Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
During her Monday evening poetry performance, poet Sunni Patterson’s hands moved carefully in front of her lips, as if she were able to weave her spoken words together into a tangible, visual poetry. Two large earrings swayed gently with her movement as she performed gracefully in front of the audience, often drawing close enough to rest her hand on a shoulder. She came bearing a message of peace through a dynamic poetic style. Yet her words were far from serene as she sang, rhythmically: “we have rejected nature’s voice for the sake of material gain.”
Patterson, a New Orleans-based poet and community builder, said she “draws her inspiration from stories of survival.” Many of Patteron’s poems detailed instances of violence and oppression, often relating actual stories of violence towards children.
Patterson’s presence on campus was brought about as a part of the Kathryn Morgan festival, one of many campus-wide events celebrating Black History Month. The festival commemorates the memory of Morgan, the first African-American female to receive tenure at Swarthmore College.
The event also included readings by Swarthmore students. “The faces always age, but the memories are young,” read Alaina Brown ’13, who also introduced Patterson.
Samantha Stevens ’15 performed a poem addressed to her future daughter that celebrated her African-American heritage. “You will know the summer and the winter of your culture,” Stevens read. The themes of remembrance, courage, and empowerment lingered as Patterson took the stage.
However, Patterson’s poetry also spoke to the sinister side of her roots.. “We know this place, for we have glanced more times than we’d like to share, into eyes that stare with nothing there behind them but an unfulfilled wish…” Patterson said. Derived from the idea of staring into the eyes of “a body whose soul has already departed while traveling on the Middle Passage,” Patterson unabashedly expressed her perspective on African-American culture and history, while simultaneously reaching out to every audience member.
“It was hard to tell where her conversation with audience ended and the poetry began,” Max Rennebohm ’13 said.
Rennebohm also said that Patterson was “pretty blunt about her subject matter, including her feelings against the military structure in the United States.” Much of Patterson’s rhetoric focused on the ongoing war in Afghanistan. In particular, she touched on the idea of the young men dying on the front lines “feeling as though death is their only option.”
In addition to Patterson’s work as a poet, she has conducted workshops designed to bring people of all ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds together, and allow them to “see themselves in the eyes” of those different from them. She described the difficulty associated with “conversing with the self” to find serenity, while simultaneously blocking out forces that prevent communal bonding.
Patterson’s message of peace shone brightly throughout this celebratory event. Before departing, Patterson called upon the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr: “Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.”
“It takes a long time, a lot of effort,” Patterson said. “It’s not overnight work — you’re not going to wake up Ghandi.”
Photo courtesy of Swarthmore College