Amy Goodman sits down with activist, poet and scholar Nikki Giovanni at Virginia Tech, where Giovanni is a distinguished professor of English. Giovanni recounts her experience of the 2007 massacre and shares her thoughts on gun control. She briefly taught Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho poetry before demanding that he leave her class over disruptive behavior. In a memorial address the day after the massacre, Giovanni told mourners: "We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We’re on a 100-city tour. I’ve just returned from Blacksburg, Virginia, from Virginia Tech, where we continue our discussion on gun violence, a topic many are hoping will make it into Wednesday night’s presidential debate in Denver.
The day after the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, the community held a ceremony in memory of the 32 victims. Among those who spoke was the famous poet and Virginia Tech professor, Nikki Giovanni.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: We are Virginia Tech. We are sad today. And we will be sad for quite a while. We are not moving on. We are embracing our mourning.
We are Virginia Tech. We are strong enough to stand tall tearlessly. We are brave enough to bend to cry and sad enough to know we must laugh again.
We are Virginia Tech. We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it. But neither does a child in Africa dying of AIDS. Neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by a rogue army. Neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory. Neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water. Neither does the Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands, being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.
We are Virginia Tech. The Hokie Nation embraces our own and reaches out with open heart and hand to those who offer their hearts and minds. We are strong and brave and innocent and unafraid. We are better than we think and not quite what we want to be. We are alive to the imagination and the possibility. We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears, through all this sadness. We are the Hokies! We will prevail! We will prevail! We will prevail! We are Virginia Tech!
AMY GOODMAN: I sat down with Nikki Giovanni on Monday at her office at Virginia Tech, where she’s a university distinguished professor. Nikki Giovanni recounted her experience of the 2007 massacre. I asked her about the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, who she taught in a poetry class. She rarely talks about him.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I taught Mr. Cho, mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: You taught him. You wanted him out of your class.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: No, he had to leave my class. I didn’t want; that had to be. Whatever it was, I wasn’t trying to judge Mr. Cho. I’m not a psychiatrist; I’m just a writing teacher. But—
AMY GOODMAN: And a social worker.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I didn’t graduate. I did publish some books, but I never got out of social work school. But Mr. Cho, whatever it was, it truly was the damp blanket on the fire, and something was wrong. He was not participating. I’m not here to tutor; I’m here to teach. And after a certain point, you have to say, I’m not everybody’s cup of tea. There are a lot of students here that would not enjoy a class with me, you know, and I understand that. And there are a lot of students, I think, who get something out of the way I try to access information for them. But it was not working, so I just—and I don’t have private conversation with students. You need to know that. Then, it’s subject to interpretation, whereas if you say what you have to say in front of the class, then everybody knows what you—at least what you’ve said.
And so, when—I don’t know—about the third or fourth day in—fourth class day, which would make it second, third week, I said, "You know, Mr. Cho, I think this is not working," because every day I would have to—every—I teach the Tuesday, Thursday. It would be because he had a hat pulled over his eyes. Well, you can’t do that. And I said, "Mr. Cho, please take your hat off." You know, that would be—we’d go through that. And then, "Mr. Cho, please take your dark glasses," because he’d have on, you know. And it’s just like, you know, this has to stop, because this is a will struggle. Now, first of all, I’m not your girl for will struggles. You know, that’s just not what I do. And so, I finally said, "Mr. Cho, this relationship is not working. I’m not teaching you, and actually I’m not teaching the class, because I’m expending a lot of energy on you. And I don’t—this is just not what we can do here. So I would like for you to find another class that you would prefer to be in, and I will speak to" — because it was beyond drop-add — "and I’ll speak to whomever, and we will—we’ll get you all settled, and that’ll be fine."
And he said, "I don’t want to leave."
And I said, "Mr. Cho, this is not column A and column B. What I’m trying to say, as gently as I know how to, is that you have to leave my class. That’s—you see, you have to leave my class. Now can I help you go someplace else?"
And he said, "I don’t have to do, and I’m not going to."
