I have joined the chorus of voices who refer to Sonia Sanchez as “Mama Sonia” because it just feels right, not because I have actually earned it.

I’m not one of the amazing writers who attended Temple University and enrolled in one of her classes, like Jill Scott, Trapeta Mayson or Ursula Rucker. I can’t even claim to have ever taken one of her writing workshops, like Lois Moses or Ms. Beverly Lomax. My deepest exposure to Mama Sonia’s lyrical fearlessness was handed to me by then-PhD candidate Elizabeth Alexander, as I sunk into a couch and read through the bulk pack she created for my freshman English seminar at Penn. Despite my high school being “The Home of the Red, Black & Green,” our academic studies strayed away from the more politically-explosive Black literary voices like Sanchez and Baraka, in deference to more universally-accepted writers like Cullen, Hughes and Angelou. But Elizabeth didn’t make use choose. We studied the measured-yet-defiant stanzas of the Harlem Renaissance alongside the in-your-face-boldness and musicality of more fiery verses from the Black Arts Movement. And that is where I first fell in love with the intensity of Mama Sonia’s gift.

The village of women who raised me were quite bold of action. They moved in a manner that commanded respect, and sought solidarity in family ties, rather than societal aims, to validate the decisions they made to improve their lives and, subsequently, mine. But documentation of their choices is hard to come by. That’s why I am so determined to complete this family tree of mine, to cement the realities these matriarchs crafted in some hard copy form, to benefit those who care to dig in. Mama Sonia is a writer, so in addition to the biographical footprint she has created through her professorships and political affiliations, she has chronicled her reality in verse. Adoration for her family? Read the poems. Anger at violence and sexism in the world? Read the poems! Trying to navigate the roaring rapids between loving yourself and loving someone else? READ THE POEMS! And then back them up by living your life in a manner that underscores what you’ve done and shared is your truth.

At the sold-out screening of BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez at the 4th Annual BlackStar Film Festival this past weekend, Mama Sonia closed the post-film Q&A with a message that brought me to tears. Kudos and accolades are appreciated, but if you really intend to honor her life and influence, you must commit your life to continuing the work! And that won’t look the same for each of us. Some people will do so in the halls of academe. Some will do so by publishing and performing their acts of resistance. Some will raise children who are not afraid to challenge, question, and ultimately change the world into something more just. But whatever your role, you must not allow anyone to diminish you.

Mama Sonia is a wee woman, but her spirit is grand. You may loom over her in height, but you cannot overshadow her voice. And the beauty of her enduring influence is that she encourages each and every one of us to take up our own space in this world. Find your place, plant your flag, and coalesce your personal power. Then let it shine, baby. Let it shine.


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