Poet. Mother. Professor. National and International lecturer on Black Culture and Literature, Women’s Liberation, Peace and Racial Justice. Sponsor of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Board Member of MADRE. Sonia Sanchez is the author of over 16 books including Homecoming, We a BaddDDD People, Love Poems, I’ve Been a Woman, A Sound Investment and Other Stories, Homegirls and Handgrenades, Under a Soprano Sky, Wounded in the House of a Friend (Beacon Press, 1995), Does Your House Have Lions? (Beacon Press, 1997), Like the Singing Coming off the Drums (Beacon Press, 1998), Shake Loose My Skin (Beacon Press, 1999), and most recently, Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010). In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Scholar and The Journal of African Studies, she has edited an anthology, We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans. BMA: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review is the first African American Journal that discusses the work of Sonia Sanchez and the Black Arts Movement. A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucretia Mott Award for 1984, the Outstanding Arts Award from the Pennsylvania Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, she is a winner of the 1985 American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades, the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities for 1988, the Peace and Freedom Award from Women International League for Peace and Freedom (W.I.L.P.F.) for 1989, a PEW Fellowship in the Arts for 1992-1993 and the recipient of Langston Hughes Poetry Award for 1999. Does Your House Have Lions? was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is the Poetry Society of America’s 2001 Robert Frost Medalist and a Ford Freedom Scholar from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Her poetry also appeared in the movie Love Jones. Sonia Sanchez has lectured at over 500 universities and colleges in the United States and has traveled extensively, reading her poetry in Africa, Cuba, England, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, Nicaragua, the People’s Republic of China, Norway, and Canada. She was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University and she held the Laura Carnell Chair in English at Temple University. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award, 2004, Alabama Distinguished Writer, and the National Visionary Leadership Award for 2006. She is the recipient of the 2005 Leeway Foundation Transformational Award. Currently, Sonia Sanchez is one of 20 African American women featured in “Freedom Sisters,” an interactive exhibition created by the Cincinnati Museum Center and Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition and she was the recipient of the Robert Creeley award in March of 2009.
Season 2 of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations.
Produced by BlackStar Projects, in partnership with RowHome Productions.
Host and Executive Producer: Maori Karmael Holmes
Producer: Dallas Taylor
Associate Producers: Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman
Managing Producer: Alex Lewis
Executive Editor: John Myers
Music supervisor: David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music in Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative
- Theme song composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by David ‘DJ Lil Dave’ Adams.
- Mochi Robinson – Dunkaroos (feat. Zoe Lemon)
Ed Bullins (1935-2001)
Toni Morrison (1931-2019)
Toni Cade Bambara (1935-1995)
Amiri Baraka (1934-2014)
Jean Blackwell Hutson (1914-1998)
Up from Slavery: An Autobiography (written by Booker T. Washington, 1901)
The Souls of Black Folk (written by W. E. B. Du Bois, 1903)
Their Eyes Were Watching God (written by Zora Neale Hurston, 1937)
James Baldwin (1924–1987)
“This is Not a Small Voice” (written by Sonia Sanchez, from Wounded in the House of a Friend, 1995)
Does Your House Have Lions? (written by Sonia Sanchez, 1997)
Chinua Achebe 1930-2013
CORE (Congress of Racial Equality)
Gwendolyn Brooks 1917–2000
Sterling Allen Brown 1901-1989
Margaret Walker 1915–1998
Dudley Randall 1914–2000
June Jordan 1936-2002
Audre Lorde 1934-1992
Max Roach 1924-2007
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)
Grace Lee Boggs 1915-2015
(00:00:00) Maori Karmael Holmes: As part of their enduring commitment to justice, equity and expression, The Open Society Foundations are proud to sponsor Many Lumens.
You’re listening to Many Lumens, where we talk about and find meaning in the intersections of art, social change, and popular culture. I’m your host, Maori Karmael Holmes.
For this episode, I’m joined by poet, activist, mother, and professor, Sonia Sanchez. Sister Sonia’s accomplishments are far too vast to fit into an introduction, but to name a few, she’s a recent recipient of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, The Leeway Foundation Transformation Award, the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University, and was named Philadelphia’s first poet laureate in 2012.
In our conversation, we start by reflecting on how we first met. And Sister Sonia carries us from there as we talk about struggle, love, loss and so much more. She talks about her experiences as a young adult in New York, her love for the form of Haiku and its influence in her life, as well as the challenges and balancing act of raising children while maintaining her artistic practice. And now, for my conversation with the one and only Sonia Sanchez.
(00:01:31) Maori Karmael Holmes: We often, with these interviews, kind of start off with figuring out how I’ve met my guest, and I couldn’t remember when we met. I mean, of course, I knew who you were when I moved to Philadelphia, but I don’t know if we met through Scribe [Video Center] or if we met through Leeway [Foundation], but I remember us really forging a connection when you showed up to my late partner Vijay’s memorial. And I don’t know if you remember that, but you said, “If you need to call me and scream in the middle of the night.” And I felt seen, and held, and it was just so incredible because I feel lucky to breathe the same air as you and I just really appreciate you and appreciate all the support.
(00:02:18) Sonia Sanchez: Well, we your elders feel that part of the job that we were attempting to do was to make sure that there would be a continuation of this work in all the genres. And so that’s why, yes, I do really mean that. At that time, I really meant if woke up in the middle of the night or you were up all night and you wanted to scream, just say, “Hey, Sister Sonia, I’m going to do a scream. Will you do it with me?” And I said, “Mm-hmm. I know what you mean, girl. And we can do that together.” I’m not being facetious on that. Sometimes, we do need company with our screams, okay? With our laughter also. With our vision also. All that is so important. So yeah, I do know. That is what I miss now. I miss all my dear friends, who have may transitioned, that at four o’clock in the morning, they’d give me a shout out and say, “Girl, you got to hear what I just wrote.” And I would not say, “Do you realize it’s four o’clock?” Because I might have just gone to sleep at that time, but the point is that I knew that I was part of herstory at that time, my sister, and as I listened, I cried solidly. And then afterwards I laughed and then I said, “I don’t like that line, but it’s yours, but if I were you, I’d say it again and again.” But I think I met you, if I’m not mistaken, maybe at Leeway. And then next at Louis’s place, but I think I was a judge for something at Leeway. And then Leeway, in all the great work that it does, gave me also a grant at some point to finish something that I was doing. So, yeah. I’m almost sure that was it, but also I had seen you around at things. We had never been introduced, but I think we were truly introduced there at Leeway and also at Louis’s place.
