A Conversation with Sandra Turner-Barnes, celebrated poet and Jazz artiste

Among African Americans across the US East Coast, Sandra Turner-Barnes is known as the ‘Cadillac Lady.’ The name harks back to the title of a song she wrote and performed early in her musical gigs, to the delight of her fans. Touted as a “poem-song,” it left them enthralled by her poetic lyrics and soulful jazz vocals – not to mention her witty humour. Her performance heralded the emergence of a gifted and potentially charismatic artiste with a passion for poetry and jazz, and a flair for fusing both into a unique art form later dubbed Jazz-Oetry.

Born in Lawnside, NJ, Sandra was educated in the City of Camden, New Jersey. In 1989 she graduated with a degree in business management from Pierce College, Philadelphia. She’s a proud descendant of former African American slaves, namely, Joshua Sadler who founded Saddlertown in Haddon Township, NJ in the early 1800’s, and the Arthur/Still family of Lawnside.

By the time she left college, her ability as a poet had already caught the attention of literary enthusiasts. It had been demonstrated by the launch of her debut poetry book Always a Lady, which she self-published in 1986. Ten years later it was still in print and selling.

In 1996 Sandra won the EBONY magazine National Literary Award for Short Fiction for her short story, Burnt Bacon. Two years later she published her second book of poems, That Sweet Philly Jazz, a tribute to jazz and jazz musicians, and followed it up with another poetry collection, Too Much Woman. She also published a children’s book, Chicken Bone Beach.

Her calibre as a poet was underscored when she won the 2000 Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Competition in Chicago. She was the featured poet and performer for the grand opening of “The Treasures of The Langston Hughes House” in Harlem, and also featured as one of the Divas of Poetry in the open mic Cafe Rocks Poetry Series along with celebrated poets Nickki Giovanni, Ntozake Shange, and Sonia Sanchez.

In 2002, together with her jazz ensemble ‘Mysterious Traveller’, Sandra released her first poetry and jazz CD September Will Never Be the Same to rave reviews. It’s available throughout the USA and the UK.  It’s a musical oeuvre by an artiste who has performed alongside many of America’s musical greats, including Grammy-nominated Jazz pianist, Geri Allen, international recording artist, Freddie Jackson and pianist Barry Sames to name a few. She and Sames were selected for national and international airing on BET’s syndicated show, “Jazz Discoveries.” She has also been the featured performer at several celebrity Jazz events and clubs. She was the opening act at the African American Women’s Summit, sponsored by the Coalition of 100 Black Women of Newark, DE, featuring internationally acclaimed author and motivational speaker, Iyanla Vanzant.

Sandra's CD, September Will Never be the Same

On Sept 11, 2001 a series of coordinated terrorist attacks on the United States destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Centre and sections of the Pentagon, resulting in the loss of over 3,000 lives and causing untold grief and igniting fear in the hearts of many. As a tribute to the lives lost on that day and since, and mindful of the role music can play in personal and collective healing, the Walt Whitman Arts Center in 2005 commissioned pianist Geri Allen to compose “For the Healing of the Nations”, a sacred jazz suite in two movements. Sandra co-wrote the suite with Geri Allen.

Over the years, Sandra has chalked up several more awards for her work. She was the recipient of the 1993 George Washington Carver Humanitarian Award; the City of Philadelphia’s 2005 “Movers & Shakers” Award; the 2006 Lawnside, New Jersey Heritage Award; the City of Camden/Walt Whitman Vanguard Writers’ Award, and the 2007 Diversity Award, presented by the Camden, New Jersey National Education Association.

In November 2010 she published her second children’s book, Beyond the Back of the Bus, a tribute to Rosa Parks which chronicles her legendary stand against racial segregation in 1955. Written in metered rhyme with captivating illustrations, the book introduces young readers to one of the most momentous occasions in African American history – the day Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, an action which caused some 40,000 commuters to avoid riding the bus for 382 days. It ultimately led to a successful mass boycott of the US transit system. The kids also get to learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the heroic struggle for the equal rights and justice in America waged by Martin Luther King Jr. and other celebrated activists. It was published by Third World Press.

Sandra’s latest book of poetry But, Mostly Love was released April 2011. It “honours the souls of Black folk” and all aspects of human life. Published by BTS Enterprises, it features the photography and artwork of some highly acclaimed artists depicting legends such as Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, and others.

Sandra is the executive director of the Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission. She also serves as an adjunct professor for Rutgers University Roberto Clemente Course, and is a member of the New Jersey State Black Cultural & Heritage Initiative, the New Jersey Heritage & Tourism Task Force, and the International Black Storytellers Group, Keepers of the Culture.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sandra, during which she spoke about her extraordinary life journey, explaining what sustained and strengthened her and kept her inspired  as she strove to achieve her dreams.

Growing up, was it your dream to become a writer and performer?

