"What Does It Mean To Be Human?"

Sonia Sanchez Offers Wisdom on Poetry, Social Justice at May 4, 1970 50th Commemoration Events

Sonia Sanchez’s visit to Kent State University’s campus on Wednesday, September 18, touched many members of the community, both students and visitors alike. 


Sanchez's visit is part of the year long 50th Commemoration of the events of May 4, 1970 at Kent State.  Sanchez discussed how poetry, civil rights, student activism, and peace can enact change; these themes are as relevant now as they were in 1970, and they take on new significance in the context of the 50th anniversary of May 4th, which occurs next year in May of 2020.  


In addition to her speaking event in the KIVA on Wednesday evening, Sanchez had a conversation with a small group of students in the early afternoon at the May Prentice House, home of the Wick Poetry Center. Sanchez welcomed the students with a tribute to the late poet and close friend Toni Morrison, and told them that it was “so nice to be in a room where poetry lives.” 


One of the themes to which Sanchez returned throughout the discussion was that of learning from young people, with which she had a wealth of experience throughout her career as an educator. She said that she values students’ willingness to dare to do things they are told not to do and to stand up for what is right, offering the events of May 4 at Kent State and similar situations at other universities as examples. 


Sanchez also spoke about each person’s ability to make an impact. “When you don’t like your circumstances, work to change them,” she said. 


When asked how her hopes for what her poetry might accomplish have changed over the years, Sanchez gave a quick and confident answer: “My goals have never changed.” When Sanchez started studying under the poet Louise Bogan at New York University, she was the only woman and the only African American present. Over time, she has seen the demographics of poetry change, a shift for which she is grateful. Sanchez also emphasized poetry as a tool of knowledge and learning; she encouraged students to read the work of as many poets as they can and to remember that, through poetry, “you are changing people’s minds.”


At the event in the KIVA on Wednesday evening, Sanchez welcomed the audience and said that she likes to think that she has “discovered [Kent State] again after so many years.” She read a poem that featured the idea of meditation throughout, recalling her discussion from that afternoon about knowledge and thought, before closing the poem with a remembrance to the four students who were killed and the nine others who were injured at Kent State on May 4, 1970. 


Dr. Amoaba Gooden, chairperson of the Department of Pan-African Studies at the Kent campus and moderator of the discussion, made the point that Sanchez’s work is brutally honest about global atrocities, but though Sanchez acknowledges these events, she continues to push relentlessly for resistance and change. Sanchez advocated for resisting greed and disdain for one’s fellow humans while encouraging her audience to work together with one another, saying that “we are not going to have a world if we don’t break down these barriers.”  Sanchez explains, “Doing what suits you best and doing it well is part of sharing your spirit with others, and that is how we begin to change the world for the better.”


The evening closed with information about the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and Cleveland Book Week (which began on the day of Sanchez’s visit), as well as short remarks by Dr. Alison Smith, Dean of the Kent State University Honors College, who thanked the audience for taking part in the event as well as the numerous sponsors who made it possible.


Sonia will be honored on Thursday, September 26, 2019 with the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime achievement prize.


To hear Sonia’s full remarks from the event, please view the Sonia Sanchez video.



Media Contact:

Frank Congin, fcongin@kent.edu, (330) 672-2312



POSTED: Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 3:37pm
UPDATED: Friday, October 25, 2019 - 2:23pm
Nina Palattella, Kent State University Honors College Intern