I once met a poet and didn’t know it.
There is a poetry to God’s kindness, and every once in a while we are able to hear the whisper of it. I used to think that I first met Nikki Giovanni after a poetry reading at Miami University. I would go on to interact with her a number of times during my work with the Ohio Writing Project. I was one of the first teachers to try out her collection of Tupac’s poetry, “The Rose That Grew From Concrete,” as curriculum in the classroom designed to get urban kids into poetry and literature.
We were up at Miami tweaking it during an OWP workshop and she kept asking why I seemed so familiar, but we couldn’t figure it out. I mean obviously I knew her, she was famous, and one of my favorite poets, but why did she know me?
Then one day, a few years later, I was doing an outreach in Lincoln Heights, which were her old stomping grounds when her family wasn’t in Tennessee. She was there that same weekend visiting friends and family. She came up behind me and shouted, “Yo, Mr. G!” and we hugged and started laughing.
She then told me she now knew where she first met me, decades before OWP. When I was a much younger man, she had seen me with that “grape church” and our mobile food pantry, a retrofitted school bus.
“You’re The White Bus Dude!”
It turns out, whenever she was visiting friends and relatives, she would see us do various weekend outreaches in Lincoln Heights. See, years ago, my church had bought an old school bus, painted it white, tore out the seats, and outfitted it for outreach. We had a mobile pantry. We also used it to throw Block Parties etc. nearly every weekend. At the time I had no idea that she had seen me “grow” up over the years in Lincoln Heights trying to learn how to serve that community.
She then told me a story I knew real well, but didn’t realize she was the angel that gave me strength on a day I needed it most, a long time ago.
I was maybe 22 years old. I was a brand new Christian. I was also out of my depth trying to lead a summer outreach in Lincoln Heights for kids. This is already a long story, but the thumbnail sketch is that the outreach was mostly field games and fun activities, kind of like a mobile vacation bible study, only way more fun.
It was the last day. We had celebrated by making what we called “The World’s Longest Ice Cream Sundae,” which was a fifty-foot long pile of ice cream and toppings. Big fun until all my volunteers left and I had to clean up the mess alone as well as pack up all the toys and games etc. Just imagine trying to clean that up with only gallon jugs of water in a field near the housing project.
Needless to say 45 minutes later my mood had turned sour. I was probably cussing and throwing stuff around. In other words, kindness had completely left my body. Suddenly I felt a hand on my shoulder. I whip around angry only to be faced with this short, fierce (I mean FIERCE) black woman. She looked me in the eye and said “Young man, don’t you dare lose faith. You are doing great things here. Do you realize, this little big thing you are doing for these kids is the only vacation most of them will ever get? Do you think these kids have season passes to Kings Island? You are their Kings Island.”
Obviously, I wept like a baby both as a young man that had never read a black poem let alone any Nikki beats, and then once again as an older man that had never forgotten that day.
Fast forward even more years. I am a retired teacher working for Townsend Press, the publishers of the famous Bluford Series. Nikki was the keynote speaker at the same national conference I was speaking at.
I was participating in a panel discussion being held in the auditorium on race issues and education. At one point I tried to offer some input and the angry folks in the crowd took one look at my bald white ass and assumed they didn’t want to hear one word I had to say before I finished my first sentence and began to shout me down. Nikki became furious and “shussed” the more vocal folks, and the beat went on so to speak.
When I finished, the whole room was silent until it suddenly boomed with this deep voice “Can You Diggggggg It?”
Nikki had not used a microphone.