Historically Speaking

I was born on Octo­ber 20, 1950, to Ber­nice and James Grimes. As befits a poet of African-Amer­i­can descent, I was born in Harlem, home of the Harlem Renais­sance. When I was 13, I would give my first pub­lic poet­ry read­ing at the Coun­tee Cullen Library, one block away from Harlem Hos­pi­tal, where I came into the world.

My fam­i­ly was trou­bled before I was added to it, and for the first five years of my life, my par­ents sep­a­rat­ed and reunit­ed count­less times before their final split. Dur­ing this time, my old­er sis­ter, Car­ol, and I were bounced around from one rel­a­tive to anoth­er, one fos­ter home to anoth­er, just like the lead char­ac­ter in Jazmin’s Note­book.

At 5–1/2, my sis­ter and I were sep­a­rat­ed. She was sent to one home, and I was sent to anoth­er. (Is it any won­der I write about fos­ter homes in books like Hop­scotch Love, Road to Paris, and A Dime a Dozen?) Though many of the fos­ter homes were hor­ren­dous, the last home in Ossin­ing, in upstate New York, was a refuge where I enjoyed secu­ri­ty and a sense of per­ma­nence for the first time in my life. It was a place where I knew I was loved.

My fos­ter par­ents had two chil­dren of their own, two boys who I became very close to, and I still keep in touch with Kendall, the old­er of the two. It was while liv­ing in Ossin­ing that I first began to write.

After pen­ning my first poem, there was no turn­ing back!

At age ten, my moth­er remar­ried and invit­ed my sis­ter and me to come back “home.” I loved my fos­ter fam­i­ly, but I thought it was impor­tant that I get to know my birth-moth­er, so I accept­ed her invi­ta­tion. I moved back to the city. Sad­ly, my sis­ter did­n’t stay with us for very long.

Nikki Grimes foster brothers
Here I am in Ossin­ing, New York, with fos­ter broth­ers Kendall and Brad Buchanan. Sad­ly, Brad is no longer with us.

The rest of my child­hood was spent in New York City. What schools did I attend? That’s an impos­si­ble ques­tion for me because I was moved around so often. I spent a few years in Brook­lyn, in some of the mean­est streets where gang fights were as reg­u­lar as rain. Some days, I won­dered if I would sur­vive. In fact, I nev­er imag­ined that I’d get to be as old as I am! I’d talk my way out of a fight when­ev­er I could, but when I could­n’t I learned to defend myself. I still have scars to remind me of that time. I am not proud of those scars, only grate­ful that I lived to tell the sto­ry. So far, none of my char­ac­ters have been through half of what I have.

I don’t remem­ber the names of the schools I attend­ed in Brook­lyn, but I do remem­ber Stitt Junior High School in Wash­ing­ton Heights. Those years were rough, but I read and wrote my way through them. In fact, when I grad­u­at­ed, I won my first writ­ing award. It was a cop­per medal shaped like an old-fash­ioned ink bot­tle with a feath­er pen stick­ing out of it. Years lat­er, author and illus­tra­tor Julie Mam­mano paint­ed a logo for me fea­tur­ing that very design. I also remem­ber that grad­u­a­tion for anoth­er rea­son. It was one of the two times I’d ever seen my father in a match­ing suit jack­et! He always wore sport coats and leather loafers, like the dads in many of my books.

When I was­n’t read­ing or writ­ing, I was run­ning, swim­ming, or play­ing bas­ket­ball. Today, my only involve­ment with sports is as a spec­ta­tor. I love ice skat­ing and gym­nas­tics. How­ev­er, as a girl, I was quite the tomboy—until it came to foot­ball. The first time I was tack­led, that was it. I was done. I am not into pain! I decid­ed to leave foot­ball to the boys. Besides, in junior high, I was sud­den­ly less inter­est­ed in being “one of the guys,” and more inter­est­ed in being with one of the guys.

After grad­u­at­ing, my moth­er moved us to the Bronx and I start­ed attend­ing William Howard Taft High School, the set­ting for Bronx Mas­quer­ade. It was the ’60s and I got caught up in grass­roots orga­niz­ing, sit-ins, and polit­i­cal demonstrations.

