Sekou Sundiata, a poet who connected the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s with spoken-word artists of today, died July 18 from heart failure...
Sekou Sundiata, a poet who connected the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s with spoken-word artists of today, died July 18 from heart failure at a New York hospital, said April Silver, a family spokeswoman. He was 58.
In the 1960s, Mr. Sundiata was a boy living in Harlem, coming of age during a time when the movement’s giants — Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni — were transforming poetry. As an adult, he carried the work forward as they had, wrestling with identity, history, the lives of black people in America.
But poetry from Mr. Sundiata was more often backed by music, melded with theater, combined with dance. That approach resonated with a new generation of poets that would make poetry slams and open-mic performances a phenomenon, so much so that Greg Tate of the Village Voice once wrote of Mr. Sundiata: “He is to contemporary African-American poetry what Marvin Gaye was to modern soul. … If Homer were a black man born in the projects, he would be this tall, fearsome-looking poet.”
In Mr. Sundiata’s “the 51st (dream) state,” which The New York Times described as a “mosaic of poetry, music, dance and videotaped interviews,” the poet seeks to answer the question about what it means to be an American in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Mr. Sundiata traveled for two years, engaging in discussion about citizenship. The piece premiered in 2006.
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The work “Udu” examines the state of ancient and modern-day slavery in Africa, a largely untold and complex story.
“This piece attempts to break down the long-running seductive narrative about slavery being black and white,” Mr. Sundiata told a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2000.
The poet’s struggles with kidney failure provoked the creation of an acclaimed work, “blessing the boats,” which opened in 2002 in New York and toured nationally.
Untreated hypertension left Mr. Sundiata ill — “exiled from the self I had come to know,” he said.
For a year and a half, he was on dialysis and on a national list to receive a kidney from a donor, when five friends stepped forward to offer him their kidney.
That experience became a story of friendship, love, mortality, identity and “unearned grace,” he said.
“When these offers were made to me a darkness lifted, I could see a clearing,” Mr. Sundiata wrote in a 2004 issue of Update, the bimonthly magazine of the United Network for Organ Sharing. “This was the first inkling that there was something fresh and compelling in my personal story. There is nothing new in another story about grace. Yet it always renews.”
In 1999, Mr. Sundiata received a kidney from his manager and friend, Katea Stitt. Mr. Sundiata had recovered and returned to performing when he was involved in a car accident and broke his neck.
He then began working in earnest on “blessing the boats,” borrowing the title — and the metaphor — from a poem by Lucille Clifton, who also had had a kidney transplant. The one-man show blends theatrical monologue, literary reading, stand-up comedy, spoken-word performance and storytelling:
“How do you just wake up one day, and not be who you think you are? I’ll tell you how. The body is a lowdown dirty sneak. It remembers every physical or psychological insult it ever suffered, and each insult leaves a scar, and that scar is a map to the insult that just lays in the cut like a memorial. … Your body will break you down. It will make you beg.”
Mr. Sundiata was born Robert Franklin Feaster on Aug. 22, 1948.
As a student at the City College of New York, he helped found a newspaper for black students and protested for an “open admissions” policy that would accept all students.
He changed his name in the late 1960s and in 1979 earned a master’s degree in English from the City University of New York.
Mr. Sundiata was featured in Bill Moyers’ PBS series on poetry, “The Language of Life,” and in Russell Simmons’ “Def Poetry Jam” on HBO, according to his producer’s Web site.
Mr. Sundiata is survived by his wife, Maurine Knighton; a daughter, Myisha Gomez; stepdaughters, Dina Gomez and Aida Riddle; his mother, Virginia Feaster; two brothers, William Walter Feaster and Ronald Eugene Feaster; and a sister.