The award recognizes outstanding and long-lasting contributions to literature by authors with Virginia ties. Past recipients include Edgar Allan Poe, Rita Dove, Tom Wolfe, William Styron, Booker T. Washington, John Grisham, and Barbara Kingsolver.
Renowned especially for her poetry, Giovanni has long used her literary gifts to raise awareness of social issues, particularly those of gender and race. By the time she received her bachelor’s degree in history from Fisk University in 1967, she was already an outspoken activist for civil rights and equality. A year later, she published her first books of verse. Giovanni joined Virginia Tech’s English faculty as a Commonwealth Visiting Professor in 1987 and became a full professor in 1989.
Giovanni has published more than two dozen volumes of poetry, essays, and edited anthologies, as well as 11 illustrated children’s books, including Rosa, an award-winning biography of Rosa Parks. Giovanni’s autobiography, Gemini, was a finalist for the 1973 National Book Award. In 2004, her album The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection was a Grammy finalist for the Best Spoken Word Album.
Giovanni has received numerous awards, including the inaugural Rosa L. Parks Woman of Courage Award, the American Book Award, the Langston Hughes Award, the Virginia Governor’s Award for the Arts, and the Emily Couric Leadership Award. She is also a seven-time recipient of the NAACP Image Award. The recipient of 27 honorary degrees and the keys to nearly as many cities, she garnered her most unusual honor in 2007, when a South American bat species—Micronycteris giovanniae—was named in celebration of her.
A devoted teacher, Giovanni has been a visiting professor and poet-in-residence at numerous colleges, and she encourages students of all ages to express themselves creatively through writing. “Nikki Giovanni has a keen eye, a strong voice, and a deep commitment to poetry and writing as tools for both remembering the past and creating a richer and more compassionate future,” said Elizabeth Spiller, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “Nikki is fond of arguing that the one thing we would need to survive on a deserted island would be a book of poetry; it’s clear that her life’s work has had just this kind of singular impact on her many readers.”
Giovanni received her award on October 15, 2016, at the 19th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards Celebration in Richmond. The celebration was part of the weeklong Virginia Literary Festival.