“How I Became This Woman with Razor Blades Between Her Teeth”: Making the Sonia Sanchez Story




SABRINA SCHMIDT GORDON was screening, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats & Rhymes, a film exploring masculinity and gender politics — which she produced and edited — at the INPUT Documentary & Television Festival in Switzerland, in 2007 when Barbara Attie, a documentarian from Philadelphia, and Evan Solot, a composer, approached her. Attie was working on a project with her directing-producing partner, Janet Goldwater, about a Malian woman’s fight for asylum to protect her daughter from ritual genital cutting, and she wanted to gauge Gordon’s interest in working on the production.

Gordon admits she was initially “a little wary, and maybe unfairly so” about partnering with a white filmmaking team. “I had to see where they were coming from with this African-centered film; what they might be interested in doing or the perspective in which they might be telling the story. I got to see a little bit of the work that they had started to do, and I talked to them about how I would approach making the film and we were all on the same page.”

Gordon went on to produce and edit Mrs. Goundo’s Daughter. “One of the things that was very important to me in that film is that it isn’t an outsider’s gaze looking at what Malian culture is like and what they should be doing and what they should not be doing, what they’re doing wrong, etcetera,” Gordon says. “The voices in the film that you hear are pretty much all Malian. That was really important to me.”

Janet Goldwater, Barbara Attie and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon
 From left to right: Janet Goldwater, Barbara Attie, and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon

Attie and Goldwater approached Gordon again about teaming up on another project about Sonia Sanchez. Initially the plan was to create a short performance piece which was then expanded into the feature-length film, BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, screening Feb. 15 at 12:00 p.m. during the Pan African Film Festival at the Rave Cinemas in Baldwin Hills. (It airs on television March 8 for International Women’s Day as part of the America ReFramed film lineup on PBS World Channel stations — check local listings for airtimes.)

Considered one of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez — poet, playwright, scholar, and activist — is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry, numerous plays, and children’s books. She was born in Birmingham, Alabama, and raised in Harlem by her father and his third wife after the deaths of her mother and paternal grandmother. In 1955, she received a bachelor’s degree in political science at Hunter College in New York where she later learned of — and was inspired by — the works of W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Zora Neal Hurston, and began studying poetry with Louise Bogan.

Sanchez started a writer’s workshop in Greenwich Village, which attracted such notable poets as Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Haki R. Madhubuti, with whom she founded the Broadside Quartet of poets, which included Nikki Giovanni and Ethridge Knight, whom she later married.

“We had to slice up many a thing, to scrape the veneer that was on America, the veneer that was on Harlem, the veneer that was on the entire country,” Sanchez says in the film. “And as we scraped we got to some real blood and began to spit out words that the country was paying attention to.”

During the 1960s, Sanchez began teaching at what is now San Francisco State University where she championed the first-ever black studies program (which led to the formation of other minority studies programs across the country), and became an active member of the Black Panther Party. She eventually retreated back to the east coast after receiving threats for calling out Panther-founder Eldridge Cleaver for his mistreatment of women (“He’s a hustler, not a revolutionary […] rape is not revolutionary.”) By 1971, spurred by the writings of Malcolm X, she joined the Nation of Islam, eventually realizing that despite their protection of women, she could not have a voice in the organization. She left in 1973.

Twice divorced, Sanchez has three children — and lost custody of her daughter, Anita, to her ex-husband, Albert Sanchez. “What has given me life,” Sanchez says in the film, “is my poetry and my politics.”

POEM AT THIRTY
by Sonia Sanchez

it is midnight
no magical bewitching
hour for me
i know only that
i am here waiting
remembering that
once as a child
i walked two
miles in my sleep.
did i know
then where i
was going?
traveling. i’m
always traveling.
i want to tell
you about me
about nights on a
brown couch when
i wrapped my
bones in lint and
refused to move.
no one touches
me anymore.
father do not
send me out
among strangers.
you you black man
stretching scraping
the mold from your body.
here is my hand.
i am not afraid
of the night.

Her contemporaries applaud her writing as “raw” and “rough” — bolder, they say, than her male counterparts. “Sonia Sanchez is a lion in literature’s forest,” poet Maya Angelou once said. “When she writes she roars, and when she sleeps other creatures walk gingerly.” Admirers cheer Sanchez for her “loud” and “sassy” attitude whether she was writing about politics, or womanhood, or sexuality. She made it possible for hip hop to exist. After more than six decades, she continues to take chances, and she continues to struggle.

