For most people across the country, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has meant one thing and one thing only: football. This is the school of Michael Vick, his talented yet troubled brother Marcus and NFL running backs Lee Suggs and Kevin Jones, among many others. Under coach Frank Beamer, the Hokies have become a rather unlikely football factory. They have played in fourteen straight bowl games and have had twenty-seven players drafted by the NFL in the past five years.
Their burnt-brown uniforms are as much a part of the season as the turning of the leaves. This was Virginia Tech. Not anymore.
In the aftermath of the shootings we can see that while Hokie Nation has been enriched by football, it is not defined by it. It’s a place where we discovered the actual lives of a diverse group of students–black, white, brown, man, woman, Holocaust survivor and Muslim–joined in a brutal kind of solidarity. We have learned who these students were: their majors, their interests, their ideas, their humanity. (And perhaps it can make some of us mourn even more for the scores dying in Iraq and their humanity, which rarely if ever gets explored beyond the tag of “collateral damage.”)
One of the striking aspects of a university renowned for football, engineering and agricultural studies was that Virginia Tech is the academic home of poet Nikki Giovanni. Once known as the “Princess of Black Poetry,” Giovanni has for four decades written uncompromising works about civil rights and Black Power, revolution and sexuality. In the books Black Feeling, Black Talk (1968), Black Judgment (1968) and recent works about hip-hop and her ordeals with cancer, she has written the kind of jagged poetry that agitates the comfortable. She is a 63-year-old woman with a tattoo that reads “Thug Life” in honor of Tupac Shakur. She is also a part of Hokie Nation. (And had the gunman as a student).
A shard of comfort in this horrid ordeal was hearing Giovanni speak in the convocation that followed the massacre. Giovanni had the generosity and dexterity to draw on both her politics and the Hokie’s football chants to bring the crowd to their feet. (This shouldn’t be too surprising. A little research shows that she wrote a piece in her 2007 book Acolytes about a “grandmother’s strong support for Virginia Tech Hokies football.”)
Here is a transcript of her poem:
“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 brave enough to bend to cry, and we are sad enough to know that 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 the rogue army, neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory…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 hands 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 imaginations and the possibilities we will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all this sadness. We are the Hokies. We will prevail. We will prevail. We will prevail. We are Virginia Tech.” This was followed by the entire auditorium, the tears running freely and without shame, chanting “Let’s Go Hokies” while Giovanni pumped her fists to the skies.
A mother of a Virginia Tech senior wrote about this on her blog.
“I listened to poet Nikki Giovanni at the Convocation read ‘We Are Virginia Tech’ and thought that some listeners must have thought it odd for a poet to talk about “We are Hokies.” I would have thought the same before my son started Tech. I associated Hokies with sports, especially football, and the overwhelming volume of fans at the stadium. But it is more than that. When the students chanted ‘Let’s Go Hokies’ or just the word ‘Hokie,’ that too must have seemed odd, perhaps irreverent, to some given the circumstances. It absolutely was not that.”
No, it was not. Soon thereafter, the No. 1 Hokie Michael Vick came forward to donate money to help with funeral costs and other support services and said, “When tragic things like this happen, families have enough to deal with, and if I can help in some small way, that’s the least I can do.”
Their coach, favorite son Frank Beamer, has also come forward to say, “We’re going to beat this thing. We’re going to overcome. This one guy isn’t going to dictate how we’re going to feel.” Frank Beamer and Nikki Giovanni. Two peas in a pod. Who woulda thunk it?