Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Unlikely Ambassador" - by Beth Macy

Roanoke Times, The (VA)-August 19, 2007

The night of April 16, the poet sat staring at her computer.

She wanted to write a great poem, a message that would weave in
springtime in Appalachia and make the Virginia Tech community feel
whole again.

She wrote "We are Virginia Tech" in a single sitting. It was
sparse, simple, repetitive -- just 258 words.

When she read it back to herself that night, Nikki Giovanni
found it pedestrian. Not the symphonic elegy she had hoped for. She showed
it to no one, hoping inspiration might strike in the morning.

The next day came, but the words didn't. Had she been a student
in one of her own writing workshops, she might have snapped: "Ms.
Giovanni, I'm not finding a suitable metaphor here."

She didn't feel like her usual brave, vocal self. She felt

It didn't occur to Giovanni that what she had to say would soon
appear on T-shirts and billboards across the nation, as emblematic of
the Virginia Tech shootings as the self-portraits of Seung-Hui Cho
pointing his gun.

But Giovanni's words and her surging, passionate delivery of
them that afternoon gave people permission to grieve and to go on. And
they did something even more unlikely: They made the radical, outspoken
activist the voice of the conservative university.

Interviewed countless times since April 16, Giovanni, 64, isn't
through speaking yet -- about her former student Cho, about the
shootings, about the responsibility she and others have to keep asking the
question: What might we have done differently?

'I know who did this'

Even in her trademark suit and man's tie, the university
distinguished professor seems softer now. She still has her platinum-dyed
hair. She still has "Thug Life" tattooed on her arm in memory of Tupac

But Giovanni seems almost vulnerable, like someone who's spent
a lot of time under police protection, which in fact she has.

People are tense at Tech, she said, especially in the English
department, where some professors' lives were threatened in the wake of
the shootings. Giovanni herself wasn't released from police watch until
early July.

"I go into the bathroom, and I listen first to see who might be
in there," she said. When someone emerges from the stairwell near her
corner office at Tech, she listens to make sure the footsteps
continue on down the hall.

Though she normally takes the summer off, Giovanni regularly
went to her office this summer -- to be with her colleagues, to reaffirm
to herself that this was her place and her home. Not something that
Seung-Hui Cho could forever spoil.

It's been four months since her former student killed 32
students and faculty and himself, and people still stop to hug her in Kroger.
She finds herself standing in front of the Bing cherries with tears in
her eyes.

"People forget; it hasn't been very long," she said during a
July interview in her office, amid posters of Tupac, Bob Marley and
herself. "It's still incredibly sad.

"Right now we're still in the one-foot-in-front-of-the-other
mode. We're all still holding each other up."

She was in transit when the shooting began, having begged her
way onto the red-eye from San Francisco after a speaking gig. She
didn't hear about the rampage until her plane landed in Roanoke at 11 a.m.,
when a young woman sitting nearby checked her phone. "My God, there's
been a shooting at Virginia Tech," she said. An airport TV confirmed
that 21 were dead.

Driving to Blacksburg, Giovanni flipped her radio dial,
searching for news, but she could only find music. It reminded her of being in
Africa during a political coup, when the government radio switches to
music. "It was the worst feeling, it really was. ... It felt worse
than 9/11 to me."

A media truck from Roanoke flew past her on the interstate, and
eventually she found a newscast. The number of dead kept growing.

Somewhere on Christiansburg Mountain, it hit her:

We are Virginia Tech, and we are sad.

At home, she juggled three phone lines the rest of the
afternoon: friends calling to check on her, Larry King's people wanting an
interview, Paula Zahn's people wanting a quote. The victim toll kept

When Virginia Fowler, her longtime partner and fellow English
professor, arrived home later that day, police still hadn't identified
or described the shooter. But Giovanni didn't need them to.

"Ginney, I know who did this," she said.

'An evil presence'

By now, the creative writing workshop story is legend: Troubled
student refuses to participate, intimidates others and is removed from
class. English department chairwoman tutors him instead.

For the first half of Giovanni's fall 2005 semester, Seung-Hui
Cho came to class with an attitude that said: Leave me alone. He wore
reflective glasses so he wouldn't have to make eye contact. He wore
ball caps and pulled his sweat shirt hood tight around his face.

"I deal in emotional knowledge, I'm not a scientist," Giovanni
said. "To me, it was simple: Cho was an evil presence."

