August 14, 2012

a global haiku

I spent time with scholar, poet and activist Sonia Sanchez during the International Conference on Health in the African Diaspora — ICHAD 2012 in Baltimore, Maryland last month. Thomas LaVeist, Ph.D., conference chairman and director of the Hopkins Center for Health Disparities Solutions at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore said that the ICHAD vision was borne from his eye-opening experiences in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. He wanted to find more ways for the more than 160 million Afro descendants across the Western hemisphere to move from surviving to thriving by considering pathways for health and healing through an interdisciplinary lens including public health, history and with the evidence of research that can also inform policy and practice in the future. LaVeist called on Sanchez to open the dialogue. 

On her arrival, Sonia and I made a 4th of July trip to a nearby Whole Foods Market.  I thought she wanted more ripe fruits and a selection from the vegetarian food bar. I offered to go for her, but she insisted on going together.  It was phenomenal to watch folks respond to Sonia, she greeted people with open arms.  While in line our cashier kept a steady gaze on Sonia while also trying to focus on the preceding customer.  By the time our turn came at the register the awestruck cashier was visibly flustered. When we got just outside the exit door the cashier ran from her station to Sonia with tear-filled eyes. She said, “I knew it was you. I just had to come and thank you for your work. Your words have made all the difference in my life especially in the hard times when it seemed I had no where to turn. I honor you. I just couldn’t let you go without speaking.”  Sonia listened and a few others gathered to share in the moment.

I’m still thinking these excursions are about shopping when on our next trip to back to Whole Foods Market the following day, we bumped into actor Antonio Bandera who was in line buying lunch. Sonia then spotted the soulful singer-songwriter Me'shell Ndegeocello who sings "Fool of Me" in the movie Love Jones.  There was spirited impromtu community celebration at the front door of the store. We then moved on to the aisle of the hot food bar this time Sanchez was spotted by a manager and a small crowd quickly huddled around. As I watched this unfold, it came to me that Sonia was opening up her space for people to share in.  She was moving through an agenda of connection and community engagement.  She was taking time to hear about what was going with people’s lives. Sanchez was checking-in on the pulse of the community.  She was doing the same when I caught up with her again on a panel at the Harlem Book Fair earlier this summer.

Her reading selections and reflections during ICHAD 2012 came from Does Your House Have Lions? (Beacon Press, 1997) an epic poem focused on the healing narrative of her brother’s battle with AIDS.  Sanchez is clear about the work we must take on as individuals and communities for healing.  She asks the question “What does it mean to be human?”  She calls on us to examine our biases, shed stereotypes, shatter stigma and pull out the roots of the disease killing us all, silence.  In this book, Sanchez offers a community of voices for balm.

brother’s voice

i linger in stethoscopes and thermometers at Lenox Hill
i have entered the hospital to test
the cough and the temperature making me ill
i have entered the hospital to rest
and all i have discovered is unrest
the doctors says happily it is not pneumonia or cancer
the doctor says my temperature is like a trickster

In spending time with Sanchez I wanted to know more of her genius and life as an artist, scholar and as a black woman, she is the first professor to develop and teach a seminar on African American women’s literature.  Sonia Sanchez has published sixteen books including I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and other plays (Duke University Press, 2010).  Sanchez taught for 22 years at Temple University, she pioneered the Black studies program at San Francisco State and is a co-founder of the Black Arts movement.  She has made impressions within the minds and hearts of the global African diaspora and beyond for more than half a century.

Sanchez offered me valuable lessons in the healing practice of storytelling that begins with open arms and listening closely. She also has me thinking about a haiku life.

The morning sunlight
A day break call in real time
to hear nature’s song
                                             —Katherine Ellington

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