Sundiata talks about the blues, imagining a 'possible future'

For the Harlem-born poet Sekou Sundiata, a lifelong New Yorker who came of age amid the politics of the radical left, a South Carolina plantation was perhaps the last place he ever expected to find himself, he told an audience at Memorial Church on April 26.

But when Sundiata traveled there for a family reunion—a first—he found himself thinking about his enslaved ancestors and the fact that they were able somehow to imagine a different life. "What did it take for my ancestors, what did it take for those slaves, under the most oppressive conditions, to imagine themselves as free? It looked impossible," he said, speaking at the lecture series "What Matters to Me and Why."

Many of them did take the position that there was no way out, the poet said. "But how about those who said, 'There is a possible future'?" Sundiata asked. From such acts of imagination and creativity, the poet draws hope and understanding, he said.

Sundiata, who writes for print, performance, music and theater, was on campus for a weeklong residency and the premiere of his most recent work, the 51st (dream) state. Sundiata, who has been a fellow at the Sundance Institute and Columbia University and is a professor at Eugene Lang College in New York City, spent time researching and writing the 51st (dream) state while at Stanford last year, when he was an artist-in-residence during winter quarter.

The poet's participation in the lecture series, sponsored by the Office for Religious Life, is the first in collaboration with resident artists between the Office for Religious Life and Stanford Lively Arts, which was a co-commissioner of the 51st dream state.

Threading together a collage of personal experiences and reflections on their larger meanings, Sundiata's talk, like his recent work, linked together the blues, the civil rights movement, the black church, the legacy of slavery and contradictions in American democracy. His work blessing the boats, which he performed here last year, draws in particular on his experience of surviving life-threatening illness and an accident that broke his neck. Sundiata, who underwent a kidney transplant in 1999, became ill and was admitted to the emergency room in Brooklyn on Sept. 10, 2001, "just as the world was about to change profoundly."

The 51st (dream) state, which explores how America defines itself in a post-9/11 world, was born in the "thin place" that emerged in the aftermath of the destruction of New York City's World Trade Center. A "thin place," in the Celtic tradition, is at the border between heaven and earth, the sacred and the profane, Sundiata said. "Ground Zero is that kind of place and the aftermath brought me to that kind of place."

For a golden moment in New York, it seemed like everyone was asking the right questions about the purpose of society and of individual life and about commitment, he said. They were the same questions he had always asked, but they took on a new urgency, he said. "There was a feeling that life is perishable. Now is the time and it is not to be deferred."

In the days following the attacks, "I realized I felt hopeful, but imprisoned by it," Sundiata said. He was, he said, "a prisoner of hope," a term he borrowed from writer and philosopher Cornel West.

The idea of being imprisoned by hope is kind of like the blues, the poet said. "We all know how the story begins. We get born. And we know how it ends. We die. The blues looks at that without blinking and says, 'OK, there's a drama that happens in between. I'm not going to hide from it. I'm going to narrate it.'"

The poet also has been inspired by the work of Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University and the author of books including the recent The American Soul, which explores the founding principles of America. As provocative and compelling as he finds Needleman's ideas about American democracy, they also "get on his nerves," he said. Reconciling the ideals of democracy and the history and legacy of slavery "can be rough," Sundiata said.

"Stories emerge when they are ready," and at his family reunion in South Carolina, Sundiata's aunts were at the age where "they just start telling the truth, even if you don't always want to hear it," he said. His aunts told him a family story that no one had ever talked about with him: His great-grandfather had been lynched, for what Sundiata's aunts called "reckless eyeballing"—looking at a white woman.

The lynching party had done a poor job—after being left for dead his great-grandfather climbed down and escaped, Sundiata said. When his great-grandfather went back home, "the people in the community turned him back in."

"I understand why [the black community] did it," Sundiata said, following gasps from the Memorial Church audience. "It was either him or them. And that, to me, is the definition of terror."

Before he was lynched a second time, as Sundiata's aunts told the story, his great-grandfather said, "Hand me my comb, so I can comb my hair." It was a way of saying, "You have no victory over me," the poet said.

But the interesting thing is that there was no way his aunts could have known his great-grandfather's last words, Sundiata said. Their retelling transformed the story. "This is how they took the tragedy and mythologized it," he said.