Sonia Sanchez’s Contradictions & the Black Legacy Month Closing Ceremony
A few weeks ago, a Black writer and academic visiting Dartmouth was excited to hear about Black Praxis. He said something like: “Black Praxis! That’s a radical name!”
And if the content of Black Praxis is meant to reflect its name, at the very least, I won’t lie about how I think someone has been hurtful, and how her celebrity could cushion her from acknowledging that.
This being said, I think Sonia Sanchez, like many people (including people who are reading this), has unaddressed colorism in her.
The evening before Sanchez spoke at Dartmouth’s Black Legacy Month closing ceremony, I was one of the invitees to a last-minute dinner with her. It was at a local upscale restaurant I’d never entered in my more-than-three years in Hanover.
I told myself I was excited to meet the writer whose work I’d known for a while now -- the woman whose art and activism are said to inform each other. I was skeptical about how her career has benefitted from presenting gut-wrenching imagery of Black women who are not from her context, but I was going to be generous in a way many people haven’t been with me, and extend the benefit of the doubt. I revisited some of her poetry and interviews in my in-between times, preparing for the possibility of asking her questions when I worked up my comfort.
Anxiety and more had me running late for a lot of things this term, but I was early for this dinner. I’d been craving connection with writers who haven’t been informed by Dartmouth, which may have delayed my perception of Sanchez still being shaped and scarred by elite circles.
Sanchez seemed chill. She greeted people by teaching them a sort of handshake: in the shake, you’d tap opposite elbows, then bow with your hands pressed together, prayer-style. But when we sat down, something wasn’t sitting well with me.
With a little quiet observation, I noticed that Sanchez was directing her attention and interest to lighter-skinned women at the table, not really acknowledging darker-skinned women who were present until they appealed to her. At one point, she offered to give her phone number to the lighter-skinned women specifically, making no gestures to the rest of us. I knew this dynamic well, having experienced it throughout my life, so I withdrew from the conversation, texting loved ones, wondering what in the hell I was going to write for this article. I’d wanted it to be something sweet -- “Sonia Sanchez was on campus and she was perfect and I adored her” -- but nothing and no one is that simple. This is why I don’t believe in having heroes. Or in letting someone’s reputation be the reason I honor them.
Sanchez did seem to notice the tension at the table as the dinner came to a close, trying to bring more people into the closed conversation, but I personally didn’t have the energy to engage, feeling the drain of a lifetime of invisibility more acutely than I had in a while. I swallowed the curiosity I’d had at the tip of my tongue, reminded that even (and sometimes especially) surrounded by Black women, hierarchy is a helluva drug. And it often goes by hue.
Speaking to fellow attendees on the walk home confirmed I was not the only one who noticed.
The Closing Ceremony
That being said, I did enjoy the Black Legacy Month (BLM) closing ceremony, though I still had the sour taste of last night’s dinner in my mouth. I was pleased to hear the music of my third wife Janelle Monae playing when the growing queue of audience members was let into Collis Common Ground.
Sophia Lackiram was the first to speak onstage, introducing herself as OPAL’s new Program Coordinator for Leadership and Community Development. She then invited Music in Color (MIC) to perform. They opened the ceremony with acapella renditions of ‘Lift Every Voice And Sing’ and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. We were treated to a wide range of voices from these women of color, clad in black.
Rachel Edens, the Assistant Dean and Advisor to First Gen and Low Income Students, was the MC of the ceremony. She spoke lovingly, thanking the BLM planning committee, Quita Davis (Collis Coordinator), and Tim Duggan (Assistant Director of Collis Center Operations) for the work they’d put in to make the month’s events happen.
Edens also honored Almisha Readdy with the 2018 Black Lady Genius Award. Readdy has worked in the Advancement Division of Dartmouth for 15 years and was “the only person of color there” when she began. In the words of her nominator,“she constantly challenges me to be better, and to live up to my fullest potential […] She may not be the most visible, but she has always been a person who was there when you needed her.”
Edens added that this tribute is important because “there are a lot of people that are hidden gems on campus, who we don’t see… who aren’t the face of people of color or of Black women […] There are people who are supporting you here.”
Following this, Edens introduced our keynote speaker, Sonia Sanchez, “Poet, mother, professor. National and international lecturer on Black culture and literature, women’s liberation, peace, and racial justice.” Reading Sanchez’s credits and accolades alone took about three minutes. I heard a light gasp from someone behind me halfway through as Edens continued listing her awards.
When she gets her cue, Sanchez mounts the stage in a mix of patterned fabrics -- plaid, floral, matte, and more. Her silvery locs rustle around her head.
She is stubborn upon arrival.
Sanchez asks, “How are you?” until she gets the energy she wants from the audience. She insists that a light shining in her eyes be turned off, and asks that the dimmed lights in the room be turned up so she can see our faces -- “cause I don’t care about ambiance at all.”
When she gets her wishes, she talks about how she was in a tornado in Alabama, which has given her vertigo she has to push through when she performs.
She talks about the group dinner we had last night in a romanticized way, then ironically cautions against the romanticization of 1960s-America and the erasure of violence that leads to. Commenting on current events, she adds: “45 is not a romantic figure … I don’t call him my president, I call him 45.”
Sanchez moves seamlessly from speech to poetry. Indeed, the two are not so separate. For her, both involve truth-telling. Between poems, she makes medleys of quotes from people she admires that could be poems themselves. She talks about knowing Grace Lee Boggs and James Baldwin, who she calls Jimmy. Paraphrasing poet Octavio Paz, she says, “Poetry is the bridge between history and truth.”
Much of what Sanchez shares is autobiographical, like when she says her family in Birmingham was favored for their access to education, calling her father “a privileged Black.”
In a story from Homegirls and Handgrenades called ‘Norma’, she speaks of a Black woman she knew who hasn’t had the same access to education or straight-edge ‘success’.
Of Norma, Sanchez says, “We just studied and got good grades, you were the one who understood it all.” During and after this reading, Sanchez and others cry, and she’s brought a box of tissues upon request. I feel some discomfort knowing many people in the room have been and will be terrible to people like Norma, but it is a moving story.
Near the end of her stage-time (which she extends when she has more to say), Sanchez challenges us to, “Take people with you… and I hope you take some of my words with you.”
Something I’ll take from Sanchez’s visit is the reminder that getting free is messy.
Earlier that night she said, “Cruelty is caused by a failure of the imagination.” I agree with that, which is part of why storytelling is so important to me -- she might say the same.
Sanchez tells us, “this is your world, this is your universe, you’ve gotta fight for it.” I agree with this too. Sometimes that fight will mean refusing mistreatment, even from those who think good intentions keep them from causing harm.