Yolanda Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 7, 1943. She was the daughter of Jones “Gus” Giovanni and Yolande Cornelia Giovanni (née Watson). Raised in Woodlawn, Ohio, north of Cincinnati, Giovanni was the youngest of two daughters. Her older sister, Gary Ann, began to call Giovanni “Nikki” during childhood. In 1960, Giovanni enrolled at Fisk University. She was dismissed after her first semester for failing to conform to the university’s conservative standards. Giovanni returned to Fisk four years later and participated in the Fisk Writing Workshops directed by then writer-in-residence John Oliver Killens. Giovanni also restored Fisk’s chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She graduated magna cum laude in February 1967 with BA in history. Before taking graduate courses at the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia, Giovanni organized the Black Arts Festival in Cincinnati. From 1967 to 1968, she studied social work at the University of Pennsylvania. Giovanni then enrolled in an MFA program at Columbia in 1969.
In her early work, Giovanni expressed the militant themes of the Black Arts Movement. These themes are especially apparent in her first two volumes, Black Feeling, Black Talk (Harper Perennial, 1968) and Black Judgment (Broadside Press, 1969), in which the poem “Nikki-Rosa” first appeared. A year later, she published her third volume Re: Creation (Broadside Press, 1970), which includes the classic poem, “Ego-Tripping.” Also in 1970, Giovanni privately published Night Comes Softly (Medic Press), one of the earliest anthologies of Black women’s poetry.
Giovanni is the author of eleven illustrated children books, in addition to her poetry collections. Her books include A Library (Versify, 2022); A Good Cry: What We Learn From Tears and Laughter (William Morrow, 2017); Chasing Utopia: A Hybrid (William Morrow, 2013); Bicycles: Love Poems (William Morrow, 2009); and Acolytes (HarperCollins, 2007), among others. A lung cancer survivor, Giovanni also contributed an introduction to the anthology Breaking the Silence: Inspirational Stories of Black Cancer Survivors (Hilton Publishing, 2005).
Giovanni’s honors include the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Award for Dedication and Commitment to Service in 2009, seven NAACP Image Awards for Literature, the Langston Hughes award for Distinguished Contributions to Arts and Letters in 1996, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1970, as well as thirty honorary degrees from national colleges and universities. She has been given keys to more than a dozen cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Miami, and New Orleans.
Several magazines have named Giovanni Woman of the Year, including Essence, Mademoiselle, Ebony, and Ladies Home Journal. She was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Woman of Courage Award. She has served as poetry judge for the National Book Awards and was a finalist for a Grammy Award in the category of Spoken Word.
In 1969, Giovanni accepted a teaching position at Rutgers University. From 1987 to 2022, Giovanni taught at Virginia Tech. In 1999, she was named a University Distinguished Professor.