Nikki Giovanni Believes Your Dreams Are Worth It

Please note: This transcript has been automatically generated.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Hey y’all, it’s Brittany…I saw someone on Twitter talk about how they rebranded American Thanksgiving in their home to be “friends and family” day. They focused on teaching their children the holiday’s true history, and turned it into a chance to learn about Indigenous communities and really focus on gratitude. I love this idea and I’m going to have to figure out who to credit for it when I use it with my future children, because I absolutely will. But for now, let’s use it together. Happy Friends and Family Day, everyone! 

And Friends and Family Day is a complicated one this year…The holidays are already hard for a LOT of us, and it’s even harder during a pandemic. We miss those we’ve lost, and many families can’t afford to put much food on the table. And this is a time when we’re craving more connection—not less. Like some of you, I tried to get creative this year at first: my husband and I thought about making plans with just a few family members here in D.C. And there would be COVID tests and face shields and quarantining—everything. But in the end, we really could not justify taking that risk. And trust me, there is nothing more I’d rather do than argue with my brother and my cousins over the spades table after serving myself what is, yeah, a double portion of ham and macaroni on a paper plate that just buckles under the weight of my gluttony.

But there’s still so much to be thankful for. This year, it will be takeout from Reggie’s dad because Dr. Cunningham is THE family chef. He’ll leave the food for us on his porch, we’ll pick it up, drive home, sanitize the Tupperware, and eat his sweet potato pie on the couch while we chat up the fam over Zoom. This is not exactly the plan we wanted, but I’m grateful for these little things and for farm workers who bring us our food and for the privilege to be able to stay home this year for my health and the health of others. 

What’s most important is that we ALL live to see another year. We are UNDISTRACTED.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham On the show today…Nikki Giovanni! I know, right?!

I’ll be talking to the beloved American poet about her new collection “Make Me Rain,” the power of young people, and why we can’t let anyone take away our dreams.

Nikki Giovanni Your responsibility is to your dreams. It’s not to these people who are trying to hurt you. It is to the future; and you have to keep your eyes on the prize. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s coming up, but first, let’s get to your “UNtrending News.”


Brittany Packnett Cunningham As I mentioned earlier, many of us were not properly taught the true history of Thanksgiving. You may have learned in school that the first harvest was celebrated peacefully between Pilgrim settlers and the Wampanoag people in 1621. Sounds cute, right? You probably didn’t learn about the capture and the killings and the genocide of Indigenous people and the colonization of their land that followed. That’s why to many native folks, this holiday is not called Thanksgiving, but rather the National Day of Mourning. 

Here’s a bit of frustrating news. Today, almost 400 years after that harvest, the Wampanoag people in Massachusetts are still engaged in a fight for their very survival. So back in March, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced that the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe is no longer entitled to their reservation status.

A federal judge has since sided with the tribe in order to review, but still, this makes this week an especially challenging time. I want to be really clear—over 5 million of our Indigenous neighbors still live in this country, THEIR country. I keep wondering when the U.S. government is going to express any shame or give any real apology or make the full reparations for the land that was stolen. And if these new developments are any indication, that’s land that continues to be thieved. We the people are going to have to become much better co-conspirators to Indigenous peoples. And if you’re wondering how to start, you can watch the livestream of the National Day of Mourning at [email protected]


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Here’s a headline I’m so glad to share with you: tampons and pads for all!

Yes, Scotland has become the first country in the world to provide free and universal access to period products. It’s called The Period Products Act and it was passed unanimously on Tuesday evening. It will legally require local authorities to provide period products for all those who need them.

One of the law’s supporters, Scottish Labour health spokeswoman Monica Lennon, says it’s “a proud day for Scotland”.

Monica Lennon Menstruation is normal. Free universal access to tampons, pads, and reusable options should be normal too. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham We need this here too, y’all! And I know there are a lot of great organizations that are trying to make that happen, especially since period poverty which is the struggle to pay for basic sanitary products, has increased during the pandemic. If this is an uncomfortable conversation for you, I’m here to let you know that you and many people you know may actually menstruate every month. I know it’s shocking! But y’all…us treating these “women’s issues” like they’re taboo is precisely what makes things worse. So period dignity and dignity…period!


