Blues, jazz, funk, and Afro-Caribbean percussion surround the soulful voice of Harlem-born poet Sekou Sundiata on his recordings, The Blue Oneness of Dreams and Longstoryshort. His words speak of black culture and tradition, often with a political edge. "People be droppin’ revolution like it was a pick-up line," he says in Longstoryshort. "You wouldn’t use that word if you knew what it meant."
S ekou Sundiata, (born Robert Feaster), was born on August 22, 1948, in Harlem, New York. Sekou taught English literature at the New School for Social Research, Sundiata became quite a performer in his own right as well, usually leading a band on frequent club dates reminiscent of June Jordan, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), and Quincy Troupe. Sundiata began writing for the musical theater, and premiered The Mystery of Love in 1994, with songwriting help from Doug Booth. The duo also teamed up on Sundiata's debut album, The Blue Oneness of Dreams, with Booth contributing both songs and his soulful vocals to the project. The album was released on Polygram in 1997; A Long Story Short followed in early 2000.
Sundiata recorded and performed his poetry with such renowned musicians as Craig Harris, David Murray, Nona Hendryx, and Vernon Reid. However, he did not consider himself a performance poet. "This thing about spoken word artists and performance poets, " he said in a 2003 interview, "I think of it mainly as marketing categories. I’m satisfied with just calling myself a poet."
His designation as a poet also satisfied New York City's New School University, where Sundiata was the first Writer-in-Residence. He taught literature and poetry classes, despite never having published a book of poems. Among his students was folk-rocker Ani DiFranco, whose Righteous Babe label released Longstoryshort. DiFranco has said that Sundiata "taught me everything I know about poetry. " The two performed together in twenty-three cities during her "Rhythm and News Tour" in 2001.
Despite touring and performing with musicians, Sundiata didn't consider himself a "crossover" artist. For him, being a poet necessarily implied a deep engagement with several genres. "It's damn near impossible to understand what contemporary black poets are doing without understanding what's going on with black music and its relationship to black speech and black literature, " he said.
In 2003, Sundiata toured the United States again, performing his one-man theatrical piece Blessing the Boats, a chronicle of his five-year battle with kidney failure, and his eventual recovery thanks to a transplant donated by his friend and manager Katea Stitt, daughter of jazz saxophonist Sonny Stitt. The piece blends monologues, readings, stand-up comedy, spoken word, and storytelling with recorded music and video projections.
The poet's most recent theatrical piece, The America Project, contemplating America's place in the world, featured poems and a cycle of songs, accompanied by images and a ten-member ensemble of musicians and vocalists.
Television journalist Bill Moyers, who featured Sundiata in the PBS series on poetry, The Language of Life, has said of the poet: "His music comes from so many places it is impossible to name them all. But I will wager that if we could trace their common origin, we'd arrive at the headwaters of the soul. Listen carefully and he’ll take you there."
Sundiata died of heart failure early in the morning on July 18th, 2007.
Sonia Sanchez, Born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Wilson L. and Lena (Jones) Driver; married Albert Sanchez (divorced); married Etheridge Knight (divorced); children (second marriage): Anita, Morani, Mungu. Education: Attended public schools in New York City; Hunter College, BA, 1955; postgraduate work at New York University.
Career: Downtown School, New York, instructor, 1965-1967; San Francisco State College, instructor, 1966-68; University of Pittsburgh, assistant professor, 1969-70; Rutgers University, assistant professor, 1970-71; Manhattan Community College, assistant professor of black literature and creative writing teacher of writing, 1971-73; Amherst College, associate professor,1972-73; Muhammad Speaks, columnist, 1970s(?); Spelman College, poet-in-residence, 1988-89; Temple University, Laura H. Carnell Professor of English, 1977-99.
Memberships: Poetry Society of America, American Studies Association, Academy of American Poets, PEN, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Selected awards: PEN Writing Award and the American Academy of Art and Letters' $1,000 award to continue writing; honorary Ph.D. in fine arts, Wilberforce University, 1973; National Education Association Award, 1977-78; Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, 1982; Tribute to Black Womanhood Award by black students at Smith College; 1985 American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades; Pew Fellowship in the Arts, 1992-93.
Addresses: Home–Philadelphia, PA.
Sanchez also has contributed to journals and anthologies as a poet, essayist, and editor. She has edited anthologies, including Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin at You, An Anthology of the Sonia Sanchez Writers Workshop at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem; and We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans. Also, she has written and edited stories for young readers, such as the compilation A Sound Investment, and the tale, The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead. In addition, Sanchez has contributed to a book on Egyptian Queens and written for the publications Black Scholar and Journal of African Studies. She also has recorded her poetry.
