BLACKSBURG – There is a lot more to poetry than pretty words on a page. Great poetry is an inspiration. It is a call to action and a balm during the most difficult of times.
Renowned author, activist, and University Distinguished Professor Emerita Nikki Giovanni has proven this through her words and her life. Now, she is the fifth recipient of a top award for Virginia Tech faculty.
Giovanni is among a select few faculty to receive the Ut Prosim Scholar Award. The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors passed a resolution to honor Giovanni with the award at its March meeting.
Giovanni retired from the university in 2022 after 35 years as a professor in the Department of English. The award was established in 2016 to recognize the application of scholarship in extraordinary service to humanity.
“Throughout her career Nikki Giovanni has served the university community with distinction, inspired her students, and uplifted the Black experience everywhere through her relentless commitment to diversity and equity,” said Virginia Tech President Tim Sands. “She embodies the spirit of Ut Prosim, and we are proud to honor her extraordinary legacy at Virginia Tech with this award.”
Narrowing down Giovanni’s contributions to society isn’t easy. With accolades and achievements as numerous as the stars in the night sky, she continues to be a prominent voice, using written words to delve into social issues regarding race and gender.
Throughout her life, she has proven herself a fierce advocate of inclusion and equality, uplifted the Black experience in America, advocated for other Black writers, and used her creative talents to help the university in times of tragedy.
Yet, Giovanni said she was surprised when she answered a phone call from Sands telling her that she would receive the Ut Prosim award.
“I was trying to think, ‘Well, what have I done that President Sands is calling,’” Giovanni joked. “I’m thrilled, because I believe in service.”
Before coming to Virginia Tech, she established herself as a prominent figure in the Black Arts Movement, which was a response to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. She threads these events and themes throughout her life’s work.
A strong proponent of the liberal arts, Giovanni is proud of her work, and proud of the work of her colleagues and students at Virginia Tech.
“We are the ones who have the dreams,” she said. “I’m thrilled that the liberal arts are being acknowledged. And I think in not just this country, but around the globe, the liberal arts need to be acknowledged more.”
During her tenure at Virginia Tech, she created unique opportunities for her students, such as the times she brought literary legends Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Rita Dove to campus.
The Giovanni-Steger poetry prize, which Giovanni founded in 2006 with late Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger, gives students across the university an opportunity to share their love of poetry and put their work before an audience. The competition, one of the most revered in the nation, offers the largest-known monetary prize of any undergraduate poetry competition in the Western Hemisphere.
“Poets taught science,” said Giovanni, discussing the importance of the liberal arts. “To teach poetry, we are the ones who ask the questions that the scientists begin to find the answers to. But it was the poets who looked up in the stars and said, ‘Well, this star keeps coming back. I wonder what its meaning is. I wonder what this relationship is. I wonder if it’s actually a star or a planet.’”
Giovanni has published more than 40 pieces of work throughout her career, including New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestsellers. Her most recent children’s book, “The Library,” recalls her childhood visits to a segregated library near her home.
Giovani is a native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She graduated from Fisk University, with honors in history. Giovanni credits her grandparents for instilling in her a sense of service.
“I do try to do what I am asked to do, and if I can, if there’s any way that I can do it, I do,” Giovanni said. “That I may serve — it’s what I was taught.”
Jenny Kincaid Boone for Virginia Tech
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