It’s been more than 40 years since Sonia Sanchez, writer, activist, teacher and Philadelphia’s first poet laureate, burst on the arts scene with poetry and prose that celebrated all that was black and beautiful.

President Obama, right, shakes hands with Princeton University professor Cornel West, center, and poet Sonia Sanchez, left, after delivering remarks at 2010’s National Urban League conference in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Sanchez will be the keynote speaker for the Alexandria branch of the NAACP’s 79th Freedom Fund Banquet on Saturday night. The event, whose theme is “Your Power, Your Decision, VOTE,” will be held at the Holiday Inn and Suites in Alexandria.

Sanchez’s speech, “Push-ups for Peace,” is inspired by her 2006 arrest with the Granny Peace Brigade, a group of elderly women who protest war. The group gathered at a military recruitment center in Philadelphia and tried to dissuade young people from enlisting to fight in the Middle East. Instead, the Grannies offered to go to war in the young people’s place. As the Grannies were led out of the building and into police vans, a reporter asked Sanchez what they intended to do if they had gone to boot camp and became soldiers. She told the reporter, “We would have done push-ups for peace.”

We talked with Sanchez about her upcoming speech, her thoughts on the presidential election, the connection between technology and poetry, and more.

 What are your thoughts on the election?

People should vote for their interests — for a president who has brought us from an abyss that was left by the administration of eight years who gave everything to the very rich. That’s something to come from an abyss. You’re not going to be on top from this abyss, but you’re still climbing.

The thing that I like about the Obama administration is that they’re still climbing. They’re saying we’re adding more jobs. I like the idea that for the first time, too, someone was brave enough to say, “Hey, what’s wrong with same-sex marriage?” someone who talked about the young people, someone who talks in a respectful way about women. I mean, let us be in control of our bodies. What man needs to be in control of our bodies? All those great things I love about him. I’m not saying that’s a perfect man there, because you do know that we will go into a sit-in at any time to bring him around to what needs to be done.

He’s bringing us home from war, and what I’m hoping is that if we do that, take that money from those wars and put it back into the cities, with our young people and with these businesses.

 What will you discuss during your speech to the Alexandria branch of the NAACP?

[The theme for] my speech in Virginia, for the NAACP  [is] “Push-ups for Peace.” We must all begin to get people — wherever we are, whatever organization we’re in, whatever city we live in, whatever country we live in — we must begin to do push-ups for peace. This is the reality that we must be about, the whole idea of push-ups for peace. When we get up in the morning, we must do push-ups for peace.

When I walk — I do two miles in the morning — and I go, “Mm hm, peace. My arms for peace and my hands for peace and the feet of peace and the kneecaps of peace and the toe jam of peace and the tongue of peace and the saliva of peace.” This is what we must do. We must say it out loud, not keep it inside. When we say it out loud, and it hits the wind and it hits the universe and it hits the stratosphere, peace becomes viable. Peace becomes possible.

 One of my college professors would argue that you and Nikki Giovianni were two of the main poets affiliated with the Black Arts Movement to write about love. Would you agree with that assertion, and why did you feel it was necessary to incorporate love in your work?

There were some others — Carolyn Rodgers, Jayne Cortez — who came out of California, Eugene Redmond, [Amiri] Baraka and Askia Muhammad Toure – it might not have been a primary thing that they did, but they did talk about love. I think one of the things I talked about in terms of love was that the love was not just the love of a relationship. It was the love for our people, the love for our children, the love in a vast sense for humanity — the love that goes just beyond one’s private self, but to that public self.

What they were saying was that there was a love for their people, so they were all love poets. What I attempted to do, and I think all the other black arts poets attempted to do, is that we were about putting the African American and African back on the world stage. Our enslavement had taken us off of the world stage. It was our purpose, and our movement on this Earth was to put us back on world stage. It said, “We’re human like everybody else. We breathe, we eat, we love like everybody else. We write, we see like everybody else.” Although we had to, like Frederick Douglass, had to fight to have the chance to learn how to read, but look at us. When you think about being enslaved in the 17th and 18th centuries, when you think about that, and look at us now. There’s no place on Earth that you don’t see one of us.

 Do you think that black artists still feel the pressure to choose between whether their work should focus on politics or just be aesthetically pleasing?

No race is just involved with one kind of thing. From the very beginning, all the way back from DuBois and Booker T. Washington, all the way back from the freedom narratives, there were people who wrote in a different way about how they saw themselves enslaved. Not everyone was a Frederick Douglass or a Linda Brent, writing. All the way back to the folklore kinds of things. We had things where you can read into that people were singing songs and maybe they were concerned about being enslaved, but the point is that their literature, at that time, was not about like, “Let me get out of it,” but “I’m going to give myself up to Jesus, my God.” But then they had seculars, and they also had the ones that people talked about how they got out of slavery — the route out. How you go down by the river and move on up; they’re not talking about church, necessarily. They’re talking about getting out of the state. 

So, I can’t tell young people what to write when I taught creative writing and playwriting, all of these courses, women’s studies. But what I say to my students is that, “What you have to keep foremost in front of you is the idea of peace, the idea of freedom and the idea of justice.” At some point, you have to know that when you write, you are either maintaining the status quo or you’re talking about change.

You can do that in many ways. Many of the young people can do very innovative things with the language. But I’m not here to tell you what you should do. I’ve heard generation after generation talk about the same thing. I say do your work. Follow what you think is important. Not only to your people, but to the country and other people. Understand that this thing, this language, is very important. Also, remember what [Frantz] Fanon said: “To speak is to assume a culture. And to bear responsibility for civilization.” When I began to speak out loud and I began to write, I knew that I bore responsibility for a civilization, and that is so important and so earthshaking on so many levels. It’s such a joy to be a part of that.

 What are your thoughts on social media — Twitter, Facebook, blogs — and its impact on poetry?

I think anyone who does tweet poetry also has probably it written down someplace. I think the thing about tweeting, having a Facebook or having a page someplace is that your generation shares everything. Even the most intimate thoughts, I go on and read and say, “You know, you shouldn’t have said that.” As a mother, I say that. The point is that you just have to be careful of what you say. I think that putting your poetry online or even saying, “This is what I’m thinking today,” and putting it online, just know that sometimes, that is the first regurgitation if you haven’t played with the poem a bit, if you haven’t reworked it and done another draft at some point. I don’t think you put it on a level of, is it wrong or right? You should put it on the level of, is it something you do want to share, before you put it out for millions of people, sometimes.

It’s also one way to get PR. It’s one way also if someone might say, would you want to be a part of this program or that program? But I realize that it’s really a way that you young people communicate. I’m just saying, don’t give up on workshops, don’t give up on having classes, don’t take every class online. I think what keeps us human is having that human conversation that we have in a classroom. What keeps us human is when we hear someone read their poetry. We hear the human voice. When it’s printed, when it’s tweeted or on a Facebook, you don’t always hear the human voice. I always tell people to read their poetry aloud. Try that ear to hear the poem aloud, and that will quite often keep you very human.

 Check out more about Sanchez here.

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