"As Poets, As Activists":
An Interview with Sonia Sanchez
By David Reich

May/June 1999

Back issues
World home page

One day, back in the 1960s, when the Beacon Press poet Sonia Sanchez was running the world’s first black studies program, at San Francisco State College in California, she noticed a stranger in her classroom, furiously taking notes on her lecture. When she got home that day, some FBI agents were there to meet her, with her landlord in tow. They told the landlord to evict her because she was teaching “all that radical stuff.” 

Recalls Sanchez: “I asked them, ‘What do you mean?’ and they said with utter disdain, ‘W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson and Marcus Garvey and Pablo Neruda. . . .’ 

“I thought all that was literature, and America thought it was seditious,” she adds with a laugh that holds equal parts disgust and saving irony.

Judging from her subsequent work as a teacher, an activist, and a very political woman of letters, the G-men’s intimidation tactics didn’t do much to muzzle Sanchez. Since the 1960s, she’s taught at schools like Amherst, Rutgers, the University of Pennsylvania, and Temple University, where she is currently Laura Carnell professor of English and women’s studies. She has also published hundreds of poems and prose pieces and 19 books, the last four of them with Beacon, and spoken or read from innumerable platforms, often for progressive and women’s causes. 

In the process she has run afoul not only of the FBI but of patriarchal establishments from the Nation of Islam (for teaching Muslim women about birth control) to the editors of a journal called Negro World, who asked her to review the Black Panther leader Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir Soul on Ice. “Cleaver had just gotten out of jail,” says Sanchez, “and he was very much the darling of the left. I thought he was problematic from the beginning. Any man who would write a book that talked about practicing rape on black women in order to rape white women was problematic. I started the review, ‘Eldridge Cleaver is not a revolutionary; he’s a hustler. I come from New York, and I’ve seen quite enough of hustlers in my time.’” As Sanchez tells it, her review was never printed, and the book was reassigned to a male reviewer.

The World talked with Sonia Sanchez on a cold, gray afternoon in February in a conference room at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City’s Harlem, a neighborhood the poet moved to as a girl, after spending her first nine years in Alabama. Under five feet tall with tiny bones, Sanchez responded to our questions in a clear, strong voice, sometimes closing her eyes to recall past events or conjure up a fitting answer.

World: I read somewhere that you did your first poetry reading at a bar here in Harlem. Did people come to the bar to hear you, or did you just show up and read for whoever happened to be there?

SS: We—this is Amiri Baraka and Askia Muhammad Touré and a bunch of other poets from the Black Arts Movement—wanted to get our work to where the people were. And one of us said, “The people are in the bars.” [Laughs.] So we targeted this bar on Seventh or Lenox—I don’t remember why this particular bar—and went in and asked the owner if we could come in and read some poetry. And the guy laughed and said, “Okay, but I’m not going to stop selling my beer and drinks.” We said, “No, no, you don’t have to do that. We just want to read for a little while and engage people in this whole conversation.” And he said, “If you want to do that, lady, mister, if you want to do that. . . .” What he really meant was “If you want to take that chance, you’re more than welcome.” [Laughs.]

World: What kind of a bar was it?

SS: It was a neighborhood bar, nothing fancy, with people drinking at the bar on stools and at little tables. And so we came back that night to read. Someone—I don’t know who—pulled the plug on the jukebox, and that got everybody’s attention. We said, “We want to read some poems,” and before the people in the bar could moan because the music’s gone, we started to go “pshom t-t-t-t”, staccato-style, “d-d-d-d”—you know, like machine guns. And of course we used a couple curse words because we knew that would gather them. People stopped when they heard the curse words. After we got them, we didn’t use any more curse words, but they were listening now. It must have taken all of 15 minutes, and when we finished, they clapped and said, “Good, good, good.” But we weren’t going to overstay our time.

I remember walking down Lenox a couple days later, and some guy across the street says, “Hey, ain’t you the lady that came into—” And I said, “Uh-huh.” He said, “That was good! I went home and told my lady. And she cursed me out because I didn’t have her there. You gonna come back?” And I said, “Yep, we gonna come back.” 

