To Go Barefooted and Be Warm
Poet Nikki Giovanni returned to her beloved Mulvaney Street for the unveiling of a plaque honoring her life and work.
Mayor Madeline Rogero, left, shakes hands with Nikki Giovanni beneath the plaque honoring the poet's life and work.
“Mulvaney Street looked like a camel’s back with both humps bulging -- up and down -- and we lived in the down part,” Nikki Giovanni wrote in her acclaimed essay “400 Mulvaney Street.”
Acclaimed poet Nikki Giovanni views the end of the road as the beginning of a trail.
The house at 400 Mulvaney Street, where Giovanni lived with her grandparents as a teenager in the 1950s, is gone now, along with the rest of the neighborhood. The name of the street has been changed to Hall of Fame Drive. All that’s left of her days living in Knoxville is Cal Johnson Park at the crown of the southernmost hump.
Giovanni’s accomplishments as one of the nation’s finest poets remain as well. Hers is a strong woman’s voice -- unmistakably black, unapologetically Appalachian, inarguably humanist.
Giovanni returned to her old stomping grounds on Thursday for the unveiling of a plaque in her honor in front of the Cal Johnson Recreation Center, named for another of Knoxville’s most famous African-American residents. At 75, she is small in stature and slight of build, with her glasses perched atop her short-cropped, salt-and-pepper hair -- a poet’s tiara.
Introducing her to assembled friends, fans and local officials, Mayor Madeline Rogero called Giovanni “our native daughter.” After listing only a few of Giovanni’s notable accomplishments -- the Langston Hughes Award, the Carl Sandburg Literary Award and seven NAACP Image Awards among them -- Rogero said, “She represents the best of Knoxville.”
Giovanni told snippets of stories from her childhood -- visiting the Carnegie Library up the street, where the librarian made sure she got the books she wanted to read, and going to the Market House, where a chicken vendor would give her a small bucketful of livers for her grandmother to fry.
“I write a lot about Knoxville because Knoxville is my heart,” Giovanni said.
Giovanni was born in Old Knoxville General Hospital on June 7, 1943. Though she spent her childhood in Cincinnati, she and her sister returned each summer to stay at their grandparents’ house at 400 Mulvaney Street.
At age 14, Giovanni moved in year-round with her grandparents, John Brown and Louvenia Watson. The affection she holds for them is evident both in her writing and when she speaks of their memory. She attended Austin High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Fisk University, her grandfather’s alma mater.
Giovanni began writing poetry and became one of the leaders of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. She’s written more than 18 volumes of poetry, a dozen children’s books, 12 collections of essays and conversations, and recordings of her works (she snagged a Grammy nomination along the way). She’s been a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech since 1987.
Poet Marilyn Kallet, who teaches at the University of Tennessee and is the city’s poet laureate, said Giovanni’s verse is lyrical and accessible and full of feeling. “It’s the sum of Knoxville,” Kallet said.
“400 Mulvaney Street,” one of her most well-known essays, is an elegy for her grandparents’ home and the surrounding neighborhood before Urban Renewal swept through the area east of First Creek. Homes, businesses, churches and the heart of Knoxville’s African-American community were ripped from the soil.
The plaque honoring Giovanni unveiled on Thursday does not gloss over Urban Renewal’s effect on black Knoxvillians. Rogero didn’t mince words in her remarks, either, acknowledging, “It’s not a proud chapter in our city’s history.”
At Thursday’s event, Giovanni read from her poem “Knoxville, Tennessee,” a deceptively simple poem about the small, good things in life:
I always like summer
you can eat fresh corn
from daddy’s garden
and cabbage …
She interrupted herself to share her childhood stories and to show the illustrations by Larry Johnson that adorn the children’s book version. The poem concludes:
and go to the mountains with
and go barefooted
and be warm
all the time
not only when you go to bed
Giovanni recalled going to services every Sunday at Mt. Zion Church, where the congregation would sing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” She closed the ceremony by leading the crowd in singing the hymn of her childhood.
Afterwards, she posed in the late-morning heat for photographs and chatted with everyone who approached her -- children and her contemporaries, former students and new fans, black and white.
Though the destruction of her grandparents’ house was a cause of grief in her life, Giovanni does not speak about it with bitterness.
“Loss and failure and finding and success, you balance it,” she said in a brief interview before heading to the Beck Cultural Exchange Center for another event. “You win and you lose and you continue. Struggle will always be with us. The question is, what are we struggling for?”
Giovanni said she’s still sad that her old neighborhood is gone, but uses loss as inspiration.
“The end of the road is the beginning of a trail,” she said. “I’m an Appalachian. We’re not afraid of anything.”