Poet Sonia Sanchez captures the spirit of social activism

The renowned poet, professor and human rights activist Sonia Sanchez commanded Brooks Rogers with her political and creative visions on Monday night. A slight woman who defies her own size, Sanchez molded her speech and reading with both emotional illuminations and hard-line, principle-driven moments: Amiri Baraka in a headscarf and earrings.

Stephane Robolin, professor of Africana studies, introduced her as an “essential writer” and one whose work is “a battle for us all to be human.”

Sanchez’s first performance was a rhythmic and monotone enumeration of “just some people who have made some kind of change in the place we call America,” she explained afterwards.

Melding the names with hums and clicks of her tongue, she listed people for several minutes, everyone from Billy Holiday to Albert Einstein, Frantz Fanon to Dizzy Gillespie, as well as “Malcolm,” a name she repeated multiple times, rolling the syllables into a pulse.

Her artistic homage to Malcolm X indicates her association with both the Civil Rights and the Black Arts Movement. Sanchez was also a founding member of the first black studies department at San Francisco State in 1968 and is known for her performances on Def Poetry Jam.

As Robolin mentioned, in 2006 Sanchez was arrested with the Granny Peace Brigade for refusing to leave a military recruiting office in Philadelphia, Pa. after the group of 11 tried to enlist to replace troops in Iraq. A group of Williams students attended Sanchez’s trial later that year, during which the charges were dropped. Now retired, she served on the faculty of Temple University for 20 years.

Sanchez’s activism bleeds into her 13 volumes of poetry, as well as several plays, children’s books and anthologies. Iraq War allusions played prominently in the pieces she read to the crowd of approximately 60: in her poem, “Peace,” she read and sang, “A long time ago someone said: I think therefore I am/Now we say: preemptive strikes therefore we are.”

Sanchez’s transitions between her poetry and her partly conversational, partly preachy improvisational monologue were smooth enough to obfuscate the end of one and the beginning of another.

She took her opportunity at the podium to tell the young audience members, “This is your century, this is your earth,” claiming that if humans are not careful, she believes there won’t be a 22nd century. Mentioning the importance of voting, demonstrating high expectations of the next president and Congress, and paying attention to the Social Security issues, Sanchez spread her mantle of political beliefs liberally.

Sanchez scatted, hummed and clicked through each poem with such precision and variance that it wasn’t clear if she was reading the poem as a musical score or a treasure map. Performing “Middle Passage,” Sanchez began by laughing, then eased into an almost schizophrenic frenzy of words and wails. Expressing her love of the form for its clarity, she read a number of her haikus.

From “Freedom Now Suite,” written in honor of the percussionist Max Roach, she read, “Your hands shimmering on the lights of rain – Your death a hiccup I could not drink away.”

Born in 1934, Sanchez has received numerous accolades for her writing and activism over her lifetime, including the American Book Award for her book of poetry, Homegirls and Handgrenades, the P.E.N. Writing Award and the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.