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Last item!

Macy’s is making news this week…and I know you think it’s just for the holiday parade. 

The 162-year-old-company announced they’ll be participating in the 15 Percent Pledge. That means they’ll be making sure at least 15% of their products are stocked from Black-owned companies, to actually reflect the U.S. population. Companies like Sephora, Rent the Runway and West Elm have signed on.

So it’s important that we know that funding Black-owned businesses alone will never fully close racial wealth gaps. And the gaps are massive, but still, Black dollars—and Black trendsetting—have an impact on the bottom line of most major companies in America, and it’s high-time that value is reflected on the shelves. Shout out to my good girlfriend, Aurora James, founder of the 15 Percent Pledge, for pushing corporations to take this important first step.

Coming up. I’ll be talking to Nikki Giovanni about the state of the movement today and Ice Cube and Kamala Harris and so much good stuff.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, if you can’t be with your own grandmother this holiday, my guest today might just be the next best thing. Nikki Giovanni is one of America’s most celebrated poets. She is a true living legend. And I’m not just saying that. Oprah herself called her a living legend, and whatever Oprah says—is Bible.

Nikki Giovanni was a major voice of the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s and has since continued to write—prolifically!— about what it means to be a Black woman in this country. She’s published over 30 books, won seven NAACP Image Awards, and has been nominated for a Grammy and a National Book Award. 

I personally love a lot of her pieces, but like a true Black girl Millennial, I went from fan to stan when Kimberly Reese, one of my favorite characters from my favorite 90s sitcom “A Different World” performed Nikki’s “Ego Tripping” live on television. Nikki drops so many bars in that single poem including my favorite: 

Kimberly Reese I am so hip—even my errors are correct. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I may or may not repeat that to myself in the mirror when I’m having a rough day. You should try it.

Nikki Giovanni’s newest poetry collection “Make Me Rain” has now arrived, just when we need her words the most. It’s personal and political—with messages of hope and resilience—it’s as relevant as ever and I smiled through the entire interview.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Oh my goodness. The icon, Nikki Giovanni. Thank you for being here. 

Nikki Giovanni Thank you. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham In one of the new poems titled “I’m Just a Poet” you write: “All I have are words and maybe a bit of hope.” Are you feeling hopeful these days? 

Nikki Giovanni Oh, absolutely. Kamala will be the vice president of the United States. And I’m absolutely thrilled about that. And it’s time that we took these steps. Because it’s about time we got a sensible person in some level of office. We’ve had Donald Trump and we’ve had that other fool, Mike Pence. So it’s time to get some people in who cared, you know, you only vote for the president—you don’t vote for the vice president—so of course I voted for Mr. Biden, but having Kamala Harris be the vice president and sitting in on these meetings and hearing what she has to say. And she is, as you know, a Howard University graduate, and to see that I think it’s so, it’s so wonderful. I am a Fisk graduate. And I wish that she had gone to Fisk now, but you know, everybody can’t go to Fisk. So I’m very proud of her. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham But some incredible people went to Fisk, yourself included, and you know, so many people, I think in the HBCU experience have found their voices as young people in these spaces, you believe really deeply in the power of young people and you’ve remained so accessible. You know, I really think that that kind of intergenerational relationship is so valuable, but it’s not always felt by everyone. So are there ways in which younger generations right now we’re making you proud? 

Nikki Giovanni I’m very proud of what the generation—your generation—has to live in a non-segregated world. And I think that your generation thought that it would be a non-racist world and it isn’t—it is a racist world. And so you’ve had to make a lot of adjustments to what YOU think is important.

I am very proud, as we all are, I’m sure, of Black Lives Matter, because they’ve taken it globally. I’m sorry that George Floyd is dead, but when I was watching television and I looked in Perth, Australia—people were marching with Black Lives Matter in Perth, Australia. And I thought, wow, that’s really great. My generation—we worked, but it’s nice to see that you all have gone global. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham So you talked a little bit about the movement and I’’m an activist myself and was, you know, on the ground in Ferguson and some other cities, but people keep asking me if the state of the movement this year is different, because like you said, it’s gone global. There are so many new people who are a part of it. What do you think of the state of the movement today? 

