unveiled of a historical marker honoring award-winning writer and Knoxville native, Nikki Giovanni on Tuesday, April 29, 2008 on Hall of Fame Drive across the street from the Cal Johnson Recreation Center.
Giovanni was born in Knoxville in 1943 and, though she moved to Cincinnati as a child, she returned to spend her summers in Knoxville with her grandparents, John and Louvenia Watson. She also lived here for a time when she attended Austin High School.
Her grandparents' home stood at 400 Mulvaney Street in a neighborhood that's long since been demolished but that will always live on in the minds and hearts of the people who lived in it.
The following poem was read by Nikki Giovanni at the event:
TENNESSEE BY BIRTH
April 29, 2008
I'm a native Tennessean. I was born there. During the age of segregation. When you couldn't go to the same amusement park. Or the same move theatre. When the white guys would cruise up and down the streets and call out to you. When the black guys were afraid of being lynched. But we went to church each Sunday. And we sang a precious song. And we found a way not to survive. Anything can survive. But to thrive. And believe. And hope.
I'm a native Tennessean. I was born there. But I was only two months old when my mother and father moved my sister and me to Cincinnati. During the age of segregation. When Dow Drugstore wouldn't serve us. When neighborhoods were red lined. But at least Mommy could get a job teaching. And Daddy could get a job behind a desk. And after all if you are a college graduate that is the least you can expect. Though the Pullman Porters took us South each summer. And watched over us with an unfailing faith. And got us from there and here.
I'm from Knoxville. I was born there. In the only state in rebellion that didn't have to undergo Reconstruction. In the Volunteer State that sent as many for one side as another. In an area where if I just have to have a car breakdown I would prefer any holler to any city neighborhood. But there was no work. And no way. And the “chronic angers” that flared would chase us to Ohio. We were not Liza crossing the river. Just four people… two in love and two who were loved… who needed to put to rest the rage.
But the rage stayed. And someone had to go. I chose me. But I was born there. So the going was a coming. I am a native Tennessean.
I take no joy in Davy Crockett. Nor Jim Bowie. They were wrong to be at the Alamo. They were wrong to fight for the theft. I love James Agee. I loved Thunder Road though I, a native Tennessean, was not allowed to play a bit part when the crew came to town to film the movie. Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn came to take A Walk In The Spring Rain. And despite it all I like Andrew Jackson. At least he knew the big guys were wrong.
I'm a native Tennessean. I graduated Fisk University in Nashville. I know that the Freedmen paid for that school. Nobody gave them anything. Pennies and nickels and prayer and determination. The Freedmen paid for it. And many others. I know the American Missionary Society took the money The Jubilee Singers made to save Fisk and used it for other purposes. I know the American Missionary Society was wrong. I was educated by the singers of those songs. I love those songs. How could I not love Nashville? How could I not love Dinah Shore who invited The Jubilee Singers to sing at The Grand Ole Opry then had to hear the rumors. She sang on. Sang until she saw the USA in her Chevrolet. Ummmompt! I once saw her on a plane. I was going to the cabin. She was in first class. I said: “Hey.” She smiled and said “Hey” back.
When I got Georgia on my mind I rode the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to Lookout Mountain. I saw Memphis and was enchanted. From the mighty Mississippi Gracefully turning all red to Beale Street beats at midnight. All those blues from so many bloods. Decided to turn my blues to Memphis gold. W.C. Handy. Bobby Blue Bland. B.B. King. The late great Johnny Ace. Stax and stacks of music. American music. The Athens of the South held Tennessee music. But Memphis put the tears to the lonely. And crossed over. Everybody wants to rock to my rhythm. I am Memphis. I heard the shots that took Martin. I know who killed The King.
I'm a native Tennessean. I know what it is to be free. I am singing the country blues. I am whittling a wooden doll. I am underground mining coal. I am running moonshine. I am a white boy with a banjo. Native to west Africa. I am a black boy with a twang. Native to the hills. I am smart. I am cool. I am unafraid. I am free. Yeah. I am a native Tennessean.