By titling “Reflections” with a date instead of naming King’s death, Giovanni anticipates how “April 4, 1968” will become synonymous with that world-historical loss. But she also implies a more expansive view of what happened that day, one that is less about King’s death than about how black Americans responded to it: They were already rioting in cities across the country by the time Giovanni sat down to write and reflect. Rather than memorialize King’s leadership, Giovanni turns to the people he seemed to be leading, and asks what they might do, in his absence, to subvert or fulfill his legacy.
By focusing on King’s impact on “poor Black [women]” and on other everyday people, Giovanni honors King’s own populist ethos. That ethos comes through in King’s sermonic technique of ending his speeches with lyrics that his listeners might sing together. He sometimes transposed those lyrics into communal terms. At the 1963 March on Washington, for instance, King imagined a multiethnic group of citizens joining hands to sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.” Giovanni pays unexpected homage to that technique when, at the end of “Reflections,” she alludes to King’s favorite gospel song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord,” and turns its petition for individual aid (“Take my hand, lead me on”) into a call for collective action: “Precious Lord—Take Our Hands—Lead Us On.”
Now 74, Giovanni has remained both a true renegade and a steadfast, beloved poet of the people for the same reason that King became a great leader: their belief in ordinary folk and willingness to work both with them and for them. For King, that meant boycotting segregated buses, investing in black-owned banks, and supporting striking sanitation workers. For Giovanni, it has meant, in addition to writing poetry, recording spoken-word albums in the ’70s and delivering a unifying convocation speech at Virginia Tech (where she’s now a professor) after the 2007 mass shooting there.
In a recent interview with The Atlantic, Giovanni explained that her populist ideals are in line with King’s belief in collective leadership—in empowering regular individuals to be at the fore of the struggle for civil rights. “I have a lot of faith in the people,” Giovanni told me. “‘Cause if we don’t have faith in the people, then how are we going to go forward? But Martin had faith in the people. You’re standing there on the [National] Mall, speaking to the people because you believe in them,” she said, referring to King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Giovanni insists that the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson should be recognized as the person who prompted King to “tell them about the dream.” It was at Jackson’s urging, Giovanni notes, that King told the crowd, in essence, “I have faith in you. I think that we can go forward. We who are black, white, men, women, straight, gay … That’s what his dream really meant.”