(00:04:37) Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, okay.
(00:04:38) Sonia Sanchez: At Scribe. And you get a chance when you’re grabbing something to eat and you begin to talk about what you’re doing. And what I do remember is that you began to tell me about the work you were doing. And I said, “Oh, wow. Invite me. I’d like to come. I’d like to be there.” I love film, and I don’t know if you remember, but I told you at that time, “What I miss about being in Philadelphia,” I said, “Is that on the weekends, I saw film in New York, in the village.” And I lived on Broadway, Riverside Drive, 94th Street and Riverside Drive. And so I would walk up and there was Atalia and two of the other foreign films. And I very seldom saw American films. It was always outside this country because they were doing some amazing work at that particular point. And I would go in with my pad and as I watch some of the films, I was writing and watching at the same time. In those days, I could do that with the first viewing, because you could sit in that theater and sit for the same show to come up again, 10, 15 minutes later. Of course now, they turn on the lights and put you out. Isn’t that amazing? Yeah. But then you could sit, if you wanted to see that film two or three times, there you were in that theater doing that. That, I miss a great deal.
(00:06:07) Maori Karmael Holmes: This is making me think about something we’ve talked about, but I’ve not really heard you talk about publicly, but you have written a few screenplays, right? And spent some time––
(00:06:17) Sonia Sanchez: Oh gosh, yes. When some of the people in Hollywood, and I put in quotes, some “progressive” people doing films. They invited Ed Bullins and myself out because they had seen some of our plays. I had done, I think about 20 pages for this progressive. And it was about Billy as a child. And it was like, you know how they started doing the films where they would show what was going on before they flashed on who’s starring at it, right?
(00:06:51) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:06:51) Sonia Sanchez: And so it started out with these nuns sitting on either side of this little Black girl in the middle. And I don’t know, I wasn’t telling people how to do it, but it gets to this place and she comes in, and they take her in front of the nun who’s in charge. And they began the conversation about what a terrible little girl she was, whatever. And they ask her something and she turns, and she spits in the nun’s face. And they take her out. You can see, as the credits come on, they put her in this room and tell her to get undressed. And she puts on her pajamas and they say she’s sharing the bed. And she gets in bed and she starts talking to this person, whatever. “I don’t know what, all I did was that, all I just did,” whatever, whatever. And then she realized that she’s put in bed with a child that’s dead. And that’s how it opened up. And that woman looked at me like I was insane. She’s, “Uh-huh. Okay, this is, yeah, yeah, this is…” But the thing that I like about film and poetry is that you can see it, but I still am playing with that. It’s interesting you brought that up because I saw it again and I said, “Oh, damn, this is good writing you just sit here, Sonia.” And you haven’t… I mean, I’m talking about all the way back now, my sister, in the late ’60s, early ’70s, you hear that?
(00:08:34) Maori Karmael Holmes: Mm-hmm.
(00:08:34) Sonia Sanchez: And that thing.
(00:08:35) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:08:35) Sonia Sanchez: But what’s so interesting about poetic prose or a poem, and the difference. I know I’ve been writing a novel for a long time and I used to ask people who were novelists and sister Toni [Morrison] and other people, who were novelists. And I said, “I just went back to this piece.” And they said, “Yeah, how’s it coming?” And I said, “It’s not.” I said, “They changed on me.” And they said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, I came up and picked up the character where I had left her. And all of a sudden she says, “Uh-uh. No, no, no. I don’t think that way anymore.” And I mean, I was so surprised by that. I remember asking Toni one night. I said, “I know you don’t ask me how the novel’s coming along, but I want to ask this question.” I said, “This question is, I mean, a strange thing happened.” I said, this character just said, “I don’t think this way anymore.” And she started laughing. She said, “Oh, welcome.” And I thought, I said…
(00:09:42) Maori Karmael Holmes: Now, which Sister Toni is this?
(00:09:44) Sonia Sanchez: Oh, I’m sorry, Sister Toni Morrison. Right. Yeah.
(00:09:47) Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
(00:09:47) Sonia Sanchez: Now, I never read anything to Toni Cade Bambara. This is sister Toni Morrison. I’m sure if Toni Cade would’ve been awake at that time, I just never would’ve called her. She probably would’ve called me at four o’clock, but I wouldn’t have called her because I didn’t know her schedule and stuff. I mean, other people, I knew their schedules, like [Amiri] Baraka and people. So I knew that I really was not waking them up unless all of a sudden they got lazy, you know what I mean? Whatever. I knew they were up working and so therefore it was okay.
(00:10:30) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:10:30) Sonia Sanchez: Right. Yeah. Right. Yeah.
(00:10:35) Maori Karmael Holmes: Speaking of schedules, I wanted to ask you, I know you’re a Virgo and you’re very disciplined, and I was curious if you have a morning ritual.
