Poet Sonia Sanchez has never written a book called a memoir. But her work flows directly from her life. It’s not about her, however. She calls her “I” the “collective I” which is also a “collective eye” searching for justice and love in a world too often unjust and hate-and fear-full.
Thanks to an invitation from Dr. Joanne Gabbin, director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, I had the good fortune to be part of a “collective I” and “eye” June 22-25, 2011. Sonia was present all week as a surprise gift to the participants in the Continuous Fire seminar. In the above photo she’s the one being hugged by Dr. Akasha Hull, whose beaming face shines in the middle, but all you can see of Sonia are her grey dreadlocks. She is fine with that position. Instead of making her powerless, it makes her more powerful.
My own position in the picture above is at the center edge. As a white woman who grew up on a Pennsylvania dairy farm in the ’50’s without the benefit of knowing any African-American person well, and who is now writing a memoir about that childhood, I knew I was in the room of 22 teachers, professors, and poets for a reason beyond the fact that I love the poetry of Sonia Sanchez (and now I love the person herself). Yet I didn’t know for sure what that reason was.
After a few days of reflection, I have selected one short haiku from the preface of Sonia’s 2010 Beacon Press book morning haiku as a way to explain Sonia’s work as I understand it and as a way of connecting my own novice writer work to hers as a lifelong practitioner.
Here’s the poem:
Let me wear the day
Well so when it reaches you
You will enjoy it.
Sonia wrote that Haiku poem for her children after realizing that due to time zone changes, she was living her days in advance of theirs. It works first on a literal level with that helpful backstory–Sonia the loving mama speaks to her children. But, like all good haiku poems, it keeps sending out ripples of meaning far beyond the literal.
Sonia the radical Black activist, who was most recently arrested for opposing America’s endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, speaks in this poem also. Like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer, she sees far out beyond the present moment into the future. In “wearing” the “day/Well,” she is putting on the purple robe of priest and prophet. Her visionary words and work have a purpose. She is laying down her life so that the future day may come when “You will enjoy it.”
This poem resonated with me because of my personal mission statement: To prepare for the hour of my death–one good day, and one good moment, at a time. And to help others do the same.
It also resonated with the six-year-old girl still inside me whose first friend from another culture was Vicky Martinez from the lower east side of Manhattan. I told how she brought fresh air into my small world in this essay.
Vicky, my brother Henry, and I played together as children. We enjoyed the day. Our differences made us fascinating to each other most of the time and grew our imaginations when they chafed. I regret that Vicky and I never had the opportunity to be friends in adulthood. The Fresh Air Program ended when children turned 12, and we lost touch. She died of multiple sclerosis in her early 30’s.
Vicky’s spirit came back to me again when I tried to name the connection I feel to another woman with a Hispanic surname and an African-American identity, Sonia Sanchez.
Long ago I published my first personal essay in a church publication. It was called “The Sins of the Fathers” and described my attempts to reach my African-American students as an English teacher, in my first job out of college, teaching English at Harrisonburg High School, 1970-72. In many ways, I failed abysmally. But I cared. And that caring took me to writing which takes me to a place beyond words, beyond bondage to the sin of racism, to a place Sonia Sanchez saw from Beijing when she wrote her haiku masterpiece–a place of freedom and equality.
We, the cultural children conceived in Sonia Sanchez’ vivid imagination, will only enjoy our future days if all God’s children can enjoy the day also.
The inscription Sonia wrote in my copy of morning haiku reads, “To Sister Shirley–so good meeting you my dear Sister. As we try to live a haiku life!!!
She added at the end, “Always Peace!”
It’s been a long time since I attempted to write haiku, but here, Sister Sonia, is my final tribute to a huge impact from a brief encounter.
Memoir matters most
when it transforms old wrongs.
Write the path to Peace.