Poet, activist discusses life and lessons

Renowned poet, educator and activist Nikki Giovanni spoke Wednesday evening in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center as part of the USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics’ series, Knowing Thyself: Authenticity and Ethos.

Giovanni spoke about her disappointment with war and domestic violence, changes in social ideas, such as the Occupy movement, and her experiences with everyone from college athletes to fellow civil rights leaders.

Humanity · Poet, educator and activist Nikki Giovanni said arts and politics should intersect to ensure citizens are empathetic. - Adrian Hoffmann | Daily Trojan

Giovanni said education is important in being “a sane human being,” and discussed the prospect of one day being grandmother to a Martian baby when Earth inevitably becomes uninhabitable to illustrate the unpredictability of the future.

“We’re going to need to make adjustments,” Giovanni said. “What makes us think we shouldn’t be extinct? My grandson will come home and introduce me to his Martian girlfriend because that’s where we have to go.”

This year’s Levan Lectures focus on the individual and the power one has to make a difference in oneself and the lives of others.

Giovanni is the USC Levan Institute’s third distinguished speaker, following Danielle Allan, a political theorist, and Anthony Kronman, former dean of Yale Law School.

Giovanni said the intersection of art and politics is an important part of society.

“[Politicians] attack art as if we could possibly have a nation without it; without it, how do we become good citizens?” Giovanni said. “We don’t. We need empathy, which we get from putting ourselves artistically into other’s shoes.”

Giovanni gave a detailed account of her friend Rosa Parks and read a poem she wrote in Parks’ honor.

“It was Ms. Rosa Parks willing to sacrifice life so that [Emmitt Till] would have not died in vain. … It was not being able to stand [that debt] that she sat back down,” Giovanni said.

Giovanni juxtaposed ambitious ideas about the future with historical relevance. She said she was excited about space travel, hoping that “one day space travel can be a sort of pick-up line.”

In her poem “We’re Going to Mars,” Giovanni said those wanting to travel to Mars need to understand how to endure as the African-Americans did on the Middle Passage.

Giovanni said students should strive to achieve happiness during their lives.

“The founding fathers added ‘the pursuit of happiness’ to the Declaration for a reason,” Giovanni said. “Happiness is attainable, and if you don’t recognize this as the real world, there never will be a real world out there. This is it.”

Ran Woodfin, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering, said he appreciated Giovanni’s insight.

“Giovanni was eager to share her knowledge she has gained through the years and also with the revolutionary movements of today,” Woodfin said.

Leah Young, a freshman majoring in biological sciences, said she attended the event because she wanted to increase her awareness of different cultures.

“I’ve been expanding my cultural horizons,” she said. “It’s important for people to learn about art outside of their major and want to create their own expressions.”

The USC Levan Institute collaborates with departments, professional schools and programs across the university to bring students and faculty together with authors, philosophers, practitioners and the ethical voices of our time.