When local poetry legend Sonia Sanchez heard that the “HistoryMakers” wanted her to go into Benjamin Franklin High School and talk to students about the importance of making a commitment and keeping it, she immediately knew exactly what she would talk about.
“I wanted to make a pact with them. I wanted them to understand that they are writing history every day, and that the history they need to write is about loving, caring and forgiving,” Sanchez said. “So that is how I approached it. I’ll be back to check on them.”
Specifically, Sanchez, who spoke to students in the crowded school auditorium last Friday, wanted to express to them that violence – Black-on-Black violence specifically – accomplishes nothing and, in fact, destroys history. So when she finished addressing the crowded auditorium, Sanchez entered into a pact with the students, telling them she would be back in a year from now to make sure that the students refrain from any violence for the next year.
Sanchez’s appearance at Ben Franklin was part of the HistoryMakers second annual Back to School with the HistoryMakers. Based in Chicago, the HistoryMakers is the nation’s largest African American archive of video oral history. Dedicated to preserving the personal histories of well-known and unsung African Americans, the organization has interviewed more than 2,000 history makers, with the goal of creating an archive of 5,000 interviews (30,000 hours) for the creation of a one-of-a-kind digital archive to be used as an educational resource.
Other local history makers who participated on Friday were health care advocate Renee J. Amoore and Judge Theodore McKee (Harrison Elementary); concert pianist and cultural educator Blanche Burton-Lyles (Creative and Performing Arts High School); former City Council member Augusta Clark (Vaux High School); and United Bank of Philadelphia founder Emma Chappell (Nebinger Elementary).
Sanchez was one of 500 speakers last Friday around the country. Other notable participants included Senior Advisor and Assistant to President Barak Obama, Valarie Jarret; Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick; former Ambassador Andrew Young; hip-hop artist Common; actress Melba Moore and others.
Sanchez addressed the audience for about a half hour. After that, she fielded questions from the students in a question and answer format. Before she left, Sanchez also visited some class rooms.
Knowing in advance about the visit, Ben Franklin Principal Christopher Johnson made sure the students were familiar with Sanchez’s work. Sanchez, a former Temple professor – Temple is one of eight universities where she has taught - has authored more than a dozen books of poetry. She has lectured at more than 500 colleges, and she was the first to create and teach a course based on black women and literature in the United States.
“We had them read up on her the week before she came,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure that the kids knew who she was and what they were in store for. They got into it.”
Johnson was pleased that Sanchez committed to coming back to Franklin in a year to make sure that the students adhered to the anti-violence pact. Johnson and his staff also spoke with the students about implementing strategies to avoid confrontations rather than just advising them to stay out of trouble.
“We always tell children, ‘don’t fight, don’t fight.’ But a lot of times we don’t give them strategies to use when they find themselves in certain situations,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you really have to break it down and tell kids what to do in certain situations, so we did that also.”
Sanchez says that one of the best ways to avoid confrontation is to always be willing to forgive. She says she learned this when her father, who was sometimes critical of her line of work, died a few years ago.
“We had reached the point where we were holding onto anger,” Sanchez said. “We loved each other but there were some things that we wouldn’t let go. I told him one day that I had forgiven him for anything he had ever done or said to me in my lifetime. We both forgave each other before he made his transition. He transitioned in peace. We were both made better for that.”
Sanchez hammered home the ideal that the Franklin students are writing important history, too.
“They have to realize that their education is where the next faze of the civil rights movement is being acted out,” Sanchez said. “People died for them to have the right to be educated. They can’t waste this opportunity to be educated because there will be those coming behind them that will also stand on their shoulders and the history that they make.”