Illustration by Jamie Morton.

Writer and civil rights activist Nikki Giovanni is the featured speaker at the 2012 Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation being held at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 2. Giovanni spoke with City on a Hill Press about becoming a writer and her connections with civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks.

City on a Hill Press: When did you come to realize that you were a writer?

Nikki Giovanni: I always liked storytelling. I’m an Eastern Tennessean by birth — I was born in Knoxville, Tenn. We grew up storytelling. If I had been born in Memphis, I would have been a blues singer. If I had been born in Nashville, I would have been in gospel, country or western. It comes down to that. We didn’t get television until the late ‘60s. We were in the mountains. We had to talk to each other, which was a good thing. When I started writing, I was just trying to make sense of the world, trying to give a voice. Black Americans were being silenced and somebody needed to say what was going on. So I wrote. I’ve always written for whoever would read it — I wasn’t trying to start a revolution. I wasn’t trying to do anything but be honest. It’s important to be an honest writer.

CHP: I’ve read that your primary focus is on the individual, and the power one has to make a difference. When did you come to realize the importance of the individual?

NG: I grew up in the era of segregation, and watching Ms. Parks give up her seat was a galvanizing moment for all of us. It was during the Montgomery bus boycott. All of the people participated, but without Ms. Parks saying, “It’s time for this to stop, it stops here,” [the revolution wouldn’t have been as strong]. The power of the individual is incredible. That you actually stand up for yourself and say, “No, I’m not doing this anymore” — I think she galvanized a generation. What Dr. King did was to articulate what the people were expressing physically. I think without Ms. Parks we wouldn’t have had Dr. King.

CHP: You had a friendship of 20 years with Rosa Parks. What about Dr. King?

NG: I didn’t know him nearly as well as Rosa. Of course, we were all in the civil rights movement, but he’s Dr. King and I’m not. You always have to know where you are. Everybody thinks Martin was just an old guy, but he was only 26 years old. He was a young man. He had a wonderful sense of humor. He liked good music and he loved good food. Well, I should say he loved southern food — not necessarily good — but I like fried chicken, so I say what the hell, fried chicken is good for you.

CHP: Can you give us a little preview of your talk at the MLK Jr. Memorial Convocation, “The Privilege of Serving: Art and the Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.”?

NG: I think it’s so important that young people recognize it’s your mind, and you should make it up for yourself. And in doing that, sometimes it’s going to be difficult, and sometimes you might even disappoint yourself, but other times you’re going to find yourself standing there pretty much alone. That’s why I always talk about the individual — because a crowd is no better than the individuals in it. And it’s very important if you are with a group, you be proud of the fact you’re there. What I’m trying to say, essentially, is don’t do anything in a crowd that you couldn’t do alone.

CHP: Is that what you mean by the privilege of serving?

NG: Sure — the privilege of being yourself, the privilege of standing up. All of these are privileges, because if they were rights, there wouldn’t be any discussions. Everybody would leave everybody alone; life would be a lot easier. It’s a privilege to be educated, it’s a privilege to have First Amendment rights, to worship as you choose, and it’s a privilege to recognize some people don’t worship as you do. We are privileged to live in the 21st century, where so much knowledge is available to us. Two hundred years ago, people were ignorant because they didn’t know. We don’t have that excuse anymore.

CHP: How do you want Dr. King to be remembered?

NG: I think for the sanity and the soul of America we have to recognize the wonderful contributions people have made for our freedom. And it’s not just the freedom of black Americans — it’s all of us. Any time you can take a step away from hate, this is a good thing.

CHP: What do you feel the most effective form of student awareness and change is? What would be most crucial for students across America today?

NG: I don’t try to tell one generation what to do, so let me just be clear. I have great admiration for your European counterparts, students in Europe, who facilitated the takeover in Egypt. Without the courage of those students to relay messages, things would not have happened the way they did. We saw it again in Libya. Things are happening differently — a whole different world from what people like me knew. What you youngsters will be doing is something we have not thought of. What will happen is not beyond my imagination, but at this point outside of my articulation.

CHP: What would you say to those who underestimate the power of spoken word as a social change agent?

NG: Human beings only have our words — anything else, we are only fooling ourselves. Now we have contracts of course, but there was a time in the mythology of human beings that we shook hands and said, “I’ll do it, I’ll be there, I’ll help you.” The word among human beings is sacred, and should be treated as that. Being Americans, we have wonderful strong words such as, “all men and women are created equal.” This is an important revelation. It is important that we speak it aloud, that we recognize it. Words determine who we are — we dream in words — so words are always important.