“When you remember me, remember that I loved you — with a passion,” Sanchez says.

“You can’t say enough about how much she has given of herself to the fight for justice and human dignity for all people,” says Gordon, co-chair of the Black Documentary Collective in New York City.

Gordon is producer and editor of Documented, about the Pulitzer Prize-winning, undocumented journalist Jose Antonio Vargas and his fight for immigration reform. The film was nominated for a 2015 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary, and got a lot of buzz during last year’s Oscar season. She teaches documentary filmmaking at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez is Gordon’s directorial debut. Attie and Goldwater co-direct and co-produce with Gordon.

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JANICE RHOSHALLE LITTLEJOHN: This film has three co-directors and co-producers on the team. How did you divide the work: from the shooting duties, and even to the perspective from which you’d tell the story?

SABRINA SCHMIDT GORDON: With some of those things there wasn’t a very big deliberation. For example, we talked about who we wanted to reach out to and it was maybe less important aesthetically where we were filming them. A decision was made, of course, how to stage the poetry readings.

When we interviewed Amiri Baraka, we met him where he was willing to meet us, so it wasn’t like we had this big aesthetic decision to make there. So we were really on the same page about who we felt was most important to talk to, and we all had our opinions and input about that.

I’m younger than the other two filmmakers — we’re really from two different generations — and I remember reading Sonia’s work for the first time at like 11 or something like that. So my perspective, or my orientation, might have been a little bit different, too, being black and they’re not. There may have been certain things that I was a little bit more familiar with, especially in regard to her connection to hip hop, which I think I was a little more informed about than they were. So there were ways in which we brought different things, perspective-wise, to Sonia’s story.

But I don’t think there were any conflicts where it was like, “’Oh, I think Sonia is this,” and “’I think Sonia is that.’” We were all on the same page about what her import was, and what the trajectory of her story would be, in terms of the interviews we conducted with her.

The fact that we’re all producing and directing together is a testament to the fact that it was truly a collaborative process. I’m based in New York; they’re in Philadelphia. I’m doing my thing in New York, and we would get together periodically throughout the years on the project, and we all had equal input in the film.

What went into the decision-making about moving the piece from a short-form project to a full-length feature, and how receptive was Ms. Sanchez to a larger piece?

There’s a composer in Philadelphia who worked with Barbara (Attie) and Janet (Goldwater) on another film and he happened to be collaborating with Sonia on an adaptation of her long poem, Does Your House Have Lions? He was composing the music for it, and he had gotten a small grant to do something around that. Then he was like, “’Maybe we could try to raise money to do a feature length piece about Sonia.’”

When I’d spoken with Sonia about it subsequently, like why did she agree to do it — because she’s been in other films and other people have approached her, and there’s another film that was made about her a few years before — so this is not as if this is necessarily her first film or foray into being interviewed or being profiled in some capacity in television or in film. But one of the things that she’s said is that it was important for her to tell her story for all the people, and the women who were part of the struggle, who cannot tell their stories or who are not getting to tell their stories.

There are a lot of people that she worked with and had been doing activism with who were also artists and so on who essentially did not quite recover from the toll that their activism took on their careers — on their ability to get gigs, to get teaching jobs — because of their political decisions. She felt like telling her story wasn’t really just about her. It was about all the women, in particular, who were part of the struggle who don’t have a voice to tell their story. That was really revealing.

I mean, imagine when you approach someone about making a film about them — they are, in part, flattered by it. But even in her deciding to say yes it was a political act, which is what’s very interesting about Sonia. Everything about her life, she walks her walk all the time whether it’s private or public; it’s always about her activism really.

Is that how you chose the title, BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez because of her revolutionary stance on politics and black activism? Or was it an homage to her 1970 book, We a BaddDDD People?

There wasn’t really a big Ah ha! moment about what to name this film. It was trying to just figure out what wouldn’t be reductive. We didn’t want it to be: The Sonia Sanchez Story. We tried to find something that really felt fit her and felt authentic, and going through her poems and her books and so on, just looking for something in there to frame her story.

She writes poetry, obviously, but she performs her poetry so her work has a lot to do with not just what’s on the page but with the words. She talked a lot about having been a stutterer, so the badd-D-D-D, is kind of a little wink and nod to her text, but it also seemed to capture something of a performance in the way that she plays with language, and it worked in the way that the other titles we might try to use didn’t really seem to resonate.

