Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Nikki taught Cho

Nikki Giovanni (more here) was one of Cho Seung-hui's professors and is supposed to be a great black poet.

Below is one of her poems. It might help us understand her now deceased student.

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 nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you kill
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your'68 El Dorado
(that's all they're good for anyway)
Can you kill
Can you piss on a blond head
Can you cut it off
Can you kill
A nigger can die
We ain't got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill
They sent us to kill
Japan and Africa
We policed europe
Can you kill
Can you kill a white man
Can you kill the niggerin you
Can you make your nigger mind
Can you kill your nigger mind
And free your black hands to
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can you shoot straight and
Fire for good measure
Can you splatter their brains in the street
Can you kill them
Can you lure them to bed to kill them
We kill in Viet Nam
for them
We kill for UN & NATO & SEATO & US
And everywhere for all alphabet but
Can we learn to kill WHITE for BLACK
Learn to kill niggers
Learn to be Black men


Damien Eldridge said...

I do not like the idea of bans on hate speech on the basis that I think it is very hard to know where to draw the line in order to stop it from being used to censor critics of majority positions in a democracy. Censorship of this type often seems like a first step in the dangerous direction of legislating against viewpoints as opposed to actions.

However, I hope this sort of drivel isn't being taught as part of any serious course on English literature? That so called poem is extremely disturbing. It is also an incredibly bad piece of literature.

lucy tartan said...

Damien, that poem is one of a handful of key poems by a major poet of the Black Arts movement. If I was teaching a course on literature of protest, of social upheaval, of the 1960s, 20th century American poetry, I'd include Nikki Giovanni. Maybe not this poem, maybe another.

As you point out yourself it's disturbing. This quality isn't usually compatible with incredibly bad poetry, perhaps never.

It's not the kind of pretty elegant stuff which people often associate with poetry. Instead it fits Marianne Moore's description of genuine poetry: an imaginary garden inhabited by a real toad.

The toad, the slash of reality, in this poem is the difficult transformation of the enslaved and subjugated Negro, into the self-determined, adult, angry Black. How to move from being a Nigger / Negro to being Black, that is what the poem is about. Giovanni thinks that the only way to become Black is by destroying the victim, the Nigger. This poem was written at a time (late 60s) when being a fully self-determined citizen of the USA meant being complicit in the Vietnam War and US imperialism generally, in a way that the subjugated people in a slaveocracy are innocent victims of. The savage yet cringing and always inferior 'Nigger' is a white fantasy.

Can you make your nigger mind
Can you kill your nigger mind
And free your black hands to

The poem asks if it's possible for African-Americans to extract themselves from the white image of a people paternally protected from themselves, and it asks what freedom in US society means. Perhaps it means the freedom to victimise someone else.

Damien Eldridge said...


I guessed that it was a poem that was protesting the subjugation of the African American population. That doesn't make it good literature.

It goes way beyond asking whether or not African-Americans overcome the legacy of subjugation. It actually advocates committing atrocities against other ethnicities.

Pesonally, I think the poem has no artistic merit whatsoever. But worse than that, it suggests that if African Americans are to gain respect from others, they need to be capable of committing a variety of depraved acts. It clearly qualifies as hate speech. As I indicated in my earlier comment, I do not think that hate speech should be censored because of the risk of such censorship powers being abused. However, I see no reason for it to be taught in a course on English literature. But I am not an expert on English literature. My sole experience of English literature post secondary school is through reading and listening to music (some of which is similar to poetry). I read books and listen to music that I enjoy. This poem does not fall into that category. It is vile rubbish. Unfortunately, it might be dangerous vile rubbish.

But you are right, as I am not an expert on English literature, I shouldn't make statements about what should be taught in english literature classes. I apologise for that elewment of my earlier comment. However, as a non-expert bystander, I would prefer it if this type of so called poem was not taught in classes on English literature.

Anonymous said...

That piece is ordinary, but the poem she recited at the VTech memorial service was appropriate. I suppose you'd call it 'occasional verse'. Okay, it wasn't Recessional (Kipling's great contribution to the genre), but it was good.

Most writers with a decent body of work behind them have their crappy bits. I'm about as anti-censorship as it's possible to be; by the same token, I do think it's fair enough for educated generalists to make calls of taste with respect to the arts. The arts - of whatever sort - have a public, not merely devoted students at university.

And that public expresses its preferences in the form of a market - which economists should comment on!


hc said...

I am not in favour of public censoring of this material - I would hope that good taste would exclude it.

I understand that Lucy says it is a poem about liberating the black mind but even in the bit quoted 'And free your black hands to strangle' it expresses the idea that freedom=violence which seems to me the sort of equation that drove Cho to do what he did.

It is in fact similar in tone to the plays Cho wrote. It is interesting that Giovanni kicked him out of her class.

I don't know Giovanni's other stuff but find this horrible.

lucy tartan said...

I really think it has to be read keeping in mind what sorts of opinions people had about the American war in Vietnam in 1987-68. The lengths gone to to defend Western freedom from Communism would include acts most people would describe as murderous.

lucy tartan said...

And I forgot to say that I also find it horrible.

shlomo glickstein said...

How silly: A poet being ironic about violence causing a deranged young man to kill 33? Give me a break, Harry. Mental illness takes a long time to form, and the triggers are many. This kind of speculation is spurious.

hc said...

Schlomo, No-one suggested what you claim is being asserted. This disgusting type of poetry probably was only one of many triggers but Cho's plays did have a resemblance to the style of this poem.

I didn't pick up irony in this poem. Just ugliness.

Anonymous said...

I am a firm believer in free speech. However I am also a firm believer in truth especially when it comes to the arts portrayed.
In this poem the projection is that white taught black when in fact like all races from the beginning of time black white yellow brown taught themselves. Not only how to kill but how to blame.

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