Can a Poet Raise a Boy to be a Man?

Here’s poetic inspiration for single moms. Nikki Giovanni, famous writer and single mother, raised a son who grew up to be a man. Thomas Watson Giovanni graduated Magna Cum Laude from Morehouse College and Georgetown Law Center, and currently works as a lawyer in New York. Though his occupation doesn’t prove he’s a “man” in every sense of the term, his accomplishments exceed what many people expect from the child of a poet who happens to be a single mother. Admittedly, Nikki Giovanni’s relative fame afforded her opportunities that many less famous poets and single mothers don’t have; however, the most likely roots of Nikki’s parenting success are her connection with family and friends, her wisdom, and her stubbornness.

Nikki Giovanni candidly writes about her family life, and it’s apparent how close they are. In her essay “Don’t Have a Baby till You Read This,” Nikki talks about going into labor and giving birth while visiting her parents in Cincinnati. She originally thought she was having a girl and wanted to name the baby after her grandmother, which shows that she values a family legacy. Nikki describes one scene when the family discusses the baby’s name (Gary is her older sister):

“You know how group oriented Gary is. So she called everyone and said, ‘We have to name Nikki’s baby.”

Nikki’s family didn’t just offer to help name the child. They also offered to help take care of it. Everyone from her little nephew who told her, “If you have a boy I can give him all my clothes and teach him how to swim and give him my football helmet,” to her sister and parents who selfishly wanted her to rest so they could take care of the newborn baby.

Strong relationships with family and friends is not a privilege reserved for famous writers. Anyone can have it, and single parents need it. Not just for the practical things like babysitting, but simply for the emotional support. In Nikki’s words:

“Then I had to admit that they still loved me and that did make it a lot better. Or harder. But anyway, I needed a lot of love and that’s what I knew.”

I can dig all the love, but family couldn’t be the only reason Nikki Giovanni raised a successful son. I mean, it ain’t like they lived around the corner. Nikki lived hours away in New York. But being Nikki, she could always use her wisdom (which she probably got most from her family life). Nikki might not call it wisdom. She says in an interview with Jill Scott,

“The collection really shows my growth, my understanding, I don’t want to say wisdom because I am not trying to be some sort of Buddha, but I’ve learned so much and I want my work to show that.”

The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni

While her writing shows how much she’s learned over time, her perspective on raising her son attests to her practical application of what she’s learned. In an interview from The History Makers Nikki Giovanni explains important decisions she made as a parent:

“I said, ‘You don’t have a right to privacy. You have a right to your own apartment, in which case, when it’s your apartment, I’m not going to come in there, but as long as you’re living in my house…. Because like all parents I worried about drugs. So I said, ‘Don’t have anything in your drawers that you don’t want me to see….’ And I signed a permission when he went to junior high that the principal could open his locker without any forewarning.”

“People sometimes say, ‘You made Thomas go to law school.’ I said, ‘No, I made Thomas go to the Army because I knew he would hate it.’ And I knew in the hating of it—because you know, you know your child. I knew that in the hating he would begin to focus.”

“I think people make a mistake leaving the kids at home…. If you start to take them young enough, they learn to behave because it’s something that they get used to.”

“What we learned is that no matter how young you are, when we expose you to things you retain something. And so, I took [Thomas] around the world with me so that he could somehow have a memory of knowing that the world belongs to him, so that he lives with no boundaries.”

Most single parents, especially mothers, don’t have the funds or time to travel around the world with their child, but I think the lesson is to expose children to things beyond their world. It doesn’t have to be a major cultural event. My mother took us to weddings, to funerals, to her job, to visit her friends in the hospital or in their homes, to the store, to run business errands, and we learned so much about how to act and interact from being in those various settings. Of course the museums, plays, libraries, historical sites, and festivals all count too, but it doesn’t always have to be a big hurrah.

Tons of folks gasp at the idea of children not having privacy, but Nikki doesn’t care what people think. She’s stubborn. If stubborn sounds too negative for you, try insistent. I think this factor is just as important as family bond and wisdom because you must consistently insist that your children follow your guidance and be their best. Nikki expresses this kind of insistence in The History Makers interview:

“So then what am I supposed to do? Just watch him piss his life away? I don’t think so. I didn’t want that.”

Nikki Giovanni insisted that her son become a man. She had frank conversations with him and gave him ultimatums when he tried to waste his time on her dime. Thomas wanted to spend a few years “finding himself.” Nikki said something to the effect of, “I didn’t know you had lost yourself. You can’t find something that isn’t lost.” She wanted him to go to college because, as she put it, a Black man needed skills. His other options were to support himself or go to the Army. Hence his going to the Army, hating the Army, then going to college and law school.

The History Makers interview brought to light another aspect of Nikki’s stubbornness that more single mothers need. When prompted about the stigma attached to unwed mothers, Nikki Giovanni responds:

“I never looked at myself through anybody’s eyes…. So anybody that didn’t have anything positive to say about my expecting the baby, I knew they weren’t a friend.”

Fearless! NO Shame! Life on HER terms! DELETING the Haters!

I know I won’t change most of society’s perception of single parents, particularly single mothers, but if I could just get single mothers themselves and their children to stop buying into the stigmas of female headed households, I’ll be at peace. It won’t be all, but some? Can I get some?

I truly believe that more than the absence of a father, the mother’s attitude about her situation determines the outcome for her children.

Whether you agree or disagree with Nikki Giovanni’s approach, it seems to have worked for her and her son.

Peace and Love, Sarah L. Webb

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