Nikki Giovanni’s “When I Die:” Forgiveness and Revolution

[By Simone Savannah]

Excerpt: Nikki Giovanni’s “When I Die:”

 when i die i hope no one who ever hurt me cries
and if they cry i hope their eyes fall out
and a million maggots that had made up their brains
crawl from the empty holes and devour the flesh
that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person
that i probably tried
to love


I have always had a hard time with the idea of forgiveness. So, naturally, my God-mother constantly reminds me to “Let go of the past and forgive. Holding on to pain, anger, and hurt that has been inflicted by others (or that you’ve inflicted on yourself) prevents healing and blocks new, positive energy from your life. Embrace the present by releasing the past. Let go.” But, what does forgiveness really mean when it comes to political matters and revolution?

Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “When I Die” presents a speaker who is not afraid to talk about the ways in which people have hurt her.  Inasmuch, the first stanza (above), seems to present a theme of (un)forgiveness. For instance, the speaker addresses her relationship to Black men (and women) when she states,

please don’t let them read “nikki-roasa” maybe just let
some black woman who called herself my friend go around
     and collect
each and every book and let some black man who said it was
negative of me to want him to be a man collect every picture
and poster and let them burn -throw acid on them- shit
     on them as
they did me while i tried
to live

Because Giovanni addresses domestic violence in her poem “Nikki-Rosa,” one could argue that the stanza above refers to Black men’s reactions to the poem and her stance on violence against women more generally. She refuses to be content with Black men’s rejection of her politics, especially because their rejection means that she (and other Black women) will continue to be hurt by their refusal to be men.

As I read Giovanni’s piece, I am constantly reminded of a quote by bell hooks’. She states, “For me, forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” By the end of the poem, readers may find that the speaker’s anger or refusal to forgive is connected to people’s refusal to change or participate in a revolution. Readers have already witnessed this in her stanza about Black men. It is also evident in second to last stanza when she states,

somebody please
tell him i knew all along that what would be
is what will be but i wanted to be a new person
and my rebirth was stifled not by the master
but the slave

Here, the speaker continues to critique the people that she “probably tried/to love”. It asks that slave reexamines its role and its negative impact on her life. Situated in this idea of hurt and forgiveness, it asks that the slave transforms itself. Returning to the beginning of the poem, the speaker seems to call for the death of the slave, or the people who have hurt her. In hoping that maggots “devour the flesh/that covered the evil that passed itself off as a person/that [she] probably tried/to love,” the speaker seems to call for some type of exposure and rebirth. She hopes that they will be exposed in some way, which may allow for their transformation. Or, it may allow them to see the ways in which they hurt her and feel it, too.

At the end of the poem, the speaker seems to take on a calmer tone when addressing the people who have hurt her as well as the reader. In connecting Giovanni’s poem with hooks’ conflict with forgiveness, one may argue that Giovanni does believe in transformation, and therefore is able to forgive and more forward. It presents this idea of touch or remaining in touch with someone in order to relieve hurt or obtain change. The speaker seems to recognize her role and others’ role in relieving pain and in progression:

and if ever i touched a life i hope that life knows
that i know that touching was and still is and will always
be the true