(00:10:44) Sonia Sanchez: My ritual in the morning is to… I’m in bed, I give thanks for seeing another day and I do some breathing exercises. Sometimes I have a pad by my bed, and so I do a morning Haiku. That’s why that book of Haiku is called Morning Haiku. It is like my mantra. You know how some people have a mantra or a prayer, my morning Haiku is usually relevant of what I’m thinking about at some particular point, or what I’m trying to do. And so I do a morning Haiku. I love the Haiku because it is, my sister, is peaceful. That one of the things that I do when I teach the Haiku is that I don’t just teach the form or begin to talk about the form, but I make the students face each other. And I make the student take the right hand and put the right hand on your partner’s heart. And then, your partner would then put her right hand on your heart. And then you will cover her hand with your left hand. And I said, “Okay, everybody, listen to this heartbeat.” And the most important thing about that is that when you hear your partner that you have for that afternoon, perhaps, the person you’re working with, and you’re listening to his or her heartbeat, you can never say anything negative about that person. You hear that heart beating, you say, “Oh my God, this is someone human. This is no one that I talk about or I roll my eyes at, because she said something or she looked at me funny, whatever.” So that’s why I began it. And then you do that, there’s this amazing silence in the room that happens. And what you have done is that you have set the tone for the workshop. It works on any age group. In a graduate, I would make the students write definitions of Haiku. And I came in with one in our graduate class. I said, “You know what a Haiku is?” They said, “What, Sister Sanchez?” I said, “A tough lady disguised in three-legged beauty,” Because the Haiku is tough, by the way. You really have to get down with the Haiku. You know what I mean? It has all this essential beauty that is felt. But this beauty in nature is linked to human nature. That’s why I teach the Haiku because I want their human nature to be linked with their own nature, this human nature, because there’s no greed or excess in the Haiku, it is a split second where that sunset is profound, that bird eating that worm is profound, that bird that once, as I was sitting, flew in this a little orange bird, came on the table where I was eating. And I mean, can you imagine that? And I looked, and I didn’t want to move, because I didn’t want to frighten the bird, because this is a profound moment of this bird landing on the table here and not being afraid that I will smash it, that I will hurt it. You know what I’m saying? Right. And so we know then that the Haiku poem explode from a bird landing on your table from clouds, and rain, and sunsets, and all of these words that fly out on clouds and come from our fingertips. But that’s what I feel, so it is of course what they call nature poems, which is simplistic in a sense, but it is about if you do see something in nature, it is always linked to human nature. So at some point you really want to tell people who want to begin wars at some point, that if you could get them to understand exactly what the nature that they would be walking in, and shooting in, and fighting in, and killing in, if they really understood that nature, they would not go out and kill at all. It is an amazing, what I call it, an amazing idea about humans also linked to nature. So that’s why I love the Haiku so very much.
(00:15:51) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. So in the research for this interview, one of our producers included this quote. And I won’t read all of it, but it says, “From the moment I opened that book and read the first Haiku, I slid down onto the floor and cried, and was changed. I had found me.” And so this is talking about you discovering Haiku at 21 years old and awakening something deep and spiritual. And I was curious for you, besides this becoming a form that you practice now for 60-plus years, what else was going on for you at 21 years old?
(00:16:28) Sonia Sanchez: Oh, Lord. A lot. Now, I got out of Hunter when I had just turned 20. I registered right away. We didn’t have any money, people weren’t giving us money, so I registered for two courses because that’s all I could afford at NYU. And I had done some substitute teaching during the times. I had finished my coursework in September, so I had done some substitute teaching in Harlem. And so the guy there said, “Oh, you’re doing great work with the children, so we’d like for you to come back in September and you have a job.” So I said, “Good, that’d be fine.” But I always wanted to write, I was always writing. And my family knew I was writing, but they thought it was a hobby. My dad said, “You have all this time before you have a real job in September, so why don’t you answer some of these ads and go down?” So I went and registered for all these places and I finally got the New York Times. My dad actually bought The Times and there was this ad, and they wanted someone to write what was happening at the firm. Isn’t that amazing? And I said, “I’m going to apply for this.” I had to send a sample of my writing, and a CV. Yeah. And I did that, let’s say I did that on a Monday or Tuesday, I got a telegram and I read the telegram on this Saturday. And it said, “Report to work on Monday.” I was hired. I was hired as the writer for a firm. You got to hear that, whatever. So I remember rushing out getting a blue suit that I had pressed at the cleaners. And I had my blue heels, I was never a hill wearer, so it was like a little tidy pump, because I’d never liked heels. I always thought there was something strange about heels. I thought that the legs and the feet really did not like heels at all. And I had a hat on, and a purse, and white gloves, girl––I went down there and I started getting there. The telegram said, “Report to work at 9:00 AM and I got there 8:30. And I remember looking up at the number and this big building. And I went and the door was locked, and all of a sudden I heard these heels walking down and there was a secretary receptionist. And she said, “Yes?” And I took out the telegram, my sister, and handed it to her. She read the telegram and she looked at me. We’re still outside the door. She read the telegram again, I swear, and she looked at me again for a second time. And she read the telegram and she looked at me again. And then she handed it back to me and unlocked the door and went inside. Whatever it was, there was also a back entrance to this place. I didn’t know, whatever, because she told me to sit down and I sat down. And I’m excited, and I’m looking all around thinking, “Oh, I will be working here.” Right. Whatever. And she got up and left. She took one of those old fashioned typewriters, she took this little leather thing off and set up whatever, opened her drawer and brought out all the things that she had, whatever, etc. And then she went behind the door, one of the doors, and she was gone and I’m sitting there. And by now it’s about a quarter to 9:00. And she comes out and she starts typing on that typewriter. And the door opens and this guy came out and said, “Yes, can I help you?” And I stood up and handed him the telegram. And he did the same thing she did, he read the telegram and he looked up at me. He read the telegram again and he looked up at me. I can still see it, my sister. He read again for a third time and he looked up at me and he said, “I’m sorry, the job is taken.”
