Sonia Sanchez wonders how she became "this woman with razor blades between her teeth."
"That's a great line, I think," she says of the imagery from her poem "Woman."
"I love how stuff comes through the body - starts at the toe jam and goes all the way up!" She makes jazzy hand motions from her feet all the way through her body.
The 80-year-old award-winning poet, educator, mother, and activist sits on a couch in her airy Germantown home, African sculptures decorating the walls or standing at attention.
Gray shoulder-length locks frame her face, accentuating a smile steady with patience. My dear sister or my dear brother are affectionate intros to sentences.
"As a poet," Sanchez says, "I know that I have sharp words."
Books adorn her coffee table: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, whom she knew when he was a baby (he quotes her poetry in his work); Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times, by Robin Kelley; SOS - Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader, an anthology Sanchez edited with John H. Bracey and James Smethurst. Sanchez has authored or co-edited 22 books.
Now her momentous life and work will be commemorated in the feature documentary BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, which premieres at the BlackStar Film Festival on Saturday.
Directed by Janet Goldwater, Barbara Attie, and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez talks with friends, colleagues, and former students from throughout her life. The documentary took five years to complete and features cameos from poet Nikki Giovanni, rapper Talib Kweli, historian Bracey, and Roots drummer Questlove.
"Living in Philadelphia," Goldwater says, "it's impossible to not be aware of the power of Sonia Sanchez."
Philadelphians have embraced the Alabama-born poet as their own, dedicating a mural in North Philadelphia to her and naming her the city's first poet laureate in 2011. Sanchez spent 24 years teaching at Temple University.
"Language is the most dangerous of professions," Sanchez says just a minute into the documentary.
In her sitting room, she explains: "A poet will bring you to the center of action and make you take a moral stand. Poets also keep you alive and keep you human."
Sanchez recalls that while raising her children, teaching, and taking part in political activism, there were times when she would have to choose between sleeping and writing.
Writing always won.
She rubs her tired eyes, saying she's gotten only three hours of sleep while working on a book due at the end of August. She's determined to finish it before she begins a Schomburg Center Writer-in-Residence Fellowship at the New York Public Library.
Sanchez opens a package that's just arrived and lets out a satisfied sigh. It is a book of poetry, Roll Deep, by former student Major Jackson.
"I do believe poets are born, but they also have to be trained," Sanchez says. And she's trained many. Spoken-word poet Ursula Rucker, included in the documentary, is one of them. Rucker remembers hearing her first poem by Sanchez in high school: "I remember thinking, 'Oh, wow, you can do that?' "
Rucker researched Sanchez, and as a student at Temple, took a class with her. Though she was nervous and shy because "in my mind, she was already my mentor," it wasn't long before Sanchez went from mentor to "Mama Sonia," Rucker's artistic and spiritual mother.
"Her courage," Rucker says by phone, "gives me the courage to be unflinching in what we do."
Sometimes Sanchez's work wasn't politically correct - but it was poetically correct. It told a truth many were not used to hearing.
"This country never had black people call them names out loud," Sanchez says, "and they were shocked."
Sanchez suffered for telling or teaching the truth, including being "blackballed from universities in New York City," according to Attie, "because she was committed to speaking about what she believed in."
Despite the struggles of moving her family from school to school and state to state, Sanchez kept pursuing justice.
"I knew that I was not alone," she says, without pause listing many who battled like her - Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nina Simone, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks. "It was a crucial time in this country and the world. We had to pick up the day and make it become night."
The film shows how Sanchez was at the epicenter of the civil rights and human rights movements, and a vocal advocate for black studies in the late 1960s. It follows her through her work with the Congress of Racial Equality, the Black Arts Movement, the Black Panther Movement, and the Nation of Islam. But in some cases, she stepped away from movements.
"It's an example of how open her politics have always been when it comes to responding to the need of the historical moment," Goldwater says. "But not being afraid to criticize a movement, and not being afraid to move on."
In the film, Questlove credits Sanchez for embracing hip-hop at a time when many rebuked it.
"[The Roots] came out of the Black Arts Movement," Sanchez says. "It was a natural progression."
She recalls listening to hip-hop for the first time and saying, "Why are they so loud?" Her kids responded, "You're loud, too, Mom."
"Then I realized what I was doing," Sanchez says. "I wasn't listening. Listen to what these young people are saying. They're saying very important stuff."
Even now, when on the road, she always asks to visit a local high school. "I'm always here for young people. They can listen to our experiences and learn," she says. "Take from it what they need and leave behind that which does not work."
And young activists' taking up the fight for progress is not lost on her.
"I'm always impressed with young people getting out into the streets," Sanchez says. "I just want to caution them that this is not about glamour. This is not about making a name."
Maori Holmes, creator of the BlackStar Film Festival, says the documentary works as a good primer on Sanchez and the breadth of her work. So when it came to finding a space to premiere the movie, Attie, Goldwater, and Holmes agreed BlackStar was ideal.
"Everything that we do is inspired by Sonia and her peers," Holmes says. "Everything that we do, we aim to be in the lineage of the Black Arts Movement."
"Oftentimes we make these films after someone passes and it's great to see this while they're vibrant, thriving, and rabble-rousing."
On Sanchez's porch are two peace benches. One reads, Let Me Wear the Day Well So When it Reaches You, You Will Enjoy It, a haiku she wrote while in Beijing and featured in her 2010 book, Morning Haiku.
"One of the most important things we have to do is emphasize peace on this earth, or else we won't have an earth," Sanchez says. "People forget peace so easily, but they remember war very fast."
Conversation sprawls from environmentalism to the positive impact of comedy on your immune system. One poem in the documentary is "Dear Mama" from the collection Shake Loose My Skin, in which she speaks from her grandmother's point of view, saying, "she gon' stumble on herself one of these days."
And Sanchez has. "When you really find what you want to do with your life, that's when you stumble on yourself and that's what I did," she said. "I found out I wanted to be a poet, that I wanted to be an activist, and that I wanted to evolve to the highest point I could evolve to on this earth and then I could say 'Yeah, Mama, I be.' "