Mayor Madeline Rogero called it “the annotated version” when poet Nikki Giovanni interrupted her own reading of “Knoxville, Tennessee” to insert comments and even lead the crowd in singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”
Giovanni said at age 75 she’s appreciating that hymn she learned in childhood, sung by her grandmother at the community church the family attended. “People don’t die. We transition to something else.”
The acclaimed poet was in town Thursday for the unveiling of a plaque at the Cal Johnson Recreation Center, near the spot where she played as a child when the road was called Mulvaney Street rather than Hall of Fame Drive.
“Knoxville is my home,” she said. “I’m happy to be back in Knoxville.”
Giovanni is a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, where she’s been on the faculty since 1987. She was born in Knoxville on June 7, 1943, and although her family lived in Ohio, she and her sister came back to Knoxville each summer to spend time with her grandparents. Learn more here.
People of various ages and races packed the lawn at Cal Johnson Rec Center. At least two candidates for mayor (Indya Kincannon and Marshall Stair) worked the crowd. Giovanni graciously posed with all-comers. Rogero later hosted a luncheon for Giovanni and invited guests.
At the unveiling ceremony, Rogero called Giovanni “our native daughter” and said, “We’re proud of all she’s accomplished. She represents the best of Knoxville.”
Rogero announced a $550,000 renovation project for the heavily used recreation center. It hosts a free after-school program for kids and a summer STEM program for ages 13-15. A chess program, youth sports and even an adult basketball league are based at the center.
Giovanni said as she drove into Knoxville, she pointed to “all the places no longer there.” And Rogero took up that theme. “She grew up at 400 Mulvaney Street. She played here at Cal Johnson Park. And now this park is all that remains of (her former community).”
In the name of progress and urban renewal, entire streets were obliterated in the 1960s. Buildings went down – homes, businesses, churches. Neighborhoods were destroyed, people scattered, a way of life forever changed.
City Council member Gwen McKenzie introduced Rogero, who introduced Giovanni. McKenzie reminded the gathering, “Never forget where you came from.”
Theotis Robinson wore a new baseball cap, in the style of MAGA. This one read: “Make Truth Great Again.”
With a nod to the “good white people,” Giovanni said she is proud of the African-American people of Knoxville. “We are a great people and we are not afraid.” Out in the crowd, somebody yelled, “Preach it!”