18 pages 36 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1972

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Summary and Study Guide


Black American poet Nikki Giovanni wrote the poem “Mothers” in 1972; it appears in the collection My House. “Mothers” is written in six stanzas of unrhymed free verse. Written in the early years of a rich and prolific career spanning multiple forms of media, “Mothers” considers motherhood and parent/child relationships through a shifting lens including the speaker’s observations from both the childhood and adult experiences. The poem stresses the significance of intergenerational bonds by drawing a thread through mother, daughter, and grandchild. At the same time, the poem offers strong individual portraits of both the speaker and her mother. The poem describes the first time the speaker sees her mother as an individual, distinct from the speaker herself and larger than the singular role as mother. Quietly, the poet reminds the reader that motherhood, weighted in responsibility, can yet be a source for beauty and joy.

Poet Biography

Yolande Cornelia “Nikki” Giovanni, Jr., was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, June 7, 1943. Soon after her birth, her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. She and her sister kept close ties to their grandparents in Knoxville, where Giovanni returned at 15 to attend Austin High School. She entered her grandfather’s alma mater, Fisk University—a historically Black university in Nashville, Tennessee—on an early entrant program. Expelled by the Dean of Women for leaving the campus without permission for Thanksgiving break, Giovanni was encouraged by the subsequent Dean of Women to return to Fisk. Giovanni reinstated the university chapter of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), edited Élan—the student literary journal—and graduated with honors with a B.A. in history.

Giovanni’s grandmother, Louvenia Watson, died shortly after graduation. A “storyteller,” according to Giovanni, Watson’s deep influence is evident in the poet’s 1968 collection, Black Feelings, Black Talk, privately published when Giovanni was in New York attending Columbia University School of the Arts’ MFA program.

Though her early poetry was dubbed “militant” and politically “naïve” by some, Giovanni enjoyed wild, early success, establishing herself as a rare best-selling poet. Black Feeling, Black Talk sold over 10,000 copies in its first year, 10 times more than what was considered a “successful” run for a book of poems. Her first public reading at Birdland, a famous New York City jazz club, sold out.

A prominent member of the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s, Giovanni supported and continues to support other artists and the Black community through her initiative of and involvement in television—publishing, spoken word, audio arts, and teaching. She was the first recipient of the Rosa Parks Women of Courage Award, and is seven-time recipient of the NAACP Image Award. Giovanni holds dozens of honorary degrees, has been nominated Woman of the Year by multiple sources, and is a Grammy Award nominee. Editor, publisher, recording artist, and author of 28 books, Giovanni was a finalist for the National Book Award for Gemini (1973). She is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Mothers.” 1972. The Poetry Foundation.


The first stanza of “Mothers” starts from a memory: “the last time i was home” (Line 1). The second line tells the reader the purpose of the trip, which is to see the speaker’s mother (Line 2). The opening, six-line stanza describes a quiet scene in one continuous phrase, wrapping speaker and mother in a “comfortable silence” (Line 5) in which they can be together in one place, but can each sit with their own private thoughts and “separate books” (Line 6).

In the second stanza, the speaker takes the reader back in time to “the first time / i consciously saw” (Line 7-8) her mother. It’s another home than the one first mentioned: a “three room / apartment” (Lines 9-10). The speaker tells the reader her* mother “always sat in the dark” (Line 11), although she doesn’t know or can’t remember why.

The speaker remembers herself as a child getting up from bed at night and going to the kitchen, where she sees her mother “sitting on a chair” (Line 17). The scene is “bathed in moonlight” (Line 18). The speaker can’t remember whether or not her mother had “been smoking” (Line 21), but clearly recalls her mother’s long black hair, which the speaker compares to the “samson myth” (Line 23), the Biblical story of a man whose tremendous strength comes from his long hair. The speaker says, “i remember thinking: what a beautiful lady” (Line 26). The memory indicates perhaps the first time the speaker saw and considered her mother as a person separate from herself.

The speaker is sure her mother is “deliberately waiting” (Line 27), but whether it’s for the speaker’s father or “maybe for a dream” (Line 29), the speaker isn’t sure. The mother beckons the child and offers to “teach [her] / a poem” (Lines 31-32) about the moon.

The speaker is once again speaking as an adult when she says, “i taught [the same poem] to my son” (Line 36), who “recited it” (Line 37) for his maternal grandmother. In the final lines of the poem, the speaker expresses a desire to feel and share “the pleasures” (Line 39) of motherhood as well as “the pains” (Line 40). This desire comes from the understanding and empathy she feels for her mother, via her own experience as a mother.

(*In this summary, the speaker is identified by the pronouns she and her, although the poet does not, in fact, indicate the gender of the speaker through the use of these pronouns, but suggests gender through the plural “Mothers” of the title).