Beloved poet comes home for Big Ears Festival

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Arts

The Big Ears Festival is back in a big way March 24-27 after being on hold for two years due to Covid-19. The bad news is, if you don’t already have tickets, it’s sold out. The good news is, there’s two events this weekend that are not only open to the public, they’re free, on a first-come basis subject to venue capacity.

As part of its literary lineup, Big Ears presents the authors Hanif Abdurraqib and Nikki Giovanni, both of whom have music and art at the core of their writing. They will appear at The Mill & Mine at 227 W. Depot Avenue. Abdurraqib will appear Sunday, March 27, at 1 p.m. and Giovanni on Saturday, March 26, at 11 a.m. Both events are presented in conjunction with the Beck Cultural Exchange Center.

In case you’ve been under a rock, Giovanni is a city, state and national treasure. She was born in Knoxville on June 7, 1943. Although she grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, she and her sister returned to Knoxville each summer to visit their grandparents. Nikki graduated with honors in history from her grandfather’s alma mater, Fisk University. Since 1987, she has been on the faculty at Virginia Tech, where she is a University Distinguished Professor.

Renowned especially for her poetry, Giovanni has long used her literary gifts to raise awareness of social issues, particularly those of gender and race. By the time she received her bachelor’s degree in history from Fisk in 1967, she was already an outspoken activist for civil rights and equality. A year later, she published her first books of verse.

Giovanni has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, essays and edited anthologies, as well as 11 illustrated children’s books, including “Rosa,” an award-winning biography of Rosa Parks. Giovanni’s autobiography, “Gemini,” was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award. In 2004, her album, “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection,” was a Grammy finalist for the Best Spoken-Word Album.

Giovanni has received numerous awards, including the inaugural Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, the American Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, the Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts, and the Emily Couric Leadership Award. She is also a seven-time recipient of the NAACP Image Award. The recipient of 27 honorary degrees and the keys to nearly as many cities, she garnered her most unusual honor in 2007, when a South American bat species—Micronycteris giovanniae—was named in celebration of her.

A devoted teacher, Giovanni has been a visiting professor and poet-in-residence at numerous colleges, and she encourages students of all ages to express themselves creatively through writing.

Giovanni returned to Knoxville in May of 2019 for the dedication of a plaque in her honor marking the location of her grandparents’ home at 400 Mulvaney Street (now Hall of Fame Drive). She immortalized her memories of summers in Knoxville with her poem “Knoxville, Tennessee.”

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Information for this story provided by Big Ears Festival.

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