Sonia Sanchez Still Has Work to Do
With a new collection of poetry due out this April, the longtime Germantown resident and original Philadelphia poet laureate shares a fraction of her memories.
From a childhood spent in Jim Crow Birmingham to a rise as an activist in Malcolm X’s Harlem to a long legacy in the Black Arts Movement and at Temple University, where she began teaching in 1977, Sonia Sanchez has seen, heard and done more than most of us could ever imagine. With a new collection of poetry due out this spring, the longtime Germantown resident shares a fraction of those memories.
Hello, Ms. Sanchez.
Hi. I’m sorry for the delay. I had to have my tea. I learned it from India. A good cup of hot tea makes everything right. In the midst of things being incorrect, I retreat to a cup of tea, and my day seems so much better. Of course, I lived in New York for many years, and in New York, people drink coffee. And so I drank coffee.
Tell me about your family.
My dad was a high-school teacher and musician. He’s in the Alabama music hall of fame. He took the music of the fiddle and brought it to jazz. He played in a great jazz band. And he was hired a lot to go on tours because he had a major advantage: He could read music. They toured in the South, for the most part. All very handsome men. When they finished playing, the women would gravitate to them. The white women, too.
What’s the significance of your birth name, Wilsonia?
It has a lot to do with the history of Black folk. I was the second child. My father’s name is Wilson. The first child was a girl named Patricia. By the way, she was gorgeous. My sister took after my mother. She was an amazingly beautiful young woman. When I was born, my father was hoping for a boy, so they didn’t have a name for me. And finally, they just decided to add “ia” to his name, Wilson. So I became Wilsonia.
Tell me about your mother.
I don’t remember much of my mother. She died when I was young. What I do know is that my grandmother took care of me. She came to my father’s house after my mother died and said, “I’ll take them and take care of them.” And she brought Patricia and me to a house where there were two aunts. They weren’t really aunts — more like aunties. But they were living with us. It was such a great household. My grandmother was the head deaconess at the AME church, so we lived at church. And since she was the head deaconess, we had free rein. We could move around the church at will.
What was your relationship like with your sister?
She was a conflict, my dear brother. Everyone would praise her for her beauty. I was a child who was not beautiful, and I would go home after playing and my braids were all raggedy. They would call me a mess. My dress would be torn. “Oh, isn’t Patricia beautiful!” My grandmother would grab me and tell them: Just let her be. Just let her be.
Did your grandmother protect you in general?
My most important memory of my grandmother was on Saturdays. The sisters would come in to do cooking. They always had food for people. I would lie there behind the couch and listen to these women snap their peas and talk and talk and talk. There was always all this talk and the snapping of the peas. All this talking and then snapping. The refrain was the snapping. Once, a woman talked about her husband beating her. My grandmother told her to put a pot of hot grits on the stove and then wake him up in the middle of the night and say, “The next time you hit me, you are gonna wake up with this pot of hot grits in your face.” They didn’t have psychology or psychiatry at the time. You couldn’t take problems like this to Brother Whatever or Pastor Whatever. They wouldn’t understand. I’ll always remember those words: “You don’t ever let a man hit you more than once. At some point, he has to go to sleep. He might not wake up.” Isn’t it amazing what you learn from women and what you go through? I remember — her passing that on was so important. The herstory and history of women who have something to say.
Did you ever have to put a pot of hot grits on the stove as you got older?
I did turn back to my grandmother’s words, yes.
Did it work?
And how. Men are not crazy. They know at some point what they are able to do and how people respond to it. I didn’t respond to it with tears and shrinking away.
Why did your family leave the South?
Well, my father used to tell people that we left Birmingham because he wanted his children to get a good education in New York. That’s the story he used to tell his friends — that he brought me and my sister and a new wife to Harlem for education. But many years later, I had done a reading, and some people from the South came up to me and said that he actually had to leave because he had secretly been helping to organize the Black workers in the South.
“I loved this place called Temple. My students were a very mixed group of people. Temple was a place that could stretch you a great deal.”
Where did you go to school?
