David W. Moore: Those Bobbleheaded Polls on Health Care
Sonia Sanchez: 4 haiku (for Eugene Redmond)

Helene Atwan: Sonia Sanchez Celebrates Her 75th Birthday

Today's post is from Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press. She recently attended the 75th birthday celebration of Sonia Sanchez, an award-winning poet, playwright, activist, and scholar whose work includes Shake Loose My Skin and the forthcoming Morning Haiku.


On Saturday, September 12, I had the joy and privilege of sharing in poet Sonia Sanchez's 75th birthday celebration, at her home in Philadelphia.

The lovely old house and fall garden freshly planted with mums of all colors were jam-packed with celebrants. Some were crowded into the music room picking out tunes on Sonia's baby grand piano, which had been given to her by Max Roach, the world-renown Jazz musician and composer, and which had traveled with her over five states before being planted here and covered with photos, awards, and precious memorabilia. When two musicians started playing Monk, poet Amiri Baraka came by to recite and even sing. Others were taking turns on Sonia's native drum set, making wonderful music. Among the musical guests in attendance were Ursula Rucker, and Evan Solot, along with the two women to whom Sonia dedicated her book, Shake Loose My Skin, former lead singer Bernice Reagon and vocalist Adisa Douglas of Sweet Honey and the Rock.

Guests were busy devouring spicy b-b-q wings and tangy collards, and admiring the art that crowds every wall, every surface, every nook and cranny in the 1940s Germantown house. African sculptures, all of women, from all over the continent, stood guard imposingly in the entry. In this photo, poet Eugene Redmond stands next to one of the most impressive in Sonia's collection, a Nimba statue from the Baga people of Guinea.

Poet Eugene Redmond with a Nimba statue from the Baga people of Guinea.

Poet Eugene Redmond with a Nimba statue.

Among the other artists who came to pay tribute to Sonia were two old friends of mine: Major Jackson (one of Sonia's former students Temple) and Afaa Michael Weaver as well as one new friend, Daniel Omotosho Black, another of Sonia's Temple students, a fine novelist with a new book coming in February (Perfect Peace, St. Martin's). John Edgar Wideman took a train in the rain to attend, but was happy to be in the throng. Sonia's sons, Morani and Mungu Sanchez, were helping greet and ferry guests, along with another Temple student, Sonia's long time friend and former assistant Miyoshi Smith, now about to begin a medical residency. Nadine Patterson and her mother, Marlene Patterson, a former dancer, filled me in on the local arts community. Nadine is associate director of the Brandywine Arts Center.

Photo of Daniel Omotosho Black and Major Jackson

Novelist Daniel Omotosho Black and poet Major Jackson.

Miyoshi Smith

Miyoshi Smith.

Helene Atwan, Sonia Sanchez and Nadine Patterson

Helene Atwan, Sonia Sanchez, and Nadine Patterson.

Philanthropist Camille Cosby chatted amiably with guests who had drifted to the ample front porch, sheltered from a light rain. Her daughter Erika is illustrating a book of Sonia's poems for children, "haiku child," but Erika stayed home, under strict instruction from her mother, to nurse a flu.

Just around 10:00, three cakes were paraded into the dining room, where the crowds squeezed in to hear Sonia address her friends. Her impromptu, unscripted remarks were vintage Sanchez—she seized the occasion to talk about the vital importance of giving hope and opportunity to young people, of urging them to experiment, of challenging them to disrupt the status quo. With apologies for the quality, I'd urge you to watch (and primarily listen) to the video. (If the video does not appear here, watch our video "Sonia Sanchez Celebrates Her 75th Birthday" on Beacon Broadside's YouTube channel.)

After being inspired by her words, the hungry crowd descended upon the cakes.

Sonia Sanchez cuts her birthday cake.

I spent the night at a unique b&b, Burbridge Street Bed & Breakfast, where owner Marney Hague gave me a particularly warm welcome. It's been a long time since I've literally climbed into a (brass, of course) bed. www.Burbridgestreetbandb.com

Book cover for Morning Haiku by Sonia Sanchez, links to Beacon Press page for book.

Happy Birthday Sonia—with gratitude for all you have given us over the decades of your career. I can’t wait for your new book!

Read "4 haiku (for Eugene Redmond" and "haiku (for Maya Angelou)" from the forthcoming Morning Haiku.