An Old Adage’s Expiration Date: Giovanni’s Sweet Inspiration
“If white defines Black and good defines evil then men
Define women or women scientifically speaking describe
Men. If sweet is the opposite of of sour and heat the
Absence of cold then love is the contradiction of pain and
Beauty is in the eye of the beheld.”
—”The Laws of Motion”
According to Nikki Giovanni, the old idiom “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is wrong. Bloomsbury International claims people everywhere have repeated this empowering reassurance in varying forms long before Christ walked the earth. Many Southerners can probably remember a beloved family member—maybe a mother or grandmother—dangle the phrase over the heads of awkward children like a magic talisman. It’s a well-meaning phrase, yet it implies that the “beheld’s” worth depends entirely on someone else. Simply put, it’s garbage.
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1943, Nikki Giovanni developed her voice from her mother and grandmother. In an interview with Poetry Foundation, she said she comes “from a long line of storytellers.” Her poetic talents blossomed during a time of upheaval in Southern history, as prominent Civil Rights figures such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. began challenging the worth of African Americans—or lack thereof—in the eyes of their own beholders: white lawmakers and a public that supported toxic, racist barriers. Giovanni’s poetry of that time often worked against that common phrase to give power back to and dare the beheld to find their own worth in their own eyes.
Many Southern mothers have said to their daughters, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Giovanni disputes this in her poem “Mothers,” which appeals to the idea that mothers place the power of worth in the hands of their offspring and not onlookers. Giovanni finds her own mother enjoying solitude during the night, and learns a brief rhyme:
“‘come here,’ she said ‘i’ll teach you
a poem: i see the moon
the moon sees me
god bless the moon
and god bless me’”
The poem’s seemingly innocuous rhyme demonstrates that one can desire the best of life for what they find beautiful while simultaneously wishing the same for themselves. The last lines state that Giovanni will later have her own son recite the rhyme for her mother “just to say we must learn / to bear the pleasures / as we have borne the pains.” The end implies that no matter who sees beauty or wishes blessings on the beheld, both parties will endure struggles and triumphs. Thus, the beholder’s vision holds little sway over the beheld’s existence. Seeing does not define the value of the subject. The subject’s battles, both past and future, will continue to color the subject’s view of self.
Giovanni further outlines the beheld’s power in “You Came, Too.” The poem initially strikes the reader as a search for a friend:
“I came to the crowd seeking friends
I came to the crowd seeking love
I came to the crowd seeking understanding
I found you”
Though it initially appears the narrator has found the company she desires, later verses suggest the universal truth that only the narrator truly knows the full extent of the struggles and joys of her own existence. When we find satisfaction and beauty from within, we no longer need the crowd or any one person to validate us. Only you are guaranteed to continue being around for you forever.
“I went from the crowd seeking you
I went from the crowd seeking me
I went from the crowd forever
You came too”
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is meant to comfort, but does it empower? It doesn’t challenge us to look at ourselves and find our own worth. In “Dreams,” Giovanni describes typical girlhood visions of becoming a famous singer before she would “settle down / and just become / a sweet inspiration.” These verses imply that we are what we chose to become, not what others envision for us. The sweetest part of Giovanni’s decades-old reach of inspiration is the challenge with which she presents her readers in finding self-worth.
In “The Laws of Motion,” Giovanni asserts that “the eyes however are a mirror of the soul.” How many of us see another human as perfectly imperfect as we, and think of things we dislike or improvements would like to see in that other human? Giovanni shows us that whatever beauty or lack thereof we find in another human is likely reflected within ourselves. “Any desirable object is / bought and sold—any neglected object declines in value. / It is against man’s nature to be in either category.” A human’s worth is indeterminable by other humans; perhaps the only way to find value in others is to first find it within ourselves. To create a hierarchy of worth is more unnatural than any tradition-bending concept that arises in a society’s culture.
Nikki Giovanni’s poetry teaches readers that this age-old expression has reached its expiration date. The myth that a person’s worth comes from another person needs to be tossed out of the fridge like last year’s forgotten butter tub of leftovers. When people find value within themselves, they’ll be too preoccupied to devalue others. As Southerners, we ought to repeat to future generations what Giovanni wisely advises: “Beauty is in the eye of the beheld.”
(Photo Credit: “Nikki Giovanni” by Brett Weinstein can be found on https://bit.ly/2GeHWQx.)