni, questions the way of seeing black lives through the “white” lens. Why is it so that we always have to revisit the lives of prominent African-American figures, such as the lives of Giovanni, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr., through their eyes? This question compelled Giovanni to present her life as it really was, filled with happiness, joy, and, most importantly, “Black Love.” Through this deeply personal piece, Giovanni depicts how she lived happily in a loving family, always there for each other, and firmly standing together in the face of momentary misfortunes.
‘Nikki-Rosa’ by Nikki Giovanni is an autobiographical poem that chronicles the happy childhood memories of the poet.
“Childhood remembrances,” indeed take us back to the days we hold dear to our hearts. According to the speaker, if one is “Black”, especially in their case, the world sympathizes with how painful their childhood days were. Indeed, they had to live under trying circumstances. Whatever the case may be, nobody considers how happy the poet was as a child. She lived together with her sister and parents. They bathed in a barbecue tub, celebrated their birthdays, and held Christmases. A white person who would be writing her life’s account can never understand how happy she really was.
You can read the full poem here or listen to Nikki Giovanni reading the poem.
childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
all to yourself and
The title of Nikki Giovanni’s poem, ‘Nikki-Rosa,’ is a reference to the poet’s childhood self or a persona shaped by the dominant “white” worldview. The nickname “Nikki” was given to her by her elder sister Gary when she was two or three. From the title itself, it can be assumed that the poem is about the poet’s childhood or something related to her childhood days.
This autobiographical piece begins with an ironic statement. According to the speaker, childhood memories always drag us back, especially if one is black. The use of the word “drag,” which has something to do with a violent pull, hints at an invisible pull backward. A black person has to remember how bad their childhood was. They “always” have to remember how they lived under tough circumstances, such as residing in a house without a proper toilet. Giovanni’s family moved to Woodlawn, Cincinnati in 1947.
Furthermore, the speaker says if a black individual is famous, people only talk about their suffering due to racism. But, the speaker does not agree with their views regarding black people. She makes them think about how happy she was to have her mother all to herself. Due to their financial condition, they had to move from one place to another, but in all that, she had her mother always there for her. Not every child living in poverty has the opportunity to have their parents by their side all the time.
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
your father’s pain as he sell his stock
and another dream goes
In these lines, the speaker shares one good memory from her childhood. She used to take a bath in the big barbecue tubs that Chicago folk use in barbecue. They did not have a proper bathtub, yet the “water” felt good when she bathed in the barbecue tub. It is not the “water” that made her happy, but the presence of her family, especially her mother that made the memory special.
In the next lines, the speaker takes a look back at her childhood from an objective perspective. She, as a grown-up, converses with her childhood self, who never understood how the adults felt when they attended meetings about Hollydale. Now as an adult, she can understand the feelings of her parents at that time whenever she is reminded of her home.
During the 1950s, Hollydale was an all-black housing development project. Giovanni’s parents hoped to have a home there. All their savings were tied up in a real estate venture at Jackson Street in Lincoln Heights and they could not secure a loan for a house for racial lending practices. Therefore they had to drop the plan. Later, her father sold his stock to secure the house at Jackson Street.
This incident is alluded to in the lines, “your father’s pain as he sells his stock/ and another dream goes”. According to the speaker, Nikki’s biographers cannot understand the pain of nipping a dream in the bud. Black families had to sacrifice their dreams due to racism, inequality, and poverty.
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
It is important to note that the word “And” in line 20, begins with a capital “A”. In all the lines of ‘Nikki-Rosa,” not in a single instance, this conjunction is capitalized. Giovanni does it for the sake of emphasis. Het persona tries to highlight the fact that even though she was poor, poverty did not concern her in her childhood. These lines have a tinge of irony. Indeed, poverty makes one suffer. However, with time, one becomes resilient to financial stringency.
Her parents fought under tough conditions. Alcoholism slipped into her father in the form of a potion to relieve stress. But, it did not cause many problems to the overall happiness of the family. The speaker and her sister had their birthdays and held very good Christmases. Lack of a penny is not a problem when one knows how to be happy.
In the following lines, the speaker criticizes racism in society. According to her, no white person ever wants to write about her as she is black. They never understand what “Black love” is. For the speaker, “Black love is Black wealth.” This abstract wealth holds the black families together in a society where they are treated as outsiders.
She is also aware of the fact that people only want to hear the story of suffering behind a black person’s success. But, they never understand black individuals could be happy amidst all the suffering. They only see what they want to see.
