Remembering poet Sekou Sundiata

A visit to ground zero after 9/11 was soul-shifting and shaped the rest of Sundiata's writing career.

Before I ever met Sekou Sundiata, I talked with people he had inspired – and I became one of them. He was a poet whose performance pieces brought people together across surface divides into lyrical, light-swirling, rhythmic examinations of what unites us. I wanted Monitor readers to know him, too – those who hadn't already seen him featured more than a decade ago in Bill Moyers's PBS series "The Language of Life," or heard him on tour with artists such as his former student Ani DiFranco.

Shortly after our interview last month near his office at The New School in Manhattan, Mr. Sundiata passed away. I was shocked and saddened, but I also knew instantly that the words he had shared with me were a gift I still needed to give. Perhaps those words would meet what he saw in our society as "a deep need for language that people can trust."

Sundiata "excavated" such language from people's stories, told at "citizenship dinners," poetry readings, and community sings he organized after the 9/11 attacks to help him create a performance called "the 51st (dream) state." Combining his potent poetry with multiethnic music and video clips, it was a reflection on the complexity of American identity.

The events of 9/11 were soul-shifting for Sundiata, not just because he was a native New Yorker, born and raised in Harlem, but also because it sparked an "American feeling" that to him was unfamiliar. It would be another five years before he'd be able to define that feeling, which he found "troubling" because he'd long been an activist in opposition to so many US policies.

As a black man who came of age in the 1960s, Sundiata's Americanism had always been hyphenated. In boyhood he had seen the pictures of Emmett Till, a black teenager brutally murdered by white men in Mississippi. "By the time I got to college," he said, "I was very angry about America." But the era's protests – against war, racism, and sexism – were also intertwined with poetry.

Born Robert Feaster in 1948, he took on his new name in the mid-1970s – Sekou, a common name in West Africa, and Sundiata, the legendary Malian king upon whose life the story of "The Lion King" is based. In identifying with Africa he also claimed a tradition of ritual poetry: "The early poets were probably steeped in drama and magic and dance and chant.... Here in the 21st century ... my ritual space is not a savannah or a cave dwelling, but the bandstand or the concert stage."

Sundiata was ill and in the hospital when terrorism rained down ash upon his city. Released several weeks later, he was on his way to The New School, where he taught, when something told him to get off the subway and walk to what would later be dubbed ground zero.

"It's just an open wound in the ground," he told me in the present tense, as if he were there again instead of sitting in an empty student lounge. "It's still smoldering.... There are thousands of people out there, but it's quiet. And national guardsmen around the perimeter with rifles.... And while I'm there ... I had this American feeling. It wasn't a flag-waving feeling, but I knew it was an American feeling."

In retrospect, he said, "I think I got off that train because I had been called to witness – by poetry, by conscience, and by citizenship.... That's what I had in common with all those people there. It wasn't a gathering of onlookers looking at a train wreck.... There was a kind of deep witnessing going on."

"The 51st (dream) state" re-created that sense of witnessing and was anchored in hope. But it didn't shy away from challenging audiences to examine a history that has always included a strain of terror for some. Sundiata's own great-grandfather had been lynched in South Carolina. In large-format video projected above the stage, a Japanese-American woman told of being interned during World War II, and a young man of Indian descent shared what it was like to see people fear him after 9/11.

In further exploring citizenship during a residency at the University of Texas at Austin, Sundiata brought impromptu theater into the Texas State Capitol Rotunda on Lincoln's birthday this year. Passersby were invited to read out portions of foundational documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Evan Carton, director of the university's Humanities Institute, says of that day: "The idea was to reanimate ... an American holiday with the real essence of the kinds of issues that define us as a country.... It was an electric environment for that hour under Sekou's lead."

By the time he talked with me, Sundiata had finally pinned a word on that puzzling "American feeling" he'd experienced: love.

"I love the culture ... mostly as expressed through the arts. And I love what I think to be the great democratic tradition of America – going back to the abolitionist movement ... the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the labor movement. I love the music that came out of that, the mythologies, the stories, the connections, the marriages, the children. All of that," he said with a sweet laugh.

It's a tradition "that wants to make real these ideals as expressed in [the nation's] founding documents.... I realized I had been thinking about America too narrowly. When I said America, I was almost exclusively talking about the state, and America is much, much, much, more than that."

The New School in New York will host a tribute to Sekou Sundiata Aug. 22.

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