Philadelphia Legacies Portrait Awards celebrates literary icons
Philadelphia, PA — Eight Philadelphia icons were recently honored for their outstanding contributions at the “8th Annual Philadelphia Legacies Portrait Awards.” The annual observance creates a deeper understanding of Philadelphia’s unique place in the history of the nation and promotes positive images of those who have made major contributions to the city. The icons are awarded commissioned portraits created by local Black artists.
The most compelling story out of the eight is that of the three literary icon/activists. Sonia Sanchez, world renowned, award-winning poet, Black studies professor and activist; Larry Robin, cultural activist and champion of literary arts and Lamont Steptoe, award-winning poet, publisher and cultural activist, have collaborated for over 40 years.
Born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama, Sonia Sanchez was gifted with a huge spirit and an anointed voice whose message resounds worldwide. Her relationship with her grandmother, who taught her to read at age four, was instrumental in shaping her destiny as a poet. Her grandmother’s passing had a great effect on Sonia emotionally and she developed a stutter. However, it was because of her stutter that she began to read more and paid close attention to language and its sounds.
As a child born in the 1930s, Sonia was affected by the way Black people were treated but didn’t have the verbal means to express her feelings. Poetry allowed her to do that. Although she earned a B.A. in political science at Hunter College, she focused on developing her poetic voice and pursued post-graduate studies in poetry at New York University. She married Albert Sanchez and began writing and performing as Sonia Sanchez. She soon became known for her dynamic readings. Her avant-garde style includes melding African American dialect, blues, jazz, haiku and African drums. Known to people in the culture as “Sister Sonia,” her poetic voice speaks of Black resistance, liberation, oppression and sister womanhood.
Like many young African Americans in the 1960s, Sonia became involved in the movement for Black power and liberation. As a member of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) in the early 1960s, she met Malcolm X. After hearing him speak, Sonia began focusing on her Black heritage and identity. In 1972, Sonia joined the Nation of Islam, during which time she published A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women. However, she left the organization in 1975 and became a supporter of the National Black United Front.
Sonia was a political activist and a prominent part of the Black Arts Movement, the artistic voice of the Black Nationalist Movement of the 1960s/70s, and emerged as one of its most influential voices. While at NYU, she organized The Broadside Quartet that included prominent movement poets Haki Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight, whom she later married. Her poetry and essays were published in various Black publications including Negro Digest, The Black Scholar, Journal of African Studies and The Liberator.
Sonia led the effort to establish Black Studies on the university level. She viewed Black Studies as a challenge to the institutional racism of American universities and society in general. She introduced Black Studies courses in 1966, while teaching at San Francisco State College (now University). The courses she taught are generally considered the first of its kind taught at a predominantly white university. The prolific professor moved to Philadelphia in 1977 to teach at Temple University where she was its first Presidential Fellow and held the Laura H. Carnell Chair in English until her retirement in 1999. She also became the first Poet Laureate of Philadelphia.
After moving to Philly, Sonia began collaborating with Larry Robin, owner of Robin’s Bookstore and Moonstone Arts Center. Larry was born with the love of the written word in his blood. His grandfather opened Robin’s Bookstore during the Great Depression, a family tradition that included his father and uncle. Young Larry immersed himself in literature, alternating between left-wing politics and science fiction. By age 16, he was an activist. When he finished high school he naturally joined the family business.
Larry’s job was to choose which books to sell in the paperback section. Always radical in his choice of books, he selected books by authors some would call “leftist.” Book censorship in the United States did not just begin a few years ago. Grove Press, a small local publisher began distributing avant garde literature and fighting American censorship laws. Grove published Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, followed by Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller in 1964. Philadelphia District Attorney James Crumlish, Jr. notified bookstores that he did not want that book sold in Philly. Larry convinced his elders to sell it and they informed the D.A. that, “If you don’t want this book sold, you will have to come and take it.” Robin’s was the only bookstore in Philadelphia that refused to remove the book. Crumlish filed an injunction to stop Robin’s from selling Tropic of Cancer. Meanwhile, the case was in the news every day for a week, helping Robin’s to sell 7,000 copies.
Larry inherited the bookstore and has been a champion of the written word for six decades. During the early 1960s, Robin’s became a center for the counterculture. They sold books that others did not and would not carry. You could find books by Black authors like Richard Wright, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, and Huey Newton. Robin’s carried everything from erotica to small political and literary magazines, the Black Panther newspaper to anti-war posters. They even got cases of Quotations from Chairman Mao directly from China which caused the FBI to arrive at their door. Robin’s was a refuge for the counterculture revolution and provided an outlet for diverse voices to be heard. It became a prominent gathering place in the community where people came to find books by Black writers, participate in poetry readings and intellectual discussions.
