Eulogy for poet Sekou Sundiata delivered at his memorial service on Wednesday, Aug. 22, at New School University in New York City.
This great poet takes the name by which the world knows him from two great rulers of Africa. Sundiata, the first ruler of the Mali empire (1230AD), in what was called Africa’s Golden Age and Sekou after the Democratic Republic of Guinea’s liberator from French colonialism, the great leader, Sekou Toure.
I first met Sekou in some organizing meeting in New York City aimed at creating an Afro American delegation to the 6th Pan African Congress (“6 Pac”, we called it) which was eventually held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1974. All those meetings were vigorous, serious and long. There had been some attempt to limit delegations to government appointed ones, in Africa and the Caribbean, so that, by default, the Afro American delegation was the only one nominally independent.
In those meetings and most clearly in Dar I came to recognize the young dark strikingly handsome shy but articulate brother who seemed to be finding his way through the maze of Pan African political unity, struggle & polemic. The Six Pac was so significant because it was the first Pan African meeting held in Africa itself! The famous 5th PAC was called together by WEB DuBois and met in Manchester, England, when it was impossible to meet on the continent of colonial Africa.
That conference was attended by Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Azikiwe, who were among the first leaders of post colonial Africa, in Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria.
The 6PAC made such an impact, not only because it was the first on the African continent, but because it tried to bring together representatives from the whole of the African Diaspora with representatives from each nation in Africa.
What made this conference of even more importance was that it was honored by the presence and addresses of two of the greatest of contemporary African leaders, Sekou Toure and Mwalimu Nyerere.
It was at that historic gathering that Pan Africanism, whose definition was tortured like the blind men describing the elephant, now was clearly defined by these two leaders simply as the world wide struggle of the African people against imperialism.
This pronouncement for some of us was crystal clear and politically and materially correct. But that was not the case throughout the delegations, many of whom represented somewhat conservative or even reactionary governments. It was in this context that I clearly remember the young Sekou Sundiata as a sympathetic ally as the internal struggles for clarity heated up with huffy words and mumbled denunciations of some of us who were pushing a left and socialist oriented approach to Pan Africanism.
So it was in that period of more intense struggle for the liberation of Africa and equal rights, self determination and democracy for Black people wherever they were in the world, that I came to appreciate the mind, heart and will of the still developing Sekou Sundiata, who was in his middle twenties at the time.
It was only later that I discovered Sekou was a poet. So it was the political consciousness of this poet that I first appreciated. But in those days that was not unique. I first met poets Larry Neal and Askia Toure in demonstrations against the murder of Patrice Lumumba, where our comradely relations were initiated before I knew they were great poets.
The fact that the little known Robert “Bobby” Feaster of East Harlem, who often uttered Spanish in his poetry, because he thought it was hip, not because he could actually speak the language, only came to be known internationally as a poet combining the names of two of the greatest African leaders, is also a paradigm of what time he came to “true self consciousness." Roland Snellings and Everett L. Jones are not as well known as poets as Askia Toure and Amiri Baraka.
So that Sekou was coming, like some of us before him, grounded in the political struggle of Black Americans and the Pan African struggle as well. Sekou, to me seemed to have gleaned and winnowed what he thought was most important from the Black Arts Movement (The Black Arts Repertory Theater School, BARTS had come to Harlem in 1965) and the Black Consciousness movement from which it was spawned and which re-ignited the Black world, so that that learning was one important factor of his teen-age Harlem life.
This period, beginning with his birth in 1948 (the year after India gained its independence and the year before the Chinese gained theirs) through little boydom, 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education. By the time he was 10, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. had already initiated and led the united Afro American community of Montgomery, Ala. to victory in the bus boycott, and in a minute Fidel Castro led his Barbudos into Havana. The next year Malcolm X would appear on television for the first time and the Greensboro sit-ins would generate SNCC and the national student movement. Kwame Nkrumah became the lst Premier of Ghana that same year, 1960.
These are not just historic facts, but part of the obvious Sekouization of young Bobby Feaster. This was his deep education, “A woman to my right worried a flag/the size of a handkerchief/ the kind you get at the fairgrounds/And Little Emmett Till came to me/ a face that long ago cured/ my schoolboy faith/ in that lyric/so that I could no longer sing/ with the voice of praise/As if it was my own/O beautiful for spacious skies” (51st State). The Till incident had happened when he was about 7 years old. The boy’s slaughter is generally felt to be the transcendental horror that triggered the Civil Rights Movement. Welcome to America, Son!
