Maya Angelou called her “a lion in literature’s forest.”
She went on the road with legendary jazz drummer Max Roach.
And upon hearing Malcolm X speak, she told him that she didn’t agree with everything he said. Turning to her with his “fantastically quiet eyes,” she recalls him telling her, “Oh, my sister, one day you will.”
Sonia Sanchez has had one hell of a life and it’s nowhere close to finished. A new documentary, “BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez,” focuses on the journey of the 81-year-old poet and Birmingham, Alabama, native who began as a seminal figure in the 1960s black arts movement, the artistic branch of the black power movement. She’ll be in town for the premiere of the film Feb. 27 at Grace Street Theater.
During the era of civil rights activism and women’s liberation, Sanchez made her mark as a poet, playwright, teacher and early champion of spoken word. The documentary’s title is taken from her second book of poetry, “We a BaddDDD People.”
The film uses her own performances to document Sanchez’s career and the groundbreaking artistic and political movements she embraced and then influenced. Her powerful spoken word reading style frequently segues into song or chant, sometimes with instrumentation and dance.
“In the long run,” she says, “poetry is a bridge between history and truth.”
In 1966, she recalls “25 of us sitting there enthralled” by singer and civil rights activist Abbey Lincoln’s lecture, “Who Will Revere the Black Woman?” Instrumental in establishing some of the earliest African-American studies and women’s studies programs in the country, her teaching has always been at the heart of Sanchez’s life’s work.
“One of my missions in being a teacher is to eradicate the aura of the educated class while encouraging learning,” she says. “My job is to inspire people not inclined to poetry.” As a professor of English literature and a presidential scholar, she brought in Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Ruby Dee, Alice Walker and Danny Glover to speak to her students.
“I wanted to make people see that we are just like everyone else and show what it is to have experiences as an African-American. To know, as Martin Luther King said, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. We had to bend it sometimes through discipline, activism, love and joy.”
Teaching younger generations how to write has provided inspiration and a livelihood beyond 45 years of writing poetry, plays, short stories and children’s books. “Anyone who loves to teach loves that conversation that happens in the classroom,” she says, “of giving facts, letting students arrive at conclusions and helping them look at the world.”
From her vantage point as a veteran of the civil rights movement, she views the current Black Lives Matter movement as a work in progress, although it makes her happy to watch young people out working the cause again.
Her hope is that it’s not a temporary pastime in the way the occupy movement was.
“You have to do more than just get out in the street,” she says. “I applaud the organizers, but it’s important to come offline, too.” Important to the civil rights movement, in her opinion, was the nonviolent training afforded activists in the ’60s. “When people aren’t trained, things can go haywire.”
Given Sanchez’s dedication to major 20th-century causes and her role in the black arts movement, it was inevitable that filmmakers would seek to document her life. Initially, when directors Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schmidt-Gordon approached her with the idea, she put them off.
“I come from the civil rights movement where we didn’t celebrate the self,” she says. “We celebrate the work we’re accomplishing. I told them I’d let them know when I was ready.” It was her grown children who convinced her that people needed to be made aware of her story and that others could benefit from the lessons of her life.
Her advice to young people is the same as the creed by which she lives: Keep writing, keep looking, keep understanding and teaching, the better to stay involved with humanity. Read everything you can possibly read.
“Most importantly, remain human,” she says. “We really do have to answer questions of what it means to be human if we’re to have an earth that remains.
“I say to young people, it’s in your hands.” S
Afrikana Independent Film Festival presents “Evening With an Icon: Sonia Sanchez" and RVA premiere of ‘BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez,’” is Feb. 27 at 7 p.m., Grace Street Theater, 934 W. Grace St. Tickets available by searching eventbrite.com.