Transcript: Sonia Sanchez on the importance of the arts, teaching, and respect for our fellow man as she accepts the 2022 MacDowell Medal.
I just want to thank all of you who have come out. You lovers of writers and architects and composers and playwrights, and just some great human beings. People who have decided to write and build buildings. People who have decided to walk their Justice words, their Justice buildings. Their justice eyes around the world. I'm coming back, not in the winter. But I'm coming back just to be able to sit at a dining room table with some of the artists because you learn so much about your work. Got to hear that. Some of you who say you only want to be around poets, you’re an idiot if that's the case, right?
You want to be around those other people who have other visions, right? Who see poetry in a building and will give it to you. Who see poetry in a story, you know, and will give it to you. Will see poetry in a painting. That morning sun. That evening moon. And will give it to you.
When this [call about the MacDowell Medal] came to me … at some point I told our dear Sister Nell where I was at the time, but I was completely shocked. It just reminded me so much of when I got the award from the sisters … the Gish [Award] … When they called me and I hung up the phone after I thanked them, I looked up at this photo of Chinua [Achebe] and myself, and Achebe had gotten that award many years ago, and he called me one day and said, “Sonia, Sonia. Will you come and will you please say something nice about me?”
Now, I didn’t realize that Chinua didn't understand American humor. So I said, over the phone, “Oh, I don't know if I can figure out anything nice to say about you Chinua.” Then I heard the silence. [laughter] I said, oh my God, Sonia, you and your New York humor, you and this Black humor, and I said, “No no, no Chinua. No, no I was kidding.” And he said, “ohhh.”
I will never forget that. And I said, “Not only will I say something nice about you, but I'll even sing it up on that stage for you.” And so when the call came about [the MacDowell Medal] I stopped and I threw a kiss at the photo with the two of us. He said to me later on, as we were eating one day, “You will get this award” and I said, “No. You know what I write, don’t you?”
And when this happened I saluted him as my Dear Brother, thank you for putting that out into the universe. And I want to thank MacDowell for putting this out into the universe.
It is possible, is it not? For us all to listen to many different voices. Even though we don't always agree with everything, just to hear the beauty, or the concern, the “this is my country, too” concern. My people struggled for me to get an education at a place called Hunter College for free. This is what this is all about, for us to be here, together, to look at each other's faces, to say, simply “we is here.” I love that. We is here, and we is here together, so you can drop all those little secret spells that you had. This is a country that we have decided to make what it should be, finally, after all these years.
This is the country to stand up to those people. When you really read them, you realize that the only person they love is themselves, not the country, not the people not the herstory, not the history, but themselves. And it's time for us to look at each other and say, “I don't want to marry you necessarily, you know. No, I don't even want to live next door to you necessarily, but I do want you there when that trumpet is sounded.” We've got to gather together and come together to save democracy in a place called America.
So I want to thank Brother Walter. Every once in a while I will call him up and ask him what he’s doing, and then he begins to tell me: I finished that book in 45 days and I cried. Not because of Joy. I said, oh my God, if I could learn that we could be there together. This is genius. This is my friend, this is my brother. This is the person who is listening when I have just cried about some dear friend who has died. And I said, who am I going to talk to? Who will I call at 4:00 in the morning, and say you got to hear what I just wrote. Just listen. I don’t need you to tell me if it’s good, I just want you to hear where I was when I wrote this, where we all are. I'm still trying to find those people that I can call at 4:00 in the morning, who will not curse me out. That is what I miss now.
I do want to thank you. You, for coming out. You, for breathing and not stopping people from breathing. Not holding people by their necks in America. Not holding people in the classroom, saying that's not poetry, and you can't write about political things. It's not poetic no, not those kinds of teachers. But those teachers who say, write, write of that future, write of that past. Write of those people who came across that Atlantic, and their bones. The ones who jumped out for Freedom and are still at the bottom of that ocean. So I can come in and say to you, how you doing my dear brother, my dear sister? I taught for 45 years, people and when I came into a class some years ago, and I said, good morning, my brothers and sisters, my little brilliant student raised her hand and said, “You do realize that there are other people in here too?” I said, yes. I said, what are you saying? And she said, “Well you know you said ‘brothers and sisters,’ you know. And you understand there are other people in here besides us.” I said, yeah, I do. I said, you understand too, don't you, when I teach in here, we are all brothers and sisters, right? “Yeah, yeah,” she said, “I understand that. But, you know, you said, good morning, brothers and sisters.” I said, sure did, I said, thank you my sister and let's thank all the brothers and sisters in this classroom who dared against advice from our English department who warned them against taking Sanchez' classes because she only teaches politics. I said, yeah, the politics of great writing.
[laughter and applause]
The politics of when I was at a place called San Francisco State, and we had all gone out and I realized when they were cracking down on all the organizations, I remember saying to my Dad, I need to go where you keep trying to send me, into the classroom, I need to teach. My father was a teacher and a musician. I said, I need to teach because that will last. We will turn out troops. Troops of people with information, and they'll go out and keep it going.