Thinking about her activism and all that she sacrificed for it — her marriages and her children, and sometimes her very livelihood — it’s rare to get these kinds of glimpses into the lives of women and their roles in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements beyond, say, Rosa Parks, or the women behind the men of the movement, like Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz. (Ironically, when Ms. Sanchez began her push for black studies programs, she mentions that the only black people that black people knew anything about were Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.) As a filmmaker, does this dearth make it more critical to have stories like Ms. Sanchez’s on screen?

It is, of course, very important, and one of the things that was interesting to me is that when I was approached about working on the project about Sonia, my first reaction was, “’Yes, of course!’” It meant everything to me that I could be part of a definitive telling of her story because I admired her so much and I know her so well — and when I say that I know her so well, I know her in a way that so many people of my generation know her.

But at the same time, it’s this weird thing. She’s famous among certain people. Like I don’t understand why more people on a national level don’t know of her contributions, not just to activism in American culture and American politics, but to American literature. It’s just very odd to me that somehow her whole cannon — whether we’re talking about literature or whether we’re talking about politics — continues to be marginalized.

When we talk about the Civil Rights Movement — the imagery — if we were to give it a gender, it would be gendered male. Even with the Black Arts Movement, when people think of the Black Arts Movement, you think Amiri (Baraka). I just think the men of the movement tend to come to mind for most, or speak more powerfully in people’s imaginations.

Recently I did a short piece with the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, with Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. It was interesting. Here are three women who started this movement and started the hashtag and the activism around it. When the hashtag caught on and people would be interviewed about Black Lives Matter, all the activists that would be called were the men. No one was calling them. No one was talking to them.

So here we are in 2016, and somehow women get to do the work, but they don’t necessarily get recognized — and I say recognized as opposed to recognition, because I don’t want to imply that they need a pat on the back, but just recognized for what they’ve done. It’s good that you’re toiling and doing all the heavy lifting, but it’s alright that no one knows or pays attention to how things are coming together. I feel like I can redress that in some way. I find it a privilege to be able to do so because there are obviously tremendous stories.

You were able to get some wonderful footage of Ms. Sanchez together with one of her sons in present day looking through old photographs, but there was no footage with her daughter, Anita. Considering Ms. Sanchez gave her up when she was a child, have the two been able to have any kind of relationship?

I can’t really speak on their relationship, per say, but I wouldn’t say they are estranged. Sonia lives in Philadelphia. Her daughter is based in LA. I don’t know how often they see one another, but I think that certainly has something to do with…like when kids and parents don’t live in the same city and are across the country from one another, they maybe see each other once or twice a year, that kind of thing.

When we were doing our Kickstarter campaign, she posted about it and supported it. That suggested to me that it’s not like they don’t talk to each other. It’s not like an Alice Walker-type situation (who is estranged from her only child, writer Rebecca Walker) where they’re not talking to one another. But I can’t really say how tight they are. Obviously in the film we talk about how she lost custody of her daughter, but apparently however that evolved, they do communicate with each other. I don’t think she’d be posting stuff on her Facebook page about “’Support my mom’s film,’” if they weren’t on speaking terms.

I guess her absence stood out to me, in particular, after hearing Ms. Sanchez read the poem, To Anita, which she’d written for her daughter:

high/yellow/black/girl 
walken like the sun u be.
move on even higher.
those who
laugh at yo/color
have not moved
to the blackness we be about
cuz as Curtis Mayfield be sayen
we people be darker than blue
and quite a few
of us be yellow
all soul/shades of
blackness.
yeah. high/yellow/black/girl
walk yo/black/song
cuz some of us
be hearen yo/sweet/music. 

Although the poem reads quite affirming, there was something in her performance of it that had a sense of longing in her voice as she read it.

Right, right. I remember that moment when she was reading that poem. I always read it as recollection. I think reading that poem and what she was describing in it, she was probably remembering certain moments. It’s not as if she turned around and said: This is what I was thinking about.

And, again, I knew contextually that they were in touch with each other, so I wasn’t really thinking about it that way because I had that understanding that it’s more about reliving a situation as opposed to something unresolved now.