We didn’t go back to that particular bar that I remember, but afterwards a lot of us went out to San Francisco and Oakland, where on Sunday mornings we’d go out with musicians and dancers and gather the people into the square to listen to poetry.

World: In several poems and prose pieces you talk about your shyness and stuttering as a child and how you took up writing as a better way to get your thoughts across. . . .

SS: I think writers are born, like mathematicians and scientists. What stuttering made me do is write earlier.

I think I started stuttering because of the great loss of my grandmother, who died when I was six. She was a pivotal person in my life, a woman who came to my father’s house and picked me and my sister up and said she would take care of us because my mother had died trying to give birth to twins. They all died—she died, and they died in her. My grandmother was the typical grandmother who spoiled you outrageously, and I was what they used to call a tomboy. . . .

World: Oh, yes, I read that at age four you jumped out a second-story window. Is that true? 

SS: Yes, yes, yes. One of us kids had decided the hardest thing you could do was jumping out this window. But when people got there and looked down and saw it was a distance, everyone said, “Uh-oh!” And I looked down, too, but my whole point of looking was to figure out how to do it. Because the idea of being leader with these boys I used to play with was really intriguing. And there was this thick kind of tree-bush, this huge thing right there. I thought if I just leap far enough, I can hit the tree and slide down. 

And I got ready to do that, not thinking that I might miss the tree. And of course as I got ready, the other kids ran to get everybody because they recognized the danger here. And I went boom—hit it!—sure enough, and slid down. And sliding down, I hit the ground harder than I expected and skinned my knees, and my aunts, who were just always appalled at all I did, went clucking their tongues. But Mama, as I called my grandmother, came out and said, “You okay?” I said “Mmm-hmm.” She said, “Well, okay. Go on and play.” She protected me against the people who really didn’t want me to go outside and play—because I played hard and came back all beat up, dresses torn, braids out, all that stuff. 

World: They wanted you to play with dolls. 

SS: Well, yes. Because my sister went out and she came back with nothing—no dirt, no hair undone. And my sister was a beautiful little girl. I remember once, while the church sisters were visiting my grandmother one Saturday, my sister and I were playing with cutout dolls, dressing them and stuff. I didn’t like this, but it was all I could do that day for some reason. And one of the sisters said, “Oh Pat, oh Pat, oh Pat is so beautiful. She is so beautiful, just like her mother.” And Pat raised her head to this chorus of words that sanctioned her and told her who she was. And they all smiled, and she went back to playing.

And then someone said, “And Sonia.” So I raised my head for this sanction of praise words, and there was silence. Then my grandmother said, “Well, she looks just like her daddy. But she’s smart.”

It’s amazing how your family will tell you at a young age what you will do in life. You pick up on it and do it. And so I spent the rest of my life being smart, whatever that means. And I guess my sister spent the rest of her life being beautiful. 

World: You’ve already hinted that your work has a lot of political content, and I wanted to follow the subject further. Shelley once wrote that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Is that an appropriate role for a poet? 

SS: Yes. All poets, all writers are political. They either maintain the status quo, or they say, “Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.” That’s what my life has really been about.

Someone once asked me in an interview, “If you had been born white, would you have the passion for justice?” I had to think for a moment, but then I said, “I would have had the same heart, the same liver, the same lungs, and the same brain. And I would have had the same eyes, too. And I think at some point, I would have looked out at the world and seen something wrong with it, and I would have talked about change.” 

I said, “Of course, being born black, it was much more immediate for me. When I moved to New York City, I still remembered Alabama.” I still remembered the time an aunt took me on a bus—she was taking me to work with her. The bus was half and half, with whites up front and blacks in the back. When more whites got on, the blacks had to move back; and when even more whites got on, the blacks then stood up; and when more whites still came on, the driver stopped the bus and told the blacks to get off. 

