Sonia Sanchez, to put it plainly, is a living legend. The celebrated poet and scholar has written over a dozen books and served as an educator for countless students. Most recently, she penned the introduction for the reissue of Audre Lorde’s book, A Burst of Light.
I spoke with Sonia about her childhood, the Black Arts Movement, and the importance of listening.
DIAMOND SHARP: What vision did you have for yourself growing up? Did you think you would grow up into who you have become?
SONIA SANCHEZ: Well, I was a kind of an odd kid, you know? The second child of my father and my mother; my mother died giving birth to twins a couple years later. She was having those children close together in a place called Alabama. I was the second child, and I had a sister who was a raving beauty. She was beautiful, and they wanted a boy, and here I came, another girl. I was always the child who observed a lot. Watched a lot. One, when you’re not pretty, you always watch a lot, right? You know, you have to figure out when to talk, but I was a child who loved school.
When my sister, who was two years older than I, went to school in Alabama, I’m told that I had a tantrum and screamed to be sent to school. Since my father was a school teacher, and musician, in Birmingham, and also he wrote for one of the newspapers, he called the principal, he knew the principal and asked that I be allowed to come, and I was. They assumed I would come and sit in the class and just do nothing, you know, that I would be there with my sister. But the problem for them was, as my father said years later on, is that I learned and that I enjoyed it. My sister was being promoted at the end of the year, they said, “We’ll just leave Sonia behind.” I’m told that I performed [a tantrum] again, and they said, “Oh, just let the girl go on.” One of the principals was a friend of my dad’s, and so they let me go on, to the detriment of my sister, because here was this younger sister tagging along behind her in the same class where she was.
I was always involved in school and loved school. I loved this process called learning. I loved reading. One day my mama said to my aunt Louise, “Louise, teach this girl how to read. She keeps bothering me to read to her.” They taught me how to read, so when I went to school, I read. That’s that whole process. I thought as I went on, and my dad brought us to a place called New York City when I was eight, that I would be a lawyer. But, after my grandmother died, I became a stutterer, and I also mixed up words.
This thing with law was interesting because you had to use speech, but also, with writing poetry, which I did throughout my years of junior high, and high school. I belonged to these little clubs, but I would never read my poem, I would give it to someone else to read. That was the thing I was thinking that it would be good to be this lawyer, because, you know, you see stuff on the idiot box—television—right, and you could just picture yourself figuring out things and saving people. My dad told me that I was going to be a school teacher like him, so I figured I would be a school teacher but always the things interested me that had to do with language, with words and speaking. Isn’t that something?
That’s so fascinating. Are there any of your contemporaries, particularly in the Black Arts Movement, that you feel like don’t get enough recognition, or shine? I think that history can have a way of reducing really great literary movements at times. They’re sometimes just reduced to a couple of official artists, but that doesn’t really tell the whole story of who was working in that moment.
That’s why we did the book, SOS: Calling All Black People, because there had not been a [Black Arts Movement] book since Black Fire, that Larry Neal, and [Amiri] Baraka did. Even then, that was a limited thing. What this book did is, it not only gave the history of it, but also added names that people didn’t even know about as poets, and as people who contributed a great deal. When you go through that book you realize at some point why that they didn’t do a book. It took me a long time to get people to want to do it. I begged. Then, at the end, I said we need a reader, we need a book that talks about the music, right, talks about the history, to give a great historical context to the Black Arts Movement, and let people see how it influenced everything from NPR, to all the young writers writing today, to the rappers, today, whatever, we need to do that.
I was thinking about the re-issuance of Audre Lorde’s book. It reads as though she could have written it yesterday, though the book was originally published in 1988. If she was here with us, she could write the same book, and that’s a shame.
Yes, it is. It’s a shame, too, that a lot of young people have not read it. A lot of young people don’t really know. A lot of young people might know me by one poem, but they really don’t know the struggle. How we stayed in academia, against great odds, to be there as a presence to teach. To make sure that an Audre Lorde was taught, that a Toni Morrison was taught, that a Toni Cade Bambara was taught. You know what I’m saying? That [Amiri] Baraka was taught. That all of this, that students, had to have that information. That was so important. When I was asked by the press to do a new introduction, I was in the middle of doing an introduction for the book that Gloria [Joseph] was doing on Audre. I was doing that intro, I was doing an intro for sister Gwen’s [Gwendolyn Brooks], the book they were doing on sister Gwen, since it’s the centennial. I was doing another intro, so I was doing three intros. I would finish one and go straight to the next one.
Tell me something that you learned later in life that you wished you had known as a young person?
One of the things I did, one reason why some of the people said, “Don’t go study with Sanchez, she’ll teach you all these political writers.” That’s not true, I taught all the writers, because you were a student, and you needed to know them, but of course, I also taught Jimmy [James] Baldwin. But one of the things that I always used to say, “You don’t have to write like me, but you have to know how to write a good poem.” You have to be a good writer, if you tell people you study with me. One of the things that I would tell people when they weren’t, I said, “Look, why don’t you drop out? You can drop out passing because I don’t want you to stand up and say you studied with me when you got it wrong, or you’re not studying.” I said, “But come back in a couple years when you’re ready to study.” They would do that. I never flunked anybody, that was not my role, to fail anybody.
As I got older, I had to think about what one writer said when he was judging a contest or reading a manuscript, the first question he would ask is, “What use is it? Are you and your poem there to persuade, seduce, instruct, with brutality or tenderness? Do your poems make us think? Help us to arm ourselves against fascism? Is it an act that communicates, and make you leave your complacent eyes?” I would, you know, I’d love my students, and I knew some of the students weren’t political, and would never be, because what they wanted to do, they wanted to reap rewards, they wanted to get awards that were out there, and I couldn’t tell them that they couldn’t do that, so I made sure they were good writers. I did not get angry with them. I did, with those students who were amenable, I did make them think and say are these poems helping us to arm ourselves against fascism? You know, we’re in the midst of it again. We have such good writers out there, that they got to, at some point, help us make a way out of no way with those beautiful words that they have learned. That’s important.
Also, the importance of, I would say, once someone gets an award, you have the freedom to write what you want to write, you know? It’s important to pass down, maybe a different story. I also know that I learned that every book has a message, it has a place in herstory, in history, and that’s important for us to understand that. I’ve learned in the real world that the book that I wrote, Homecoming, my first book, is not a book that I’m writing today, because along the way you move and you learn, but at that particular time, that book was needed. I’ve learned that at particular times, something is needed, and you, as a writer, must answer that need. Must answer that call.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned during your career as a writer? If you can pick out a single thing, what would that be?
You can’t do a single thing. My life, at 83, is an accumulation of lots of reading, poetry, and other books. Lots of listening. You know, the most important thing to do is to listen. I went to teach at Amherst College and my writing class during the fall were so beautiful. My first classes were held outdoors. We sat on the grass. I made them listen. They said, “Listen for what?” I said “Listen. Just listen.” They began to write about what they heard. We don’t ever listen. We need to listen to each other. We’re so busy ready to tell what we know. Listen. I still have that love affair with listening. Although I have to talk a lot, sometimes, in a classroom, but also, listening to what people have to say, that’s why it is detrimental to a university, for people to take courses online, when you need to listen to people speak in a classroom, and listen to a professor teach.
That ability to listen is important. To know that life continues, if you are a poet, it’s a continuum. That you are part of that continuum, as a poet, that you are part of that thing called poetry. The poet is a creator of social values. I did a long essay on that, and that’s important for us to understand, that that’s who we are. ♦