The University Record, January 25, 1999

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.

Giovanni tells students to ‘sail on’

By Bernard DeGroat
News and Information Services

Like a young Christopher Columbus more than 500 years ago, today’s college students must sail their own uncharted waters, despite the cynicism of others and their own fears of failure—or, in Columbus’ case, the prospect of literally falling off the face of the Earth.

And, like a courageous and determined Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ’60s, young people must stand up for what they believe in, continuing the fight for civil rights and equality, even in the face of great odds and physical danger—or, in King’s case, the reality of losing his life because of his beliefs.

Renowned poet, author, activist and educator Nikki Giovanni, the keynote speaker at the University’s 12th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium last Monday, implored the audience to do something different with their lives—much like Columbus and King—to rise above negative social constraints, to strive for a better world in the 21st century.

“I’m a big fan of Christopher Columbus,” Giovanni said. “I know that people have problems with Columbus, but I don’t. Columbus would rather have fallen off the Earth than to have turned around. He said, ‘I might not get to where I’m going, but I’m not going back to where I’ve been.’ And we applaud him for that. Christopher Columbus sailed on.

“And it really was sort of like Martin. When he sailed on to Montgomery and they won the bus boycott, everybody said, ‘Now you’re going back, aren’t you, and preach that same old gospel that you’ve been preaching and nothing will have changed other than Black people can get on the bus?’ And Martin said, ‘No, I think I’ll sail on.’ ”

One of America’s most controversial and outspoken poets since the 1960s, Giovanni remains a strong and forceful voice for African Americans through her colorful and combative poems and prose. Her exuberance and humor shone through as she addressed the near-capacity crowd at Hill Auditorium.

From singing the praises of the U-M basketball team and late rapper Tupac Shakur and talking longingly about venturing into outer space, to berating critics of President Clinton and denouncing former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Giovanni captivated the MLK Day audience.

She criticized conservative Black Americans’ indifference to civil rights violations suffered by gay and lesbian people—injustices much like those endured by past and present generations of African Americans.

“What’s the difference between dragging a Black man behind a truck in Jasper, Texas, and beating a white boy to death in Wyoming because he’s gay?” Giovanni asked. “Everybody wants to make that understandable. Well, it’s not understandable.”

Giovanni said that the younger generations of today must build on the civil rights advances made through the sacrifices and struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. She spoke of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a Black youth killed by whites in Mississippi in 1955. She described Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white person on a Montgomery, Ala., bus in 1955, and recounted the lunch counter sit-in movement begun by four college students in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960.

“Everybody wants to say ‘Oh, Rosa Parks’ feet were tired,’” Giovanni said. “Rosa’s feet weren’t tired. Her soul was tired. The bus driver said, ‘Make it easy on yourself.’ She said, ‘I can’t. I can not.’ He said, ‘I have to arrest you.’ She said, ‘You have to do what you have to do, but I shall not be moved.’”

The 55-year-old Giovanni said that her generation knew it was time to take direct action and it did. Although civil rights pioneers of the past have helped pave the way for those who followed, today’s younger generations must be willing to carry on, much like America’s first African Americans, who were brought here in 1619.

“We stand on the shoulders of the people who came before,” she said. “They could have committed suicide, they could have jumped into the river, they could have tried to swim back to the Caribbean. They could have done that, but they decided they would live on, that they would see, in the words of the old Blues song, what tomorrow brings. Tomorrow brought some heartache, but they lived on.

“And you, in this next century, must continue to go on, whether the road is dark, whether you are confused. You must continue to try to go toward that horizon where you cannot see the end, where you do not know . . . if something will gobble you up. Certainly you have every right to be afraid. It’s a vicious world out there,” Giovanni said.

“It’s your life, but you’ve got to do something with it. You might fall off the Earth, somebody might find the end of the Earth, you might fall. But if you don’t, you will have gone to a place few people have seen. You will have found something new. We can’t be cowards, we can’t kowtow, we can’t bend over because we’re afraid of what somebody will say or what somebody will do. All of you have the possibility to do something different and something better. You must sail on.”