And I said, “Oh, I got it. It’s a quarter to 9:00. You said, ‘Report at nine o’clock.’ I’m going to go outside and wait until it’s 9:00 and then I’ll come back inside and everything will be okay.” And he did not laugh, he did not smile. I mean, he didn’t even look at the telegram again. Do you understand what I’m saying? Right. And I stood there and there was this silence. And even the secretary receptionist had stopped typing, there was that amazing quiet silence there. And then I said, “Oh, I got it.” I said, “This is discrimination. I’m going to report you to the Urban League.” And the guy shrugged his shoulders, said, “Lady, I don’t care what you do.” And went on behind that door and closed that door. And I remember leaving and she never looked up, she started typing again. I remember opening the door, going down the hallway. I took off my hat, and my gloves, everything. And I remember getting on the subway and I was sitting there so upset that the door closed and I ended up being on this train that went to the East Side and Lenox Avenue. And I got up at 135th in Lenox, and I crossed the street. I was in front of the Harlem Hospital and I crossed the street and I went about a quarter into the block. And there was this sign that said Schomburg. And a guy was outside, smoking a cigarette, so I said to him, “Excuse me, sir, what is the Schomburg?” He said, “Lady, go inside, sign the book. There’s a book inside, go up the steps and you’ll see Schomburg.” So I did all that, went up the steps and I came into this vast, this large room, and there was an extremely long table and nothing but Black men sitting there with books piled sky high and their heads down. And there was a door, a glass door to the right. And Ms. Hutson was in there and I knocked on the door. I said, “What is the Schomburg?” She said, “Oh my dear, the Schomburg is the library that has books by, only by, and about Black people.” And I said, with my fresh mouth, I said, “There must not be many books in here, huh?” She never, ever, ever, ever, ever, we became dear friends, let me forget that. Every time I brought my students to the Schomburg and I was upfront with her, she said, “Before I began telling you about the Schomburg, I’d like to tell you something about your professor.” But she told that story every time. And I told that story at her Memorial service, the kind of love that she had and how she nurtured me so thoroughly for the next four or five, six months and for the rest of my life, actually. She sat me down, she made those men move over and she pushed a chair there. I’m the only female sitting there. And she says, “I’ll be back.” And I remember looking at my watch and 15 minutes had passed and there was no librarian there. And she came back with three books and they were Up from Slavery, Souls of Black Folk, Their Eyes are Watching God. And Their Eyes are Watching God was on top. And I started to read that, or I attempted to read, although we knew how Black English was spoken, but we had not read it. You got to hear that. Although we had heard it recited in poetry in the South, we had not read it if you know what I’m saying. Okay.
(00:24:46) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:24:46) Sonia Sanchez: And here I was attempting to read Black English, and it took me a minute. My eyes, and my brain, and my mouth say, “Hold it. That looks like whatever.” And when I finally got really involved with it, I was only about a quarter in that book, but I remember I got up and went and knocked on the door and she came to the door and I was crying. I said, “How could I be a graduate of a distinguished school in New York City and never come across this writer?” She said, “Oh my dear, go sit down. I’m going to give you lots and lots of books, just like this. Period.” And she did, my dear sister, for the rest of the summer. I told my dad I was going out looking for a job and I came to the Schomburg, you ready for that? And she fed me book, after book, after book, after book, after book, that’s what that woman did at that library. She saved my soul, my dear sister. Also at that bookstore, the Eighth Street Bookstore saved my soul also too, because I saw something that was also a part of The Souls of Black Folk, the soul of that Haiku, that we, as Black folks in this place called America could not always do the fringes. You know what I mean?
(00:26:33) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:26:33) Sonia Sanchez: When we were talking and seeing, we had to see right at the soul, do you hear what I’m saying? Right at the center. There was no time for excess, whatever, because it either meant our life, it either meant getting that job, it either meant getting into grad school, it either meant going to college. It meant something, so you’d have time to be flowery and go and say, as a long kind of essay, whatever, you had to dive deeply deep into the soul of what you needed to say to that person at that particular time. So if we were to teach more people the Haiku, and I always said, when I taught the Haiku to children, I would say, “If you get mad in the morning, I want you to go in the bathroom or wherever it is that you have [inaudible 00:27:22] from a family, and write a Haiku, or recite a Haiku that we’ve done, okay? All right? It will bring you peace. I want you to breathe the Haiku. It’ll make you so you’ll be able to go to school, not angry not furious, not ready to start a fight, not ready, unready to learn, whatever, but the Haiku will accompany you to school in a peaceful manner, because this is so important to you in this unpeaceful place that we live in.” Yeah.
(00:28:17) Midroll: BlackStar Projects celebrates and uplifts Black, Brown, and Indigenous artists. We produce the annual BlackStar Film Festival, Many Lumens, Seen, and other projects, creating the spaces and resources artists need to thrive. Learn more and support our work at blackstarfest.org.
(00:28:15) Maori Karmael Holmes: You’re listening to Many Lumens. And now back to my conversation with Sonia Sanchez.
(00:28:21) Maori Karmael Holmes:You have been at the forefront of experimenting with language and sound and devising ways to translate that which was––and I think in a similar way, it’s interesting that you bring up Zora [Neale Hurston] and writing Black-American dialect on the page. You’ve done something similar in your poetry. And finding ways to translate, for instance, a scream or other kinds of unutterable sounds. And so I’m curious for you, how do you challenge, what are the ways that you challenge readers in the ways that language is used?
(00:28:55) Sonia Sanchez: Right. Well, people didn’t like what we were doing earlier, and that’s even famous Black writers. And could I be a professor and just correct you a little bit, with much love?
(00:29:12) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes, please.
(00:29:12) Sonia Sanchez: Okay.
(00:29:13) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:29:14) Sonia Sanchez: I always hesitate with some of the younger people, because sometimes when I say that, and if I do it out loud with joy, as a teacher, whatever, sometimes… Whatever, but it’s not dialect, it’s Black English, it is what we did. They call it dialect on many levels to defame it, you know what I mean? But it is our Black language, as Jimmy said, as [James] Baldwin said like, “Hey, that’s what this be. This is Black language, this is Black English.” Whatever. And he said, “Thank God it’s not the English that comes out of Europe, out England, whatever, but it’s our own Black English.” This is the English, we need to sanctify it, we need to say it was holy, it was like how we began to look at this place in America where we be, where we were, whatever. And we took these words and we mixed them with the beat of that African beat, so quite often a lot of our words were polysy––A lot of the names we name our children were polysyllabic, you know what I mean? Whatever.
(00:30:44) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yes.
