20 pages 40 minutes read

Nikki Giovanni

Walking Down Park

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1996

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Summary and Study Guide


“Walking Down Park” appears in The Collected Poems of Nikki Giovanni, 1968-1999 (William Morrow, 2003). Like many of Nikki Giovanni’s poems, it explores the experience of America through an African American lens. In the poem, the speaker is walking in a New York City park and asks the reader if they wonder what the land was like before colonization. Then she asks if they ever see trees and animals instead of Times Square. The poem depicts a world in which people live in greater harmony with nature and one another. Giovanni’s poems often uphold a positive attitude, a love for herself and for her heritage, and a call to others to love African American life. Giovanni’s charisma, imagination, and literary quality have made her a beloved figure in the civil rights movement, the Black Arts Movement, and to poets worldwide.

Poet Biography

Nikki Giovanni was born Yolanda Cornelia Giovanni on June 7, 1943, in Knoxville, Tennessee. She describes her father, Gus, as “crazy” but says her mother was “happy with him.” She grew up the youngest of five children in both Knoxville and Cincinnati, Ohio. She spent significant time living with her grandmother and learned how to cook traditional southern food.

In the 1960s, Giovanni studied history at Fisk University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. There she became committed to the Civil Rights Movement. Giovanni rose to prominence as a leader of the Black Arts Movement with her self-published first book, Black Feeling, Black Talk (Harper Perennial, 1968). She went on to publish over two dozen collections with other publishers, including The New York Times.

Giovanni has also published books for young people and recordings. Her poetry album, The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection (Caedmon, 2002), was nominated for a Grammy Award. She has been given multiple awards including 27 honorary degrees and the key to over two dozen cities.

Oprah Winfrey has called her a living legend. She was honored with the NAACP Image Award seven times. She even has a South American bat named after her—the micronycteris giovanniae.

Giovanni has remained a proud member of the Appalachian community and is a noted member of a group of writers who termed themselves “Affrilachian” to highlight the Black experience in the region. In her lifetime, she taught at Queens College, Rutgers, Ohio State, and Virginia Tech, where she was a distinguished professor.

Poem Text

Giovanni, Nikki. “Walking Down Park.” 2003. Poetry Foundation.


The poem begins with a reference to three avenues, “park / amsterdam / or columbus” (Lines 1-3), setting the poem in the city of New York. The speaker asks readers directly, “do you ever stop / to think what it looked like / before it was an avenue” (Lines 3-5), by which she means what life was like before Europeans colonized the Americas.

She queries readers again in Lines 6-10, asking if readers ever think about what the world was like before advanced technology and economies rose. Then the speaker references the history of slavery and her own heritage as an African American woman, writing,

(we can’t be on
the stock exchange   
we are the stock   
exchanged) (Lines 10-13).

Lines 14-18 reference nature. The speaker asks readers if they wonder what what nature was like when it was wild, not roped off as it is in modern-day Central Park. The speaker expresses disdain for the modern use of the natural world, writing that dogs and humans “fertilize” (Line 21) sidewalks.

The next line poses a contrast, asking,

ever want to know what would happen
if your life could be fertilized
by a love thought   
from a loved one
who loves you (Lines 23-27).

The poem shifts from imagining what the world was like before colonization to imagining life in the present tense. Presumably, this is an alternate reality, one where people and animals are kinder to one another. The trees are “touching hands” (Line 32), and the “gazelles run[…] playfully / after the lions” (Lines 33-34). In this world, prey runs after predator, and people “hear the antelope bark / from the third floor apartment” (Lines 35-36).

In the next stanza, the speaker introduces a more abstract concept, asking “ever, did you ever, sit down / and wonder about what freedom’s freedom / would bring” (Lines 37-39). The speaker then gives readers guidance on how to free themselves, acknowledging that this freedom starts with loving oneself.

Next, the speaker returns to her current reality, asking, why was “so much asphalt […] laid” (Line 46) over the grass? She speculates it was done intentionally so people would “forget / the Iroquois, Algonquin / and Mohicans” (Lines 48-50)—all names of Indigenous tribes.

In the closing stanzas, the speaker again invites readers to imagine a life where nature had been allowed to grow, unchanged by humans. She references plants and animals to underscore what growth might look like, such as parrots parroting “black is beautiful” (Line 56) repeatedly. Then she addresses readers once more, saying, “me and you just sitting in the sun trying / to find a way to get a banana tree from one of the monkeys” (Lines 58-59).

The last question, “ever think its possible / for us to be / happy” (Lines 61-63), sums up the speaker’s overall point.