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A seemingly impossible, utopian moment occurred on April 16, 2007 at the convocation following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech, in which student Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members. Nikki Giovanni, a luminary of the Black Arts Movement and a professor at Virginia Tech, read her stirring poem, “We Are Virginia Tech,” to the capacity audience in Cassell Coliseum. At the poem’s conclusion, the full house rose cheering and chanted, “Let’s Go, Hokies.” In this context, the familiar sports chant “took on new meaning,” as one local newspaper noted. The chant became a poem. And the audience members became poets, performing in alliance with a black feminist poet.
This essay argues that this transformation became possible despite Giovanni’s racially marked and gender-queer performance because of Giovanni’s poetic invocation of unity in the context of the physical space of the sports arena. Giovanni’s poem invented a “we” that drew upon what Marvin Carlson would call the “haunted” aspects of the sports arena. Unlike the “we” constituted through past performances of athletic events, however, Giovanni’s “we” had no “they.” This subtle but crucial twist enabled Giovanni’s performance to harness the power of the athletic “we” (a “we” that is, like collegiate sports, always racially saturated) while steering it definitively away from the insularity, racism, and xenophobia that so palpably threatened to overwhelm a campus that had just sustained a mass shooting by a man of color. Most significantly of all, the setting of the sports arena invited the restoration of gestures—standing, chanting, clapping—by which the audience performed utopia. Nikki Giovanni’s performance, and the audience’s physical response, ultimately enables a new understanding of utopian performance—one based not on audiences feeling, but on audiences moving.