Poet, activist Sonia Sanchez subject of new documentary
New York — – When a team of documentary makers first suggested a movie about her life, Sonia Sanchez resisted.
“We come from that generation of being in the civil rights movement. And you never celebrate yourself. That’s the first thing we learned. It’s about the movement and people, so you never really talked about yourself,” the poet, playwright, teacher and activist said recently during an interview at a midtown Manhattan hotel.
But Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon kept asking and Sanchez, spirited as ever at 81, finally relented, if only because her children encouraged her to share what she had learned and how she survived. “BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez” airs Tuesday night on World Channel’s “America ReFramed” series. The 90-minute film includes interviews, archival footage and tributes from such artists as Questlove, Mos Def, Ayana Mathis and two who have since died, Amiri Baraka and Ruby Dee.
“Having seen Sonia Sanchez ‘perform’ her poetry, and experiencing the power of her onstage presence, we knew that she would be an electrifying subject for a documentary,” Attie and Goldwater said in a joint statement.
Sanchez’s life amazes even her. She has published more than a dozen works of poetry, children’s books and other literature. She was a leader of the Black Arts Movement, the artistic wing of the Black Power movement in the 1960s and ’70s. She is a pioneer of African-American studies. She has clashed with the Black Panthers, been harassed by the FBI (for teaching W.E.B. Du Bois among other “subversives”), arrested at protest gatherings and, after overcoming a childhood stammer, cheered by audiences worldwide.
She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, but moved to Harlem a few years later after the death of her mother and grandmother. A graduate of Hunter College, Sanchez also studied poetry at a workshop run by New Yorker poetry editor Louise Bogan and helped form a writers workshop in Greenwich Village.
By the 1960s she was a member of the Congress of Racial Equality and had met one of her most important influences, Malcolm X. More than a foot shorter than Malcolm X, Sanchez remembers approaching him after a speech he gave and sharing some candid thoughts.
“I got right behind him and I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around and he didn’t see me,” she recalled with a laugh. “And he looked down and smiled, and he said, ‘Yes?’ And I said, ‘Mr. X, I don’t believe everything you said.’
“And he looked at me. He had the most beautiful, quiet eyes of any human being on this earth. And he smiled down, with his eyes, and said, ‘One day, you will, my sister.’ ”
Sanchez sees the poet as a “creator of social values” and the performance as a renewal of ancient rituals: She sings, chants, whispers, clicks her tongue and shouts. Her breakthrough, she remembers, came on a winter’s night at Brown University in the early 1970s. After she read for an hour and a half and thought she was finished, a student requested “a/coltrane/poem,” in which Sanchez mimicked Coltrane’s saxophone with such lines as “screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeCHHHHHHHHHHH.”
She had never read the poem out loud.
“And I said, ‘Here goes nothing.’ Really. And I started reading. But as I got into it, I had enough memory (Sanchez murmurs), hmmm, hmmm, of Coltrane at that particular time that I was able to almost fuse my voice to become what he was doing,” she explained.
“And there was this silence. And I figured, ‘God damn it, Sonia, you blew it.’ And then they all stood up en masse and started stamping their feet and clapping.”
Hip-hop artists look up to her, but Sanchez acknowledges she didn’t immediately take to the new music. She remembers coming home from work and hearing the “BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!” of her kids’ rap records. One day, as she was drinking a cup of tea, she asked them who they were listening to.
“And they said someone by the name of Tupac Shakur, and I dropped my cup and it broke, because I knew his mother, and she was in the (Black) Panther party, and I knew him as a little boy,” she said, adding that she couldn’t understand his lyrics because he spoke too fast.
“And my children were so annoyed with me, they actually said, ‘We have trouble understanding you. You speak so fast.’ ”
Along with her writing career, Sanchez has been teaching for 50 years, most recently at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she now lives. She remains friendly with many former students, some of whom turn up in unexpected places.
In 2006, during the Iraq War, Sanchez and some peers organized the “Granny Peace Brigade.” They entered a military recruitment center in Philadelphia and asked to enlist. Authorities soon arrived.
“They sent this former detective who comes out to these things. He came out said, ‘We’re going to handcuff you behind the back.’ And we said, ‘We’re not trying to escape.’ Then he came back and said, ‘We’ll handcuff you in front, so maybe it won’t hurt so much.’ And we said, ‘We’re still not trying to escape,’ ” Sanchez recalled.
“The third time, he sent in this young African-American officer. And she came in and she looked at me and said, ‘Professor Sanchez, what are you doing here?’ ”
‘BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez’
8 p.m. Tuesday
PBS’ World Channel