Nikki Giovanni’s Busboys

Posted on January 12, 2011


I absolutely love Busboys & Poets.

It’s an incredible local gathering spot with a name inspired by poet Langston Hughes, who’d worked as a busboy prior to becoming an internationally renowned poet back in the 1930s. It’s also one of the best cultural venues in the District of Columbia, with splendid food, a stylish environment, and many stunning guests who visitors can see & hear free of charge.

Last night, the guest was famed poet and activist Nikki Giovanni. She is known for her early literature released during the Black Arts Movement, most of which was reflective of (and helped drive) the intense fight for basic human rights during that era. But she’s also known for her contribution to Black thought in subsequent decades during which she wrote extensively and even secured a professorship at Virginia Tech. More recently, Giovanni’s work has ranged from a clear appreciation for the poetic integrity of the hip hop musical genre and the publication of children’s books to recording spoken word pieces and speaking out on the American political climate of the 21st century. The venue (Busboys’ location on 5th and K) was thoroughly packed and almost impossible to navigate. A friend who’d arrived an hour-and-a-half prior to the start of Giovanni’s set had called me and said the restaurant was packed with people even then. We’re talking a Tuesday evening just preceding rush hour, folks! I’d thought everyone else would just be getting off the clock like me, but it appears many probably decided to leave work early for this treat. Nevertheless, I and two additional friends eventually made it inside, got seats, and breathed in the exhilarating atmosphere.

The poet stood in the corner of the locale for about an hour and mesmerized onlookers with a combination of remarks about her experiences, works of poetry from her new edited compilation, and answers to audience questions. For me, several things were memorable about last night. One was Giovanni’s deft ability to deal with historical context. She spoke of her childhood experience of traveling by rail with her sister to the southern region of the United States, where her grandparents had lived, and how well she and her sister had been treated by the Pullman Porters who worked on the trains. Their care, to our wordsmith, reflected the sense of community Black people enjoyed at the time and the mutual responsibility expressed in the gentlemens’ assurance that nothing bad would happen to she and her sibling. Giovanni also mentioned something I hadn’t previously known: that Pullman Porters had been responsible for transporting financial contributions to the NAACP and other civil rights organizations from Black people in one part of the country to the other, a powerful and effective transaction that many of that day would have loved to disrupt had they been aware of its existence.

Her reading of a relatively extensive poem about a prisoner who’d wanted his congressman to build a neighborhood playground for his daughter was striking. Giovanni is outspoken on the disparity between how the prison industrial complex affects some criminals (i.e. “thugs”) verses others (i.e. crooked Wall Street executives).

Finally, her remarks about the Middle Passage and the very real experiences of captives who’d found themselves in the middle of the dark ocean with no land in sight, searching for ways to garner hope, were poignant. Some of us who are descendants of those¬† enslaved folks who had a remarkable will to survive in the midst of complete horror seldom sit and meditate on what life must have been like for them. Giovanni helped bring this to light.

Before navigating our way home in the fresh falling snow we sat down for the great eats Busboys is known for and even got books signed by Nikki Giovanni, who was very gracious. Her energy, mental sharpness, and kindness were refreshing to those of us who were there; it was genuinely gratifying being in the presence of a cultural virtuoso we’d been admiring our entire lives.

I’m truly grateful for another fabulous workweek outing.