A few weeks into the semester, he wrapped a scarf around his
head -- "like Lawrence of Arabia," she said.

Giovanni describes it as a daily ritual, her pleas to get Cho
to participate in class:

"Mr. Cho, please take your glasses off.

"Mr. Cho, please take your cap off."

She remembers counting -- "ten-thousand one, ten-thousand two"
-- while Cho slowly removed the offending accessories. He was equally
obstinate about suggestions to revise his work.

"Mr. Cho, I'm not being able to identify any changes here,"
Giovanni recalled saying.

He mumbled his responses in monotone, she recalled, and
repeatedly turned in the same poem -- about women's panties -- without
changing a word.

Later, a class discussion about the ethics of eating turtle
soup inspired him to write a poem lambasting Giovanni. He ended it with a
veiled threat to eat the class.

"I don't know what to do with that one, Mr. Cho," she
remembered saying. "Mr. Cho, I think all of us took that as a threat."

Cho mumbled something about Giovanni missing the irony in his

When class attendance dropped markedly, she pulled another
student aside to ask what was going on.

That's when she learned that Cho was surreptitiously
photographing women below desk level. Giovanni considered that a violation, a
kind of rape. It troubled one student so much that she asked to meet with
Giovanni privately rather than face Cho in class.

Giovanni told Cho -- in front of the other students -- that he
needed to withdraw from her class or find another teacher.

He refused.

"Mr. Cho, this is not column A and column B. One of us must
leave," she recalled saying. "Mr. Cho, either you're gonna leave my room
or I'm gonna resign."

Again, a quiet monotone: "You won't resign."

"You do not, sir, know me well at all."

No connecting the dots

The rebukes never seemed to faze Cho, said Tracey Vaccarella, a
recent graduate who had three classes with him. "That gave you a very
odd feeling.

"There was maybe an undercurrent that he didn't get the
attention from girls that he wanted," she added. "He'd read his poems, and you
didn't know whether to laugh or what."

Halfway through the semester, Giovanni wrote then-department
chairwoman Lucinda Roy to say she would quit if Cho wasn't removed from
her class. Roy said she would tutor him one-on-one.

Some students thought Giovanni was overreacting, Vaccarella
said. But most were relieved when Cho left.

Giovanni wasn't really satisfied, at least not in retrospect.
"I was never asked about Cho again," she said, shaking her head. While
Roy reported the incident to administrators and the Cook Counseling
Center, "There was no connecting of the dots" between Giovanni,
counselors and higher-ups, Giovanni said.

That communication breakdown clearly weighs on her. She views
Roy's tutoring of Cho -- rather than kicking him out of class entirely,
or expelling him -- as a statement that "Nikki couldn't handle the

"Look at it this way," she said. "The car's stuck in the mud
and somebody else comes along and says, 'See? I got the car out of the

"Well, as it turned out, of course, the car had a bomb in it.
So maybe it should have stayed in the mud."

Roy declined to comment on the decision to tutor Cho.

"I believe that Nikki's energy and passion help to keep the
community strong," she wrote in an e-mail.

Giovanni recalls feeling very alone during that time, a sadness
exacerbated by grief over her mother's and sister's deaths earlier in
the year.

"Maybe I was patient with him for so long because I wanted to
make sure I wasn't neglecting him. ... Maybe if Mommy and [sister] Gary
hadn't died, my emotional state would've made me afraid of him."

Maybe then she'd have taken it to the dean herself.

Maybe if professors did a better job discussing troubled
students with one another.

Maybe, maybe, maybe. ...

Such what-if scenarios echo for everyone who crossed paths with
Seung-Hui Cho.

What Giovanni knows for sure is this: "We don't ask parents to
send their kids to school so we can send them back in a box.

"If there had been any way we could have stopped this from
happening -- and I mean any one of us, up to and including the professors
that took the bullets ..." Tears stream from her eyes.

"Every one of us ... would've taken those bullets if we could
have saved one student."

'Don't punk the president'

Giovanni hoped her voice wouldn't crack. It was the afternoon
of April 17, convocation day, and she wore her favorite black suit and
tie, her rhinestone Hokies pin, her mother's diamond earrings.

There was a sea of tearful students, looks of agony on their

There was President Bush, seated in the front row.

What would Giovanni say? Administrators were nervous, Giovanni
knew. After all, she'd flayed Bush many times in speeches and in
print. As she said on her 2002 Grammy-nominated compact disc: "I've always
felt free to complain about white people when they get on my nerves."