In her 1973 book of poems, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Sanchez explores being a woman in a society that "does not prepare young black women, or women period, to be women," as she told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work. She also writes about politics and ethnic pride and uses parts of her life to illustrate a general condition. Although she still advocates revolutionary change she also focuses on individuals battling to survive and find love and joy in their lives. Her work has been called both autobiographical and universal. Critics have observed that while her early books address social oppression, her 1970s plays are about her personal struggles. In Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us? a black woman participating in the movement against white oppression refuses to be mistreated by her husband. As Sanchez said to Claudia Tate, "If you cannot remove yourself from the oppression of a man, how in the hell are you going to remove yourself from the oppression of a country?"
Sanchez's books of verse include Wounded in the House of a Friend and Does Your House Have Lions? The first book, published in 1995, is a blend of poetry and prose in which she pays tribute to Essence magazine and presents memorial pieces for Malcolm X and James Baldwin. According to Publishers Weekly, "Sanchez is at her best...when she places her speaker in the furious center of criminal action: a raped woman's detailed account of her attack, a woman trading her seven-year-old daughter for crack ('he held the stuff out/to me and I cdn't remember/her birthdate I cdn't remember/my daughter's face'). A brilliant narrative is offered in the voice of a Harlem woman struggling with (and eventually hammered to death by) her junkie granddaughter."
In Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) Sanchez concerns herself with AIDS and familial estrangements and reconciliations. In the book she writes of her brother who left the South angry at his absentee father. He hurls himself into the gay world in New York City, "and the days rummaging his eyes/and the nights flickering through a slit/of narrow bars. hips. thighs./and his thoughts labeling him misfit/as he prowled, pranced in the starlit/city," wrote Sanchez. But AIDS pursues him and the family is only brought together again because of his illness and hospitalization. As he dies, he hears the spiritual voices of his ancestors, who also are present. Kay Bourne stated in the Bay State Banner, "Stylistically, the 70-page heartfelt lyrical poem is a wonder. It is a triumph of skill with its consistent rhyming pattern (ababbcc) that propels the reader forward. It is brilliant in its choice of words, which, while never sending the reader scurrying to the dictionary, is touchingly apt in plumbing the depths of her brother's experience and that of her other family members."
The author has won numerous awards for her work and activities, including the PEN Writing Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' $1,000 award to continue writing. She was given an honorary Ph.D. in fine arts by Wilberforce University in 1973 and received a National Education Association Award in 1977-78. She was named Honorary Citizen of Atlanta in 1982, and received an NEA award in 1984. More recent awards include a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1992-93, an honorary Ph.D. from Baruch College in 1993, a PEN fellowship in the arts in 1993-1994, and a Legacy Award from Jomandi Productions in 1995.
Throughout her distinguished teaching career, Sanchez taught and lectured at institutions across the country. As a teacher her legacy is as one of the pioneers of African-American Studies. She was the first professor to offer a course on the literature of African-American women (at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969). She began teaching in 1965 at New York's Downtown Community School. After teaching at several universities, including San Francisco State College (now University), the University of Pittsburgh, City College of the City of New York, Amherst, Spelman College, and the University of Pennsylvania, she became a professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University where she remained until her retirement in 1999.
Though retired from teaching, Sanchez did not quit writing. She kept to her discipline that she started as a youngster. She attributes her desire to keep writing to her "love of language," as she told African American Review. "It is that love of language that has propelled me, that love of language that came from listening to my grandmother speak black English. I would repeat what she said and fall out of the bed and fall down on the floor and laugh, and she knew that I was enjoying her language, because she knew that I didn't speak black English. But I did speak hers, you know. It is that love of language that, when you have written a poem that you know works, then you stand up and you dance around, or you open your door and go out on the porch and let out a loud laugh, you know."
With the 2004 publication of the spoken-word album, Full Moon of Sonia, Sanchez is continuing her legacy as the poet who brought black English to the world. As put by Black Issues Book Review: "It is refreshing to see a legend, a respected artist, come forward and show all of us how to do it right. Full Moon of Sonia does more than give us good poetry set to music; it galavants through an amazing formal and stylistic range that reminds us all how Sonia Sanchez finally got to this place."
—Alison Carb Sussman and Sara Pendergast
To visit Sonia Sanchez's website CLICK HERE
Clay Corley Sr.
My name is Clayton E. Corley, Sr. aka Big Trigger host and producer of an award winning internet program!