Nikki Giovanni I think that the young men and women are doing a great job and it’s just really good to see that the younger generation is stepping up. They’re not letting the Nazis, that we’re living with right now, shut them down or make them afraid or take their voice away, as did we.

I went to school with John Lewis…And one of the people there a little bit ahead of us was Diane Nash, she started SNCC—the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. And I remember when she and John and Rev. Bevel left campus, they went together and some other people went with them and we all sat in class. We were so proud of them. They went off to Alabama, and you know, now you all are going in another direction, but I think you’re doing a terrific job. I really do. I have to say, if you don’t mind, I’m very disappointed in Ice Cube. And I think that it’s an incredible shame that he would say anything to Donald Trump and to say, well, I was just trying to work out a plan. You know, that’s what Judah said to Jesus. So I don’t want to hear it, but, you know, everybody’s not going to do what should be done. There’s always going to be a Judas someplace. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Mm. But that’s why we have to keep going. Yeah, we’re talking about young people, but I’d love to talk to you about some of your history. I mean, you began publishing poems in the late 60s—collections like “Black Feeling,” “Black Talk,” and “Black Judgment.” Your 1968 poem, actually, “Nikki Rosa” is one of your best known works. What were you trying to explore with that piece?

Nikki Giovanni I think that I was just trying to find my own voice and trying to be confident in what I had to shift.

Nikki Giovanni Childhood remembrances are always a drag

    If you’re Black

    You always remember things like living in Woodlawn

    With no inside toilet

    And if you become famous or something

    They never talk about how happy you were to have

    Your mother

    All to yourself and

    How good the water felt when you got your bath

    From one of those

    Big tubs that folk in Chicago barbecue in

    And I really hope no white person ever has cause

    To write about me

    Because they never understand

    Black love is Black wealth and they’ll

    Probably talk about my hard childhood

    And never understand that

    All the while I was quite happy

Nikki Giovanni White Americans always feel that they know more about Black people than Black people do. And I just got tired of hearing, you know, as they like to put it, what was wrong with Black people. It’s not Black people that have what’s wrong; it’s not Black people who are a group of us are out there shooting or burning up other people’s property or lynching people. We’re not doing that. It’s them. We’re not the ones. If we look at it, historically—Black people didn’t fight for slavery, white people did and not white people, but poor white people. And I’m always amazed when I look at the people who were voting for Trump, these are poor people and you really are what hell is wrong with you people. But I think that a lot of Nazi-ism is about rich rich, rich people convincing poor people that they should hate other people. So they tried to teach ‘em, teach poor white boys that you should hate Black people—because that’s all they have. And I have a poem again in “Make Me Rain,” which I love so much and it ends up saying “what a shame that you wake up in the morning, knowing that the only thing you have to offer the whole planet is the color of your skin.” That’s just got to be, that would make you cry. If you woke up and all you had to offer the world is the color of your skin. That’s ridiculous. And so I think that needs to be called out. I think that there’s a cowardliness—they want to call it white supremacy, but there’s nothing supreme about it. What it is—is white cowardice. And I think we ought to call it. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That piece is so, so powerful. It’s called “And So It Comes to This” and we are all paying for their cowardice right now. 

Nikki Giovanni Well, it’s not, nothing is cheap. Freedom isn’t free. Even though the first four letters are. Nothing is free and nothing is cheap. And I would agree that we’re paying for it, but I would also agree that every time something happens, we take the next step. 

So my grandmother, with whom I lived for several years, and I adored my grandmother, she’s a Baptist. And we would go to church and some days and we would sing, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every step goes higher and higher.” And I love the spiritualists for a lot of reasons, but one is that I can’t sing. And the spiritualists, you don’t have to be able to sing. You can be a part of, you know, but…


We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Every road goes higher and higher.

Nikki Giovanni  And I think that- that- that’s exactly what we’re doing. Every step goes higher and higher. And so I look at you youngsters, and I think, well, they doing all right, you know.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Speaking of kind of sources of strength—that line from “Nikki Rosa,” “Black love is Black wealth” has been so important to my life. It always reminds me where my source of strength is. And I think about it often when I have watched you, including in, “Make Me Rain,” talk about your grandmother, listening now to you singing, you know, “Jacob’s Ladder,” I think about Black love being Black wealth.

