Jiaying Xu ’17
This year’s Otelia Cromwell Day celebration at Smith focused on the theme “Advancing Change: The Responsibility of Higher Education in Times of Crises.” Considered one of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, Sonia Sanchez — poet, playwright, scholar and activist — gave the keynote address, titled “Activism in Art: An Afternoon with Sonia Sanchez.”
Sonia Sanchez’s contemporaries applaud her writing as “raw” and “rough”— bolder, they say, than her male counterparts. In her welcoming address President Kathleen McCartney cited poet Maya Angelou’s remark that “Sonia Sanchez is a lion in literature’s forest. When she writes she roars, and when she sleeps other creatures walk gingerly.” Admirers acclaim Sanchez’s unwavering stance in the black feminist movements — she never ceases to make a voice to challenge unfair practices and attitudes.
“Sonia Sanchez has been on the Otelia Cromwell Day committee’s wish list for a long time,” says Dwight Hamilton, Smith’s vice president for inclusion, diversity and equity. “This year, we were fortunate to have her come given her ‘herstory’ as an artist-activist. She fit perfectly with our theme of advancing change in a time of crisis.”
During the address, Sanchez criticized the prevalent non-motion, non-movement and ignorance toward racial injustice in our society. She presented her work “Civil Disobediences” to underline the necessity of resistance in uncovering the beauty and power in each individual. She lamented on the scarce educational resources for most of the poor black students, fearing that the “privileged black” who had education would turn indifferent to others. “One of my mission, then, as a writer/educator has been to eradicate/erase the aura of the educated class while cherishing the creative power of learning,” says Sanchez. “A task for the truly creative teacher, writer, worker, preacher, lawyer, human being. One of my mission has been to celebrate the red black gums, corn cob smoking, nodding, starting people who were never considered poetic but we gave them life, form, and beauty.”
Adriana Valerio ’AC, a member of the Blackappella’s group who also performed on the day to empower black students through song, commented on Sanchez’s speech, “Professor Sonia Sanchez is a living legend. On Otelia Cromwell Day Professor Sanchez reminded the Smith community that we would not have to search far to find an underserved community of color near us. In her speech, she encouraged us all to engage these neighboring comamunities.” She was grateful that Smith College honors black excellence and cares about her experience as a black student. The opportunity to perform with her fellow sisters and listen to the empowering speech of Sanchez encouraged her to confront the current state of anti-blackness in the country.
Sanchez also offered a poetry workshop in the Neilson Browsing Room soon afterwards. She performed a number of her poems with the theme on peace. In her animated reading of poetries accompanied by singing and dancing, Sanchez expressed her hope for creating a peaceful and beautiful space for our souls, a space that could rescue us all from the tyranny of racism, sexism, and homophobia. “When you remember me, remember that I loved you — with a passion,” Sanchez said.
Raven Fowlkes-Witten ’17, a member of the Student Advisory Board, commented, “I was really moved by Otelia Cromwell day this year. I’m not sure if I feel this way because it was my last one or because it was just that incredible this year. I think the presence of Sonia Sanchez made the day enchanting in a way I’ve never felt on this day before. As a writer myself, it was amazing to hear Sanchez speak — everything she said felt like poetry. I was really inspired by the end of the day.”
“I enjoyed both her keynote address and her afternoon program,” Hamilton remarked. “I’m so happy that she performed her works in addition to speaking. She is a giant in African-American history and I’m glad that students had a chance to experience her.”