Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Sixties Aren't Dead, Just Evolving: Sonia Sanchez at the Ritz

“All poets, all writers are political. They either maintain the status quo, or they say, ‘Something’s wrong, let’s change it for the better.’ That’s what my life has really been about.” –Sonia Sanchez

Last Thursday I went to see Professor Sonia Sanchez at the Ritz Theatre. Before being invited, I had never heard of the radical poetess who confronts social and economic disparities in her work.

Alternately an integrationist and separatist, Sanchez began teaching in San Francisco in 1965, developing black studies courses; while, her poetry addressed the conditions and ramifications of being a person of color in America.

“we are sudden stars
you and i exploding in
our blue black skins.”

When Professor Sanchez spoke, she read some poems and told stories of youngsters in crisis, of how so many kids still can be “filed” under/written off because they are underprivileged, underserved, and utterly forgotten. Of how they’ve never had someone to love them, to care whether they lived or died, and of how humor and compassion can be used to send them a lifeline.

These used to be the kinds of things I thought about a lot. And not just because I too was a public school kid, getting by on scholarships and financial aid. But as those days get further and further behind me, I find myself settling into a kind of middle-class stupor. Cushioned with all the comforts of home and stability, my once commentary work has instead turned personal and arcane.

Though there might not be too much I can do to change the trajectory of what I do and what I write about, I can, as Professor Sanchez suggests, make phone calls and write letters. Especially in my own community.

Professor Sanchez talked about the time she and her sons were watching a baseball game. And the batter made a magnificent hit, the kind of hit that no outfielder should be able to catch, but one player, running faster and harder than all the rest, leapt up and caught the ball. It was breathtaking and she and her kids were high-fiving one another until the announcer voiced over saying, “Wow Jim, didya see that monkey run?!” Immediately the jubilation in their home was replaced by anger and Sanchez went to the phone.

She called the station, and kept calling until she spoke to someone to whom she could voice her disgust. Ultimately the sportscaster issued an apology. Of course, it probably didn’t change the way he thought, but it did force him to acknowledge that you can’t say things like that because people are listening…and they’ll say something.

Listening to the very words people say is another tactic Sanchez advocates, because it is there that you find out what they are thinking. Of course, it also bears mentioning that the Professor advocated the entire audience refrain from gossiping for a week in order to clarify their urine…but that’s another topic for another time (she is 75 and a little crazy after all).

The lesson to take away? Stop just sitting on the sofa, one need not be out protesting in the streets to affect change…letters and phone calls work too. The important thing is to pay attention.

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