My dad went to register Patricia for school when she was six and I was four. That was at Tuggle Elementary School in Birmingham. I wasn’t allowed to go to school until I was six, but when he went to register her, the aunties all said, “Let Sonia go to school.” So he made it happen. When we moved to New York, they wanted to put us back because we were kids from the South, but he insisted they test us, and they did. And I was 16 when I graduated.
How was the New York education you received?
I remember this one teacher who looked at the girls and said, “I don’t know why I have to teach you anything. You’re just going to have babies.” And then he told us what page to turn to. I was shocked.
Where did your interest in poetry come from?
My auntie taught me how to read when I was very, very young. So I was always asking for books. And I used to write these little ditties that rhymed. I would read them to my grandma, and she would say, “Well, isn’t that beautiful.” I read nursery rhymes, and then I imitated them. And I continued to write, and then I got serious about it in New York City.
When did you get political?
I was a professor in New York City and a faculty adviser for students who challenged everybody. They were Puerto Rican and Black and very political. One day, we all walked into the office of the school president, and they told him what they wanted and didn’t want. In came the police, and we were arrested. They put me in a cell with the ladies of the night. The judge said if I didn’t do anything wrong in the next six months, it wouldn’t be on my record. The president of the school was so angry.
I went looking for another teaching job, but I couldn’t find one. Finally, someone I knew at the education department told me, “They don’t intend to let you teach.” My dad kept telling me, “You can’t get mixed up in this ‘Black thing.’” I went to Chicago, and I amassed all this information on Black literature. And I heard from somebody at San Francisco State, and they said, “We’re beginning something called Black studies,” and that’s how I went out there. I began to teach Black literature and Black studies. And it was seen as radical.
What are the essential books of Black literature?
Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois. And Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. You cannot teach Black literature without them. And of course, then you have Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Amiri Baraka. All of the women who came out of the Black Arts Movement, talking about what it was to be a Black female in a place called America. And there’s everything from Negro folklore to Sterling Allen Brown to Margaret Walker to Malcolm X. You cannot understand what’s going on in the streets of Philadelphia unless you get this literature. It puts it all in perspective when people are killed in the streets and their bodies are discarded.
How is it that you came to Philadelphia?
I was going to be teaching at Temple. I wanted to buy a house, and they weren’t sure about the loan, but I told them about Temple and the loan became a miracle. I was driving my car through North Philadelphia at night to get to Temple, and people were telling me where to park my car, where not to park my car. North Philadelphia seemed a lot like Harlem to me, so I just waltzed around wherever I wanted and however I wanted. People told me I needed to know my turf: “You’re new to Philadelphia, Professor Sanchez. You should always look up and know where you’re walking.” I said, “You know, my dear brother, I walked in Harlem in the middle of the night, and the thing that secured me was that there would be brothers on the street. And if you are doing the work that needs to be done, there is a little bit of protection.” But they told me, “You’re in Philadelphia now. Nobody knows you.”
Then the students asked me where I lived, and I told them in a grand large house in Germantown, and they told me it was a very rough part of the city. No, it’s a very quiet neighborhood. Very nice. Near a park. A fascinating neighborhood of Blacks, whites, working-class, middle-class. Right behind me were people who taught at Penn.
I loved this place called Temple. My students were a very mixed group of people. Temple was a place that could stretch you a great deal. I remember my first class, I said, “Good morning, my brothers and sisters,” and everybody looked up in class, confused. I said, “Well, we’re all brothers and sisters.”
Where do you live these days?
Same house! I never moved. I need to move. It’s three floors. I’m 86. I’ll probably need to move into a small apartment — someplace without steps. One of my sons lives with me right now, and that is a joy. I have three kids. The twins are here in Philadelphia, and then my daughter from my first marriage lives in a place called California. I keep trying to get her out. I keep telling her there’s going to be a major earthquake.
How did you come to meet Malcolm X?
