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In this searching interview, legendary Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez discusses the ancestral influences on her work and how art can give us strength.
Editor’s Note: You can hear Sonia Sanchez read some of her poems at our launch event for Ancestors next Thursday, March 11! In addition, we are thrilled to announce that Sonia Sanchez will be one of the judges for this year’s creative writing contests. Free for writers from non-Western countries (as well as those experiencing hardship), our short story and poetry contests are open now.
A key figure in the Black Arts Movement and a founder of Black Studies, Sonia Sanchez has authored more than a dozen books of poetry, criticism, and plays. Though I’ve never met Sanchez in person, it is not an exaggeration to say that her life as a poet, playwright, and professor has made my own possible. Taking a class on the Black Arts Movement as an undergraduate introduced me to the fire behind her language. My graduate training in African American Studies showed me images of her as an impossibly young professor, fighting for the establishment of Black Studies at San Francisco State University. And most recently, in my own life as a young professor in Philadelphia, I’ve seen Sanchez enter a room and be suddenly surrounded by former students, friends, and colleagues, living evidence of her lifelong generosity of spirit. Sanchez radiates brilliance, humor, and integrity, and her work has touched countless lives.
It was a joy, then, to speak with her about the many people, living and dead, who have shaped her own journey. In our interview, she discusses mentors and teachers as well as her fierce devotion to her students. She concludes by recalling her writing process for A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), an astonishing volume of poetry shaped by the artist’s dream dialogues with her late mother.
“How could I be a graduate in New York City and never come across these Black books?”
Christina Knight: You have mentioned before that there are lots of people, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, who have inspired you and your own vision for a more just and peaceful world. Could you talk about who some of those people are—those chosen ancestors—who guide you on your journey?
Sonia Sanchez: Some of them are people like Jean Hutson, who was a curator and then chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for decades. When I was finishing my bachelors at Hunter College, I had done some substitute teaching around my neighborhood, and I had this agreement with the principal that I would have a job in September. But I graduated in January, and when you come from a family that’s not wealthy, jobs are very important, are they not? So my dad said, “Well, you’d better go out and get a job.” I looked around in the newspapers and I went to all these places to get a job, and they all said they were filled. But I had the feeling that it had to do with how I looked, you know, my color, right? Someone I was talking to said, “Why don’t you look at the New York Times? They have all of these ads.” So I looked and there was one that said to write in; it was for a writer for a firm. And I thought why don’t I, at that point, play with what I really want to be?
So I sent my CV, and I wrote whatever they asked me to write. And I got a telegram on Saturday that said to report to work on Monday; I was hired. So on Monday I went out in my blue suit, and my hat, and my blue pumps, and my blue bag. I had gloves and everything. I went out like a church person, you know what I mean? I got there at 8:30, and I remember waiting outside this door, which was locked. I’m standing there thinking, “Am I in the right place?” And I heard these heels come clicking down the hall. This woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” So I took the telegram out and handed it to her.
I remember she read it, and then she looked up at me; she looked back down, she read it again, and then she looked back up at me. Then she handed it to me, unlocked the door, and said, “Come in and have a seat.” You know how it is just to be twenty? How young you are at that time? Being eighty-six, now, you look back, and you remember the youngness in your eyes—like, “Whoa, here I am, I’m going to get a job. I’ve been hired to do something that I want to do.” It’s amazing. So I’m sitting there, and a man walks in and says, “Yes, can I help you?” I got up, and I had my letter out, and I handed it to him. And he read the letter and looked at me; he looked down at the telegram and read it again and looked up at me. And you know, I am smiling the whole time. And he handed it back to me and said, “I’m sorry, the job is taken.”
With my New York City humor, I said, “Oh, I got it—the telegram said report to work at 9:00 a.m. I got here at 8:30. I’m going to go outside, and wait ’til it’s nine, then I’ll come back in, and we’ll start over again.” I kind of smiled but he didn’t smile; he just looked at me and said, “The job is taken.” And I turned around and said, “No, no, no. Did you read the telegram? It’s impossible for a telegram to come on Saturday, and the job is taken Monday morning.” He said, “The job is taken,” and he turned around and went out that door.
So I’m standing there, and I said, “I understand. This is about discrimination, and I’m going to report you to the Urban League.” He turned around and shrugged like, “Lady, I don’t care who you report it to.” I remember going all the way to the subway, with tears in my eyes, and I got on a train. In New York City, if you want to stay on the West Side, you have to get off at 96th Street to make sure that you get that West Side train. It’s the one that’s going up to 168th Street. All of a sudden, the door closes, and I stand up, and I realize that I missed my stop; and then that train shifts over to the East Side, where the train starts to shake, and you think it’s going to collapse. It feels like it’s having a nervous breakdown.