Nikki Giovanni Yeah, I think so. And I think that we in the Black community are extremely lucky that we know that money is not that important. You’ve got to have some, and I’m not a fool about that, but there’s a limit. And I love James Brown. You know, of course, Brown had that wonderful, wonderful song, “Money won’t change you, but time will take you on. Get it, get it, get down with it.”

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I mean, love freedom, vulnerability—these are things you examine mean so much in your work. And I think for that reason, and frankly, so many more, we have really come to rely on your work in movements. The Black Arts movement being one that you were such a critical part of. How did that time in your life coincide kind of with your own political and spiritual evolution? 

Nikki Giovanni Well, of course we were apart. We were, and I saying, we now, my generation was struggling always to break down segregation. That was our most important part of what we had to do. As things moved on a group developed called the Black Panthers. The Panthers, in Oakland, California took their guns and went and stood on the steps of the courthouse. And everybody got upset and said, Oh, they’re violent. No, we weren’t the ones who were violent. They were the ones who were violent. And there’s still problems—every time you turn around, they’re murdering a Black man and then somehow another. White men never get charged. The police would never…sometimes the police would get fired; and sometimes they don’t even get fired from their job. And you think what is wrong with this? That if you’re supposed to be protecting the community—you can’t protect the community with violence. You have to protect the community with them knowing you and you knowing them. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Speaking of that building…in the new book, in “Make Me Rain,” you included your submission for the Ebony commemorative edition on Barack Obama. And it’s a piece that I really love. You ended with this image of a man being lynched. And you said “someone swinging by his neck from a fine oak tree. While those in white pointed hats and white robes stood, shouting out clapping, having a good midnight time promised to the stars. Don’t worry. They think they can kill me, but I’m taking root. Yeah, I’m taking root.” What do you see taking root for us right now, as we try to get more free after this administration? 

Nikki Giovanni I really did like that image because people thought—and I say, people, you know, the Klu Klux Klan and them, the cop who killed George Floyd—they thought, well, nobody will pay attention to this. I can murder him and nobody will pay attention. And Mr. Floyd took root, didn’t he—he has grown, this tree has grown. And that’s what I wanted to bring out. And I think it’s…I think the kids are building something. And I think that we…for people like me, we have to be, we are very, very proud of what they’re doing. Because they thought, those people like the Donald Trumps of this world, they thought they could kill us. They thought they could burn us out. They thought they could shoot us down. And all we did was take root and people like me are very fortunate because so few people get to be my age and I’m not all that old—I’m 77— but when you look at my generation, so few people were fortunate enough to come through. But we came through and to be my age and to be able to watch or talk with, or to enjoy—just to enjoy—watching how the Black community is growing, because we continued to win: whether it’s Barack Obama or whether it’s now Kamala Harris and as a woman, you know, I’m really, really very proud to see Ms. Harris, Senator Harris become the vice president and to take these positions. But how long do you think it’ll be before we have a Black woman being the president of the United States? So I really hope then I’m around, you know, just sit down and have a glass of wine and say (okay, I usually drink champagne, I don’t drink much red wine) but I’m going to buy a really expensive bottle of champagne and toast it. Then they just make you happy. And you just say, well, if I can be around…

Brittany Packnett Cunningham It really does. Well, you’ve said before that old age is so wonderful. In the new book, you include a short bio of Nikki Giovanni, and you actually write about being a young girl reading by the flashlight, underneath your grandmother’s quilts and listening to jazz on the radio. It is such a beautiful vision—what wisdom do you have for all the little daydreaming girls out there today? 

Nikki Giovanni Oh gosh. Don’t let anybody take your dreams away. That- that’s so, so important. Don’t let it because there’s so many things you’d want to see: your mother’s going to be married to some fool, but it’s not your fault. Your responsibility is to your dreams.