Structure and Form
Giovanni’s ‘Nikki-Rosa’ is a free-verse narrative poem without a set rhyme scheme or meter. The lines read like prose. That’s why it is also a prose poem. Due to the presence of a number of personal accounts in this piece, it can be read as an autobiographical poem, with a close look at the narrative scheme. Giovanni uses a second-person point of view, distancing herself from the titular persona, “Nikki-Rosa,” the poet’s former self. Besides, the poem does not adhere to any conventional poetic norms, such as the use of punctuations, capitalization, etc. The poet only capitalizes those words that have to be noticed.
Giovanni uses the following literary devices in her poem ‘Nikki-Rosa’:
- Enjambment: This device is used throughout the poem. The lines do not end like a conventional poem. Each line runs into the next one, creating an unimpeded flow. For instance, consider these lines from the poem, “and if you become famous or something/ they never talk about how happy you were to have/ your mother/ all to yourself and”.
- Irony: Giovanni uses understatement or irony in these lines, “childhood remembrances are always a drag,” “if you become famous or something,” “it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference,” etc.
- Alliteration: In this poem, readers can find repetitions of similar sounds at the beginning of nearby words, such as in “like living,” “Woodlawn/ with,” “how happy,” “he sells his,” etc.
- Metaphor: The most important line of the poem, “Black love is Black wealth,” contains a metaphor. In this line, the poet compares “love” to “wealth.”
Nikki Giovanni’s poem ‘Nikki-Rosa’ taps on a number of important themes, such as childhood experience, poverty, racism, and alcoholism. The main theme of the poem is the white representation of black lives or black experiences. Throughout this piece, Giovanni undoes the way of looking at the lives of black people. She distances herself from the “you,” the persona shaped by the white worldview. She makes her see what she might have ignored throughout her life. It was her childhood, but the people made her look at those days from their perspective. Amidst poverty, uncertainties, and stress, she was quite happy all throughout her childhood. That’s why she lets go of the bad memories and holds the “Black wealth” that is left behind.
The poem ‘Nikki-Rosa’ was first published in Nikki Giovanni’s second collection of poetry Black Judgment in 1968. After the initial success of her self-published first collection, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), which sold over ten thousand copies in the year of publication, she started working on her second collection. The second collection sold over six thousand copies in just three months, six times the sale of a poetry book. In her signature poem, ‘Nikki-Rosa,’ Giovanni revisits her childhood days and explores the impact of racism, poverty, and alcoholism on black families. Given the circumstances of her family, she still had a happy childhood enamored with the “Black wealth.”
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Nikki Giovanni’s autobiographical poem ‘Nikki-Rosa’ is about the poet’s “happy” childhood. In this poem, she talks about how people remind her of the pain and suffering of being black. Yet, she was happy in her childhood irrespective of their poverty. She feels quite energized to remember those days when she had her mother, father, and sister all to herself and lived together happily.
The central idea of the poem is how the white people depict black lives, as well as, black experiences. They are always generous to shower their sympathy on the black people for their past. But, they cannot ever understand that in the midst of the troubles, the black families lived happily.
“Black love is Black wealth” is the most iconic line of the poem. It’s one of the favorite lines of poet Elizabeth Alexander that she told in an interview. Through this line, Giovanni reveals her sense of pride in being black. The love they had for each other is the “wealth” of her family that made them feel stronger in tough times.
The overall tone of the poem is ironic, happy, and dismissing. Giovanni ironically talks about how the world wants to see black lives. She dismisses the view that every black family had suffered including their kids. In this poem, she reveals how happy she really was during her childhood.
It is a free-verse, prose poem that contains several autobiographical elements. There is no regular rhyme scheme, meter, or punctuation in the text. The poem is written from the second-person point of view
Readers who liked her simple way of storytelling may also consider reading more Nikki Giovanni poems. You can also find the themes present in Giovanni’s work in the following poems.
- ‘As I Grew Older’ by Langston Hughes — This poem is about breaking through the “wall” that racism constructs.
- ‘Parade’s End’ by Daljit Nagra — This poem deals with the theme of racism and upholds the suffering of Asian immigrants in the UK.
- ‘White Lies’ by Natasha Trethewey — This piece explores racial identity in the American south through three lies a girl tells about being white.
- ‘Affirmative Action Blues’ by Elizabeth Alexander — This piece alludes to police brutality against Rodney King and taps on the theme of racial oppression.
You can also explore these inspirational poems about Black women.