(00:30:45) Sonia Sanchez: I mentioned one day a journalist called me from one of the newspapers and she was doing an article on these funny names that Black people were giving their children now. And I said, “What do you mean?” And she said, “Well, these names that…” I said, “Oh, you mean these polysyllabic names, right? They have more than one syllable attached to it. They’re three or four syllables, right?” And I said, “Well, I don’t think they’re strange.” I said, “My generation, because we were searching for ourselves and because we knew that the search also meant the continent of Africa,” I said simply that we gave our children African names, we researched it, we had a chief name, some of our children after they observed them for about a week or two weeks, whatever. We did this kind of thing. I said, but this generation, they didn’t necessarily want to name their children African names, but they kept the polysyllabic part of it, that that was African on that level. And they gave them names like Shaniqua, but this is what I did. I got off that phone. I was so angry. I mean, I very obviously I said that, “Well, let me tell you what I think this is.” And that’s it. So it was never printed what I said, but I got off and I wrote this poem, “This Is Not A Small Voice”:
This is not a small voice
you hear this is a large
voice coming out of these cities.
This is the voice of LaTanya.
Kadesha. Shaniqua. This
is the voice of Antoine.
Running over waters
navigating the hallways
of our schools spilling out
on the corners of our cities and
no epitaphs spill out of their river mouths.
This is not a small love
you hear this is a large
love, a passion for kissing learning
on its face.
This is a love that crowns the feet with hands
that nourishes, conceives, feels the water sails
mends the children,
folds them inside our history where they
toast more than the flesh
where they suck the bones of the alphabet
and spit out closed vowels.
This is a love colored with iron and lace.
This is a love initialed Black Genius.
This is not a small voice
I had to celebrate these children because when parents bring their child up to me and they say their name is Shaquille, or Kadesha, or Shaniqua, or LaTanya, I immediately stand up and say, “What a beautiful name.” And they smile, sister, because I know they haven’t been told other than their parents, perhaps it’s a beautiful name. They’re teased about it or people mispronounced it, or people don’t pronounce it, or people give them other names, whatever. But the point is to humanize. If people don’t humanize their names in schools and around, it is also means they’re not humanizing them, unless their name is Doris. I’m not being disrespectful to anyone named Doris, but you know what I’m saying.
(00:34:38) Maori Karmael Holmes: I do.
(00:34:39) Sonia Sanchez: Yeah. Right.
(00:34:41) Maori Karmael Holmes: Sister Sonia, how did you choose your children’s names?
(00:34:44) Sonia Sanchez: Well, there was a chief there and I gave birth to twins. I had not chosen names, I had read up on another African names and I remember leaving the hospital and they said, “You can’t leave without naming your children.” So I said, “Just put X there, or X, Y, whatever, etc.” Because I knew this chief who was there studying there in San Francisco, and he said to me, “Don’t name your children. I’d like to name them, your child.” He said. I thought I was having one child. “And I’d like to name your child.” And I said, “Oh good.” And so I left and they had on their… No name. They had like X. Right. Yeah. And he came and observed them for a couple of weeks. And then that’s how their names came about. Right. Yeah. That he named them Morani Neusi and Mungu Meusi. And the Neusi, which means Black, it corresponds with whatever the first letter of the name is, or the word is. There’s that congregation that goes on there. Right. Yeah. So if it had been a W, it would’ve been Weusi, but since it was an M, it was Meusi. Right.
(00:36:15) Maori Karmael Holmes: I would love to ask you, this is a more practical question. Since we’re talking about your children now, I just wanted to… For a long time, you worked a full-time job, you’ve been a professor at a number of institutions and you were prolific, writing plays, writing your poetry, writing essays, I’m sure you were editing other people’s work. And I was just curious how you’ve managed in those times, and I know that you also took care of a lot of family members as well. And so how did you manage to balance full-time work with raising your children and making space for your artistic practice?
(00:36:54) Sonia Sanchez: It was not easy. I don’t ever say it was easy. It was difficult. When I got an award recently, up in New York, I had a speech and they had the lights, like this great ambiance. I couldn’t see a bloody thing with my glasses. I have these reading glasses and it wasn’t light enough. And so finally, I just put the bloody speech down and started to talk off the cuff, in a sense. And I said, “I’m going to start off by thanking my children for being my children, because I know that they had a hard life, they had teachers because they were mad at what we were doing, who hit them.” Did you know that? There were teachers, who would come into a classroom and say, “We’re going to study poetry, not the kind of poetry that some of these people write,” talking about America and cursing. Can you imagine? The last place we came to was Philadelphia and I came here knowing that I would finally get tenure because it is not easy to raise your children and every two or three years you’re moving again, right? No.
(00:38:19) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:38:20) Sonia Sanchez: As my dad said to me, “If you just stop talking about that Black stuff and stop telling America what it should be doing, you’re trained to be a teacher, you would be okay.” And he was right, he was right.
