17 pages 34 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni

Poem For A Lady Whose Voice I Like

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


“Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like” is written by Nikki Giovanni and published in The Selected Poems of Nikki Giovanni (1996). Giovanni was a prominent voice in the Black Arts Movement in the 1970s, and she continued to gain notoriety as a poet and spoken word artist long after the Black Arts Movement waned in popularity. The poem is a dialogue between a man telling a woman she isn’t so great and a woman who responds by retelling the story of Genesis, focusing on how God created good things to eat and took a woman from Adam’s rib. The poem champions a woman’s right to demonstrate self-esteem and to celebrate her own achievements and abilities. Like many of Giovanni’s poems, it deals with issues of race and gender, using humor to make a point.

Poet Biography

Nikki Giovanni is the pen name of Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni, who was born on June 7, 1943. She was named Yolanda after her mother and maintained that as her legal name until her mother passed away. She then had it legally changed to Nikki. Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee and raised partly in Cincinnati, Ohio. She divided her time between her parents and her grandmother, who taught her how to cook.

Giovanni began writing poetry early on and self-published her first book, Black Feeling, Black Talk, in 1968. She became a rising star in the Black Arts Movement and went on to publish more than two dozen collections. Her poems often deal with issues of race, gender, and equality, while focusing on celebrating African American culture, personal experience, and the power of the imagination to create a better world. In addition to being a poet, Giovanni has gained a reputation as being active in the civil rights movement.

Giovanni has created books for young people and recordings of her spoken poetry. Her album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Giovanni holds 27 honorary degrees and keys to over two dozen cities.

She has taught at Rutgers, Ohio State, and Queens College. She was a distinguished professor at Virginia Tech. After the Virginia Tech Shooting of April 16, 2007, she was asked to write a poem to help the faculty and students process their feelings about the massacre. She continues to be a force for change to this day.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Poem for a Lady Whose Voice I Like.” 1996. Poetry Foundation.


This poem presents a dialogue between a man and woman. He is criticizing the woman for being full of herself. The woman is defending herself. The title of the poem informs the reader that the speaker is siding with the female, because she likes her “voice.”

In the first line of dialogue, the man accuses the woman of having no talent. He says, “if you didn’t have a face / you wouldn’t be nobody” (Lines 2-3), meaning that she is getting attention based on her looks and not her work. The woman responds indirectly, referring to the Bible: “god created heaven and earth / and all that’s Black within them” (Lines 4-5). The capitalization of Black suggests a double meaning. It is all that is black, literally, but also all Black people.

Next the man says that she “ain’t really no hot shit” (Line 6), and “they tell me” (Line 7) that other women are better than she is. The man is trying to bulwark his claim, saying other people, the unspecified “they” (Line 7), are talking badly about the woman behind her back. He’s trying to hurt her feelings and undermine her reputation. She replies in an indirect way again. Instead of responding to his specific accusation, she says, “on the third day he made chitterlings / and all good things to eat” (Lines 9-10). Again, she uses biblical language to tell a story about creation that is positive. This counteracts his negativity without addressing it directly.

Next, he accuses the lady of gaining popularity because “white folks” (Line 12) had been “under / [her] skirt” (Lines 12-13) and giving her “the big play” (Line 13). She replies that God:

took a big Black greasy rib
from adam and said we will call this woeman and her
name will be sapphire and she will divide into four parts
that simone may sing a song (Lines 15-18).

Simone is likely Nina Simone, a famous African American singer and civil rights activist. The song she alludes to is “Four Women,” a song about the stereotypes that women fall into. The woman brings up another Black woman artist to elevate the place of women in the cannon of creators, and to make the point that diverse kinds of women belong in that category. The poem goes out of its way to include diverse types of people rather than dividing or excluding them.

Finally, the man says, “you pretty full of yourself ain’t chu” (Line 19), and “she replie[s]: show me someone not full of herself / and i’ll show you a hungry person” (Lines 20-21). The woman in the dialogue turns that colloquialism on its head. The man is telling the woman there’s something wrong with being “full of herself” (Line 19), but the woman makes the point that if you are not “full” of yourself you are “hungry” (Line 21). In other words, it is healthy to be nourished by self-esteem. This is the first time in the dialogue the woman answers the man directly instead of speaking in biblical terms.