And this aunt, I remember, didn’t get off. She began to inch forward with me. The bus driver stopped the bus and said, “Get off.” She said, “I’m not getting off. I have about three more stops to go.” And he said, “I said, ‘Get off!’” People stopped and listened, and I remember holding onto her hand, knowing, feeling the tension in her hand. And he said, “I will put you off,” and he stood up to do it. And she spat on him. And I remember looking at that man and looking at my aunt Pauline, who was a loving woman. He literally pulled her and pushed her off the bus, and then he called the police on her. 

We were taken downtown, and the family was contacted. My father was a schoolteacher. My family knew its place in the South. But Pauline had stepped out of her place. There was a meeting that night, and that same night, Pauline was on the bus out of Birmingham. Because she was not going to be allowed to disrupt the place. And since she was leaving, no one would bother the family because they had gotten rid of the offender. 

Of course, a lot of my writings at the very beginning did not identify me as black, did not even involve anything political. But at the same time I was going to the library every day and bringing home books, probably all novels and all smut, one day when I was 11 or 12, the woman there looked at me and said, “Here, I want you to read this.” And she gave me an anthology of what at that time was called Negro poetry. She also gave me the Russian poet Pushkin, so I know this woman was probably someplace left of center. I’ll never forget this black woman. 

I read this anthology of Negro poetry and came across Sterling Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Countee Cullen, and Phillis Wheatley—and I came back and gave her that book and—I really wanted to keep the book, right?—I asked, “Could I take it out again?” And she said something I will never forget. She said, “I thought you wrote poetry.” And I jumped because nobody knew I wrote poetry. I don’t know what she had seen in me, but she said, “You can keep it out as long as you want to.”

Around then I was writing these little poems. We were asked to do an assignment at school about George Washington, so I did this poem about Washington crossing the Delaware, and my sister got ahold of it and came into the kitchen, and read this poem aloud—it was in rhyme, of course. And of course the laughter was not cruel laughter, but from then on I hid my poetry. I hid it under the tub, one of those antique tubs that you pay a lot of money for now? 

I cleaned that bathroom every Saturday, so I could hide my stuff under there. When I got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom ostensibly, I was really in there writing. 

World: You said just before that poets are either a force for change or a force for maintaining the status quo. How do poets today divide up in those terms? 

SS: The message writers get is “If you write something acceptable, I will reward you.” I don’t blame writers for how they respond to that. There’s no part of me that says, “You see? She got that or he got that because.…” Not at all. I say, “Very good. I’m glad you got it. You’re a poet, and you should get it because I know that process of writing, I know what you do.”

But there’s another group of poets who say, “I want to write about what is happening to people. I want to challenge the idea that everything’s okay in the world.” And when you do that, the country says, “No, no, no, no, no.”

You know, the first time I got up on stage and talked about the Vietnam War, some people booed me. Now, I could have reacted like a little flower and said, “Oh gosh, isn’t this terrible. How could you do this to me?” But I said, “That is a discussion we need to have.” 

So you push people to come to a level where they should be. Because finally, my brother, we have to begin acting like human beings. We have all the accouterments of being human. But we do things like wars, enslavement, murder, keeping information away from people, not teaching. And some of us have said, “If you do that, you’re not really moving like a human being. You need to understand that we are put on this earth to act in humane ways towards each other.” 

When I started writing, I was sometimes sharp, acerbic. You slap people, and they go, “Wow, I got slapped by you.” You say, “Right, and now that I’ve got your attention, let me tell you. . . . “ But you can’t keep doing it that way. At some point you say, “There’s another way to do it.” Maybe you say something beautiful or something coming from a point of love, and you grab people that way.

World: You’ve just alluded to something I wanted to get at—the difference between your early and more recent work. Has your work gotten deeper, less didactic, less hard-edged, more generous since your first published poems? 

SS: My books have always had a balance. I’ve always had one poem that went “bang!” But I always had soft ones in the same book. Of course, a lot of critics were thrown by my work. They had never been told, America had never been told, at least in my time, that it was racist. . . .