(00:38:33) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:38:35) Sonia Sanchez: He was correct. I mean, make no mistake about it. And then I looked my father straight in the eye with tears in my eyes and I said, “But dad, I wouldn’t be able to teach and I would not be teaching the truth that needs to be taught.” And he looked at me at that time, but when my dad was very ill and I took care of him for those last six years. And in that sixth year, he said to me, “Read me that poem that you did about me.” And he was talking about the book, Does Your House Have Lions? And it was a book dedicated to him and my brother. And I start reading, he asked some questions about it. And then I read the whole section on my father. And he said, “At the end of that section, you got me right that time.” And I said, “You’re right. I did.” But I got him right with love. When I first started writing about my father, I was so angry about what he didn’t say and what he didn’t do, you know what I mean? And all the women around, whatever, etc. But when I did, Does Your House Have Lions? A book that came from reading a lot of history and Herstory, I began to talk about our ancestors and how they came to be and how they enter into our lives, and how they stayed in our lives, and how they loved us, and how they protected us, and how they lived. All in that book, I wrote about my mother who died giving birth to twins. And that book was all chronicling us as that family and my brother becoming ill and dying. My brother, I would fly all the way home from, I think I was in France at the time, to be there, to come in. And I would always kind of wash him down because he was always hot. And how I began to talk to Chinua [Achebe] about what I wanted to say in Lions, because it’s a rhyme royal, that book, which was hard, A, B, A, B, B, C, C, that was rhyme, so it had to rhyme properly. And doing that poem, I found out so much about my father because I had to call on more than the conversations we had had, I had to call on Herstory, and history, and spirits to help me really get to who this man was, who he really was. And also with my brother, the same thing, we didn’t grow up together. And so I really needed to get that for my brother, because I didn’t know my brother well at all. So my sister’s voice was a voice that at some point began the search, not only for my dad, no, the continuous search that you have for a parent, but also the search right for my brother who was a lot like my dad. So anyway, that this is my brother who came north, not to love his family, his Northern family, but to hate the Northern family. And so he will begin his section… It’s interesting. The section of that book, Does Your House Have Lions? Will begin with the sister’s voice, my voice. And my voice is saying about, “This was a migration unlike the 1900s of Black men and women coming north for jobs, freedom, life. This was a migration to begin to bend a father’s heart again, to birth seduction from the past to repay desertion at last.” I mean, that’s the upbeat voice of the sister’s voice talking about my brother. And so I, who was just learning about my brother, I said, “Imagine him short and Black, thin mustache draping thin lips. Imagine him country and exact, thin body underfed hips, watching at this corral of battleships and bastards, watching for forget. And remember, dancing his pirouette. And he came my brother at 17, recruited by birthright and smell, grabbing the city by the root with clean metallic teeth, commandant and infidel, pirating his family in their cell. And we waited for the anger to retreat. And we watched him embrace the city and the street.” He was angry. He came up an angry, angry young man. And in the second section of the brother’s, and I’ll just read this, the brother’s voice, he begins by saying, “Father, I despise you for abandoning me. To aunts, and mothers, and ministers of tissue tongues, nibbling at my boyish knee. Father, forgive me, for I know not what they do moving me backwards through seams of bamboo masks, staring eyes campaigning for my attention. Come, oh, lords, my extended metaphor.” And then he says to the sister, me. “Sister, I am not your true brother. One half of me resides in my mother’s breasts, in her eyes where tears exceed their worth. The other half walks on tiptoe to divest his tongue of me. This father always a guest, never a permanent resident of my veins, always a traveler to other terrains.” That’s how my brother came to destroy the family. Not to love us, whatever, but of course he learned how to love the family because my brother would travel always down here to Philadelphia getting out of that big apartment with his dad, but he always came in cursing our father. And I remember I opened the door and he came in and I turned and said, “Wilson, you’re too old for this now. I’ve listened to this for five years, seven years, eight years. You’re too old for that. Your father loves you, we love you, whatever.” He said, “You don’t tell me what to do.” And I turned and grabbed him, and shook him, and said, “Yes, I will tell you what to do. Your father did the best he could.” “That’s what we learn as we get older, he did the best he could given the information that he was given. Your father was a Southern black man and he had been threatened by police. My mother, who looked like a white woman, when they were out together, they always stopped. They’re like, ‘Nigger, what you doing with this white woman?’ And my mother would say, ‘I’m a Negro, proudly proud.'” You know what I mean? Whatever, etc. I said, “But here you are, in a place called New York City and your father has greeted you, and has missed you, and loves you so very much. And so there was in this book, the reconciliation, the reconciling of the father and the son in the book, that I was able to bring them together. Do you know what I’m saying? Whatever.
(00:46:47) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:46:48) Sonia Sanchez: Saying simply that, “Here you are, there’s no sense in the battling at this point, but just the sense of extending our hands, and our arms, and our eyes to each other saying simply, ‘We are family.'” And as our little girls say, “Here we is.” Right. I always love that. I always like to bring that in whatever I can bring it in. But here we is, as a family. And I brought Wilson into New York CORE and he began to understand what was happening in this north that we lived in at some point.
(00:47:36) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:47:37) Sonia Sanchez: Right. This brother who loved, who came to love his Northern family. Yeah.
(00:47:52) Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you for sharing some of the texts from that book as well. This is reminding me recently, US Poet Laureate, Joy Harjo, invoked you at a reading here. She called you her poetry ancestor relative, which is such a lovely term. And I was curious, who are your poetry ancestor relatives?
(00:48:19) Sonia Sanchez: Oh my God. You can add Joy to it. You can say, I’m messing with the vertigo right now, so give me a moment to…
(00:48:32) Maori Karmael Holmes: Okay.
(00:48:35) Sonia Sanchez: The vertigo makes for a slow kind of movement, you know what I mean? With the head, the head is tightly tight. Sister Gwendolyn Brooks and sister Margaret Walker, Sterling Brown, and Dudley Randall. Sister Margaret out of Chicago, I’m blanking on her last name. And then also my contemporaries, brother Baraka, brother Haki, sister Alice, sister June Jordan, sister Audrey Lorde. The sister poets in Chicago, all right? Sister Nikki, sister… All of these poets are the ones that I have traveled with, but then the poets of music are the ones I have traveled with too. So brother Max, Max Roach. The musicians here in the city of Philadelphia that I’ve worked with, that at rehearsal we would do things at some point, they made me do things that I never thought that I would do. And I remember the beauty of it, that it changed the poem, that instead of reading the poem to the end, I would stop mid on that line and go to the other line and come back and pick up that line. I mean, they made you do all this improvisational kind of stuff, that music that they had no… I don’t mean this negatively. They didn’t respect the words that much to say, “Okay, I’m going to break them up because that’s how I’m hearing them. Right, Sonia?” Right. And played in such a way, or he played in such a way that he made me do that. I said, “Many years ago,” and some people challenged me, I said, “It is such an honor to be on the stage with such a genius.” And people say, “Well, you’re calling people genius.” I said, “They are geniuses, but they’re never called geniuses. These men up here playing, these women up here playing, these are geniuses in our time.”
