Sonia Sanchez–SOS

To mark the release of the recently published anthology of Black Arts writing, SOS–Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, Amherst Books hosted a launch party. Gathered students, educators, activists, and poetry lovers were treated to a reading, a glass of wine, perhaps, and good company. The title of the anthology invokes Amiri Baraka’s sounding the signal: “calling all black people, come in, black people, come / on in”. A few years later Gil Scott-Heron broke down the Morse code into the “re-Morse code” with his poem, “The Ghetto Code.”

SOS3

Cover art by Nelson Stevens, Spirit Sister 1972

Sanchez reissued Baraka’s call to action and spoke directly about the lessons we can learn from the Black Arts Movement with respect to today’s rallying cries against institutionalized injustice and violence. Baraka’s SOS, Sanchez noted, might equally stand for “save our selves” or “save our sons.” She told an anecdote about the ways in which integrity and justice were practiced at home, using her Herstory to illustrate the reciprocal relationship between empathy, coalition building, and collective action.

Sanchez’s description of a student’s coming to consciousness as a result of her encounter with this volume suggests the continued relevance and evolutionary vision of experimental and politically-committed black poetry. More than that, it points to the popular appeal of the Black Arts Movement.

The poems are organized around essential tropes: consciousness, Malcolm X, Coltrane and jazz, Africa, women, and heritage. Song lyrics by James Brown, Oscar Brown, Jr., Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Weldon Irvine, and Whitfield & Strong are included, as are texts of recordings by the Last Poets and Scott-Heron. The language of Black Power was shared widely among artists, musicians, and writers, and emerging multimedia forms amplified the possibilities for artistic collaboration and collective improvisation.

At the book launch, editors James Smethurst and John H. Bracey Jr. gave incisive talks before Sanchez read from her work and took questions. When the first question asked was about “a/coltrane/poem,” Sanchez told the story of her first reading of the work in front of an audience. She elaborated on her conceptual approach to performance, sound, and improvisation in her poetry and explained how she was influenced by John Coltrane, who reoriented listeners to sound because he seemed to open a space inside the music.