I said, "No, let me try this one more time, Mr. Cho. Either you or I will not be in class next Thursday. One of us will be gone. If I have to keep you in class, then I will resign, and that will solve that. If Virginia Tech has to make a choice between you and me, I daresay I think they’ll keep me. But this is something we’ll just have to work out." And I meant it. And I said it in front of the class, because I wasn’t trying to—he had to go.
And so, I went to my department head, Lucinda Roy, and I had been dealing with the fact that there’s just something so wrong here, but that mostly it’s disrupting my class. I’ve taught students that had difficulties. I’ve taught a student with Tourette’s. I’ve taught students that are autistic. I’ve—I can handle it. I’ve taught alcoholics. I’ve taught ex-soldiers who were nervous. Whatever this was was very different, and I wasn’t going to subject myself. And so, I said that to her. "This is the way this is. Either you get him out of my class, or Thursday morning you’ll have my resignation. It’s just that simple to me. I came here with a job, and I’ll leave with one. So, I’m fine."
And Lucinda said—well, she talked to whomever she had to, I suppose. And she said, "Well, would you mind if I tutored him?" I said, "I don’t—I really don’t. I don’t care what we—this is my bottom line: he has to go."
And I didn’t see Mr. Cho but one other time, between—that was in, like, I suppose 2005, you know, maybe '04. I didn't see him but one other time between then and the shooting. I know that Mr. Cho was not looking for me. I know that was not even—because everybody knows I’m not even on campus on Monday. This is an unusual day. I know that whatever it was, he had it planned. I’m not a big fan of, you know, mental breakdown. They plan, plan, plan, whether it’s Aurora, Colorado, or whether it’s the man that shot Representative Gifford and the federal judge. They plan, plan, plan, but then all of a sudden they have this—they’re mentally incapable, you know, mentally incapable. If they can buy a gun and buy bullets, then I think they’re very well capable. I think that guns are not one of our good ideas. I read the Constitution, and I didn’t see anything that said that any fool that wants a gun should have one. What did I miss?
AMY GOODMAN: And so, what happened? Where were you at the time?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I was coming back from San Francisco. I had been to a principals’ meeting in San Francisco. And I’m a big fan of what I call "something." And I had had my—I had made my presentation to the principals, and it was high school conference. And I was to have dinner with a group that evening, so that we could continue. And something said, "You need to go home," this—I’m a poet, so whatever the universe talks to me. Something said—I mean, I’ve shared this before. It’s not—something said, "You need to go home." And I thought, well, if I leave now, if I leave downtown San Francisco, I can be at SFO by 9:00. If I can’t get into SFO at 9:00, I can be on the 10:50 red-eye. And that’s what I was shooting for. And so, I did. And I said to the principals, you know, I said, "I’m really sorry, but I just—I just really have a strong feeling I need to go." I was thinking maybe something was happening in San Francisco that I needed to—I was never thinking I was coming into a buzzsaw, really didn’t have a premonition, just like I need to go.
And so, I flew all night into Charlotte. And when we got in Charlotte, the winds were—and, you know, we’ve been—I sleep. I could sit right here and sleep with these lights on. It’s a gift. God has given me a great gift: I can sleep anytime. And we started bouncing into Charlotte, and I was like, "Whoa!" You know, you woke up. And so, we got in. We got into Charlotte. And at 6:15, you know, it’s—the red-eye gets in. And we should have been on the 9:00 to come up here, but the winds were too bad. And so, they announced that it wasn’t, so I put my—I fly with my—with jazz. I flew with my ears on. And so, I just was in there. We’re on the E concourse, if you know Charlotte, and went back to sleep just waiting for the announcement of what we’re going to do. And then they—the next one canceled because of the winds.
But, you know, the airport doesn’t let you have information. And if you think that’s news you’re watching, you’re really crazy. They have wiped out anything that will scare you. So we had no idea — and I say "we" — those who were coming into Roanoke had no idea what was going on, absolutely none.
And we flew in, and they finally said, "We think we can make it." And so, we’re used to it here in Roanoke that you make the run for it, because we’re in the valley, so if there’s anything that’s around, it’s a problem. And they said, you know, "We’re going to go now." And that meant if you weren’t there, they loaded that plane, and we were gone. And I was ready, you know. And so, we flew in, because you come in on crosswinds. And we did get down.