(00:50:57) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(00:50:58) Sonia Sanchez: “And so I’m going to name them genius every time I speak their name, evoke their name, or say anything I’m going to say, and this is a genius right here, listen to this genius reading his poem, poetry, singing his song,” you know what I mean? “Composing a piece and playing it for us. These are geniuses up here. You need to begin to acknowledge that they’re geniuses. I dare you call everybody else a genius and then ignore these great men and women up here on this stage.”
(00:51:30) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah. One of the things I admire about you is that I know you’re challenging yourself to innovate and to study. And I was curious, what are some things that you are still interested in pursuing, or that have become recent experiences?
(00:51:50) Sonia Sanchez: Well, I am struggling with a memoir right now. And I’m struggling because of this concussion. I can’t write as long as I usually have done before, but also it’s so bloody much. You don’t know how to cut sometimes. I probably need an editor over me saying, “Slash, slash, slash, slash.” Whatever. But I want to have time to really write so I can tell people how beautiful it is to be involved with struggle, that how struggle will form you and not deformed you, how it will open doors and bring you through doors that you never thought would ever open to you. You would never have the ego that sometimes you see some people with, I mean, struggle would make you understand like, “Girl, I lost that fight, whatever.” But we used to come home from whatever, and we lost whatever. And that struggle was your… What ego you’re going to have go, “Oh, look at what we did. Yeah, look how we fail in close failed.” And not fail, you didn’t get what you wanted, but it was not failure. The only failure that was is that you didn’t get necessarily what you asked for, but something else came about at that point, what I call always the struggle is always a beautiful thing, it is always about the struggle would teach other people around you and always yourself too, that you stay in that struggle. And it also would make for talk. I remember coming home sometimes years ago on the subway, mind you. We didn’t have cars at that point, on the subway after we had said some things and gotten people know up and about and whatever. And at some point I realized that we had lost that particular battle, but we also noted in our discussions coming home on the subway that we had won some the following week. And so therefore I never had any kind of depression about being in a movement. There was depression about not being able to eat sometimes, or not knowing where you’re going to be teaching next year. The struggle sometimes of like packing your children up and driving your car up to Amherst because they had banned me from teaching in New York City, but I cried the whole night as I moved. Do you understand what I’m saying? Every room I went into fixing up, preparing, taking out dishes, whatever, etc., taking out the cereal that they could eat, putting it on the table, whatever. I cried, I left tears in each room. And then I came back and wiped up the tears. And the sun, it got light. And I said, “Okay.” And I took a shower, and got dressed, and there were no tears then, because you cannot have tears for your children then. And I knocked on the door. I said, “Come on, we’re going to go to the bank. You’re going to eat some cereal. We’re going to go to the bank. And mom’s going to go to the registrar office, so I get a check and I open up a checking account and we can go shopping for some food.” But as I turned the corner on Main Street, you got to hear this, my sister, and I stopped for the red light, and standing on the corner was Max Roach, Archie Shepp, and a brother from the radio station. I can’t think of his name. He lives in D.C. now. And I honked the horn and they came around, they stopped traffic. It wasn’t that much traffic in that morning anyway. And they said, “We heard you were coming up. Don’t worry, Sonia, we’re going to take care of you.” What I learned, my dear sister, is that you end up where you’re supposed to be. I denied that I should be up at Amherst, but the point is that there was something about Amherst that I was supposed to experience. There was something about the students that I started the Black Studies there, my dear sister, at Amherst. John Bracey and I stood up on a hill from a terrible meeting that we had in terms of a Black studies. And I remember saying to him, and he said the same thing, “The only way that we are going to have any success with Black studies is that we’re going to have to make a Five College Black studies, that all five colleges will have to be involved with this.” We said that on top of a hill, looking down at the valley there at all the other schools around. And that’s what we did. And that’s what we did. And so I was supposed to be there to help that happen. I was supposed to be there when we voted to have women come to Amherst College also too. I was supposed to work with the brilliant John Bracey, who was a historian, and the brilliant Max Roach on stages, whatever. I was supposed to be there when we all piled in the car, going to Boston, because we were all invited to come up to do a gig together. I was taken care of up there, we worked together, and we reimagined ourselves on that Amherst campus. I’m getting an honorary degree up there next month from them.
(00:57:53) Maori Karmael Holmes: Oh, wow.
