In author and civil rights activist Toni Cade Bambara’s environmental justice-based novel, The Salt Eaters, the character Obie finds himself at a massage parlor while in search of some critical healing after experiencing the toll environmental racism has taken on his body from fighting its constant battles. Yet, he is bewildered when Ahiro, the masseuse, explains to him: “You know what you really need?… A good cry, man. Good for the eyes, the sinuses, the heart. The body needs to throw off its excess salt for balance. Too little salt and wounds can’t heal. … But too much—.” In trailing off, Ahiro suggests that someone who never cries in order to release the accumulated excess salt, also does not fully heal. After receiving much resistance from Obie, Ahiro finally tells him: “Never be too tired to laugh … or too grown to cry.” 
Literary giant, activist, and distinguished professor Nikki Giovanni’s latest collection of poetry, aptly titled, A Good Cry: What We Learn from Tears and Laughter, is a delicate study in doing both. The collection is partly the result of Giovanni being diagnosed with hypertension following a seizure and being ordered by her doctor to reduce her salt intake. Giovanni instead self-diagnosed what she felt was the root cause of her health issues, explaining to her doctor, “My problem isn’t salt, it’s that I never learned to cry—and to let it out.” 
Her employment of non-rhyming schemata allowed her poetry to be read just as easily as prose. She employs the same writing style in A Good Cry, weaving between poetry and prose forms as a way of not only getting deeply personal, but also deeply reflective.
As a result, Giovanni bares her soul in A Good Cry. She seems expressly aware of the fact that “a good cry” can come at the expense of either joy or pain, and sometimes even, is the reaction to being overwhelmed by both emotions happening at once—as she describes in a heartfelt poem dedicated to her impoverished godmother who left her $50 in a will despite being destitute. This money became the way she was able to escape from living in an abusive home environment. This collection is—as Giovanni describes in the poem—about her own process of “learn[ing] how to cry” (6) and to “respect tears”: for many years she handled trauma by suppressing any emotional weight she felt simply because she was too busy to dwell in the pain. Giovanni stated that she only recently discovered how cathartic the act of crying could be when she finally allowed herself to grieve following her mother’s passing. This deeply reflexive and meditative way of dealing with past traumas has been described by literary scholars as a form of “ancestral cultural healing”. A Good Cry then is a spiritual communion of sorts, a sacred experience of Giovanni remembering, honoring, and reckoning with her past. What results is a deeply personal reflection on loved ones, places, and moments that forever changed her and shaped her into the fiery poet we thought we knew so intimately all before.
It is these experiences that gave way to Giovanni’s deft detailing of the complex ways in which race, class, and gender intersected in America, catapulting her into the spotlight as a voice of the “national consciousness.” Known for her blaring, freestyle sophistication, much of Giovanni’s poetry became popular because of its ability to be a timely representation of the experiences of many black people living in segregated America during the 20th century. She possessed a unique ability to write poetry that was not only black and proud, but poetry that was black, proud, and feminist too (cue “Ego Tripping”). Perhaps most distinct, is her skillful use of free verse. Her employment of non-rhyming schemata allowed her poetry to be read just as easily as prose. She employs the same writing style in A Good Cry, weaving between poetry and prose forms as a way of not only getting deeply personal, but also deeply reflective.
Dispersed in the collection of poems are interludes, if you will, where Giovanni uses the essay form to insert autobiographical narratives as a way of providing readers further context. In one such short essay titled “Education Early On,” Giovanni reminisces about catching the attention of a junior boy while herself, yet a freshmen enrolled at the historically black college, Fisk University. She fancies the opportunity to have a good “look-over” of her crush during dinner hours at the university’s dining hall, which required that students wore their Sunday best in order to enter. This scene serves as an important back-drop for a poem later in the collection which details her fondness for her beloved alma mater, and for when she dons her educator hat in order to explain her “recipe for education” in the essay, “The Tassles Worth the Hassle.” Giovanni advocates for healthier food choices, ending high school after the tenth grade, and a 6-year college experience that would include substantial time focusing on community service and living abroad.
