NCTE Verse: Sekou Sundiata

For the past month, National Council of Teachers of English has been sending its members a poet a day celebrating more than 20 poets, the majority of them contemporary and up-and-coming. The last one share for 2020 National Poetry Month was one that I wrote about the poet Sekou Sundiata. As a first year teacher in New York City twenty years ago, I saw Sekou Sundiata perform live at the New School University and still today, he influences my teaching and writing poetry with my students. For more information about past poets and teaching poetry check out NCTE.

Poet of the Day: Sekou Sundiata
Sekou Sundiata’s poetry touches on issues of race and identity. A poet and performance artist, Sundiata’s poetry performances infuse jazz, blues, and Afro-Caribbean rhythms. He wrote the plays Blessing the Boats, The Circle Unbroken is a Hard Bop, The Mystery of Love, Udu, and the 51st (dream) state. Sundiata was the first Writer-in-Residence at New School University where he taught literature and poetry classes. In 2001 he toured with Ani DiFranco, whose Righteous Babe record label released LongStoryShort. Sundiata was featured in Bill Moyer’s PBS series The Language of Life and the PBS series United States of Poetry, created and produced by Bob Holman. Sundiata said of his work, “This is poetry-as-living-word. That’s the tradition I come out of . . . the spoken word as a celebration of life, as expression of consciousness through the power and glory of language. Poetry not as monologue, but as dialogue; a chant, a call, a response, a riff, a refrain and whatnot.”
This poet belongs in our classrooms because . . .
Poetry is music and music is poetry. Sundiata’s poetry has a political edge and speaks of black culture and tradition. The topics he presents about race and identity are part of an ongoing conversation about America’s identity, citizenship, and individuality. Sekou Sundiata is considered one of the grandfathers of the spoken-word movement. Poetry in our classroom is not just for literary analysis, but for performance too. Poetry is meant to be spoken and heard. It evokes emotions, reactions, and is a catalyst for critical conversations in the classroom.
A Poem by Sekou Sundiata
Blink Your Eyes
I was on my way to see my woman
but the Law said I was on my way
thru a red light red light red light
and if you saw my woman
you could understand,
I was just being a man.
It wasn’t about no light
it was about my ride
and if you saw my ride
you could dig that too, you dig?
Sunroof stereo radio black leather
bucket seats sit low you know,
the body’s cool, but the tires are worn.
Ride when the hard time come, ride
when they’re gone, in other words
the light was green.
I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in
Up to the window comes the Law
with his hand on his gun
what’s up? what’s happening?
I said I guess
that’s when I really broke the law.
He said a routine, step out the car
a routine, assume the position.
Put your hands up in the air
you know the routine, like you just don’t care.
License and registration.
Deep was the night and the light
from the North Star on the car door, deja vu
we’ve been through this before,
why did you stop me?
Somebody had to stop you.
I watch the news, you always lose.
You’re unreliable, that’s undeniable.
This is serious, you could be dangerous.
I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in
New York City, they got laws
can’t no bruthas drive outdoors,
in certain neighborhoods, on particular streets
near and around certain types of people.
They got laws.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in.
Other Poems & Performance Pieces by Sekou Sundiata
New American Theater (Dodge Poetry Festival)
Teaching Connections
“Blink your Eyes” can be used for text comparison or text pairing with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas, or Nic Stone’s Dear Martin. Additionally, this poem can be part of a discussion about Jim Crow laws and racism throughout history. This poem was written in the mid 1990s addressing racial profiling and stereotypes, but provides context and connections to history and today. Looking at craft and structure, students can examine how Sundiata’s figurative language and repetition provide meaning and emphasis.
Discussion Prompts & Text-Dependent Questions
  1. What is the author’s message about racial injustice?
  2. How does the author use irony to describe his feelings for his readers?
  3. The poet uses details to guide our emotional response. What emotions do you believe the author intended the reader to experience and why?
  4. What is the significance and symbolism of “red light” emphasized throughout the poem?
  5. How does the personification of the law contribute to the poem?
As Jay-Z writes in Decoded, “Rhymes can make sense of the world in a way that regular speech can’t.” Listen to the poem multiple times; when we only deconstruct the poem on paper, it loses its full capability. Recognize how the music and rhyming adds an additional layer with the sound of language to make meaning. Check out Bryce Ware’s reading of Sundiata’s poem as well as Sundiata performing his poem.
All of Sundiata’s poetry can be used as a model and mentor text for students writing and performing their own poems about social injustice and oppression.
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