It’s not that these people who are trying to hurt you, it is to the future. And you have to keep your eyes on the prize, move on and hold on. That’s what I have to say to them, because life is interesting and you can’t let somebody take away the interest: get a book, get under a blanket and just daydream, learn something. Don’t let anybody take your dreams away. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham I feel like I’m about to cry because this, I needed that bomb to remember not to let anyone make me lose interest and to my responsibility, to my dreams…It really just makes me think about something you said when you said that as a poet, your weapon is your words, because there are just some things that words and poetry can do that other things can’t. 

Nikki Giovanni That’s true. The most powerful thing on Earth is words. And that’s why people killed a lot of people— from Socrates, you know, on up to Jesus, to anybody there, Martin Luther King. There’s a reason people kill people who use words, and I don’t want to get you or me killed, but I’m saying we know words are powerful.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham One last question for you. I don’t know if you know, but we borrowed the idea for the title of our show, Undistracted, from something your good friend, Toni Morrison said when she said that, “the function of racism is distraction to keep you from doing your work.” How were you, or how can we remain undistracted in these chaotic times?

Nikki Giovanni You have to believe that your dreams are worth it. You have to believe that YOU are worth it. So you get up in the morning. I mean—this is what everybody does—you get up in the morning and you’re going to brush your teeth—look at yourself, don’t just brush it and look at yourself and say, good morning and smile at yourself. Say, I love you because may be the only I love you that you hear that day. So let’s start with, I love you to myself and then we’ll move on. You can’t let anybody take that level away. That’s your love. You have a right to love yourself. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Well, Nikki Giovanni, we love you. I love you. I’m so, so, so grateful for you spending this time with us. And I cannot wait to hear what you give us next.

Nikki Giovanni Oh, thank you very much. This has been great talking to you. Take care of yourself. 

Brittany Packnett Cunningham Thank you. I will. You too.


Brittany Packnett Cunningham Celebrated American poet and living legend, Nikki Giovanni. Her latest collection is called “Make Me Rain.” By the way, you heard Nikki throw a little bit of shade at Ice Cube. He’s since tried to explain why he chose to work with Donald Trump. Cube says that both Trump and Biden’s teams approached him about his contract with Black America Plan, but y’all, we need to be very careful about who we lend our credibility to and who we help make legitimate on the world stage.

I was so nervous and so excited. So like nerve-cited. I don’t know if that’s a word, but that’s what I was when I realized I’d be talking to Nikki Giovanni. She is one of the heroes of my life and I just, I didn’t want to mess it up. So there, she came onto our call with all the warmth and familiarity I needed to feel at ease. I mean, she told me to call her Nikki. I told you, if you don’t get to be with your grandma today, we had you covered, you got all the smart shade and all the wisdom you didn’t know you, right? Don’t let anybody take your dreams away. That’s the one I’m taking with me. For me this week—hell this month, this entire year—has at times felt like one long dream deferred.

Well, my god-sister, who is also whip smart, and also named Nikki, reminded me this week that a delay doesn’t have to mean despair. It can be an opportunity to prepare. So on this Friends and Family Day, my Thanksgiving is for the things we gained this year: Black Lives Matter going even more global new people, joining the cause, a new administration that we fought tooth and nail for it, I personally got the gift of more time to focus on my purpose and not just my jobs. Gratitude can be a game-changer. All has not been lost and our dreams are still valid. So if today is another chance to keep dreaming, tomorrow is another day to make it come true. And I’m grateful for that.

Brittany Packnett Cunningham That’s it for today…but never ever for tomorrow.


UNDISTRACTED is a production of The Meteor and Pineapple Street Studios. 

Our Lead Producer is Rachel Matlow.

Our Associate Producer is Taylor Hosking. 

Thanks also to Treasure Brooks, Grace Chen, Hannis Brown, and Stevona Elem-Rogers

Our Executive Producers at The Meteor are Cindi Leive and myself. 

And our Executive Producers at Pineapple are Jenna Weiss-Berman and Max Linsky. 

You can follow me at @MsPackyetti on all social media, and our team @TheMeteor.

Subscribe to UNDISTRACTED—and rate and review us!—on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you check out your favorite podcasts. 

Thanks for listening. Thanks for being. Thanks for doing.

I’m Brittany Packnett Cunningham. Happy holidays, y’all. Let’s go get free.