18 pages 36 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1968

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Summary and Study Guide


Nikki Giovanni is the author of “Dreams.” She published the poem in 1968 as a part of her second collection of poems, Black Judgement. Giovanni was a part of the Black Arts Movement. As the name of the movement and Giovanni’s first book implies, much of Giovanni’s work revolves around examining the many layers of Black individuality, and “Dreams” is no different.

A lyrical and somewhat confessional poem, “Dreams” shows how a Black woman manages to set aside her dreams of stardom and create an inspiring existence as a mature, sensible adult. The poem sends the message that a person doesn’t have to occupy the spotlight to empower others. Yet Giovanni is a well-known poet, and she occupies the literary spotlight.

Giovanni has published a prodigious amount of work—poetry collections, prose, and children’s books—and she releases music and spoken word records. She’s earned countless honors and citations: She’s won seven NAACP Image Awards; in 2005, Oprah Winfrey named her one of the 25 Living Legends; and in 2017, she won the Maya Angelou Lifetime Achievement Award.

Poet Biography

Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on August 3, 1943. Her birth name was Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Jr., but her big sister, Gary Ann, called her Nikki for unknown reasons, and the name stuck. The same year, Giovanni’s family moved to Ohio, and her parents secured jobs as teachers. The Giovanni household listened to all kinds of music—gospel, opera, jazz, R&B—on the radio, but the parents fought. As a teen, Giovanni returned to Tennessee to live with her grandparents. She studied history at Fisk University and creative writing at Columbia University. In 1969, she had her first and only child, Thomas. Giovanni lives with the English professor Virginia Fowler. They’ve been together for 30 years.

While Giovanni was at Columbia University, she published her first book of poems, Black Feeling Black Talk. That same year, 1968, she published her second collection of poems, Black Judgement. The book features some of Giovanni’s most well-known poems, including “Knoxville, Tennessee,” “Nikki-Rosa,” and “Dreams.” She engaged with poets like Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka, and she became a key figure in the Black Arts Movement—an artistic community that encouraged Black artists to express themselves with abandon and without concern for how white audiences might judge them.

Giovanni has expressed herself prolifically. She’s published 19 collections of poetry, 8 nonfiction works, 12 books for kids, and 10 spoken word recordings. In 2004, her album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection was nominated for a Grammy. One year later, Oprah Winfrey included Giovanni on a list of 25 Living Legends. For 35 years, Giovanni taught English at Virginia Tech University, and after the mass shooting on April 16, 2007, Giovanni read a poem, “We Are Virginia Tech,” at the convocation for the tragedy.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Dreams.” 1968. Poetry Foundation.


The speaker goes back to when she was young, and before she “learned / black people aren’t / suppose to dream” (Lines 2-4) or have hopes for a bright future. The speaker wanted to be a singer. Specifically, she dreamed of being a part of the Raelettes—a girl group that provided the vocals to songs by the R&B musician Ray Charles. The speaker imagines singing Ray Charles songs. The lyrics “dr o wn d in my youn tears” (Line 7) come from his song “Drown in My Own Tears” (1955), and the lyrics “tal kin bout tal kin bout” (Line 8) are from Charles’s “Talkin’ Bout You” (1957).

The speaker imagines herself as a specific member, Marjorie Hendricks. Like the founding member of the Raelettes, the speaker sees herself “grind / all up against the mic / and scream” (Lines 9-11). The lyrics “baaaaaby nightandday /baaaaaby nightandday” (Lines 12-13) come from Charles’s song “The Right Time” (1958), and Hendricks sings the lyrics with passion.

As the speaker grows up, she realizes she doesn’t have to be a member of the Raelettes or, more generally, a famous entertainer. She becomes “more sensible” (Line 15) or practical, choosing to be “a sweet inspiration” (Line 19)—someone not famous but empowering and worthy of emulation.