World: The country had never been told it was racist?

SS: When I began to teach, and I started coming to the Schomburg, then I recognized that Du Bois and all these others had done it. But at the time, we’re young poets, we think we’re inventing this stuff ourselves.

And most people jumped. They said, “How dare you say that! That’s not the case.” And then someone would say, “Then you’re not a good Negro.” And you’d say “You’re right, we’re certainly not.” In my pieces about Vietnam, in my pieces about being black, in my pieces about drugs in the black community, in pieces about “let us organize and unite,” critics were concerned about that content, and they could say simply, “Well, it’s not poetic.” 

But at the same time, there were other poets, beat poets, writing the same way, and no one accused them of being didactic. The beat poets said, “You’re a racist, and you’re sexist, and you’re everything else.” Well, they didn’t say “sexist,” not the beat poets.

Anyway, I’ve always written love poems, but I thought there were other things that needed to be said out loud—like the poems about what it was to have a father who comes north and is not allowed to teach in the North because they said he was not educated properly and who had these grand ideas about an invention or a product or something and went to the bank with the idea, and the bank wouldn’t lend him money—and two years, one year later, I saw his invention out on the market. 

What they were saying to a man like my father was, “You cannot be involved with these grand ideas, but you can be involved with women.” So I wrote a poem to my father that says if you’re a black man in this country, you can be a man via a Cadillac or via women, lots of women, but not via ideas.

World: Isn’t that the poem that the poet and critic Haki Madhubuti calls “cold and unforgiving”?

SS: Yeah, but all men would say that. [Laughs].

World: So you don’t see any evolution in your work—especially in tone? 

SS: I see evolution, but. . . . Let me just take the poem to my father—and many men, when I read this poem, including many who knew my father, have gotten pissed at me. It says,

how sad it must be 
to love so many women 
to need so many black 
perfumed bodies weeping 
underneath you. 
when i remember all those nights 
i filled my mind with 
long wars between short
sighted trojans & greeks 
while you slapped some 
wide hips about in 
your pvt dungeon,
when i remember your 
deformity   i want to 
do something about your 
makeshift manhood.
i guess 
      that is why 
on meeting your sixth 
wife, I cross myself 
with her confessionals.

Some men look at that poem and only take the words and not the subtext, or what’s between the lines. Between the lines, when I say, “You slapped some wide hips about in your private dungeon,” etcetera, it means there’s something missing for black men when they’re relegated in this country to being only lovers, to being men who only have dicks, not brains. And to say “I cross myself with her confessionals” means simply that I’m also implicated because whatever man I choose might also still be involved with that.

But then, in a later book-length poem called Does Your House Have Lions?, I go all the way into my father. The father here is trying to reconcile with his son and, by reconciling with his son, will reconcile with his daughter also. In writing that piece I went back to that earlier poem about my father and thought there was something else happening, so I had to reexamine him and his movement with women, and also his movement with his children.

World: What made you want to reexamine him?

SS: I went back to that earlier poem and saw that I’d written what I wanted to write at that time but saw its limitations, too. And so in the new piece about my father I assumed his voice, and in assuming his voice, I learned who my father was. It’s the only way you really do learn who people are—by assuming their voices. 

In the poem my father tells us, 

i was a southern Negro man playing music
married to a high yellow woman who loved my unheard
face, who slept with me in nordic 
beauty. i prisoner since my birth to fear
i unfashioned buried in a open grave
of mornings unclapped with constant sight 
of masters fattened decked with my diminished light.

Now, my father never talked about my mother in all the years we were growing up. And when I was writing this piece, I asked him why. He said, “Because I lost the only woman I ever loved.” And then I understood the progression of women after that. I wrote: 

this love. this first wife of mine, died in childbirth
this face of complex lace exiled her breath 
into another design, and i died became wanderlust
demanded recompense from friends for my heartbreak
cursed the land for this new heartache
put her away with a youthful pause
never called her name again, wrapped my heart in gauze.

