What Is the Tone of the Poem "All I Gotta Do"?
Nikki Giovanni accomplishes a remarkable navigational feat in her poem "All I Gotta Do," like someone sailing a sea of emotions on a raft. The work presents a woman waiting; the reader does not know what she awaits. Giovanni's art lies in her tonal shifts; these shifts in tone depict an evolution of feeling that begins in patience, passes through near fury and ends in hopeless resignation, all emphasized by her diction and repetitive phrasing.
Gender and Racial Issues
It's impossible to ignore Giovanni's racial background or gender, or her commitment to racial equality, in analyzing the work; she is both an African-American and a woman, and her cry for the thing she wants, which goes beyond Langston Hughes' cry for his "Dream Deferred," is an expression of need for recognition of her gender and race. Her tone is hopeful but impatient at the beginning, speaking two truths she repeats endlessly, "all i gotta do is sit and wait" and "cause i'm a woman." The waiting is endless; her patience is not.
Uneducated and Desperate
Her lack of capitalization speaks to her race's and gender's lack of education; the irony of shutting down a communicative person's right to communicate -- "if i can learn how" -- augments the poem's message of need, whose tone is increasingly impatient, moving from "it'll find me" to "you got yours/i want mine." In later lines, her tone turns desperate -- "i gotta get it/i need to get it" -- and the emotional shift moves her to action; she calls and goes to the store but "they didn't have it."
Betrayed and Angry
Giovanni now involves a loved one -- the reader perhaps -- as her desperate tone turns angry at betrayal: "called your name lying in my bed ... but you didn't have it." Not only is the loved one not with her, which betrays their intimacy with absence, this individual cannot be bothered to go find "it" -- "offered to go get it but you didn't have it." Giovanni moves from angry to hurt: "so i'm sitting." Her mood seems to withdraw into a shell; her tone grows similarly reticent.
Now lost in her ignorance -- "all i know is sitting and waiting" -- Giovanni delivers a final sting to the reader, her betrayer. Her barbed message is nothing more than her two key phrases repeated once again; like a drum or heartbeat activating the poetry, the phrases now emphasize her tone of hopeless defeat: "i gotta wait/wait for it to find me." Like Job's wife, she waits in ashes.
Michael Stratford is a National Board-certified and Single Subject Credentialed teacher with a Master of Science in educational rehabilitation (University of Montana, 1995). He has taught English at the 6-12 level for more than 20 years. He has written extensively in literary criticism, student writing syllabi and numerous classroom educational paradigms.