Grammy-nominated poet Nikki Giovanni raised some eyebrows in a Black History Month talk Friday night by making a rather unorthodox proposal.

“We need every 10th person on earth to go into space,” she said. “We need to send people to Mars. After all, we’re not doing anything else.”

Giovanni, who is also a professor of English and black studies at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, read a poem entitled “We’re Going to Mars” to about 300 students, faculty and community members gathered in the Calhoun College dining hall, urging them to recall the experiences of African American slaves while pushing for progress and exploration in the 21st century.

The event — which was sponsored by Calhoun College, the Afro-American Cultural Center and the James Humphrey Hoyt Memorial Fellowship — also featured musical performances by violinist Benita Jones ’04 and the Yale Gospel Choir and an award presentation by the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.

Giovanni argued that advancement in this century hinges on America’s willingness to revisit the history of African American slaves. She said Americans must try to understand how enslaved Africans retained their humanity and endured in a completely unfamiliar environment. Only then, she said, can Americans overcome their fears of venturing into the unknown.

“Somehow [African slaves] found a song that carried them through history,” Giovanni said. “They made a decision [on their journey to America] that whatever it was they became, they would remain sane — they would keep their souls. These were great people.”

Giovanni’s second poem, entitled “In the Spirit of Martin,” dealt with progress from a different angle. While the poem is an elegy to Martin Luther King, Jr., Giovanni said its purpose is to bring King “up to date.” She stressed the need to prevent King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech from becoming an “archive,” suggesting that Ja Rule or another rapper create a rap version of the speech, calling it “We are Here to Cash a Check.”

“That’s what the speech is all about,” she said. “America wrote a check [promising equal rights] and [African Americans] have a right to cash that check.”

Giovanni’s poem featured an “updated” King with braids and tattoos juxtaposed with descriptions of the past including the “red clay of Georgia” that stained the hands of African slaves for centuries. The poem concluded with an assertion of its spiritual nature.

“This is a sacred poem. Open your arms, turn your palms up, feel the spirit of greatness and be redeemed,” Giovanni read.

While many audience members were already familiar with Giovanni’s poetry — and its author’s tendency to stir up controversy — some students said they were surprised by the speech.

“I had never heard about her prior to coming, but I was very impressed with what she had to say,” Mark Henry ’04 said. “There was some truth to everything she said, and coupled with her humorous spin, it came across as inoffensive.”

Raquel Thompson ’06 said she appreciated the provocative subject matter of Giovanni’s speech and poems.

“She pushes the envelope a lot, which creates a lot of tension,” Thompson said. “But the world doesn’t move forward without tension.”

Giovanni’s album “The Nikki Giovanni Poetry Collection” was nominated for a Best Spoken Word Grammy in the 46th Annual Grammy Awards, which aired last night.

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