(00:57:55) Sonia Sanchez: We started Black studies up there, we told those brothers and the sisters who came from Smith and Mount Holyoke. Martin’s daughter up there came and asked me, “Can I do your play Sister Son/ji, at Amherst College?” I said, “You sure can.” I mean, that is what we did, my dear sister, that we gave not only leadership, but love and respect, and I would tell them, “You can do anything you want to. You hear what I’m saying? Don’t let anybody, and if they do tell you that, come get me, because I’ll go get in their face.” And this is what we did up at Amherst. We started the first Black Studies up there at Amherst. We voted to have women come into Amherst there, that we had a Five College, those students would go over to UMass and study at UMass. Whereas before they didn’t, they stayed all at Amherst, but they spread out all over that Five College, but they were supposed to do it and not supposed to stay together in this little, like we are all superior because we are here at Amherst, whatever. And you at Umass. It is about socialization and saying, “You need to know those students who go to Umass, just as they need to know you who go to Amherst.” That is what I did up at a place of what we did, Professor Bracey, and all the other professors up there, the musicians up there, Max, Archie, how we did programs up there, how we at some point let them see how we worked together, and smiled together, and talked together, and had their interest, not just Black students, all those students fought to get in our classes, my dear sister, okay? Because they knew that we would treat them as human beings. This is important that they understand that we would treat them as human beings and always be there in their corners. So this is what happened as I moved around, but it was a hard set because I knew all the time that it’s so hard to pull children up out of a school after two years or three years and go someplace again. I mean, I knew that. And I would cry at night because I began, sometimes I would say, “Maybe your father’s right. Why don’t you just shut up?” Or whatever, but you see my sister, you had to initiate Black studies. We were at Black studies at a place called San Francisco State. Those students, those people thought about doing that. And we came, we were invited to go out there and we went out there and started the first Black studies in America. Can you imagine what that was about? Can you imagine that there was a knock on my door also too, by my landlord, a wonderful Japanese American man who gave me a beautiful Samoyed dog. And he said, “Professor Sanchez, these gentlemen want to see you. And they stepped in the door and said FBI.” And proceeded to say, “You’re teaching [W.E.B.] Du Bois, [Richard] Wright, [Marcus] Garvey, [James] Baldwin, I mean, all of that.” And I said yes. I was so naive. And people say, “Oh, you all were some tough people.” I said, “No, I was just as naive as everybody was.” I mean, at the beginning time there in the mid ’60s, I said, “I had to explain, I thought I could explain to these men, these two FBI men.” I said, “Yes, I’m teaching them because you cannot teach Black lit without them. You cannot teach without Langston Hughes, and all these other people, etc.” And he turned to my landlord and said, “Put her out. She’s one of those militants on campus and she’ll bring you trouble, whatever.” And my landlord, who was a lovely man, said, “Professor Sanchez, I’m going now.” And he left. And these people, I mean, they were so angry. And you know why they were angry? Because we resurrected Du Bois. Can you imagine? Zora Neale Hurston, all these people were resurrected that nobody taught, unless maybe you were in a Black school someplace. But then we taught it as amazing literature, whatever, etc. And we taught writing where they could write the way they wanted to write, not the way other people wanted them to write. They could write with their sound, with that Black sound, with that African sound, with that screen, with those words that talked about their mama and their daddy, and their brother, and about growing up in Harlem, all of that came about because we were there. And we cried together. When someone who read something, we weren’t afraid to cry because we had lived that also in Harlem, where we grew up, but it made them so strong, it made them look up at the world and say, “I can do this.” Because that was the whole point. No one will tell you what you can’t do. You said, “I can do that.” You walk with the spirit of these people who’ve come before you. Period. Whatever. That’s why they were there. That’s why they escaped from that enslavement. That’s why they started schools, and businesses, whatever, although they got burned down in Tulsa, whatever. But the point is simply, this is what we were about, and this is what we did. And yes, I did cry at night because I knew that it was difficult for children to be pulled all around the country, but the point is that as they got older, they understood it, that they were there out there with me too, as we moved in America. And I always said to them, however, that, “You might have done that with me, because you were with me, but I don’t tell you that as you get older, you have to continue to do that, but this country will make you continue to do that, and to have words that need to be said and looked at, and the movement that you do in terms of just trying to be human on this earth at some particular point.” Right? Yeah.
(01:04:46) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(01:04:47) Sonia Sanchez: As I set up in New York, when I got the Gish Awards and I talked to my children and to the people there, that it has not been an easy road, but I had never complained about it. And sometimes, the powers that be got us at some point, but we always would go and talk about it and try to figure out. And also, I used to… I mean, I might that with this right now, this point, but Grace Boggs also, who was a great, great sister that I also loved, she said, “My revolution is to share my, our love, and beauty, and one history, and one Herstory expression, successes, and failures.” And she said, “Of exits and interests to make space for our souls.” Isn’t that something? “To make space for our souls.” That’s what I’ve been trying to do, my dear sister. Our revolution is to share our love, and our beauty, and our history, and our Herstory, and our successes and even failures of exits and interests to make space for our souls. That’s what I’ve been trying to do all these years. What am I 86? I’m sorry if I forget––I’m 87. I’m not sure. 87, maybe. I think I’ll be 87, what? In September or 88 in September. You get up there, you just don’t really pay attention that much anymore, but I’m trying to make space for our souls and that’s one of the things that we tried to do for you, younger people. And one of the Haiku that I wrote, as I said, “Finally, to remember that you gave light to our eyes.” That’s what I wrote. When I remember my students, that they gave light to our eyes. We kept looking for the light when we were teaching, you know what I mean? And when we saw it, we cried. We cried tears of joy. “Finally, to remember you gave light to our eyes.” That’s what they did, right?
(01:07:20) Maori Karmael Holmes: Yeah.
(01:07:30) Sonia Sanchez: And sister Gwen[dolyn Brooks] in teaching, when she ended her poem, we are each other’s magnitude and bond. She said, and I probably missed some lines. She said, “That time, we all heard it, cool and clear, warning in music-words, devout and large, that we are each other’s harvest. We are each other’s business.” That’s what I want people to remember. If you remember nothing else that we are, I tried to do what sister Gwen wrote and all the other people who came before wrote that we are each other’s harvest, we are each other’s business, we are each other’s magnitude and bond.” That’s what we are. And the great, great, great Haiku poet Basho said, “Don’t follow in the footsteps of those who came before, seek what they sought.” We’re not asking people to follow, but seek what we sought and you will know what that’s all about. Seek what we sought.
(01:08:36) Maori Karmael Holmes: Thank you so much, sister Sonia. This is… I’m going to always…
(01:08:52) Maori Karmael Holmes: To find out more about sister Sonia’s work or to purchase one of her many books or CDs, check out her website at soniasanchez.net.
This season of Many Lumens is brought to you by Open Society Foundations. It is produced by BlackStar Projects in partnership with Rowhome Productions. The host and executive producer of Many Lumens is me, Maori Karmael Holmes.
This episode was produced by Dallas Taylor. Associate producers are Irit Reinheimer and Farrah Rahaman. Our guest associate producer for this episode is Sham-e-ali Nayeem. Managing producer is Alex Lewis. Executive editor is John Myers.
Our music supervisor is David ‘lil dave’ Adams, BlackStar’s Music In Cinema Fellow supported by the Pop Culture Collaborative. Our theme song was composed by Vijay Mohan and remixed by Lil Dave. This episode features music by Mochi Robinson and Zoe Lemon. If you’ve liked what you heard so far this season, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts and let us know what you think of the show.
Sending you light and see you next time.