One of the things that was really striking to me about Ms. Sanchez, beyond her activism and politics, was the sheer audacity of the sensuality in her work. I mean, I’ve read some of her poems, and have a couple of her books, but I don’t remember anything like Good Morning Sex. Listening to poet Lita Hooper reading just an excerpt from it, I was like: Wow! And I came home after the screening and looked it up online so I could read it in its entirety:

Good Morning, sex. How do you do?
Tell me how life’s been treating you.
You say what? Sex is and sex ain’t
sex wuz and sex wuzn’t
sex should be and sex has been
on Time Square billboards
on television, in the movies,
in the lyrics dripping off pouting lips.
You say sex is in the drinks we drink
the laughs we laugh
the walk we walk
the smells we smell as we open
our eyes and legs and let the funk spread.
You say sex is dark basements
lights turned out, bodies turned on.
Sex is a breakfast table full of
leftover wine and smiles.
Sex is kinky & clean shaven
sex is straight & gay
sex is do it anyway.
Comes in twos and threes.
Comes on time. Late.
Sex is love. Unlove.
Comes with danger & beauty
Comes in clean and shadowy places.
Sex is life. Death. A gig.
Sometimes you need it in the
Morning. Afternoon. Evening.
Sometimes it satisfies; sometimes it don’t
sometimes you feel it in yo’ armpits
sometimes you feel it in the mind,
but ah, ahhh, when it comes
this sex, when it appears
buck naked and clothed,
when it comes Thelonious Monk-like jazzy,
when it comes hip hopping like the nite
ain’t like no other nite; ya
know what time it is, what day
it is, what month it is, what year
it is. When it comes RIGHT, you
understand that sex is & sometimes it ain’t
But when it is…

And I’m reading it and the words were grabbing at me, and particularly in the wake of this flutter on social media all week long about Beyoncé and all the black woman power and sensuality behind her new, “Formation,” single, and to realize, for myself at least, that Sonia Sanchez was talking about blackness, beauty, and power. Way back when such raw, unapologetic sass and audacity was truly revolutionary. I mean, millennial women — black, white or otherwise – could really get excited if they got to know Sanchez’s work because she’s so frank and so fierce.    

Right. I mean, I certainly hope that the film will, for people who know her work, [make them] want to revisit her work. But even better for those who don’t (and, I mean all people but women in general) to discover her work — especially because, people who know her think about her as a poet, obviously, but mostly in terms of her political activism. They maybe think less about the woman who wrote about love, and wrote about sex, and wrote about it so provocatively that you’re like, “’Sonia!’” [She giggles.] And imagine (you talk about Beyoncé) this was 40 years ago. She was far more radical. It’s kind of funny when you think Beyoncé’s the radical one, and this woman was writing these kinds of poems 40 years ago.

One of the things that was really engaging about the film was how you used her poetry, through her own readings and performances, and also through other poets reciting her work. How did you decide, first, which poems to use, and, second, who would deliver the poems? And also, how did you determine the way in which you’d use the pieces in the flow of the storytelling? Was it something that you and your co-directing team mapped out ahead of time, or was it something you discovered would work best in the edit?

That’s actually a very good question, because the idea to have folks read the poems, at first, it was like an interesting idea, but I don’t think it was really fleshed out in the beginning. So at one point we were choosing poems, and then we were letting people choose their favorite Sonia Sanchez poem, so it didn’t always have a very strong direction. But what I found as I was editing, it became very clear to me how I needed to use the poetry. What was clear to me was that the poetry had to propel the story, so I would use the poetry to get us from one part of her life, or one part of the story, to the next. And it really kinda freed us from a strictly chronological telling, and sometimes the poems would lead you to something else.

So, for example, when you learn about her children, it’s actually a bit later in the film, and that’s because we let the art work kinda drive the narrative a little bit, and I think as a result we have other poems that were read and the renditions of them were really nice and we did them against backdrops throughout Philadelphia — because Philadelphia is known for all of its mural art — but unfortunately if it didn’t fit my mandate of how to use this poem to move the story forward, it didn’t make it into the film.

All the footage you must have had to sift through — between the scenes of her more recent travels in Alabama, New York, and Philadelphia and the archival work — seems like it would have been daunting. What was your production schedule like, and then having to sit with it in post and figure out the story you wanted to tell?

Well, it’s interesting because much of what informed the production schedule and the process, in a lot of ways, was fundraising. We got some good grants from Sundance, and we got a grant from the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) and grants from smaller foundations in Philadelphia. But the grants were not huge. Often it wasn’t enough to keep working consistently on the film. So it was a lot of stopping and starting. It wasn’t like we had a four-week shooting schedule and then we shot for four weeks, and did this and that; it was kind of intermittent.

