MLK Day 2010: UNH Goes With Academic Poet-Thug

Around this time every year, Pun Salad looks at the plans hatched by the University Near Here for its upcoming Martin Luther King Day Celebration. This year's theme is "Art as Struggle and Exultation".

Now, some things never change: The scheduled events for the "day" run over a whole week, and they occur a couple weeks after the actual holiday. The University will once again sponsor a "Spiritual Celebration" at the local community church ("a wonderful afternoon of music, singing, poetry, movement, prayer and reflection"), something it would never do for an actual religious holiday. But attendees get to engage in a few hours' worth of moral preening, with probably not much of that pesky God stuff, so it's win-win.

And the program offers up the usual leftist word salad to describe the week's events. For example, there will be an art exhibit titled "I Am Here, Hear Me"; here are a couple paragraphs:

Using art to define, represent, and assert their identity, a group of 30 young men from various racial and ethnic backgrounds will examine what it means to navigate a U.S. culture where pervasive negative images and cultural stereotyping challenge their ability to be seen as an individuals [sic].

The aim of the exhibit is [sic] to address the complexities of personal identity, give visibility and voice to a group of men too long defined by others, and to explore the potential of the shared story as a tool of empowerment and act of cultural resistance to imposed invisibility.

The style is in-your-face gasbaggery, inflated with the catchphrases of racial politics. All the writer's effort has gone toward stuffing words into the prose, none toward catching simple errors.

The primary rule of gasbaggery is: never say just one thing, if you can possibly think of two or three. Consider that very first phrase: the kids won't just be using art to define their identity; and they won't be confined to using art to represent their identity; and of course, they wouldn't just use art simply to assert their identity. Nay, they will use art to define and represent and assert their identity. Wouldn't want to leave anything out.

I always check out the Keynote Speaker; I nurture a dim hope that UNH might actually invite someone, anyone, outside a narrow band on the left side of the ideological spectrum. (Thomas Sowell? Walter Williams? John McWhorter? Shelby Steele? Anyone?)

No, not this year. This year's invited (and undoubtedly well-paid) speaker is Nikki Giovanni, described at Wikipedia as a "Grammy-nominated American poet, activist and author." She bears an arm tattoo that reads "Thug Life". She teaches at Virginia Tech, and a couple of years ago, she got touched with the 15-minutes-of-fame brush in relation to the mass murderer Cho Seung-Hui. Professor Giovanni had him removed from her class back in 2005, because he was just too disturbing for her. And she wrote and performed a poem at the Virginia Tech convocation, a day after the April 16, 2007 massacre.

You can hear the poem at the link, but here it is in its entirety (from the official transcript here).

We are Virginia Tech.

We are sad today, and we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on, we are embracing our mourning.

We are Virginia Tech.

We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly, we are brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that we must laugh again.

We are Virginia Tech.

We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS, neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community being devastated for ivory, neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water, neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.

We are Virginia Tech.

The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hands to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong, and brave, and innocent, and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.

We are the Hokies.

We will prevail.

We will prevail.

We will prevail.

We are Virginia Tech.

I am resisting the impulse to put the word poem in ironic quotation marks. And I'm trying (very hard) to avoid criticizing the poetry itself; even though I think it's horrid, I'm just not qualified.

Aside from that, it's still odious. Giovanni calls the massacre a "tragedy", and equates that term, essentially, with "very bad thing." (Which is kind of odd, coming as it does from an alleged English professor.) Check out the list of other "tragedies" in that long middle paragraph of the poem; does it make any moral sense to equate them with the VT massacre? Does it make any moral sense to rattle them off as if they equated with each other? Are they at all relevant to anything that happened at Virginia Tech?

And is it really true that "No one deserves a tragedy"? Hah. Tell that to Macbeth.

That entire paragraph is stupid and perverse. Not that the rest of the poem is much better, but that's what sticks out. When Virginia Tech might have benefited from true compassion and insight, Giovanni deliberately sowed confusion and feel-good irrationality.

Also off-putting, if you watch the video, is how Giovanni basks in the creepy adulation of the crowd after her performance. Remember, this is the day after the shootings, with the 32 victims (plus Cho, who killed himself) barely cold; she's grinning and posturing like the Hokies just took the ACC football title, with her at quarterback.

Irrelevancy and moral confusion is a continuing theme of Giovanni's schtick, though. Earlier this year, President Obama invited her to recite a poem at the National Wreath-Laying Ceremony in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday. From her website:

The American Vision of Abraham Lincoln

At this moment

Resting in the comfort of the statue
Of the 16th president of the United States
An equally impressive representation
Of his friend and advisor
Frederick Douglass
Again, I'm unqualified to criticize Giovanni's seemingly random insertion of line and paragraph breaks. (But I speculate that it's not just seemingly random.) The content is bad enough: Yes, she's griping about the lack of an "equally impressive" Frederick Douglass memorial. Just the thing for Lincoln's Birthday.