And, you know, the kids live on their phones, on their iPhones or whatever it is. And a girl said, "Oh, my god!" I was sitting in like 13, I think. I think I was sitting in 13. So, she was about in 11. And she said was like, "Oh, my god!" She said, "There’s been a shooting at Tech. Twelve people." Then she said, "No, 21 people." And the whole plane, you know, is going like, "What?" You know, and we all—everybody said, "Oh, no. You must be mistaken. But, you know, it’s bad enough, but it’s probably one or two that you’re looking at."
And I weigh about 140 pounds. And as I came out of the plane, the winds were so strong that one of the guys came and got me and just kind of hugged me. And, you know, it wouldn’t have blown me away, but it was going to be pretty hard. And he brought me in, and you walk upstairs. We walked upstairs. And, of course, now we’ve got real news going, because it’s coming in real time. And at that point, it was 21, and then it went to 25. And normally, I’d take something called the Smart Way Bus, which is—at that point it was a dollar to take the bus from the airport to come to Tech. And I thought, OK, I’ll do that, and then I’ll get a ride home, because I didn’t have my car. And when we saw that it was 25 and rising, I ran down to Hertz and got one of the last cars, because it was a piece of—I want to call—name it as a piece of junk that I was ashamed to be seen in.
And I was driving home, trying to find news. And I don’t know what you’ve done in your—I was—I don’t know what the term is. I covered the Biafran war. I don’t know if I was privileged or crazy or what, but I—that’s the only war zone I’ve been in. And it’s a very strange feeling when you’re in a war zone, and you start with your radio and you can’t get anything. And I turned the radio on. It was a regular car. It was the—you know, not Sirius or something, just regular AM radio. And so, I’m turning, and I thought I’d get NPR, because VT is on, and couldn’t get that. I thought, whoa, that’s not good, because it felt like a coup. And I kept turning and turning. And so I went to Radford, because Radford has a really nice station. I thought Radford will give me some information, because now we’re—I’m alone in a car trying to figure out what’s going on. And we couldn’t get Radford. I finally was able to get a station, quite a distance here. It’s called Rock of Virginia, and it’s a rock station. It’s Rock of Virginia. And he had someone in Norris. And the person he had on the cellphone in Norris was relaying to him.
AMY GOODMAN: Norris is?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Is where the shootings occurred. And so, at that point, there were no shootings. Of course, we now know the shootings were over, but we didn’t know it then. So we’re getting that report from Norris. And that’s all of the information. So you felt like you were in the third world, that there had been a coup.
And about that time, WDBJ just shot past me. I mean, I was probably doing—I speed; that’s why I got the ticket the other day. I have a pretty heavy foot. And they shot past. They must have been doing 120 miles an hour. They just went shyooooh! And I thought, that was WDBJ. So, WDBJ shot past me.
AMY GOODMAN: This is the radio—TV.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: WDBJ is the hometown station, channel 10. And you see them around, this automobile, you know, but they had to be doing 120. So I did know this is serious.
I don’t live in Blacksburg; I live in Christiansburg. So when you come up the expressway, you—Christiansburg is first, and then you go on. And they had blocked Blacksburg off; you could not get into Blacksburg. And that was like, "Oh." So I couldn’t come on—you couldn’t get into Blacksburg. And it was like, "Oh, my god."
And my phone—I have three lines that come into my house, plus my mobile. I’ve never understood how people got my mobile. But all of a sudden—well, I went home, because there was nothing else to do. I turned on the television, and all of my lines were lit up. Just all of them was like all—a friend of mine from Cincinnati called, and he said, "Are you all right?" And I said, "I am all right, and I think I know who did this," because I couldn’t think of anybody but Mr. Cho. And somebody else said—I was talking later in the afternoon, and somebody said, "Well, you know, you shouldn’t say things like that." I said, "Maybe I shouldn’t, but I would bet." And I was right. It was Mr. Cho.
AMY GOODMAN: And it was you who gave this rousing statement at the rally.
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Well, I got a call from the president’s secretary—that’s how I got to know here, actually; I love her so much—Sandy Smith. And she called. She said, "Well, we need you to" — they had — I mean, these are not things I knew. I still can’t get into Blacksburg. She said, "We’re going to have convocation tomorrow, and we want you to wrap up convocation." And there’s nothing to say but yes.
