ARTS IN SOCIETY
Straight Down to the Bones
In this searching interview, legendary Black Arts poet Sonia Sanchez discusses the ancestral influences on her work and how art can give us strength.
Includes new audio of Sanchez reading from her work.SONIA SANCHEZ, CHRISTINA KNIGHTThis interview is featured in Boston Review’s new book, Ancestors.ORDER A COPY TODAYEditor’s Note: You can hear Sonia Sanchez read some of her poems at our launch event for Ancestors next Thursday, March 11!
In addition, we are thrilled to announce that Sonia Sanchez will be one of the judges for this year’s creative writing contests. Free for writers from non-Western countries (as well as those experiencing hardship), our short story and poetry contests are open now.
A key figure in the Black Arts Movement and a founder of Black Studies, Sonia Sanchez has authored more than a dozen books of poetry, criticism, and plays. Though I’ve never met Sanchez in person, it is not an exaggeration to say that her life as a poet, playwright, and professor has made my own possible.
Taking a class on the Black Arts Movement as an undergraduate introduced me to the fire behind her language. My graduate training in African American Studies showed me images of her as an impossibly young professor, fighting for the establishment of Black Studies at San Francisco State University. And most recently, in my own life as a young professor in Philadelphia, I’ve seen Sanchez enter a room and be suddenly surrounded by former students, friends, and colleagues, living evidence of her lifelong generosity of spirit. Sanchez radiates brilliance, humor, and integrity, and her work has touched countless lives.It was a joy, then, to speak with her about the many people, living and dead, who have shaped her own journey. In our interview, she discusses mentors and teachers as well as her fierce devotion to her students. She concludes by recalling her writing process for A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), an astonishing volume of poetry shaped by the artist’s dream dialogues with her late mother.—Christina Knight“How could I be a graduate in New York City and never come across these Black books?
”Christina Knight: You have mentioned before that there are lots of people, of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, who have inspired you and your own vision for a more just and peaceful world. Could you talk about who some of those people are—those chosen ancestors—who guide you on your journey? Sonia Sanchez: Some of them are people like Jean Hutson, who was a curator and then chief of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture for decades. When I was finishing my bachelors at Hunter College, I had done some substitute teaching around my neighborhood, and I had this agreement with the principal that I would have a job in September. But I graduated in January, and when you come from a family that’s not wealthy, jobs are very important, are they not? So my dad said, “Well, you’d better go out and get a job.” I looked around in the newspapers and I went to all these places to get a job, and they all said they were filled. But I had the feeling that it had to do with how I looked, you know, my color, right? Someone I was talking to said, “Why don’t you look at the New York Times? They have all of these ads.” So I looked and there was one that said to write in; it was for a writer for a firm. And I thought why don’t I, at that point, play with what I really want to be?So I sent my CV, and I wrote whatever they asked me to write. And I got a telegram on Saturday that said to report to work on Monday; I was hired. So on Monday I went out in my blue suit, and my hat, and my blue pumps, and my blue bag. I had gloves and everything. I went out like a church person, you know what I mean? I got there at 8:30, and I remember waiting outside this door, which was locked. I’m standing there thinking, “Am I in the right place?” And I heard these heels come clicking down the hall. This woman came up to me and said, ‘Can I help you?’” So I took the telegram out and handed it to her.I remember she read it, and then she looked up at me; she looked back down, she read it again, and then she looked back up at me. Then she handed it to me, unlocked the door, and said, “Come in and have a seat.” You know how it is just to be twenty? How young you are at that time? Being eighty-six, now, you look back, and you remember the youngness in your eyes—like, “Whoa, here I am, I’m going to get a job. I’ve been hired to do something that I want to do.” It’s amazing. So I’m sitting there, and a man walks in and says, “Yes, can I help you?” I got up, and I had my letter out, and I handed it to him. And he read the letter and looked at me; he looked down at the telegram and read it again and looked up at me. And you know, I am smiling the whole time. And he handed it back to me and said, “I’m sorry, the job is taken.”With my New York City humor, I said, “Oh, I got it—the telegram said report to