“I said, ‘I understand. This is about discrimination, and I’m going to report you to the Urban League.’ He turned around and shrugged like, ‘Lady, I don’t care who you report it to.’”
I knew that if I was going to the Urban League to report this, I had to get up in the 130s, so I got off at 135th Street, across the street from Harlem Hospital, and started walking west. About a fourth of the way down the block there’s just a little building that says “Schomburg Library.” There’s a guy out there smoking, so I looked up and I said, “What is the Schomburg?” And he said, “Miss, go inside, sign in, and walk up the steps. There’s a lady in there, and she’ll tell you.” I went inside, signed in, went up the steps, and got to this place where there was an amazingly long table, and nothing but Black men were sitting there with books stacked up—scholars, right? Their heads were down, and they never looked up. To the right of that was this glass door. I knocked on the glass door, and the door opened. I said “Hello,” and I introduced myself. And she says, “My name is Jean Hutson.” So, I said, “Miss Hutson, what kind of library is this?” And she said, “My dear, this library has books only by and about Negroes.” And me and my fresh mouth said, “So there must not be many books in here, huh?”
In my teaching career, I would always bring my students to the Schomburg to do research and to meet her also. Every time I brought my students, she’d tell that story: she’d say, “I have a story to tell you about your professor.” I’d move to the back, and after she’d finish, my students would say, “Ooo, I’ve got something on you now.”
But anyway, there we were. So she went, and she asked the men to move over; she pulled up a chair, and she said, “Just sit down, and I'm going to bring you some books.” Fifteen or twenty minutes later, she comes back with Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk (1903), and Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). She said, “Just look these over,” and she went back into her office. I started with Their Eyes Were Watching God.
As I kept reading, my eyes and my mouth became accustomed to the Black English. You really do have to stretch yourself, because although we did use some Black English in our home, we never saw it written. So, there I was struggling with it. And then I started to get some rhythm, and then I had to get up again. I remember easing my way out and knocking on the door.
I said, “How could I be a graduate in New York City and never come across this book?”
“I know,” she said, “I'm going to give you lots and lots and lots of books.” And that began the training. I would tell my father I was looking for a job, and I would come down there, take my hat off, put my coat over the chair, and begin to read again. There I was, every day, supposedly looking for a job.
Later Hutson she sent me to Lewis Michaux’s African National Memorial Bookstore on Seventh Avenue, as well as to Richard Moore’s Frederick Douglass Book Center on West 125th Street, which was so small you had to go in sideways, and which had a lot of books about Black Caribbeans. Each one of them gave me grocery bags of books. And that is why I say to you simply: This woman was certainly one of the people that I would talk about with great respect and great love. But there’s also Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, and Gwen Brooks, who was an amazing writer but also a supporter of young writers—she was always giving an award to us, you know, in the form of some money to keep us going. Margaret Walker, Sterling Brown, of course; Queen Mother Moore, who introduced me to the idea of reparations; and contemporaries like Amiri Baraka and Joy Harjo.
CK: But I love that it all started with Jean Hutson, that day when you walked into the Schomburg.
“When I was young and trying to take classes taught by famous poets, I would go in and the entire class would be white men, and I was the only Black woman there. I’d make a comment, and no one would acknowledge the comment that I had made.”
SS: And from that motion and movement there, from reading those books, Black books. That took me to people like Shirley Graham Du Bois, who became my mentor, later, when I was at Amherst College. She was at the University of Massachusetts working on the W.E.B. Du Bois papers, and she was at my house almost every night. I would feed her, and she would keep me up. I would put my twins in the bathtub, and they would flood the floor, while we talked downstairs and ate together. She really introduced me to international Blackness, and through that I came to be in dialogue with the work of people like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o and Chinua Achebe.
But I’m also a writer of haiku and have been influenced by Japanese writers such as Bashō. And then people like Howard Zinn, whose teaching about progressive politics at Spelman and impacted Alice Walker and so many others. And of course the Beat Poets, such as Allen Ginsberg. All of these people helped teach me how to become the poet that I needed to be.
I remember a period when I was young and trying to take graduate classes taught by famous New York poets, but I would go in and the entire class would be twelve or thirteen white men. And the teacher, the poet, would also a white man, and I was the only Black woman there. I’d sit there and I’d sometimes make a comment, and no one would acknowledge the comment that I had made. So after about the third session I left. That happened twice.