I was in the New York CORE — that stands for the Congress of Racial Equality. We thought we were the baddest people. We took on everybody and everything. We closed down 135th Street because we were trying to force the unions to hire Black and Puerto Rican men. We sent out fliers about the demonstrations, and something came from Malcolm that said, “Whatever you do, you’ll have to include me, because I am Harlem.” Who does he think he is? I would go listen to him speak. I told him I didn’t agree with some of what he said. But his eyes were so gentle. And he looked at me and said, “One day you will, my sister.”
Are you still writing?
I’m still working on the books. They told me to get this thing where you talk into the computer and it prints out what you’re saying. But I, like a lot of writers, need to do longhand. There’s something that connects my brain to my hand when I have a pen, and I don’t get that same thing with a computer. So I do longhand as much as I can, and then I give that to somebody to type up. I have this energy in my head, and I can see it going from my head to my arm to my fingertips to my pen. With a computer, there is a stasis. The longhand, the flow in my hand, propels my brain and memory, and then the brain propels my hand. I like that connection.
Why did you join the Nation of Islam?
Most of the people in the Black Arts Movement joined the Nation at one point or another. I had been very much alone in a country that would not employ me, a country that sent the FBI to my home for teaching Black literature, a country that had policemen following me in a place called America, stalking me. And at some point, I was broke. Completely broke. And my father was angry at me. I did not have a job. People were dying. And the Nation of Islam brought brothership and sistership. Protection. You would get protection. And I respected some of the ideas that came from Malcolm and that came from Elijah Muhammad, like cleaning up brothers in prison and making them responsible. I met some beautiful people. The Nation was important to Northerners in the way that MLK was important to Southerners. We didn’t need somebody to help us get to the front of the bus. We had to find out what the front of the bus is in the North.
But eventually, you left. Why?
As I moved on this Earth, I understood that it wasn’t what I wanted to say or be. I had moved in another direction. I don’t want to bad-mouth anyone. I just had another direction as a Black woman on this Earth.
I’ve read that you have a stutter, which is something my father suffered from his entire life. But I don’t detect even a hint of a stutter or stammer. How did you overcome that?
I started to stutter after my grandma died and my sister and I were sent to live with other members of the family. We lost that sanctity that we had with my grandmother. The hugs and kisses.
My stutter made me a loner. And it made people ignore me. I have always been a loner. I basically stopped stuttering by the time I was in high school. Stutters are still at the base of my skull waiting to escape, waiting to catch you, but I don’t let them.
I think my stutter was a form of protection that my grandmother gave to me when she died. She knew a child like me who liked to read, talk and hug and run with the wind the way I did, and stay and hide my poems, would need protection. She gave me something special.
I’m sorry, I don’t understand how the stuttering protected you. Aren’t stutterers normally teased and bullied?
Yes. People would say things. They would say, “Oh, there is Sonia-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a,” but they wouldn’t touch me. If you see a child who stutters, you don’t bother her. You might laugh at her. But you don’t bother with her. I understood at some point that the stuttering was my shield, and no one touched or abused me. They just left me alone. And that was fine.
What are your reflections on the past year, and what are you hoping for in 2021?
I would like people to know that I have lived a life of being Black in America, and I have had some beautiful things happen, and I have suffered, but I am fortunate enough to know that I haven’t suffered the way that many have suffered and continue to suffer. I am hoping this COVID will bring us closer together, my brother. This wasn’t put here to inconvenience people. We will not have “normal.” We will never have “normalcy” again. The water has been clearing up. Something is happening on this Earth. People are beginning to see the tops of mountains. Yes, people are dying, but we need to look at also saving the planet. We must save ourselves, but we must also save this Earth. We need to finally answer the question: What does it mean to be human? How do we walk the Earth, how do we walk it and how do we talk it, with genuine sympathy?
In Black Studies and the Nation and being a part of New York CORE or becoming a part of the Black Arts Movement, I went in, and I came out with more information, and it has formed me. It has not deformed me. It has not malformed me. It has formed me. I’m an 86-years-of-age woman whose work continues, and it will continue to my last breath. What I am saying to you, my brother, is: This is how I have moved on this Earth. I have tried to move on this Earth in a righteous way.
Published as “Poetic Justice” in the March 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.