Dispersed in the collection of poems are interludes, if you will, where Giovanni uses the essay form to insert autobiographical narratives as a way of providing readers further context.
Yet, the true beauty of A Good Cry lies in Giovanni’s ability to move between a range of sentiments, doing so in the most poignant of ways: by saying it plainly and direct. She does not shy away from talking about the circumstances that comprised her life. Multiple poems are dedicated to the emotions she felt as a young child witnessing her mother endure years of domestic violence at the hands of her abusive father. She explains that her mother realizes that she has one of two options: “leave or kill him.” (5) In other poems, she details her young adult years living in New York City with very little money, exploring book stores for fun. She speaks about the experience of surviving lung cancer and the generosity of a student who braved a snowstorm to in order to satisfy her daily Starbucks fix. Poetic eulogies for the late Maya Angelou and activist Afeni Shakur are layered between touching tributes reflecting her admiration of Rita Dove, Ruby Dee, and Big Maybelle, the noted blues singer. And though the icon known as Nikki Giovanni runs in circles comprising other famous people, she sticks close to home, dedicating a poem about the change in seasons to a longtime friend who she refers to as her year-round best friend, “no matter the season.” (8)
While Giovanni invites readers on a journey with her to experience the moments that bring her profound sadness and laughter, readers also experience the deep pleasure she gets out of life, such as the experience she has while eating a slice of warm, buttered bread for instance:
On my fingers
I was so happy
Similarly, many poems in the collection are of Giovanni dreaming or speaking about the importance of being able to dream in order to imagine new futures. As such, in A Good Cry, words, worlds, and environments collide. In a number of her poems, she uses the construct of space-time to reimagine new possibilities for African Americans. In one solemn moment, she asserts that the United States’ intrigue with space is because “we no longer have Middle Passage available,” so “we seek the quiet-side of the sun.” Our desire is to know: “What life-form does it warm?” (9)
Giovanni once wrote that she is confused at the description of her as a “writer who writes from rage.” To which she has responded: “Writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.”
However, Giovanni finds it just as important to pay tribute to the black institutions and organizations that helped ensure the survival and success of many black Americans despite having to endure conditions as second-class citizens. She celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the black sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, and details the impact of African American-owned newspapers, because without them “we would not have known the possibilities.” (68)
Giovanni once wrote that she is confused at the description of her as a “writer who writes from rage.” To which she has responded: “Writing is … what I do to justify the air I breathe.” As a result the poem, “Black Lives Matter (Not a Hashtag)” reads as an affirmation: “Black Lives Matter … We honestly Do.” The poem is her justification that black people deserve to take up just as much space in this country, on this planet as anyone else, writing in the poem, “I’m not ashamed of our history because I know there is more to come.” (54)
Giovanni’s assertion that, “People have seizures because they hold things in,” is her way of making sense of her life. A Good Cry is, as it has always been, Giovanni’s way of speaking truth to power, to releasing the salt, and healing old wounds.
It is therefore not a coincidence that Giovanni concludes the collection with a piece dedicated to the opening of the National Museum of African American History. Titled, “The Museum (at Last),” the poem is a thoughtful rumination about some of the people and moments that have shaped the black experience in America. However, it is also a way for Giovanni to make clear that black people represent what it means to be American because African American culture was created and birthed in the United States.
Giovanni’s assertion that, “People have seizures because they hold things in,” is her way of making sense of her life. A Good Cry is, as it has always been, Giovanni’s way of speaking truth to power, to releasing the salt, and healing old wounds. It is a deeply-moving heartfelt journey of the worlds that comprise Giovanni’s life. Through her tears and laughter, we meet a Giovanni who is still not too tired to laugh, or too grown to cry. If you find yourself shedding tears of laughter or pain, it is because Giovanni seeks to remind each of us that we all could use “a good cry” from time to time.