I worked on the film for five years, and part of that sometimes I would work on the project a little bit, and then — because a lot of times we didn’t have a lot of money — I would take a little break and work on something else, make a little money and start editing again. Take a break, like if I could get a two or three week editing gig that would pay, I would do that, then go back to Sonia.

So I would have these sort of forced breaks that were built in; that I think helped with the perspective. Other times you don’t have the luxury to sit back and think and ruminate or whatever. I would think: Oh, now I see how that would work! So sometimes you have a little time and a little distance and you can really think about something.

Generally speaking, there were definitely certain people that we wanted to interview and there were events that we wanted to follow, like we definitely wanted to go with her back to her hometown to Birmingham. We definitely wanted to capture her in her performance space. Everything else we just chipped away and dutifully worked on it for five years. Our first shoot was in December of 2009, and it was the performance of Does Your House Have Lions? You don’t see it until the end of the film, but that was our first shoot.

Documentary filmmaking is a long process and I know you gotta love your subject because you often have to spend a lot of time and effort on it. You’ve mentioned wanting to do this because of Ms. Sanchez, but was there anything else that kept you going through these last five years?

I think part of it’s my ego. I can’t be like: Oh well I tried to make a film about Sonia and it didn’t work out, so after four years I’m done. I actually have the reverse reaction, like: I’ve already done three years, I might as well put in another three. That’s just the way I approach things. And this was an important film to make. Sonia is a legend, and I am getting the privilege to get to know her and to tell her story, and if I could be part of a team that tells a definitive story about Sonia, I was willing to do it. Also, this was my directorial debut, so I wasn’t going to give up on my directorial opportunity, frankly. [Laughs.]

But first and foremost, it just felt like a big opportunity to do the Sonia Sanchez story. While, unfortunately, raising the money was a challenge, as long as I could keep making a living, I could take a break and work and do something else, I could always come back to it. I was happy to be working on her story.

You mentioned earlier that, growing up, you knew Sonia Sanchez through her work. What did you learn about her through the filmmaking that was most revealing?

One thing that I learned, and something that I think cost her, was that her life was first and foremost about her work. It’s all about the work. And particularly her politics; it’s all about that 24/7. She’s 81, and is on it every day. It’s in everything she does. It’s in every conversation that you have with her. Everything about her life, whether, again, it be personal or public, is informed by her larger vision, and her sensibilities and her politics and her values.

When you look at her failed relationships, her failed marriages, it probably had something to do with her putting her politics first. It cost her the custody of her child. I’m not saying this is something everyone could or should do, but I feel like I got to see firsthand, like, if you want to be that, then that’s what it costs. It’s a big deal to really give your life over to something. We think that we do, and then you see someone who’s really done it and it’s like: Oh, that’s what that looks like. And it’s admirable.

And I want to add, too, I feel like she’s always giving, like every time I talk to her, she really does love you. Like when she says, “’I love you with a passion.” It’s the truth. She’s always giving. Always teaching. And having done it for as long as she has, she doesn’t have to figure it out anymore. It’s on point and on it all the time.

When the film begins, Ms. Sanchez says that the reason why she writes is because she “’wants to tell people how I became this woman with razor blades between her teeth.” By the end of the film, she says, “’When you get older, you stop dissing people. When you’re older you try to bring people together.” Is it that she’s gotten tired of the fight, or is it an evolution of Ms. Sanchez as an activist?

Toward the end of the film you learn about her focus now on all the peace activism; she says she wants people to, “Eat peace. Think peace. Breathe peace. Live peace.” And that, maybe, for her, is what all her work has brought her to — and I don’t want to speak for her, and I’m a little loath to do that — but I think it’s very much connected to everything she’s dedicated her life to up ‘til now. Everything from being part of the Grandmothers for Peace, and everything she’s doing now around peace, is a reflection that comes out of — and I’m hesitant to say a new orientation or a new advocacy — because I don’t know if it’s really new. In fact I think it’s always been part of it, but I think it’s now become central in a certain way. Before it was, “’We’ve got to get black literature in schools.’” Now I think it’s a little broader, or a more existential thing, to talk about peace and humanity.

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Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is a Los Angeles–based journalist, author, and filmmaker. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @JaniceRhoshalle.


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