I once walked into a classroom of one woman and all white males. So I wrote my name on the board and turned around and said, you know what? If you don't want to stay in this class, I'll let you go in one week. Stay for one week and see if you can listen to what I'm saying. You might want to stay. Okay? I'll sign you out. And I used humor in that classroom to bring them with me. You got to hear that. I’ll never forget when I said, “my brothers” to them, one sister sitting there, right? One of the guys stood up and said, “you know, I want to go home and curse out my father.” I said, no, we did that.
Nothing came from that, at all. But go home and hug your father, go home and teach your father. Go home and say to him, look Dad, look how I am turning out in this world. Just look at me. I am much more human now. And when they did exceptional work, I used to take them into the teacher’s lounge and give them free lunch. And the guy who cooks said, you know, I might have known I would have extra people today. I said, yeah, I have brilliant students in my class, that's why. But I had students who learned also, how not to curse their parents the way we did because they thought their parents were backwards, they thought their parents were prejudiced, they thought their parents were this and that. I said, yeah, they might be, but you are a teacher. You know, we are teaching you how to go out into the world. You're not Jesus, don't go that far, but we are teaching you as students to go out. So what you learn in here you go out and you spill out among the people. I demanded that some of them become teachers. You want to be a lawyer? OK, Be a lawyer, but teach law, teach the right law. Teach the law that they don’t teach.
As you go and walk in the streets of America, you know, you got to listen to them. We got to listen to each other. We got to listen to the children. We got to teach these children. Now we've got to teach our grandfathers, right? We got to teach them that we don't have to be fearful at all. That this is our country. That we don't have to live underneath each other.
You know, I work my own little community, but I want you there when we’ve got to march. I want you there when we got to write letters. I want you there when we’ve got to vote. I want you there when we walk each day in the park, and stop and talk to the trees and say, I'm not going to let them cut you down. We need you, we need you for breathing, we need you for your beauty, we need you. We need it so children will come and hug these trees. When I finish walking my three miles, I would go and hug the tree and say, thank you for just putting up with these humans, with me, because we don't know any better, we're not trees. But if we were trees we would understand more about this land, about this Earth, about our hearts that we continue to keep closed. Why do you want to close up your hearts? Who was told you something about me, about someone Black, someone Latino, someone Chinese, someone Japanese? Who has told you this? Stand up and say where do you get this from? That's crap.
What I do know is that we are all humans on this Earth. That we are trying to make sure you remember that Humanity. That we walk upright as human beings and answer the most important question of, what does it mean to be human? Hmm? Not pretty. Not handsome. Not a great basketball player, or great baseball player. No, what does it mean to be human? And unless we answer that question, there will not be another century. I guarantee you that. There will not be another century. That is a question that must be looked squarely in the face now.
(Is it too late to read my speech?) [laughter]
That is what the spirit is about. The spirit in this room made me go someplace else away from a prepared speech. The spirit of my brothers, and my sisters in here, who are saying every morning, you, get up. I write a morning haiku, instead of, you know, doing those little exercises in that bedroom. I do a morning haiku. I sleep with a little pad and a pen right next to me, and I lean over and I write a morning haiku, a by-the-sun meditation that makes me go out into the world, so I will not hurt anyone. Now you see, for some of you young people, because sometimes I correct you, you think I'm trying to harm you, but I'm correcting because what you’re saying is not correct. Right? And people say, why is she saying that to me? And I get into this, I am saying that to you because it's not correct. It's wrong information, right?
It’s a different generation, you know. I remember when Queen Mother Moore, when Sister Margaret, when Sister Gwen, from Brother Sterling, when people actually corrected me on stage when I came off, and they said, Sister Sonia really meant, blah, blah, blah, I didn't go, “ugh.” I walked up and hugged her, and said, “thank you for giving me that information.” I would not want to continue that misinformation because we have enough misinformation in the world today. But you, my brothers and sisters, let's begin to identify this misinformation. You can't lean back and say, well why do I have to say something about it? Because it's a world that needs to be saved. It's a planet that is on his way out, right now, unless we begin to gather up the eyes and the hands, and the mouths of people with ideas about how to save this bloody planet. Oh, and those billionaires who are tired of us, we’ll send them up to outer space, to the Moon! Go there! Leave us!
They can take all their money up there and maybe start a bank up there, or whatever. At least, not wars for at least 30 years. OK? And let us, come on, the rest of us, who have learned how to listen to each other, who have learned how to extend our eyes, and our hearts to each other, and our legs and our wombs to each other can say, at some point, let us begin to take care of this planet. Let us begin to make sure people have proper housing. Let us begin to honor human beings again on this Earth, period. Let us know that a dark color, a dark complexion, or fair complexion is not superior to someone else. When some person says something that is incorrect, correct them gently. Don't curse them out, you know, as that brother in that class of all men and one woman said that when he went home he was going to curse his father out. No, I said, don't do that. We did that. We did that. And it did not work. But we did learn how to walk up to that person and hug that person and say, hey, why don't we have lunch together?
