These meditations, sketches and poems by Nikki Giovanni are rhapsodies of grief, adoration and honor. Her theme is memory, and what she remembers is outrage, racial pain, minor joys, gentle love, courage and turning points.
"Art Sanctuary" best represents her outlook. An iconoclast, she prefers to challenge and perhaps die in order to enlighten and weaken the cruel herd. The majority and the powerful have their roll call of honor. But in Quilting the Black-eyed pea, Giovanni recites the names of those heroes who gave the world treasures of freedom, love and truth-- that could only be found in darkness and blood. She speaks for instance of Emmett Till, the young boy whose death by lynching inspired Rosa Park's decision to sit down.
Giovanni's narrative voice gives the world an historical overview that it rejects. The media has its priorities and its darlings. Women are not seen by the regular media as truly active in world events. Here, Giovanni shows that women were powerful forces in black history, American history, and literary history. Emmett Till's mother, who bravely opened her son's casket; Rosa Parks who refused to be moved. Here they are the great and the small, folks who affected history on a large scale and folks who are unknown saints, touching only those within their community.
Her humor blends with grief, sarcasm and outrage to create writing that pulls the reader into histories, small and great. In speaking of the events of 9-11, she is as brave as ever and speaks her mind regardless of political correctness.
The meditations are slow, conversational, plaintive. Often they take the reader back to days both white and black readers may want to forget, to the time and places of lost things. Communities change, people like her friend fellow-poet, Gwendolyn Brooks die. Dreams fade because talented black men are somehow still ending up in prison. Giovanni takes the reader through each loss. Each sketch is a long journey for the reader. Whether it's a bike or meatloaf, each journey takes us through a way of life, a way of triumphing and coping, and an appreciation. At the end of the journey we understand the loss and the courage. And, paradoxically, we understand the joy. The book is about joy, all kinds of joys. The kind of joy that can only come from overcoming. The joy that comes from friendship and community. The joy of surviving cancer.
When faced with a serious illness, most writers write intensely and almost obsessively about it. Giovanni seems to
have used the cancer as a springboard to push memory into affirming what is important in the life of a black woman, the various fabrics and patterns that go into cooking up a triumphant life. Although the book is primarily about black life, many readers will read the book and find themselves gratefully remembering life-affirming memories. Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea is a highly recommended book of poetry by one of America's foremost black poets.