(Photo by Mo Manklang)
“I cannot tell the truth about anything unless I confess to being a student, growing and learning something new every day. The more I learn, the clearer my view.”
This week, the Celebration of Black Arts Festival ended its annual run celebrating the rich culture of African American artists in Philadelphia and beyond. The 31-day festival culminated in Art Sanctuary’s film screening of “BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez,” a documentary about the life of the local artist and Philly’s first poet laureate.
Sonia Sanchez, a poet, teacher and activist who has traveled the country teaching and was a huge part of the Black Arts Movement, made a guest appearance at the screening. Here are a few lessons we heard from the civil rights icon.
1. We need to embrace the younger generation.
Sanchez’s work paved the way for future generations to speak out and use their talents to express themselves. Artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli and ?uestlove appeared in the documentary, venerating her not only for her role in the civil rights movement, but also her openness to the art and performance of upcomers. This younger generation calls her acceptance and interest in their art key to their careers.
2. It’s not about having your hair combed, it’s that people will listen to your words.
Sanchez, an 81-year-old woman, keeps herself busy, still writing her poems in longform and performing. As co-director of the film Barbara Attie noted, Sanchez would often welcome the documentary team into her home after a long day without “prettying herself up.” She was initially loathe to have the documentary created, but her son persuaded her by saying, “People need to know how you survived.” She recognized the need to share how she and her fellow activists survived, lived, thought and moved. Sharing experiences and knowledge is key to forward movement.
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3. We have to involve ourselves with activism.
“We cannot lean back on our eyes and say, ‘I’ve arrived,’” she said. Sanchez worked with the likes of Malcolm X and Maya Angelou, and for her, the drive to make change never ends.
4. We need to learn how to defend our communities from the food that is killing us.
Shown in the documentary shopping at local cooperative grocery store Weavers Way, Sanchez continues her advocacy, also set on ensuring fresh, healthy food. Even at 81, the drive to advocate for her neighborhood and the people in it has not died down. She spoke of visiting a corner store near Temple University, where she was a professor for 22 years. She picked up meats that had been dyed to seem fresh and went directly to the store manager demanding, “Where you live, does food look like this? I bet it doesn’t. … What is this about?”
5. You have to be proactive in your activism.
A former student of Sanchez asked the question, “What do you think of the Black Lives Matter movement in terms of how it’s progressing, based on the platform of what happened during the work that you and Malcolm [X] and the Black Panther Party did?”
“I’m so happy to see these young people doing the work in Black Lives Matter,” she responded. “I’ve been on programs with them also, and one of the things that I said during the time that I was with them is that you’ve got to also understand that for something to last, you’ve got to have a program that is real, that is viable. Everything that you do cannot be reactive.”
Sanchez encouraged youth to target issues that need to be targeted — not only hitting the streets, but also talking to the mayor, to the police and other officials, to people in City Hall about what they could be doing to eradicate these issues.
To hear the poet yourself, check out this video of her speaking at TEDxPhiladelphia.