Interview Excerpts of Sonia Sanchez
In these interview excerpts, family and friends remember Malcolm X. Sonia Sanchez is a poet, playwright, teacher, and activist. As a young person she was an integrationist and followed the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. When she heard Malcolm X, she became a supporter of his message of black pride and separatism. In 1971 she became a member of the Nation of Islam, but left the group in 1976.
The first time that I really listened to Malcolm was when New York CORE was doing a large demonstration. And Malcolm had sent out a directive to all of the organizations, most especially the civil rights organizations, that you cannot have a demonstration in Harlem unless you invite me to speak. So in our office at 125th Street, we moaned and groaned and said, "Who is that man? Imagine that man saying such a thing. Who does he think he is?" And of course we had to say yes. So we went to this big demonstration. Malcolm came with his bodyguards. I shall never forget that day. It was a day where it was cloudy. There was no sun. And in New York City when it's cloudy and rainy, you finally see the colors of the buildings. The yellows came out on the buildings and the reds came out on the buildings. And when Malcolm got up on this man-made stage the reds on his face came out. The red in his hair came out, with that kind of blonde red thing. I was standing on the island there, looking at him and my friend said, "I'm going back to the office. We're going back." And I said, "I'm going to stay because I like the rain."
There was this kind of quiet drizzle that was happening there. And I looked up and looked around, determined not to look at him, determined not to listen. But he started to talk and I found myself more and more listening to him. And I began to nod my head and say, "Yeah, that's right. That makes sense. That's logical, mm-hmm." And the audience was like, "Yeah Malcolm. Yeah man, mm-hmm, Malcolm. Amen. Yes, mm-hmm, right on, yes brother, mm-hmm." There was this great call and response that goes on in the African American community. When he came off the stage I jumped off the island, walked up to him and of course when I got to him the bodyguards moved in front. And he just pushed them away. And I went in front of him and extended my hand and said, "I liked some of what you said. I didn't agree with what all that you said, but I liked some of what you said." And he looked at me, held my hand in a very gentle fashion and says, "One day you will, sister. One day you will, sister." And he smiled. And I remember just standing there because I was ready to withdraw my hand in a very fast fashion, it was like extending the hand like, here it is, for being polite, but don't really, you know, that's it. But I left it there and he smiled at me. And I remember walking back to the office, the CORE office there at 125th Street, smiling.
Well what happened then is that every time he was speaking in New York City, I was there. I came there to the temple. But what was strange is that everybody else was doing it. [Amiri] Baraka was doing it. The poets were doing, the musicians were doing, the teachers were doing it, the nurses were doing it. Everybody who was an intellectual was coming out to hear what this man had to say. People don't want to remember that or talk about it. And that's how we became very much involved. And he saw us coming. We would try to disguise the fact that we were coming. We didn't tell people we were coming. You'd come in and sit on the side and you wouldn't say anything. And you just kind of sit there and you look around and there you see all your friends, you nod your head and then keep looking at him. And I began to — through him — I began to go to the Schomburg more and read up on history because he began to give us black history.
Reaching a Broad Audience
The reason why Malcolm was so effective was because the moment that he came into an audience, he told them exactly what he intended to do with them. What he said to an audience was that we are enslaved. And everyone looked at first and said, "Who? We are enslaved? We're free." And he began to tell us and explain to us in a very historical fashion just as to what our enslavement was about. The moment he did that, he always had some information for you, some new information. As a consequence, he drew an audience towards him. Malcolm knew how to curse you out in a sense and make you love him at the same time for doing it. He knew how to, in a very real sense, to open your eyes as to the kind of oppression that you were experiencing. On the one hand he would say something in a very harsh fashion. And then on the other hand he would kiss you and hug you. And he said, "I understand why you feel the way that you feel because you have the following." The joy of Malcolm is that he could have in an audience, college professors, school teachers, nurses, doctors, musicians, artists, poets, and sisters who were housewives, sisters who worked for people in their houses, brothers who were out of prison, brothers who were on drugs and were coming off drugs, brothers who were workers, brothers who were just hanging on the streets or were waiting outside the temples to get inside. The point is that I've never seen anyone appeal to such a broad audience. And the reason why he could do that is because he understood the bottom line is that if you tell people the truth, then it will appeal to everyone. If you tell them all about their oppression, in a fashion that they had never heard before, then they will gravitate towards you.
So he could have an audience of people who were [unintelligible], like, "I'm in here to listen to you perhaps, but I really don't want to hear too much," and a sister sitting next to, [saying], "Yeah, you're right, man. Go on, tell it like it is." And all of a sudden you'll find yourself not saying, "Yes, tell it like it is." But you say, "Yeah man, you're right!" I mean you went back to roots, very fantastic roots, you see. And he cut through all the crap. In other words he said, "I know you've learned how to speak this English in the proper fashion. But you forget that." And you said, "Man, you're right." So yes, he cut through a lot of nonsense in this country. At the same time he informed us. And he made the broad mass of people respond to it. The joy of Malcolm is that he would get on a television and he would be sitting there with bright, bright people. This man with no Ph.D., this man with no M.A., this man with no B.A., and would listen in a very calm fashion to how people analyze the world be they black, or be they white, or whatever. And then he would come right around and speak in a very articulate fashion. And you see what he said out loud is what African American people had been saying out loud forever, behind closed doors. And he said, "I'm now going to say out loud for everyone to hear, what African American people have been thinking for years." And he did it. The reason why initially we cut off the televisions is that we were scared. What he did, he said, "I will now," in a very calm fashion, "wipe out fear for you." He expelled fear for African Americans. He says, "I will speak out loud what we've been thinking." And he said, "You'll see. People will hear it and they will not do anything to us necessarily. But I will now speak it for the masses of people."
When he said it in a very strong fashion and this very manly fashion, in this fashion that says, "I am not afraid to say what you've been thinking all these years." That's why we loved him. He said it out loud. Not behind closed doors. He took on America for us. He assumed the responsibility of father, brother, lover, man, he became again Martin Delany's Blake, the first black revolutionary character in literature. He came out and he became the person that we wanted to see, the man that we needed to see in the North and in the South. He became the man that most African American women have wanted their men to be — strong; saying,"I want to take you on, America. Here I is [sic]. Look at me. I'm going to say things that you've wanted people to say." That's why the men and women loved him. That's why we all loved him so very much. Because he made us feel holy. And he made us feel whole. He made us feel loved. And he made us feel that we were worth something finally on this planet Earth. Finally we had some worth.