Sandra: Yes, growing up, it was my dream to write and perform; my older brother Gerald, who is also the author of his new autobiography, “The Turnaround” available on http://www.windsorpress.com and I, would take turns writing little “tit-for-tat” poems to each other and slide them under our bedroom doors.  We were only 6 and 7, but we took such delight in teasing each other with our newly learned words.  At age 13 my honors English teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth Myers, held a poetry competition for the school. I won with a poem about studying various foreign languages and she paraded me before the entire school assembly and announced that I would someday be a great poet.  Back during that time I was also a member of an all girls’ singing group in school. I loved to sing but never had any formal lessons; that’s still on my list of things to do.

How important is writing to you?

Sandra: Writing is the most important thing I do in life. Through my writing I give and receive love, and I’ve learned that I can help empower others with this gift from God.  I am first and foremost a poet: “Momma Poet, Daughter Poet, Sister Poet, Grandma Poet, Sistah Girl Poet” — I love being a poet, despite the fact that the greatest and most treasured award I have received to date is the Ebony Magazine Literary award for short fiction back in 1995. My poems
tell the stories of life.

In moving from your initial beginnings as a budding poet and Jazz artiste to the levels which you have since achieved, did it feel like you were swimming against the tide? If so, how did you cope?

Sandra: My transition from a budding or would-be poet and jazz performer, to the poet and artiste I am now, was so gradual, almost like it’s been happening all the time, sometimes without my knowledge or permission. For me though, it has always been a difficult task because I never had the opportunity to just stop and focus on my art. I always had to work a fulltime job to feed and care for my children, they always came first.  I wouldn’t be anything without my daughters and now, my four grandchildren; they make life real for me.  My writing has also always been a release for me.  Writing comforts and heals me, lifts me whenever I’m down.  My first self-published book of poetry, Always A Lady saved my life and my sanity.

I became a widow at 34 years of age with two very young daughters. Writing allowed me to stand and fend for myself and my daughters.  To this day, I remain a part-time poet and performer — there still isn’t anyone else to pay the bills, but now, I love my job too! Back then, I thought it was supposed to be difficult. I thought I was supposed to swim against the tide, just to survive, so that I could grow stronger. Now that I know better; now that I know that a little more help would have gone a long way in getting me where I needed to be, sooner, I just want to use all I have learned to help develop and prepare others. I feel that’s my role. I feel that’s why I had to learn the hard way so that I could teach others a better way; so that I could help the next poet, the next author, the next artiste.  The old gospel song, “If I can help somebody, then my living shall not be in vain” blesses me and keeps me humble. That song reminds me why I am so blessed.

I must mention “FOR THE HEALING OF THE NATIONS” the sacred Jazz suite dedicated to the victims and survivors of September 11 which I was honored to co-write with Grammy nominated Jazz pianist and composer, Miss Geri Allen in 2005. This concert featured over 40 musicians and vocalists, and included Nneena Freelon; Carmen Lundy, Andy Bey, Mary Stallings, and myself, and was performed in Camden, New Jersey and Atlanta, Georgia before sold-out crowds.  I wrote the lyrics for this suite and performed my original poetry. This was a truly great experience for me.

As a poet and musician, and the Executive Director of the Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission do you feel that you are fulfilling your destiny?   

Sandra: Being an artiste (a poet and performer) and then becoming the Executive Director of the Camden County Cultural & Heritage Commission 5 years ago, was fate, yes. It was my destiny.  I was not looking for this job, it came looking for me, but trust me, this wasn’t easy either. I am the first Black woman in the State of New Jersey to serve as Executive Director of a County Arts & Culture agency, and I feel that I do a good job.  My mission statement is: “Culture has a home in Camden County” and I am delighted to celebrate all the rich and diverse cultures of this County, including those not celebrated as well in the past.  I want to help enrich the lives of the people here through art, history and culture, through education in all the arts.

What moved you to write Beyond the Back of the Bus?

Sandra: I was actually commissioned to write a poem to commemorate Mrs. Rosa Parks’ birthday in February of 2006 by Dr. Diane Turner, professor of Black studies at Rowan University.  Once the poem was written and presented at a luncheon at Rowan, I realized that this was a teaching poem, and that Beyond the Back of the Bus could be more, could do more to help educate not only Black children, but educate children of all races about the Civil Rights movement.  So, I went about trying to find an artist to help bring about a book.  Believe it or not, several artists turned me down, but my dear friend, talented poet and painter, Bernard Collins, Jr. told me he would be delighted to work with me.  Once Bernard painted the cover and a few of the inside pages, I was really excited about the possibilities.

In October, 2006, I was honored to feature the great poet, author, and founder of Third World Press, Dr. Haki Madhubuti as the Commission’s featured artiste for Humanities Month.  I was taking Haki to lunch, and I just showed him what Bernard and I were attempting to do, simply to ask his advice, and he turned to me and said, “Sandy, I very much want to publish this!” I can’t express my joy at realizing that I was about to be published by the oldest and largest African American publisher in the world.  Just prior to publication, the book was endorsed by Dr. Mark K. Tyler, Senior Pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church of Philadelphia, the oldest Black church in America. It should be noted that Mrs. Rosa Parks was a deaconess in the AME Church.