Larry and his wife Sandy began Moonstone Arts Center in 1981 on the second floor of the bookstore where literary events are held. He partnered with celebrated bibliophile Charles L. Blockson of Temple’s Blockson Afro-American Collection to produce the “Celebration of Black Writing” for 18 years. He also collaborated with Blockson to produce the Paul Robeson Festival for eight years. Sanchez and Steptoe were always featured in Robin’s Bookstore/ Moonstone events. Moonstone held the first El Festival Cubano in 2001 to create a sister city relationship between Philadelphia and Santiago de Cuba. Programs include The Ink Programs (Philadelphia Ink, Black Ink, Women’s Ink, Children’s Ink) and a series called “Hidden History,” which focuses on the work of social activists, like Frances Harper, Martin Delany, Ida B. Wells, and Charlotte Forten, and events that are significant in the quest for freedom in America. Their “Philly Loves Poetry” is broadcast on PhillyCAM, and the newest program, “New Voices: Philadelphia’s Emerging Poets,” features poets under the age of 25.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the middle child of four, Steptoe began his career in writing as a teen, writing for the high school newspaper and a column for the Pittsburgh Courier. He moved to Philly in the late 1960s to attend Temple University.
His life was forever changed on April 4, 1968 – the day Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
The next day Steptoe participated in a protest at Independence Hall. However, he was struck as he watched the parents of his white friends at Temple pack them up and drive them out of North Philadelphia to the safety of the suburbs. That left a profound impression on Steptoe who thought, “I have got to get out of this country.”
How does a poor, Black youth get out of the country in 1968? In spite of the fact that King had publicly opposed the Vietnam War, Steptoe went to a military recruiter and volunteered for Vietnam. He was filled with such rage that he didn’t care whether he returned from Vietnam dead or alive. “Part of me was hoping that I would be killed because then I would be out of this psychic pain of being an 18-year old Black man in America,” he recalled in an interview. “But when I got to Vietnam, I realized how much I wanted to live, how very badly I wanted to live. I did everything in my power to stay alive.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, Steptoe returned home with Post-traumatic stress disorder. The racism he experienced in Vietnam from white soldiers and the Vietnamese had a profound impact on his writing. After returning from the war, he continued at Temple, earning a B.A. degree in Radio, Television and Film. He worked for ABC News for a short time but soon realized that mainstream journalism was not for him. Steptoe soon became well-known as an arts activist and administrator at the Walt Whitman Art Center in Camden, New Jersey and Philadelphia’s Painted Bride Art Center.
Mentored by poets Etheridge Knight and Ishmael Reed, who he first heard of from Philadelphia writer/historian James Spady in 1972, he learned from iconic writers like Gwendolyn Books, Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka.
Steptoe earned the reputation of being an outspoken activist. In 1987 he went to Nicaragua with Sanchez at the height of the Iran-Contra scandal. While there they went into the war zone to observe the actions of the United States and the Contras, a right-wing rebel organization working undercover with the U.S. government to overthrow the Sandinista government. Every Thursday, Americans in Nicaragua demonstrated at the U.S. embassy voicing their opposition to U.S. involvement. When his turn came, Steptoe stated, “I’m a Vietnam veteran and a poet and I’m here in Nicaragua because I don’t want Nicaragua to be the next Vietnam.” The U.S. Department of Justice was outraged and issued a statement accusing Steptoe and others of aiding and abetting the enemy by travelling to Nicaragua. Steptoe understood that being a publisher would put him in a more powerful position and founded Whirlwind Press when he returned home. Look for his forthcoming book WOKE!
In 2016, Robin organized a celebration of Steptoe’s work entitled, “A Roomful of Truth: A Tribute to Lamont B. Steptoe” at the Brandywine Workshop. The program featured readings by over 30 contributors in appreciation and recognition of his invaluable contributions to the Philadelphia cultural community.
Now in their 70s and 80s, Sanchez and Steptoe have participated in numerous events at Robin’s and Moonstone over the decades. Robin continues presenting diverse voices. All three are still revolutionaries who continue creating, and are a part of the cultural history of the Delaware Valley that must be celebrated. If you didn’t know who they are, you do now!
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