But it’s a sad time. It’s still a sad time. And I wasn’t sure. And I knew that I was upset, because I lost friends. And I thought, well, I’m pretty good on my feet. But I thought, I don’t want to take a chance, because it’s going to be sad. And so, I just sat down at my computer, and I thought, we need a definition. We are Virginia Tech. We are [inaudible]. And I just got lucky. You know, it worked. I was never sure, but I just didn’t have any time to work on it. It was one of those things, like, OK, I can’t fix it. You know, you have to go with it. So, I think it did its job, so I’m very—I’m glad that it did. It’s still sad.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think needs to be done about gun violence, about violence?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I think we need—I think guns are a bad idea. And I think guns and automobiles are probably the two things we need to eliminate, that—simply because—excuse me, I’m sorry about this—they’ve outlived their usefulness. And I could see the point of guns when you were, you know, shooting, you know, Peter Rabbit and bringing him home and eating him, and, you know—or you were shooting, you know, Bambi, because your family is hungry. But there’s no sport to hunting. What makes that a sport? Tennis is a sport. The person on the other side has the ability to hit the ball back. Even football, which is violent, but I like football, is a sport—11 guys, 11 guys. You hope they don’t kill each other. That’s a sport. I’m not even sure golf is a sport, because you don’t really play anybody. But the golfers get mad when I say that. But I know hunting is not a sport.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re flying off to Colorado after this, and this—professors at the University of Colorado Boulder, a number of them are very scared because these students are now allowed to carry concealed weapons onto campus. What do you say to them?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: I said to my students, because Virginia had the same thing—I said, "Now here’s going to be our problem." I said it when this happened, because that’s when it came up that we’re going to—I said, "This is what we’re going to do if Virginia passes a law that students can carry guns. We’re going to drop our clothes outside the door, and we’re going to come in in underwear that is form-fitting. I will, and you will. And we will have class as close to naked as we can, because I’m not going to try to teach somebody that I don’t know what’s in his pocket. It’s that simple. And why should he—why should you all have to be bothered with me not knowing if I’m carrying, you know, a grenade? So we’re all going to drop our clothes, and we’ll come in, and we’ll all know that we’re naked and vulnerable, and it’ll be fine." I meant it.
That would frighten me. Then what are you supposed to say? Somebody doesn’t like your interpretation of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; they pull out their gun and shoot you? You remember—you’re New Yorkers. Are you New Yorkers? Do you remember, because I was living in New York then, when we had the gas wars? And people jumped—you know, every now and then, somebody would jump in front—in line in front of somebody. We had people to shoot people, to kill—no, not shoot, to kill people. We’ve had people in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles—these are what I know of—to shoot people on park—over parking spots. What kind of sense do you let everybody have a gun? And what kind of stupidity—I mean, I get so tired. I’m not against the Old Testament, but I get so tired of the Old Testament, you know, well, "an eye for an eye." And as somebody else said much better than I, that leaves everybody blind. Guns are an idea whose time has passed. It’s that simple. Cars and guns are two things you don’t need.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you have any message for President Obama, for Mitt Romney?
NIKKI GIOVANNI: Neither one of them is standing up for anything, and I think that that’s disgusting. You running for president, then tell me what you’re going to do about it, because if you’re not concerned about gun violence, what in the world are you concerned about?
AMY GOODMAN: Nikki Giovanni, Virginia Tech University distinguished professor, as we sat in her office just a few hours ago.
That does it for our broadcast. Tune in Wednesday night for our special expanded coverage of the first presidential debate, as President Obama and Mitt Romney square off. Democracy Now! will broadcast live from Denver. We’ll air the debate, pausing after each question to include responses from two presidential contenders left out of the debate: Jill Stein of the Green Party and Rocky Anderson of the Justice Party.
And our Election 2012 100-city tour continues tonight in Boulder, Colorado; I’ll be speaking at 7:00 p.m. at Unity Church. On Thursday, I’ll be speaking at the Tim Gill Center for Public Media in Colorado Springs. Check our website, tour.democracynow.org.