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Sylvester Johnson Prison Pilot Education Program (virtual portion)

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Category: impact Video duration: Sylvester Johnson Prison Pilot Education Program (virtual portion)
Sylvester Johnson, the director of Virginia Tech's Center for Humanities, incorporated virtual lessons into the humanities course is taught at River North Correctional Center, located in Independence, Virginia, in September. 
Welcome back to our humanities course. We are, we are exploring important themes and history and culture through reading literature and responding to our own writing and collaborative discussions in our last class who recall that we read an excerpt from Gabrielle markets is 100 Years of Solitude. Today we're turning to the work of Nikki Giovanni, a world renowned poet who has received numerous accolades for her path-breaking creative work. We're going to read one of her early poems entitled Rosa Parks. Poetry takes many forms. Sometimes employers rhyme, playful conversation, emotional splendor, or meditative calm. It all depends on what the author wants to communicate. But first, who was Nikki Giovanni and how does her celebrated poetry reflect the cultural and historical context of her life? Nikki Giovanni was born in the Appalachian region of Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943. Her family moved to Ohio for several years and she returned to Tennessee later deliver their grandparents, where she eventually attended Fisk University. Fisk was a historically African-American university that her grandfather had attended. By the time she earned her undergraduate degree, which was with a concentration in history, she had served as an editor of a student journal at Fisk, and she'd also helped to establish the University's campus chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. This was a civil rights organization that worked to end the racist system of segregation that denied blacks equal access and equal opportunity. And it involved a lot of youth who are working with older adults in order to achieve those efforts. After graduating from Fisk and Nikki studied creative writing at Columbia University in New York City. Living in New York gave her the opportunity to meet numerous black artists who are part of the Black Arts Movement that we mentioned earlier during our reading of James Baldwin's work. Nikki published her first book of poetry around this time in 1968, and it was entitled Black Feeling, Black Talk. This poetry collection began with points that she wrote following the death of her grandmother. The collection also included poems that reflected on the pro-democracy activism that was happening throughout the United States in the 160s. Her contributions to the Black Arts Movement had become a lasting influence, helping to promote the value of humanities, public understanding of social justice and inequality, and giving greater visibility to the arts for our nation and our world. You might recall that the Black Arts Movement consisted of numerous Black Riders, singers, dancers, and other creative artists whose work demonstrated a range of cultural expressions that were rooted in black heritage. They did so at a time that harmful racist stereotypes portrayed African-Americans as not having culture or any meaningful history worth learning about. As Nicky continued to publish poems and literature such as children's books, she quickly became recognized for her exquisite ability to communicate complex issues and aspirations for freedom and democracy that were part of the larger black power movement and Silver Rights Movement. And she did so with a level of courage at a time that many activists who are fighting for racial justice, we're being attacked or being in prison or even killed by those who wanted to maintain structures of racism. As an influential participant in the Black Arts Movement. Nikki also appeared regularly on a popular TV show that was entitled soul with an exclamation point. This show showcase numerous African-Americans who were involved in the arts and entertainment. And through televised conversation with people such as the athlete Mohammad Ali, Nikki was able to help create greater visibility for the accomplishments of the struggles and the humanity of African Americans during the period of civil rights struggle. Nicky's poetry is one brilliant example of what historians have called the Black Consciousness Movement. And this was a period of cultural change that peak during the 1960s and 70s. And it was marked by emphasizing the need for blacks to reject harmful stereotypes that portrayed blacks as unintelligent or ugly or lazy, and lacking any historical forms of culture. Instead, the black consciousness movement encourage blacks to learn to love their bodies, to celebrate black people as an important part of world history. And we embrace their humanity and their human dignity. Throughout her career. And Nikki has taught at Queens College at Rutgers University, Ohio State, and she's currently a university distinguished professor at Virginia Tech, where she's been a faculty member since 1987. Nicky's poem entitled Rosa Parks acknowledges the people whose actions and work shape the success and hard-won gains of racial justice activism. As a point's name implies. Nikki name's Rosa Parks in this poem to honor her decision to place herself in danger. By challenging segregation laws, Parks was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, another civil rights organization that fought for social justice. Nicky's poem also references Pullman porters. You will see this phrase used several times in that point. Pullman porters were men who worked in the dining cars and sleeping cars of railroad trains. They were exclusively African-American, a practice that began in the 160s of hiring only blacks to serve on the train. This hiring practice appeal to a racist culture in which white Americans were very comfortable seeing blacks and the role of servants. Pullman porters work for low wages, but they could earn tips, and it did allow them to be able to have a sustainable way of earning a living. It was an accident of history that these African American employees unionized in the 1920s and ended up forming a very powerful political force. Their fight for better working conditions helped to launch the civil rights movement of the 1950s. The same poem also mentions the killing of a young child named Emmett Till. This child was from Chicago. He was African-American. He was murdered by a group of racist whites while visiting his relatives in Mississippi in 1955. The same poem also engages with the ways that tills death became a point of social conflict. The killers were actually acquitted by an all white jury, and the trial was followed by the killers actually boasting about the way they murdered the child. The murder of Emmett Till was a form of political violence, which experts often refer to as terrorism. It happened during America's most famous bus boycott, the alabama bus boycott, that Rosa Parks helped to lead. This racial violence was meant to send a message to African-Americans that they should stop trying to change the racist systems, laws and practices that had been created. So white Americans could exclude blacks from equal participation in employment. In economics and ownership and political power. Of course, the important and transformative victory that were achieved during the 1950s and 60s became possible because African Americans and their allies across racial groups did not stop fighting for these things. They continue to do so when they were willing to take tremendous risks in order to expand freedom and opportunities for democratic participation across lines of race and class. Nicky's work is an important part of this legacy. Of course, we shouldn't forget to consider what Nicky's career might tell us about the history of politics and culture. When we think of the political changes that were wrought by black consciousness movement and the civil rights movement. It's easy to focus narrowly on laws or public dissent and so forth. We don't always think about arts and creativity when we're thinking about the history of political change. But Nicky's work as a reminder that artistic expression and creative performance, aside from having value inherently are intrinsically, have also played an important role in shaping the politics of our society. So as you read this point, play close attention to both what Niki writes and how she writes. How would you describe her style? Keep in mind that she can pose this point in the 1960s without the hindsight that we have today. You might write questions that come to your mind as you read the point. Be sure to note any topics or expressions that we should emphasize during our discussion. During this class, we'll also try our own hand at writing some poetry. And we'll consider how writing a poem is different from other forms of writing. If you were poet, what might be your motivation? What might inspire your creativity? Well, I look forward to seeing you in class and the hearing what you have to say about Nikki's work.