And he did. And only then did I understand why he was Romeo-bound. Because I said, “You became a Romeo of sorts,” and he said, “Yeah.” So I wrote, 

became romeo bound, applauded women 
as I squeezed their syrup, drank their stenciled 
face, passed between their legs, placed my swollen 
shank to the world, became man distilled 
early twentieth-century black man fossilled
fulfilled by women things, foreclosing on my life.
mother where do I go before I arrive?

And if that seems more sympathetic, well, it is, on the level that I’m older, my father’s older.

World: One of the first pieces in Shake Loose My Skin, your book of new and selected poems, is a poem about Malcolm X that you wrote in the 1970s. What did Malcolm mean for you and the other poets you were working with? 

SS: Malcolm articulated all that we thought. For many of us, Baraka and the rest, he gave us his voice. That’s why many of our poems became so angry at that time—because we picked up on his voice. We said in our poetry what he was saying from stages or from 125th Street and Lenox Avenue. Or in the mosque, or at a university, speaking to students, who cheered him—and those were mostly white students. 

Malcolm cut through a lot of crap in this country and put out in the open what many young people were thinking and didn’t know how to articulate. He became our articulator—and that’s for blacks and whites. Because, seeing Malcolm, I for the first time recognized that truth would cut through class and color and gender.  Many of the poets who followed him around learned that. 

We also learned how to use humor in talking, to lessen the impact, and in our poetry. You know, as an aside, I always wonder what this country would be like if it had allowed Martin, Malcolm, and the Kennedys to live. You do know it would be a different country—and that was why they were all killed. Because there were people who had another vision for this country that wasn’t one that spoke to equality.

World:  Is what happened to the Kennedys, King, and Malcolm analagous to what happened just recently with the impeachment?

SS: It gets a little muddy here because Clinton is not a liberal. When he says he’s a centrist, that’s indeed what he is.

World: But he’s gone over the line in certain ways.

SS: Well, a centrist can go left or right. And when Clinton did that health plan —probably with influence from his wife and other people—people on the far right went crazy.

But the attack on the president is, I think, a class attack. They could kill the Kennedys, but they would never put the Kennedys’ business out in the street the way they’re doing now. Because those people loved the idea that the Kennedys were aristocratic, that Roosevelt was aristocratic, that they came from money. But a poor white man, with a single mother, they can trash him in any kind of way. 

So it is a class thing. We in this country never want to deal with class. And there’s the color thing, too, because he does all the things they think black men do—from playing a musical instrument to liking women to hanging out.

And you and I understand the irony of all those men down there talking about Monica. But they figured if they could keep talking about her, they could change the country’s attitude. And this brings me back—I’m coming full circle—to the point that as poets, as activists, we’ve succeeded on some levels at making people more sophisticated. And there’s a core of people, who have come out of the ‘60s, who remember the antiwar movement, who remember how Reagan, eight years of Reagan, made us go backwards on many levels, from the budget to what’s going on with people of color—and even the middle class.

I heard someone on NPR say, “Oh, the people, the people—two years from now, we can make them forget that this ever happened.” But when I talk about the impeachment to my classes, they say, “Isn’t that a shame?” It’s been ingrained in their psyches that maybe Clinton is this and that, but you don’t do that to a president.

So I said, “Two years from now, are you gonna vote? Because I teach my classes not for us to be elitist but to apply what we learn to this real world out here. And one way you do that is to vote.” I told them, “Toni Morrison, when asked by Charlie Rose, ‘Do you vote?’ said, ‘Oh yes, I do. When I vote, it’s like a small prayer by the road because I remember Rosa. I remember Fannie Lou. I remember all those people who were hosed down in order to get the vote.’ She said, ‘I know I’m voting for limited people, but you don’t wipe out the system that you fought for.’”

World: I want to go back one last time to the question of art and politics and ask if you draw a line between the two in your own work, and if so, where you draw it. I’m thinking in particular of the poem “July 4, 1994,” from your first Beacon book, Wounded in the House of a Friend. The first two sections of the poem are very dense and lyrical, and then in third part you break into something more prosy and overtly political.

