Pickett and Giovanni sit in blue chairs on a stage
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Nikki Giovanni’s advice for a Pitt audience: Find your own path

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  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion

Nikki Giovanni’s career has included the printed page, television, vinyl records and digital downloads. But she still hasn’t cracked the appeal of social media.

“I never did understand social media,” she said Jan. 17 before a crowd of nearly 400 people at Pitt's Alumni Hall. “Social media makes you depressed. Because it lies to you.”

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other applications present a false picture of happiness and success, and reinforce societal standards of beauty, said Giovanni, a seven-time winner of the NAACP Image Award and Grammy nominee whose more than 30 books of poetry and prose have topped multiple bestseller lists.

The social media applications also feed the negative human impulse to tell other people what to do with their lives, from relationships to college decisions, she said.

“You can’t let other people take over your life,” said Giovanni, 79. “People will say, ‘Oh, but you’re making a mistake,’ but if you never make a mistake, that’s the biggest mistake of all, because you haven’t lived your life.”

Giovanni spoke as part of the University’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Social Justice Week at an event sponsored by the Office for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, the Office of Student Affairs and the University’s Year of Emotional Well-Being.

“Most of us are not going to have our dreams come true,” she said, “but we need to have dreams that keep us going.”

Most of us are not going to have our dreams come true, but we need to have dreams that keep us going.

Nikki Giovanni

A longtime activist for equality for women, Black Americans and people of color, Giovanni emerged as an influential voice for civil rights in the 1960s and since then has used her work to explore issues at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, society and politics. She recently retired as a distinguished professor of English at Virginia Tech.

Clyde Wilson Pickett, the University’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, served as moderator.

Before the event, Giovanni met with a small group of faculty and students, including members of Mu Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, who presented her with a statue of an elephant, the organization’s mascot. Following her remarks, Giovanni stayed to autograph books and records brought by attendees.

For the past few years, Giovanni has been one of the artists working with NASA administrators on works of poetry to be sent into space to be preserved on the moon and Mars.

Describing herself as “kind of a space freak,” she said she finds it ironic that humans spend so much time searching for lifeforms on other planets “when we don’t always recognize the lifeforms that are here on Earth — some of them right here in this room.”

The conversation was by turns funny, serious and highly discursive, and Giovanni, as expected, did not shy away from getting personal, including about her own struggles to access and express her emotions. She recounted suffering a seizure several years ago, and how her doctor — like many doctors treating Black patients, Giovanni pointed out — scolded her for allegedly eating “too much salt.”

“I said, no — I just have too many of my emotions locked in, and they’re finally coming out," Giovanni said, saying that she had to “teach myself to cry.”

Emotional wellness, she argued, includes giving yourself permission to be happy as well as cultivating true friendships. The simple advice to “love everybody” doesn’t work if someone is trying to love someone else who rejects them for who they are, she said.

Friends should be treated like wine, Giovanni said: “You don’t want cheap wine, and you don’t want cheap friends.”


— Jason Togyer