Sekou Toure said that we are shaped by what contains us as we shape what we contain. The poet Sekou Sundiata was shaped by that world, Blackly sensitive to it.
“What is Life?/Life is what we are thinking about all day” (51st State) He said of himself in an interview, re his Blessing The Boats “...we didn’t just grow whole, we come out of something and … there’s a rootedness there and at the center of that root is Black culture and tradition. …particularly Black music traditions, Black language, Black linguistic strategies, humor, what we think is hip and beautiful.”
All that at the root of his perception in and of this America. “I could even draw a map of the United States from memory”! A sensitive Afro American youth, given a pan American perspective by his birth in Spanish Harlem. “The Bodega Republic”, “…days & days goin by in broken English”, as a son of Black civil servants. Who would move all over Harlem in love with music and poetry & basketball. Whose role models were his mother and father, Virginia and William Feaster, and older brothers. But by the time he was fourteen Texas oil had assassinated John Kennedy and by the time he was 16, Malcolm X was murdered not far from where he lived. Like Chickens coming home to roost, these kinds of images would maraud throughout Sekou’s work.
Sekou always wanted to know where he was at. Literally, the most basic sense of place, geography…where his room” …our apartment stood in relation to other rooms and other apartments in other countries…to the mountains and the rivers and the great oceans. I could spend hours staring at maps.” (51st State) And you want know where you are, exactly, in the world, then of course you want to know where every thing every one else in the world is at. Like we say, where they be coming from!
This is also why Sekou’s poetry is so specific in it’s rendering of self and other selves. Where they be coming from. ‘Here’s to people who when you tell them wait in the car they don’t wait in the car.” The name Sekou itself is of the aggressive, those who push. Toure said, “Victory to Those Who Struggle”!
He took from that period of mass struggle what he could use, what was true and fundamental and rejected and criticized what was superfluous and jive. That is the very freshness of what you hear on The Blue Oneness of Dreams. What we heard earlier with his seminal Are & Be Ensemble. We hear a voice committed to the nitty of truth and the gritty of real life. And real life don’t fit no formulas or ready mades, even the ones we believe in.
This is Sekou’s Freshness, reflecting of what we was, whether it was real or not. “In the early days of the Aftermath/I was in hiding/from the lost army of protest/calling from the 20th century/for something boisterous and skinny on the page”. And Was is as continuous as Is. Is becomes Was instantly, instanter upon instant.
And with that freshness, an openness to new things, innovations, a qualitatively renewed extension of the valuable, the proven, but released from slavish imitation by the psychological summation of what was true and beautiful and useful from what was not. So what we hear is usually impeccably placed, images that represent ourselves at another time, at this time, You don’t belong to Malcolm or Bird anymore…Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem…..I don’t want to tell you, I don’t want to Tell you, Suppose I was dreaming, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem, Oh Harlem.”
But to be so metaphorically precise, so exquisitely wordish. That you cannot fear because words, those sounds, are visible and sensual, knocking relentlessly in your head. He said,” I feel like I’m always writing. I’m always collecting lines, images and titles. In many ways it’s a way of life; you”ve got to be open to what the moment to moment possibilities of any day are….In my mind it’s always like that, its always kind of churning.”
Sekou was the most artistically powerful and politically advanced voice to emerge in the wave of poets grown to maturity in the post 60’s milieu still reflecting the revolutionary thrust of Black Consciousness, Black Arts, Anti Imperialist commitment. But there is a ubiquitous tenderness and sensuality throughout the work. And no poet is funnier than Sekou “Once I married a woman behind her back…she knew enough French to get out of the working class”. Such humor is like Robin Hood’s arrows dead on target. The exact image of what it was and what it is. Check how he can sum up his own generation’s perception of the Black fury in which he grew “I never went to see John Coltrane because I thought you had to belong to something.”
But he would take Trane’s teachings and Malcolm’s and King’s and make totems to their truth in his own fashioning beauty. Listen to Sekou quote Malcolm and King on the fly, straight out of their mouths, reminding us and revealing to his own mass of roadies “You wouldn’t use that word if you (Revolution) if you knew what it meant….” I would like to live a long life, longevity has it’s place….” but in a few beats we hear the agonizing sound as the icons are blown away by actual America penetrating our dreams. “I even wrote a character named Mason Dixon into one of my stories. His job was stop you at the (Mason-Dixon) Line and search your car for weapons” By the time Sekou was 20 years old, both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King would be murdered. Take all that and give it back.