SS: I think you can mix the two kinds of writing. In that part at the end, when I say that we have got to finally stop killing each other, I wanted to say it in just that fashion, in clear words. I read that poem to high school students, and I get a loud reaction when I get to that last part. They listen to the lyricism, but when you get to that last part, you’re hitting home with them. And they’ll say, “Yeah” or “Why peace, then?” I say, “Because I don’t want you to learn geography in Korea or Vietnam, and be buried there.”

World: That poem ends with the lines “It will get better, it will get better”—a hopeful refrain that you use there and in one other poem. And yet you have plenty of other poems that are anything but hopeful, with many depicting wholesale violence, racism, abuse against women, and so on. I’m wondering whether these very different kinds of passages reflect two of your contradictory moods, or whether the different poems just use different personae, or whether you have a belief, a conviction that things really will get better?

SS: I do believe things will get better, but only if you work for it.

World: Is that belief based on evidence or on faith?

SS: It’s based on a number of things. Once you begin the movement forward, that dialectic cannot be stopped. You can impede it, you can bring people to power who will stop it for a while, but once the motion begins, history will not go back. It will not be stopped.

World: So it’s evidence and faith both?

SS: There’s a faith that people are basically good; they’re not basically evil, as some philosophers say. And if you can show people the goodness in themselves, they will always rise to the occasion.

For instance, when I first got to Temple University, I would walk into a comp class and there were all whites there. Mostly males. And they went “Ahh!” I mean literally, like “a black woman’s going to come teach me!” So I wrote my name on the board and said, using humor again, “You can sit right by the door, and if you want to leave after a week, I’ll sign you out.” Well, they stayed. Because what they saw in the classroom is that you were fair, that you treated them as human beings, that you were like every other professor they’d had, and maybe a little more human than others. 

We got to know each other, and they opened up. They would write about their parents, who were racists, and I would say, “Well, then go home and beat them up. Teach them. And if you can’t teach them, know that you have moved to another level. That you are, on that level, better than they. But it’s a conscious effort on your part, to be better than they.” 

My point is that you can teach. You can teach people to be better than they are. Because we teach racism in this country. This country could wipe out racism tomorrow if it wanted to—you could pay people, give them benefits for not being racist. You could run an ad campaign and eradicate it in a year. Probably less than that. But nobody does it because racism pays. 

World: In terms of how our economic system is structured?

SS: Exactly. 

World: What about faith in the sense of “religion”? I know you used to go to the AME church with your grandmother and that some of the poems you’re writing now invoke African nature deities like Oya and Chango. Do these or any other religious traditions figure into your religious practice or spiritual life today?

SS: I don’t consider myself religious in the conventional sense. I think my religion is my work, and my god is the love I express towards people and the country. When I acknowledge in my writing a Jesus or a creator or an Oya or whatever, I’m acknowledging things I know exist out there and are probably one and the same, or they have equal weight for people. But I think you become holy, my brother, when you recognize that you’re holy and that this work is the work of holy people—holy men and women who are trying to make every space they enter a holy place where people take responsibility for their actions, where people attempt to learn how to walk upright as human beings.

We all carry the god within ourselves. That was a hard lesson to come to. It was a hard thing to learn. 

World: How did you learn it?

SS: I learned it through work, through activism. And through teaching. And understanding finally that there’s no one truth out there. 

David Reich is editor of the World.

Back issues
World main page
Send a letter to the editor
Subscribe to World

Unitarian Universalist Association
25 Beacon Street, Boston, MA 02108 -- Telephone (617) 742-2100 -- Fax (617) 367-3237

Mailbox Information

This page was last updated August 12, 1999 by hbordas@uua.org.
All material copyright © 1999, Unitarian Universalist Association
There have been 209accesses to this page since May 3, 1999
Address of this page: http://www.uua.org/world/0599feat1.html