17 pages 34 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni


Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


“Quilts” is a free-verse lyric poem written by contemporary American poet Nikki Giovanni. She is an activist poet who writes about everything from civil rights to cooking. This poem is from her 2007 collection, Acolytes. Her poetic career started in 1968—by the publication of Acolytes, Giovanni was four decades into her prolific career as a writer of poetry, spoken word, essays, and children’s books.

Giovanni was a primary member of the Black Arts Movement, active from 1965-1975 in the United States. During this period, she wrote militant poems about race relations. Her work continued to have a revolutionary bent after this movement formally ended. The main focus of her work is “Black love, Black struggle, and Black joy,” Elizabeth A. Harris writes in The New York Times. She infuses much of her writing with tender images of craft used as figurative language to represent something else.

“Quilts” is a poem written later in her career and focuses on the experience of aging. It reflects how time wears all things down; it reminds us that old things are not useless, but their purpose can be adjusted or their essence recycled. Giovanni celebrates aging by turning negative terms about the usefulness of older people around to show that everyone and everything has a purpose.

Poet Biography

​​Nikki Giovanni was born in June 1943 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and grew up in Ohio. Her parents—Gus and Yolande Giovanni—worked at Glenview School. Though she was named Yolande Jr. after her mother, her older sister Gary Ann started to call her Nikki instead, and the nickname stuck. Giovanni had a happy childhood, and her mother encouraged her to daydream, read, and write creatively.

She graduated from high school early and attended Fisk University. While there, she was editor of the literary magazine, participated in the Fisk Writers Workshop, and reorganized the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She received a BA in history with honors in 1967. Afterward, Giovanni briefly pursued a master’s in social work at the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from Columbia University.

Her first volume of poetry, Black Feelings, Black Talk, was published shortly after departing Columbia in 1968. Giovanni gave birth to her only son Thomas Watson Giovanni in 1969. That same year, she started teaching poetry writing at Livingston College at Rutgers University and joined the Black Arts Movement.

In the 1970s and 80s, Giovanni continued her upward trend as a prominent American writer. She wrote several children’s books after the birth of her son, recorded spoken word records, continued to publish collections of poetry, and prominent magazines Ebony, Jet, and Harper’s Bazaar highlighted her role in the literary landscape. She also gave prolific lecture tours in the United States and Europe.

Giovanni started teaching poetry at Virginia Tech University in 1987 and is still part of their faculty today. Her partner of 30-some years—Virginia Fowler—recruited her to the English department and is the foremost expert on Giovanni’s writing.

In the 1990s, Giovanni published a nonfiction book on the work of Black intellectuals: Racism 101 (1994). She continued promoting the work of prominent Black writers—editing Shimmy Shimmy Shimmy Like My Sister Kate (1996)a compilation of Harlem Renaissance writers. Giovanni completed these projects while experiencing lung cancer. The 1999 poetry volume Blues: For All the Changes chronicles this period of her life.

Nikki Giovanni gained further nationwide prominence for her commemoration speech the day after the mass shooting at Virginia Tech in April 2007. She had taught the shooter and had him removed from her poetry class in 2005 because he was “mean” and “menacing.” Her collection Acolytes came out earlier in 2007, so the shooting bears no influence on the poems. However, Giovanni’s brilliant and indefatigable spirit is present in this collection and in her speech.

Currently in her late seventies, Giovanni lectures in person at Virginia Tech and published her 19th volume of poetry in 2020. Her impressive career includes countless awards and accolades that could fill half this guide. Among these honors is the scientific name for an Ecuadorian Big-Eared Bat: Micronycteris giovanniae.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Quilts.” 2007. Acolytes.


“Quilts” is a poem concerned with artistic craft and how it changes over the course of a lifetime. It is dedicated to Sally Sellers, a textile artist from Canada who specializes in quilt work. Brightly colored cloth and beadwork in symbolic shapes comprise her quilts. If Sellers’s quilts could represent a human life, they would represent a vibrant one. Nikki Giovanni wants her poem to convey the vibrance of these quilts; she does this by embracing a simile of how quilts are traditionally made: from recycling old fabric.

The poem is told from the perspective of a speaker who feels like a “fading piece of cloth” (Line 1), embraces the image of herself as the cloth, and considers its uses over time. Likewise, the language used echoes the challenges of aging. This cloth remembers when it was new and laments that it no longer holds together the same way. The cloth considers the purpose for which it was created and wonders what will happen when time renders it obsolete. As a plea, the cloth asks that a quilter will save part of its form and add it to a quilt, so that it may have a new life. The extended simile of the fading cloth parallels the common misconception that older adults lose their usefulness over time. With this figurative language, Giovanni challenges the reader to redefine how society perceives aging.