Sekou’s entire approach to literature was live and on records. So he created audioture. Are & Be, (1980) which announced for me that he was indeed at the head of the next wave of powerful witnesses. The hip waited eagerly for the wonderfully titled The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop which we saw and heard and knew what we first dug was true and that Sekou was stretching out now in earnest.
He was by now beginning to receive some wider acknowledgment of his work and several awards and grants, culminating in a professorship at the New School But it was his own production that was the most valuable aspect of Sekou’s life not the accretion of outside response. Unfortunately this production was marred near the end of his life by uncertain health, although his kidney disease and need for dialysis and a new kidney brought out the internationally acclaimed Blessing The Boats which premiered in Harlem, at the Aaron Davis Hall (’02) and examined his life under siege by the disease and served not only as inspiration but the very practical role of instructing people all over the world what kidney disease was and how it was to be fought, lived with and conquered. On the Blessing tour discussions were included.
Sekou was just taking off, that is the depth of my own sadness. When I first heard he had split I blurted out to an old friend on the phone, “it’s not fair…” and we both wept.
Because Sekou was always, as Richard Wright instructed us, at the top of his time. The 51st state turns his wandering across a Manhattan consciousness “I came to my feet at the Wall St station/and walked towards the door/like a reluctant witness to the witness stand” into 911 “I drowned in a flood of burning Jet fuel/ Down was looking like Up when I jumped with my brains on fire/ I ran from the falling towers and wandered for days..A priest kneels in the powdered ash/The holy ghost and the angel of death cross paths/Someone calls for the jaws of life: earth water fire air!” (51st State)
And in the next breath he is in New Orleans unhealed from Katrina’s blows
“A citizen walks into a Citizenship looking for directions as the drama opens in a New American/Theater with a view from the 9th Ward that looks out on Speed, an ancient word for a future that is Always Now, a millennium already old and half done.”
He is always open to the criss cross of sensibility altering impression, from perception to rationale to use in a few beats, “Who said who to who said who to who?”(51) or as he said in another moment ..”I’ma tell you like this” repeating it again and again with varying explanations of what life was and is and might be, constantly interjecting the whole world of his consciousness from the clichéd promos of vanished radio preachers “to all those in the sound of my voice”, but also to those outside the sound of my voice. What we heard in The Blue Oneness…with it’s stream of completely contradictory but exactly precise dedications, e.g., “to the swift and the cool and even to the fools”. Everybody is alive , so dig it. “My left. Your right/My left. Your right/My. Your. My. Your. My. Your. y” The endlessness of life’s variations. Of life’s life.
For me, I was constantly awed by Sekou’s incredible sensitivity and skills. To me he was a comrade in struggle, a co-cultural worker gigging hard at the task of raising the consciousness of the people, yes our people, but all people. In one of our conversations when Sekou came to Newark to read in the Poet Laureate’s series at the Newark Library and in Newark Schools, we agreed, that it was very dangerous living in a world full of ignorance.
So his stream of dedications to reach anybody, everybody, somebody, “prayer after prayer bears witness by listening for a call back /Peace and whatnot to the indigenous people of the Salvation Army/Amen to the sinners coming to the House of the Lord for the sweet hour of power/Inshallah to the believers handcuffed in front of the hallal store’”(51st State) Everywhere, anywhere, trying to register everything touch everything, Mao told us perception is the lowest form of knowledge, rationalization the next, that is what is it I am digging, the poet, like Sekou takes the perception and includes the rationalization, the what it is, within that same image, so that the highest stage of knowledge, use, is realized to the highest extent. No more becomes Know More. Like Billy the kid drawing and firing and hitting the bullseye without apparently aiming. So a child thought. Billy said, I’m always aiming. So was Sekou.
You telling me that now he is an ancestor. When he was just beginning but already become another icon within our own cultural treasure chest, his glorious addition. The Circle Unbroken… A Hard Bop.
But it is time, Maurine Kazi, Craig, Katea, Louis and Sekou’s whole circle of friends, relatives and artists,to gather what Louis Rivera characterizes in the title of own book, as Scattered Scripture, all of Sekou’s scattered scripture and reissue the audioture and now the literature. We need it. We must have it!
Bring On The Reparations!