As far as you can tell, how familiar are America’s Black youths with Rosa Parks and her achievements and do they care? 

Sandra: Through my presentation in schools throughout the South Jersey/Philly area, I’ve learned that most of our younger children, 8 and under, seem to know the name, Rosa Parks, and our older children are aware that Rosa Parks was involved, or is indeed considered the mother of the Civil Rights Movement.  But, I believe that all Americans, Black and White, old and young, should know more about this great She-ro in order to properly and forever honor Mrs. Rosa Parks for her role in American History.

Tell us about your latest book But, Mostly Love.

Sandra: But, Mostly Love is the title of a love poem to my late mother, Betty, who died of breast cancer in 2003.  I wrote this poem in the year 2000 at a 5-day Black Writers Conference in the New York Catskill Mountains where I, along with about 40 other writers from across the USA, were privileged to attend and to be mentored by writers such as Haki Madhubuti, Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Susan Taylor, Lerone Bennett and many, many others.  I foolishly skipped breakfast one morning and lunch was more 2 hours late.  My stomach was making all these ungodly noises, alarming the entire class, when Sonia cheerfully bounced into the room with a basket of dry crackers and challenged us all to “taste and write what first comes to mind!”  I was starving, so instead of thinking of tasteless saltines, I reminisced about my momma’s cooking when I was just a little girl…”At midday, a dry hunger stirred my senses, bringing back well-fed childhood memories; Mom’s hot buttered biscuits and homemade soups, flavored with herbs and spice and a wholesome goodness, but, mostly love…”

In 2009, BTS Enterprises and I discussed a poetry manuscript, and I gave them one I lovingly called, “Do Lord, Remember me.”  They loved the book, but determined that “But, Mostly Love” best fit this collection.  I was delighted, and we had a contract.

This beautiful book was released in May of 2011.  I was very honored to be called to Washington, DC on July 25, 2011 to do a lecture at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, to showcase “But, Mostly Love” as well as to be featured on the Literary Cable television show, “Sojourn With Words” hosted by my dear friend, fabulous DC area poet, Sistah Joy Alford.  I have been notified that I am to receive the 2011 Woman of Achievement Award on November 6, 2011, in the area of education, presented by the National Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity because of my efforts to educate through my writing.  “But, Mostly Love” can be acquired by contacting: BTSEnterprises@comcast.net or by calling: Amos Pace @856-449-1562

From your experience as a writer, would you encourage young African Americans with writing potential to aspire to a literary career?

Sandra: I’ve been blessed to serve as adjunct faculty professor at Rutgers University Roberto Clemente Humanities Course for several years, and, whenever I can, I volunteer to go into inner city schools and libraries to teach literary workshops to African American youth.  I very much wish to inspire our young folks to aspire to a literary career.  My God, they must!  There will always be a need for Black writers. We must write our own stories; our own History! Our children must tell what they see and feel and think and encourage the next generation of Black writers to do the same.  We’ve been exposed to far too many lies and half truths for the last 400 years.

Sandra with daughters, Richelle and Renelle

How have you been able to balance family life with your writing and musical career, your work as an art administrator, and your personal needs as a woman?

Sandra: Writing is a very important part of me; it helps me cope, survive.  I basically balanced my family life by putting my two daughters, Richelle and Renelle, first, especially after their father died.  I simply moved into their lives and held on for dear life, and wrote at night while they slept.  I wrote to them, because of them, for them.  My two daughters were actually very proud of my writing when they were young, and are still my biggest supporters right now.  When they became grown, I remarried, legendary Jazz musician, Bootsie Barnes, and my girls walked me down the aisle and gave me away.  Being married to the music incorporated Jazz into every fiber of my life, so becoming a vocalist just happened one day; I was as surprised as everyone else, especially when it worked.  I continued to work a day job, but made career choices that led me closer to art, closer to poetry and music, so I could continue to produce what I needed in my own life.  I continue to find love and joy in all aspects of my life, and to that I say, AMEN!

Listen to Sandra on Blog Talk Radio

4 responses to “A Conversation with Sandra Turner-Barnes, celebrated poet and Jazz artiste

  1. This is an absolute amazing story and journey!!! Sandra, I was re-introduced to you by an inspiring, ambitious, on-fire-for-the-Lord, young woman by the name of Tracey Fluellen who I met on a bus a couple days ago at Walter Rand Transportation Center in Camden, NJ. A few years ago, I made an attempt to attend an “open mic” performance at the Camden County Cultural Heritage Center which was cancelled unbeknownst to me. The next day, I reached out to find out what happened and we talk for a long time about the Center, your goals and successes as an artist, and your travels around the world. I was very impressed with your endeavors and very grateful for your encouragement toward me as a budding artist and poet. Now that we have been reacquainted, I would love to volunteer my services to work with you in some form of the “art” environment which I am passionate about. God Bless You!
    Sharon A. Gore (email:heavenboundsmile@gmail.com)

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