But then I saw that Louise Bogan, the poetry editor of the New Yorker at the time, was teaching a class I hadn’t registered for, but I went anyway and when she arrived she said, “Good afternoon,” even though it was night, and she said that the class would be focused on form. The whole group moaned, because we were free verse people. Who in the hell wanted to write a sonnet or a villanelle? We knew what we wanted to write. We wanted to write like the Beat poets, and we knew we wanted to write like Langston Hughes, although he did some form like blues and ballads. But there we were. And I realized from that class that form will not deform you. If I wanted to call myself a poet, it was important that I knew what all these other forms were about.
One time she had us choose a poem to mimic, and I found myself in a bookstore roaming around the poetry section, and I saw this very beautiful book with a flower on it. I sat down on the floor and started to read haiku and I started to cry. It was like I found myself in poems—just like I’d found myself in Langston, but this time I found something else. I found something beyond just the poem. It was the idea of what haiku was all about. It’s hard to explain things like this. But there I was. This poem, which was ancient, was also modern. I began the practice of writing the haiku, I realized it had already been written in my body, in my hand, in my head, before I wrote it down, that it was already in my breath, in my DNA. It was already in my bloodstream.
I understood that through this form of seeking what I call “another truth,” I was seeking the truth about what it meant to be Black, and the truth of my people, and my authority as a Black person and my right to be Black. But there’s also the truth of beauty, and that’s what I found.
”I understood that through the haiku form of seeking what I call ‘another truth,’ I was seeking the truth about what it meant to be Black, and my authority as a Black person and my right to be Black. But there’s also the truth of beauty, and that’s what I found.”
CK: In your articulation of your own ancestral journey, there are curators, and peers, and then, crucially, professors who helped shape your craft. Could you talk about how you work with your own students?
SS: I love teaching, you have no idea. I miss teaching. To go into a classroom, and encounter students who are willing to give their inner thoughts to you—and then engage them in beauty and not anger. They put so much trust in you that you will not destroy them. When I teach I try to be clear that it’s not about what is right and what is wrong, but what would work better. So that students know, we don’t destroy people in this classroom. We help them to get to better words. We show them how to do that.
CK: We’re having this conversation in the middle of the pandemic, still isolating in our homes, and it’s hard to hear these reflections on classroom teaching without thinking about the magic of being in the room with other people. You often also talk about the magic that’s in a room when you are giving a live reading, standing there invoking beauty. So let’s transition from talking about teaching to talking about performing. When you think about your legacy, what is important to you about being on stage in a room with other people?
SS: When I was studying with Bogan, she would take us to hear famous poets read their work. And after she would often say, “He sure can’t read, can he?” We wouldn’t be sure how to respond, because we were students, and didn’t know how far we could go. She would say, “You have to practice. You have to read your work out loud.” Because the poem is the dance of the page. When you give it out to an audience, it has got to be there, pulling up, getting ready to soar, dance, spread itself, do the magic that needs to be done, to capture them, to make them enter your arena, and they don’t get released until you are at the end of that poem, then you release them. That’s the power that you and that poem will have over an audience. You’ve got to understand that there’s music in those lines and in those words. There’s magic in them. But there’s also authority in there. There’s also a responsibility—that is a part of what I teach, the responsibility that you have when you give these words out in an auditorium, in the classroom, to the universe.
“When I teach I try to be clear that it’s not about what is right and what is wrong, but what would work better. So that students know, we don’t destroy people in this classroom. We help them to get to better words.”
I want my students to know that the function of your art is not necessarily to save people from horrors, but to give us all the strength to face them down. And then when the poem is read, it transfers to the audience the responsibility contained in the words.
In my poems I use sound and words that go straight down to our bones, to our guts, to the chains that chained us up, to the leaps off of those boats, to the brutality of when he said, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” then you keep holding them on the neck until they can’t really breathe anymore. In my early poems, I would write words that would stretch out, I was trying to imitate the sound of a scream, but I would write it out. I was listening to John Coltrane, and all those great musicians, who were playing at that time. I began to imitate their sound, this sound. There was no one who was doing it on page. So therefore we had to figure out how to do it.
But we would call on our ancestors. Who had challenged us to write a scream in a poem that would tell the truth, that would ask for mercy, that would let them see that you come from this herstory and history and you got to tell that story so we can all get to the truth and be whole again.