Further down:

At this moment

In which we are embarrassed
By the Governor of our fifth largest state
     Who appoints a man to the United States Senate
     To which both he and his minion agree:
The Letter of the Law
Is more important than
The Spirit of the Law
At this moment, you may be asking what is she talking about? The fifth-largest state … in area, it's … ah, it's New Mexico. But did the New Mexico Governor appoint anyone to the Senate? Hm… oh, wait, maybe she means fifth largest in population. That's, um… Illinois. Hey, she's talking about Blagojevich appointing Roland Burris!

OK, so why is that relevant to Lincoln's bicentennial? It's not. Just something that stuck in Giovanni's craw.

(Also note: random line indentation.)

But wait, there's more:


When we are dismayed that the accidental
Governor of the Empire State can find
Just one more reason to rain pain
And rejection on a family that has offered only
Grace and graciousness
Another Senate appointment, or lack thereof, this one from New York, ripped from then-recent headlines, irritated Giovanni. Apparently, she's a big Kennedy fan. Never mind Caroline's total airheaded lack of qualifications, she had the right genes, and that was OK with Nikki.

Calling David Paterson an "accidental" governor only makes sense if you think that his predecessor, Eliot Spitzer, "accidentally" patronized prostitutes. ("Oops!") And did Governor Paterson really go out of his way to intentionally "rain pain and rejection" on the Kennedy clan? Not according to any news reports I recall.

But quibbling about mere reality aside: is any of that appropriate to a Lincoln testimonial?

(Oh, yes: also random boldface.)

But this may give the impression of Giovanni as a mere talentless kook. She's more than that. For example, UNH makes available a PDF selection of her poetry that they thought was especially relevant to her MLK invite. Here are the opening paragraphs of "Reflections on April 4, 1968", the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated:

What can I, a poor Black woman, do to destroy america? This
is a question, with appropriate variations, being asked in every
Black heart. There is one answer--I can kill. There is one
compromise--I can protect those who kill. There is one cop-
out--I can encourage others to kill. There are no other ways.

The assassination of Martin Luther King is an act of war.
President johnson, your friendly uncandidate, has declared
war on Black people. He is not making any distinction
between us and negroes. The question--does it have rhythm?
The answer--yes. The response--kill it. They have been
known to shoot at the wind and violate the earth's gravity for
these very reasons.

Obviously the first step toward peace is the removal of at least
two fingers, and most probably three, from both hands of all
white people. Fingers that are not controlled must be
removed. This is the first step toward a true and lasting peace.
We would also suggest blinding or the removal of at least two
eyes from one of the heads of all albino freaks.

Um… Well, is that an exception? Here's the first part of one of her other efforts:
The True Import Of Present Dialogue, Black vs. Negro (For Peppe, Who Will Ultimately Judge Our Efforts)
by Nikki Giovanni

Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a n----r kill
Can a n----r kill a honkie
Can a n----r kill the Man
Can you kill n----r
Huh? n----r can you
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? n----r
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your
'68 El Dorado
(that's all they're good for anyway)

It goes on for quite awhile in that, um, vein. I've done some censorship: those four dashes between the 'N' and 'R' are not in the original.

But she can also get right sycophantic, given the right topic. NPR commissioned a poem from her on the occasion of President Obama's inauguration:

Roll Call: A Song of Celebration

I'm Barack Obama
And I'm here to say:
I'm President
Of the USA

I'll walk the streets
And knock on doors
Share with the folks:
Not my dreams but yours

I'll talk with the people
I'll listen and learn
I'll make the butter
Then clean the churn

My wife is pretty
My children are sweet
We need one puppy
To be complete

I Represented in Springfield
Senated in DC
Articulating all the while
What change means to me

Some folk said "wait"
Some said "not now"
But here I am quite ready
To take that President vow

The time is now
For us to stand
Because we all know
Yes We Can
Yes We Can
Yes We Can

… your NPR pledge dollars at work.

This post has already gone on too long. If you're interested in more information about Professor Giovanni, Steve Sailer has it, and he's somewhat less patient with her than I.

I should point out, however, that Nikki Giovanni—bad as she is—is an improvement over last year's keynote speaker. Nikki has, to the best of my research, never actually appeared on the FBI's Most Wanted list.

Last Modified 2009-12-01 7:46 AM EDT