‘In the spirit of Martin’: Poet Nikki Giovanni speaks on mental well-being during Pitt’s Social Justice Week

By Renee Dubaich, Staff Writer

Poet Nikki Giovanni shared inspiring words of perseverance, unity and hope with the Pitt community to commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

“Most of us are not gonna have dreams come true, but we will have dreams that keep us going,” Giovanni said. “To everyone here, you have to think about what it is that you need and what it is that is important to you. It’s your mental health, not anyone else’s, and that’s the best thing you need to be happy.”

About 200 students, faculty and community members gathered in Connolly Ballroom at Alumni Hall on Tuesday night as the University welcomed Giovanni onstage. Clyde Wilson Pickett, Pitt’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion and chief diversity officer, served as moderator for the event. The night consisted of meaningful and heartfelt conversation, with a range of topics such as self-worth, family, activism, sisterhood and Black empowerment.

Giovanni is a world-renowned American poet with works centered on race, gender, sexuality and the African American family. Her most notable works include “Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like,” “You Came, Too,” and “Dreams.” Her poetry played a significant role in the Black Arts Movement between 1965 and 1975, where she worked to uplift the Black experience in the arts.

The event was part of Pitt’s MLK Social Justice Week. To commemorate the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, in partnership with the Division of Student Affairs and Year of Emotional Well-being, hosted events throughout the week focusing on this year’s theme, “From Surviving to Thriving: Culturally Relevant Emotional Wellness.” The theme this year considers current events and recognizes communities in need of support by centering speeches and workshops on topics of inequity, resilience and healing from an intersectional diversity lens.

Giovanni ended her discussion with a reading of her original poem, “Quilts.”

“In the spirit of Martin,” Giovanni said before she began her poem. “Like a fading piece of cloth

I am a failure. No longer do I cover tables filled with food and laughter. My seams are frayed, my hems falling, my strength no longer able. To hold the hot and cold …”

Hallie Sill, a junior applied developmental psychology major, attended the event as part of the Practices of Freedom program. She said she appreciated how Giovanni spoke about the well-being of students and especially those in the Black community.

“One of the biggest pieces was the mental health component and just being happy and finding what that means for you,” Sill said. “It’s hard as a college student and I think it’s easy to fit the mold, especially as a Black student at a predominantly white institution. We kinda just get forced into a lot of things and forgotten about at times, so I think it’s empowering for Black students when we can be in a community with other Black people.” 

Sill added that she loved that Giovanni wasn’t afraid to show her authentic side onstage.

Nikki Giovanni, poet, speaks during “A Night With Nikki Giovanni”. (Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer)

“She was hilarious, I love the lack of filter,” Sill said. “That’s also something I’ve noticed when Black people come and speak. They have to hold a professionalism in these types of environments. They have to really put on a show for themselves to be heard and to be understood and to be respected in these types of places, especially here at Pitt. She was truly herself on stage.”

Ellyana Gomez, a Shadyside resident, said she attended the event because she taught many of Giovanni’s poems in after-school programs. She said she loved Giovanni’s advice on living one’s life to its fullest potential.

“I think the biggest thing I took away from her was about making your own path, making your own way, not really letting other people tell you what to do,” Gomez said.

Gomez also said Giovanni daddresses struggles that many Black women face.

“She said this one thing like, ‘Oh you’re Black, you’re supposed to smile’ …” Gomez said. “But I think it’s okay to stand up and advocate for yourself. It’s something you have to do, it’s something you have to practice and I think that’s something — especially Black women, we forget that all the time, we just want to be people pleasers and go under the radar.”

Linda Williams Moore, executive director for diversity, equity and inclusion in the division of Student Affairs, said Giovanni is respected for her contributions to bringing college communities together after the tragic 2007 Virginia Tech shooting.

“We tried to get speakers who would really speak to what it is to be emotionally well, and so we thought about Dr. Giovanni and about what she had done to bring the campus together after the Virginia Tech shooting,” Moore said. “We thought about what it must have taken for her and other staff members to be able to help students during such a tragedy.”

Moore said Giovanni’s message is especially important during Social Justice Week, where she offers a safe and inclusive space for all those who have endured struggles.

“For many years she has spoken about racial trauma and gender identity, and spoken about what it means to be culturally relevant and well in these spaces,” Moore said. “She has helped a lot of students through that journey of finding their happy, finding their joy. That’s what this whole week is about, is the path to joy and liberation.”

Moore spoke about the importance of poetry and the spoken word in connecting all people together to learn, grow and thrive in a community.

“I think that spoken word is so important because it allows individuals to share their truth,” Moore said. “Being able to share their perspective of how they see things, being able to put life into poetry and to connect words in a way that touches people, and that’s what Nikki’s work does. She has been able to for the past 60 years.”