Giovanni and the Re-defining of the Black Woman’s Experience

Rochelle A. Odon wrote an article on Nikki Giovanni and the role her poetry played in the Black Arts Movement. The Black Arts Movement called to redefine what it meant to be black, but disregarded individuality. Black women succumbed to what Odon calls a phallocentric ideology which omitted a black woman’s voice from the arts. This unified vision of what it means to be black is dependent upon the male black experience because “according to Calvin Hernton in The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers, ‘black men have historically defined themselves as the sole interpreters of the black experience’” (37). So, to combat this ideology, black women creators set out to redefine African American culture to include the black woman’s experience.

Odon uses the poetic work of Nikki Giovanni to illustrate how black women creators redefined what it means to be a black woman. Giovanni and other black female poets used their poetry to fight this battle on two fronts. Odon states, “the first front countered the racial oppression all people of color experience from white America; the second occurred within the circle of blackness and counters the sexism black women experience from black men” (37). Giovanni shows her counterattacks against this ideological war in her Black Arts poetry from 1968 to 1978. She writes to fight against racial and gendered oppression.

In this article, Odon identifies several poems to support her claim that Giovanni’s poetry counterattacks notions to overlook the black woman’s experience. The poem, “Poem (No Name No. 3)” from Black Feeling Black Talk contributed to the Black Arts Movement by adhering to four principles: “devotion to the struggle, leadership, promulgation of the truth, and interpreting to the people… their condition” (38). This poem aimed to be a wake-up call to black America. It does not refer to black women specifically, but it “brings attention to the role and function of the black woman as an impetus for social change (38). Giovanni’s poem asks about certain cultural genocides of the Indians, Viet children, and Arab women with a cry out for action against these heinous acts. She does not speak about black women, but as the author and a black woman, she is calling out for change against these social injustices.

Regarding the sexism of black women from black men, Odon states, “Giovanni subverts the movement’s idea of womanhood, however, by disassociating feminine from masculine. By citing the failures of social leaders such as Malcolm, LeRoi, Rap, and Stokely (lines 11-14), Giovanni creates a space through which a black female leader may enter” (39). If black men only see themselves as leaders, it is up to poets like Giovanni to change the narrative and break away from the illusion that says black women cannot lead. Odon quotes from Giovanni’s poem, “Woman Poem” in her second volume of poetry called Black Judgement (1968) which reflects this discourse. This poem associates womanhood with manhood and “uses a lowercase “i” to express the black woman’s invisibility while longing for a more visible and prominent role with the Black Arts Movement” (39). This poem also addresses the domesticity, female sexuality, and revision of the black woman’s identity. Odon writes, “Giovanni shows how female sexuality is dismissed through preconceived notions and conceptualized submissiveness… Giovanni’s realignment of female identity with sexuality is crucial to the burgeoning feminist movement within the black community” (40). Her poetry resonates with both the Black Arts Movement and the feminist movement.


Odon writes this article to acknowledge the efforts of Nikki Giovanni and black female poets like her to stake a claim in the Black Arts Movement. These poets aim to bring awareness to the lack of inclusion of black women and the need for the black experience to include the black woman’s experience. I can agree with Odon’s desire to highlight poets like Giovanni. Women are often marginalized or ostracized without a second thought. Women were an afterthought. Most leads to any organization or group are men by design because they put themselves there. Women must work hard to be seen and acknowledged that not only do we exist, but we can do the work, too.

What is the black woman’s experience? Why is it discounted so easily? It is as if we are thought so little of, our experience is not definable. So, it is up to us to define it. Women are not just accessories to men. We have lives outside of taking care of the home and children. We have dreams and desires, all of which are relevant to the black experience. Odon’s selection of Giovanni’s poems supports her claims that men see us as sexual beings or our role in life is to be domesticated and that’s it. Poets like Giovanni are important because they can redefine black women’s role in the African American culture and be heard on a global scale. They can put it into words so people can understand and hopefully appreciate the importance of the black woman’s experience. They should include these experiences in the Black Arts Movements without having to make a derivative movement to be heard within the same cause.


Odon, Rochelle A. “‘[T]o Fight the Fight I’m Fighting’: The Voice of Nikki Giovanni and the Black Arts Movement.” The Langston Hughes Review, vol. 22, 2008, pp. 36–42.

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