Besides all the tur­moil the coun­try was in fol­low­ing the assas­si­na­tion of JFK and Mar­tin Luther King, Jr., my father — my best friend in all the world — died. My per­son­al world was upside down. I was so hurt, angry, and stressed out, I thought I would explode.

Nikki Grimes in Harlem
Isn’t this the geeki­est look­ing kid you’ve ever seen? I think I was born wear­ing spec­ta­cles. I must have been 7 or 8 here, on a street in Harlem.

Thank God for Mrs. Wexler.

Mrs. Wexler was one of my high school Eng­lish teach­ers as well as guid­ance coun­selor. A Holo­caust sur­vivor, Mrs. Wexler impressed upon me the impor­tance of focus­ing on the future. “This, too, shall pass,” she’d say of the chaos that was my life. And because of her own his­to­ry, I believed her. She encour­aged me to focus my ener­gies on that which I could control—my stud­ies, and my prepa­ra­tions for col­lege and the life I want­ed for myself.

Her advice rang true. Had­n’t I always chan­neled my ener­gies towards school? Some­where along the way, I had begun to drift off course. Now, with her help, I got back on track. I nev­er lost sight of it again.

The sec­ond most impor­tant per­son in my high school years was the author, James Bald­win (Anoth­er Coun­try, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Dev­il Finds Work). I met him in my junior year and was blessed to have him as a men­tor until his return to France a year-and-a-half later.

Bald­win was the sin­gle most impor­tant influ­ence in my lit­er­ary life. From him, I learned many things. To hon­or my tal­ent, my gift. To write with hon­esty, integri­ty, and a sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty toward my audi­ence. Most of all, he encour­aged me to mas­ter the tools of my craft, to expand my knowl­edge of lan­guage, to enhance my flu­en­cy in my moth­er tongue. I loved his work. He may not have been a poet, but his lan­guage was among the rich­est I have ever read. It’s no acci­dent that he was one of the most hon­ored authors of the last cen­tu­ry. I will for­ev­er be in his debt.

All through school, I wrote poems and sto­ries. And I read. Rav­en­ous­ly. Every­thing. Mys­ter­ies, myths and leg­ends, biogra­phies, sci­ence fic­tion, his­tor­i­cal nov­els, short sto­ries, and, of course, poet­ry. I dreamed of one day hav­ing my own books on the library shelf!

A Dime a Dozen

My moth­er was any­thing but sup­port­ive. When­ev­er I talked about want­i­ng to be a writer when I grew up, she would say, “writ­ers are a dime a dozen!” Hence, the title of my auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal col­lec­tion of poems, A Dime a Dozen. I was one of those peo­ple who pur­sued my art in spite of my moth­er, not because of her. Of course, times have changed. Today, she is very proud of what I do. Go figure!

My father, a vio­lin­ist and com­pos­er, was just the oppo­site. He encour­aged my artis­tic pur­suits in every way. He gave me my cul­tur­al edu­ca­tion, took me to my first bal­let, my first art exhib­it, intro­duced me to my first author, got me my first signed book, and so on. In fact, he was for­ev­er giv­ing me books. Dur­ing my teens, at gift-giv­ing time, no mat­ter what else he had for me, I could always look for­ward to a new book. There’s no ques­tion but that my father helped to shape the artist that I am today. I even tried play­ing the vio­lin for awhile, just like him!

Peo­ple fre­quent­ly ask when I began pub­lish­ing my work. The answer? In high school. I pub­lished poems in the school lit­er­ary jour­nals, then in oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals and magazines.

I fin­ished high school in the Bronx, but my school career was spread out over four of the five bor­oughs of New York City, and four years upstate in Ossin­ing. The inner city is, there­fore, the back­drop against which I most often write. The city street is the ter­ri­to­ry I know best.

Nikki Grimes and high school friends
I was six­teen in this pho­to. The girl on the left is my old­est friend, Debra, on whom Zuri Jack­son was loose­ly based! The girl in the mid­dle was our friend, Gail. Back then, we thought we might be models.
Mrs. Wexler and Nikki Grimes
Mrs. Wexler, one of the adults in my life who was very spe­cial to me.