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Nikki Giovanni

Knoxville, Tennessee

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1968

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Summary and Study Guide


One of Nikki Giovanni's best known and most anthologized poems, "Knoxville, Tennessee'' (originally published in 1968) recalls the memories of a little girl's childhood. Giovanni shapes these memories in free verse, using a simple, almost conversational tone. Describing a young Black girl's family life and the importance of spiritual community for herself and those around her, Giovanni rhythmically uses the cadence of spoken language to mimic the freedom and jouncing thought-patterns of a child at play in the summer. In this way, the poem seems to foreshadow the children's writings Giovanni produced after the birth of her son in 1969. The poem was reprinted as a single, child-friendly volume in 1994, with reproductions of paintings by Larry Johnson complementing the poem's settings and themes.

"Knoxville, Tennessee'' was initially included in Giovanni's first volume of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968). At this stage of her career, she was primarily associated with Black Arts Movement; she remains a highly regarded and influential figure from that period in the early 2020s. As an activist and educator as well as a poet, her early works—most notably the poems collected in Black Feeling, Black Talk / Black Judgement (1970) which combines her first and (Black Feeling, Black Talk, 1968) and second (Black Judgment, 1968) poetry collections into a single volume—spoke to the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1960s as well as the Black Power Movement. The core message of "Knoxville, Tennessee" is about sharing in a sense of Black solidarity: a radical sense of kinship that starts at home, then spreads to more public regions of the world.

Poet Biography

Yolande Cornelia "Nikki" Giovanni Jr. was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. Soon after she was born, her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she spent her childhood. Giovanni's higher education began at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where she received a B.A. in history. She studied at the University of Pennsylvania—though she did not complete her degree here—and then at Columbia University in New York, where she worked toward but did not complete an M.F.A..

It was during this time in New York that Giovanni came into her own as a major poetic voice. Inspired by the volatile political climate of the 1960s, Giovanni's first poetry collection Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968) explored Black identity amid the burgeoning civil rights movement. Black Feeling, Black Talk and her second book Black Judgement (1968) remain celebrated for their emotional directness as well as the way they articulate the African American experience. These early books, especially Black Feeling, Black Talk, sold very well. During this period, Giovanni gave readings to thronging audiences keen to listen to the words of her highly politicized poetic voice. It was also during this period that she edited Night Comes Softly (1970)—an anthology of poetry by Black women.

Through the 1970s and into contemporary times (2020s), Giovanni has gradually moved past the "militancy" associated with her early work without abandoning any of the principles specific to the Black Arts Movement. In 1969, she gave birth to a son—an event which inspired her to write books for children. Spin a Soft Black Song (1971) and Ego-Tripping and Other Poems For Young People (1973) are two early works in this vein. As always, the celebration of the Black experience remained central to her work; however, she applied this perspective to Black children and how they related to the world. While written with children in mind, children and adults alike have expressed admiration for this section of Giovanni's writings.

Giovanni has been awarded the Langston Hughes Medal and the NAACP Image Award, among other honors. As a spoken word artist, she was nominated for a Grammy Award for her poetry album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection (2003). She has taught at Queens College, Rutgers, and Ohio State, and is currently a Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Knoxville, Tennessee.” 1968. Poets.org.


The poem recounts a specific season—summer—and the myriad activities in which the speaker engages throughout the course of this season. For the speaker, summer is filled with positive associations of warmth, good foods to eat, and community. Importantly, “Knoxville, Tennessee'' doesn't describe a single summer. The activities described in the poem (eating, walking, the sensation of companionship with the speaker’s grandmother, the spiritual bonds formed by the church) compress a number of summers into themselves. While the poem’s title firmly roots it in a specific location—Knoxville, Tennessee—one could assume the events occurring in the poem are condensations of things that would routinely happen over an indefinite course of years.

The way the poem develops through different activities (eating, walking, listening to gospel music, hiking barefoot through the mountains) while also referring to the warmth of familial companionship, makes the events unfolding in the poem universal, and, in a certain respect, timeless. The poem places emphasis on the familial structure of church-going Black families; yet the people inhabiting “Knoxville, Tennessee'' stand out as representatives of values that transcend the conscience of the age of Jim Crow. If one reads the poem as autobiographical, Giovanni is recounting a tranquil memory specifically rooted in the Black experience and Black modes of expression. These foundational experiences deeply affect not only the poem’s speaker, but Black people at large—especially the denizens referenced in “Knoxville, Tennessee.” At the same time, the warmth and intimacy that pervades the events detailed in the poem makes it accessible to all readers, regardless of their racial or location-based identity.