("Mercurial," is how Tech's lead spokesman, Larry Hincker,
described the poet. Asked if administrators were nervous about Giovanni's
performance, he chuckled and said, "I'll never be on the record about
that one.")

The president and the poet acknowledged each other with a nod.

But Giovanni knew this was no time for politics.

She had already crossed out the 22nd line of her poem: "Neither
does the Iraqi teenager dodging bombs."

It would appear in the later printed version, but she wouldn't
speak it today.

As Gov. Tim Kaine spoke and then Bush, Giovanni tapped her foot
in a steady cadence, a trick honed decades ago to help her nail the
rhythm of a poem.

She thought of the prayer Alan Shepard said as he was about to
become the first American in space: "Please, dear God, don't let me
[expletive] up."

She added her own line to the prayer: "Please, dear God, don't
let me punk the president off."

We are Virginia Tech

We are sad today

She had no idea she was being broadcast around the world.

We do not understand this tragedy

We know we did nothing to deserve it

She wanted to connect the world's grief with the students'

But neither does the child in Africa

Dying of AIDS ...

She jabbed her arm, waved her fist.

The cadence grew stronger, louder -- a crescendo wave of grief
and loss and conviction and hope.

We will prevail

We will prevail

We will prevail

We are

Virginia Tech

She dared the audience to believe anything less.

The performance was a contrast to everything that preceded it
-- the prayers, the news conferences, the panic that had gripped the
campus only one day before.

Giovanni wasn't sure she had nailed it at first. But when she
raised her arms in a shout-out to the people behind her, students began
to chant: "Let's go, Hokies."

As the chants grew louder, Giovanni spun in a circle, her arms
still raised. She pumped her fist in time to the clapping.

"Good job," Bush said, as they filed out of the coliseum.

Onward and unafraid

Hokies United, a student volunteer organization, raised more
than $200,000 for the Hokies Spirit Memorial Fund from sales of "We Are
Virginia Tech" T-shirts. Giovanni gave the rights to the poem to
Virginia Tech.

Strangers in airports who know nothing about her activism or
her civil rights poetry have approached her with, "Aren't you that
Virginia Tech poet?"

Giovanni's 10-year-old neighbor asked if she was famous enough
now to get him free football tickets on the 50-yard line. (She's
working on it.)

Not long ago, Tech alumnus Sam Scarborough stopped her near the
Drillfield to shake her hand. A teacher in Virginia Beach, he had
brought his wife and children to see the April 16 memorial, then under

"The day you got up on stage ..." he said, his voice cracking.
"I cry every time I think about it."

Friends have given her DVDs of the convocation, which she's set
aside. She hasn't been able to watch it yet.

One day soon she'll write the parents of sophomore cadet
Matthew La Porte, one of her favorite students. La Porte was killed as he
tried to grab Cho from behind.

"Matty had the typical boy problems -- he could be a goof-off
-- but he'd joined the corps and was really starting to settle in.

"He was just like a flower on the brink, the kind of kid you
could see being governor some day."

Even though summer's leaves block her from seeing it clearly,
Giovanni catches herself looking toward Shultz Hall, the building where
she taught Seung-Hui Cho. The blinds in Room 109 are drawn for the

"Being afraid of Virginia Tech is like being afraid of your
home," she said. "You just can't do that."

When she returns to Room 109, the blinds are going up.

Nikki Giovanni

n Born Yolande Cornelia Giovanni in 1943; reared in

n Educated at Fisk University.

n Emerged as a voice in the black arts movement of the 1960s,
heralded by some critics as the most read black poet in America and
the "Princess of Black Poetry."

n Author of more than 20 books, mostly essays and poetry,
including "Black Feeling Black Talk," "Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day" and a
children's book about Rosa Parks.

n The poems in her recent collection, "Acolytes," range from
odes to the singer Nina Simone to a meditation on the best midnight

n Joined Virginia Tech faculty in 1987, now one of 14
University Distinguished Professors.

n Called a "national treasure" by writer Gloria Naylor and a
"living legend" by Oprah Winfrey.

n Has one son, Thomas, a lawyer in New York City.

n Lives in Christiansburg with English professor Virginia
Fowler, two dogs and a pond full of fish.

n Wrote "We Are Virginia Tech" the evening of April 16,
inspired by the desire to convey that "what we do is more important than what
is done to us." At the next day's convocation, the poem brought a
somber crowd to its feet.

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