But at some point on this Earth, get up in the morning if you don't write a morning haiku, have a morning haiku experience and say, I will not curse anyone today. I will not kill anyone today. I will not harm. I will not be envious of anyone today because if you stop being envious of people, you will see your own beauty. You will see your genius. You can't talk about the genius of people and then expect to be a genius too. You'll never make it. Believe me, you'll never make it. But walk. Walk in the beauty and the light that is a woman, that is man. Walk in the beauty of our children. Walk in the beauty of this Earth. Let’s not lose this Earth because it's destined to die, maybe a million years later, but we won't be here. But at least while we were here, we can say we supported it. We loved it. We loved the trees. We loved the flowers. You know, we loved even the sidewalks.
One night, I was coming home from some experience and the driver asked me, Ms. Sanchez, is it alright if I drop you off here, and I said, yeah. I had to walk down some kind of dark street, right? With my little briefcase, and my purse. And this young guy was coming towards me. And I stepped right in front of him and he jumped. I said, my dear young brother, thank you, you rescued me because I didn't know how I was going to get home – two blocks from here – by myself. Will you help me get home? And I grabbed his arm, and we began to talk. I said, what do you do? He said, I don't have a job. I said, what do you want to do? I don't know. I like working with flowers. I said, I teach at Temple, maybe you can go and help plant the flowers. He said, you could get me a job? I said I can try. I can go down and intimidate them. I do that.
They see me coming and they say, what do you want now Ms. Sanchez?
He came and sat on the steps and I said, let me go inside and get some information. Take this number. I want you to call. I remember my son Mungu came and said, someone’s sitting on the steps. I said, yeah, that's a young brother I picked up coming home. [laughter] He said, so you want me to stand in the doorway? I said, think it's OK. I think he needs a job, but above all he needs to talk to somebody. Above all when he sees a female outside, he needs to protect her and not hurt her. Above all, he needs to see another human being and react in a human fashion. The next time he sees me, he will move in a human fashion too. You know that and I know that. And so I came out with the address and telephone number, and I'll call and tell them. What's your name? I wrote it down. I said, my dear brother, do you need a ride home?
So many of our children need rides home. So many of our children are accused of doing things that, at the age between 12 and 21, they are not really adults yet. You got to realize that. They make mistakes, and we must be here to correct those mistakes. To keep them from happening.
He got a job. And it was a job working, planting flowers and stuff and he enjoyed it so very much. But I'm talking about more than one person roaming the streets at night. I'm talking about each one of us who are in positions of power to help our children along the way. Even the ones who come in, in argumentative fashion, whatever. I leaned back and said, you know, mother*!&%#. And they shake. I say, get outa my face, sit down, shut up. Let's talk some real business.
I wasn't being rude. You know, I was saying, you can't jive me like that. I grew up in Harlem people. You know, that's the way to get down to some business. And we don't have to use another curse word at all, right? But let us talk about what you really do want, what you really do need, and what I need from you, also. That's not make-believe stuff here, OK? That's real business. That is what we have to do at some point. Grab these children and say, we love you, we will not give you up to this country to be misused and thrown away, and killed.
So come. Singing eyes. Singing hands. Alarming the death singers that we have come to celebrate life, life, life as we walk barefoot across our souls, always with a prayer on our tongues, the day is walking towards us. And I say, give us the spirit by sisters and brothers, to put on our eyes and forever let us be in the eyelash of your memory. Where there is always the precision of young men and women sewing themselves into the sleeves of change and love, and activism and love. And it’ll get better, ee bay. Ee bay, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, bay. Ee bay, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye, ye. Ee bay, ye, ye, ye, ye. It'll get better. It'll get better It'll get better, for you and me, and you and me.
Getting off a plane, I've had people just look at me and say, you made a mistake, didn't you? I said, no, I didn't my brother. Just say, how you doing today, my brother, how you doing today, my sister? When the “sister” and “brother” rolls out on your tongue, you will really see that person looking at you. We are all brothers and sisters. I'm not being a romantic here. I'm being very logical about this one. We are not suckers. We are brothers and sisters. Let us walk our brightness as brothers and sisters, and save this Earth for our children and their children as long as this planet is going to last, period. I do love you. And thank you for coming.
Watch the full speech on YouTube
Read the transcripts of each Medal Day 2022 speaker:
Executive Director Philip Himberg’s remarks to the Medal Day crowd on July 10, 2022
Madam Chairman Nell Painter's Welcome to the Medal Day Crowd
Novelist Walter Mosley Introduced Sonia Sanchez as a Poet, Playwright, Songstress, Titan, Warrior, and Mother to Hope