Sometimes, when we would go see poets, students would say, “I felt like he was acting like a fool on the stage.” I would say, “Yeah, he was, wasn’t he?” I said. But when you write what we write, you can never act a fool on a stage. Because your ancestors would be with you always, demanding, challenging you. If you tell the truth, there is no stupidity, there is no foolery.
One of my most powerful ancestral experiences was when I was writing A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women. I started having these dreams, and I remember the first time I woke up, I was scared. I got up out of the bed. I started coughing. I thought, “Oh my God, you’re gonna suffocate.” Because I was in this tomb with this woman who was blue—dressed in blue, and she had this blue stuff on her eyelids. And she was comforting me, but I was uncomfortable. I woke up. I woke up and started turning on lights in the bedroom. And I remember I went to the kitchen to put on tea, and I started to write.
Knowing I would have this recurrent dream, I was often hesitant to go to bed. But the woman finally said, “You know you’re safe here. I will take care of you.” I thought, this is my mother, who’d died giving birth to twins when I was about two years old.
“I want my students to know that the function of your art is not necessarily to save people from horrors, but to give us all the strength to face them down.”
CK: When you dreamt about your mother, what did she have to say? What did she want you to know?
SS: When I dreamt about her while writing A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, I was writing a book that I was lost in. But when I began having these dreams with the woman in the tomb, I started asking people what books I should read about Egyptian women. Because I knew this was an Egyptian woman. About the burying of women? And I asked historians also, what books do I read in order to understand what I think I’m experiencing in a dream? About Egyptian women being buried, talking to me about who I am, consoling me about how I was living, opening up to me. So therefore, if you read A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, it is a book that is quite different from any other book I’ve ever written. It is a book that goes back into herstory, and history. It is a book that made me study Egypt and African themes.
The book begins with an introduction called “Queens of the Universe,” which is about Black women as I knew them. Then it turns to the Holy Quran, with an epigraph from Sura XCVI:
Read!In the nameof thy Lord and CherisherWho created . . .Created man, out ofa clot. . .Read! And thy Lordis most bountiful . . .Who taughtby the penTaught man thatwhich he knew not
The second section, called “Past,” begins this way:
Come into Black geographyyou, seated like Manzu’s cardinal,come up through tonguesmultiplying memoriesand to avoid descentamong woundscruising like ships,climb into these socketsgolden with brine.because i was bornmusician to twoblack braids, icut a blue song for america.and you, cushionedby middleclass springssaw ghettosthat stretchedvoices into dustturned corners where peoplewalked on their faces.I sang unbendingsongs and gathered godsconvenient as christ.i am the frozenface, here myface marchestoward new mythswhile spring runsgreen with ghosts.i am the livingmask, here myskin wornwith adolescencepeels likepicasso’s planesand the earthin one fold ofpermanence staresat the skies.if i had a big piece of dustto ride on, i would gather up my pulseand follow disposable dreamsand all things being equalthey would pass into butterflies& quiver in sprawling yellow.
I wrote that about the third time that I was lying in the woman’s arms. It was like I didn’t know what I was writing, but I knew what I was writing. I would look up after I’d written it and read what I wrote. In the poem “woman” I address her again:
Come ride my birth, earth mothertell me how i have become, becamethis woman with razor blades betweenher teeth.sing me my history O earth motherabout tongues multiplying memoriesabout breaths contained in straw.pull me from the throat of mankindwhere worms eat, O earth mother.come to this Black woman. you.rider of earth pilgrimages.tell me how i have help five bodiesin one large cocktail of loveand still have the thirst of the beginning sip.tell me. tellLLLLLL me. earth motherfor i want to rediscover me. the secret of methe river of me. the morning ease of me.i want my body to carry my words like aqueducts.i want to make the world my diaryand speak rivers.rise up earth motherout of rope-strung-treesdancing a windless dancecome phantom motherdance me a breakfast of birthslet your mouth spill me forthso i creak with your mornings.come old mother, light up my mindwith a story bright as the sun.
I would go back each night and listen. And although there were times that nothing was said, I heard the unsaid said. And I would then not sleep, get up, go in my study, and look for me in those books, and also from her at the same time.
So that’s how I wrote that book. The whole book was written always when I looked forward to going to bed and getting the words.
CK: This has been such a moving experience. It’s been such an honor to talk to you.
SS: Thank you, my sister. I hope you understand the tears. There’s some things that you forget, and then you remember. And that was quite an experience for me writing that book.
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