Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia)


In “Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia),” Philadelphia poet and playwright Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) questions the paradoxical nature of a city that seemingly set itself and its people ablaze. Written in response to the 1985 police bombing of the radical group MOVE and the subsequent fire that occurred on the 6200 block of Osage Avenue, Philadelphia, the poem aims to critique not only the police response to MOVE, but also the biased coverage of the organization by the media, which Sanchez perceives to be partially to blame for the bombing.

Photograph of Sonia Sanchez
Sonia Sanchez, photographed here in Washington, D.C., on March 9, 2019, is an award-winning poet, playwright, activist, children’s author, and professor. Sanchez has written more than a dozen books of poetry and earned the title of Philadelphia’s first poet laureate in 2011. (Photograph by John Matthew Smith/www.celebrity-photos.com via Flickr)

Sanchez, an African American poet, playwright, children’s author, activist, and professor, was born on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. After moving to Harlem, New York, during the 1950s Sanchez became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization. Through this group, Sanchez met Malcolm X (1925-65), who influenced her curt but passionate poetic style. Sanchez also met other prominent civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-68) while he was on a book tour in 1957. Sanchez’s involvement with influential civil rights leaders and activists led her to become a foundational member of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. A majority of Sanchez’s work, especially 1969’s Homecoming and 1970’s We a BaddDDD People, displays a deep connection with Black heritage and community. She moved to Philadelphia in 1976, just nine years before the events of May 13, 1985.

Sanchez’s activism continued to influence her work into the 1980s. Although Sanchez wrote “Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia)” (sometimes titled “Elegy: For MOVE and Philadelphia”) in response to the 1985 tragedy, the poem was not published until 1987 as a part of Sanchez’s seventh poetry collection, Under a Soprano Sky (1987). Sanchez waited to release the poem in an effort to not appear accusatory.

“Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia)” is a free-verse poem written in eight numbered sections, with eleven stanzas of varying lengths. Sanchez adopts the form of an elegy in order to mourn the eleven deaths and extensive destruction that resulted from the bombing of Osage Avenue. The poem begins with a description of Philadelphia as a city with “southern” racial attitudes hiding behind its northeastern locale, then quickly moves to the fire, death, and destruction that resulted from the bombing. “Elegy” focuses particularly on the tragic impact that the bombing had on Black Philadelphia because of perceptions of MOVE as part of the Black Power movement. Additionally, Osage Avenue (referred to as “osage st” in the poem) is located in West Philadelphia, a section of the city that became heavily populated by African Americans during the 1950s.

As the poem continues, it assigns the reader two roles: bystander and reporter. As a bystander, the reader is urged to bear witness to the horrors of the fire firsthand; then, sardonically, the poem asks the reader in the role of the reporter to cover the story in a passive, underhanded way. “Elegy” ends in a sermonlike call to acknowledge the “beyond”—a reminder that a city is more than its tourist destinations and traditions; a city is also its people. The poem acts as both a lament and a memorial, encouraging the reader to remember the tragic aspects of the bombing, despite the more appealing aspects of Philadelphia’s cultural heritage.

Critics praised Under a Soprano Sky and “Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia)” for Sanchez’s commitment to a variety of poetic styles, such as haiku, sonku, and tanka, as well as her incorporation of blues and jazz culture into her writing. Recognizing that the content of “Elegy” made people uncomfortable at first, Sanchez did not read the poem publicly until three years after the bombing. She then chose to read the poem at a gathering in Philadelphia. Sanchez performed the poem again in a 1990 episode of the PBS series A Moveable Feast: Profiles of Contemporary Authors (1990-91). In the recorded reading, Sanchez emphasized the sermonlike quality of “Elegy” and the historical significance of poetry that emerges from tragedies like the MOVE bombing. Events like the MOVE bombing are “part of our [Philadelphia’s] history and it must be recorded in some fashion,” she said. “Not just the report, but also the poetry that records something that is terrible. … So therefore, we as people who live in Philadelphia must never let this happen again, you see. So, it [the poem] becomes part of history. It becomes a historical document also too.”

Later, in 2011, Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957) appointed Sanchez as Philadelphia’s first poet laureate in recognition of her ability to define the City of Brotherly Love in both its beauty and disgrace. In “Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia),” Sanchez memorialized the cultural and historical significance of the MOVE bombing so that it would not be forgotten.

Laurene Munyan is a high school English teacher in southern New Jersey. She is currently an M.A. candidate studying English at Rutgers University-Camden. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2019, Rutgers University


Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez, photographed here by John Matthew Smith in Washington D.C. on March 9, 2019, is an award-winning poet, playwright, activist, children’s author, and professor. Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama, where she was raised for several years by her paternal grandmother after her mother passed away.

Sanchez eventually moved to Harlem, New York. After earning her bachelor’s degree in political science from Hunter College, Sanchez continued her postgraduate education at New York University. It was during this time that she first began to pursue her interests in poetry and started attending writer’s workshops in Greenwich Village.
During her time in New York, Sanchez became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group. Through this organization, Sanchez was introduced to Malcolm X (1925-65), who influenced her poetry. The African American experience in America became the thematic focus of many of Sanchez’s works and she adopted African American Vernacular English in her poetic style.

Sanchez published her first book of poetry, Homecoming, in 1969 while living and teaching in San Francisco, California. From 1970 to 1982, Sanchez published four collections of poetry, six plays, and three children’s books; however, it was not until 1984’s Homegirls & Handgrenades that Sanchez gained more mainstream recognition. Homegirls & Handgrenades was critically praised and won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. In the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Sanchez went on to produce three more collections of poetry (including 1995’s Does your house have lions?) and one play, Black Cats Back and Uneasy Landings

Sanchez finally moved to Philadelphia in 1976. She began teaching at Temple University in 1977 and held the Laura Carnell Chair in English until her retirement in 1999. In May 1985, Sanchez was deeply affected by the MOVE bombing, which steered her to write “Elegy (for MOVE and Philadelphia).” Her personal connection to the city later led Mayor Michael Nutter (b. 1957) to nominate her as the first poet laureate of Philadelphia. Sanchez accepted the nomination at the age of 77 and held the position from 2012 to 2013. (Photograph by John Matthew Smith/www.celebrity-photos.com via Flickr)


In June 2017, over 150 people came to the unveiling of a state historical marker for the MOVE bombing, including students from the Jubilee School, musicians, and even poets, notably Sonia Sanchez. This photograph taken by Joe Pipette shows the June 2017 dedication ceremony for the marker on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia.

The MOVE bombing resulted from a series of conflicts between the Philadelphia Police Department, neighbors in West Philadelphia, and members of MOVE, a controversial organization often associated with the Black Power movement. The conflicts dated to 1978, when a shootout with police in Powelton Village left resulted in the death of an officer and life sentences for nine members of MOVE. In the years following, MOVE became increasingly vocal in its fight to have the MOVE nine released from what members considered to be unjust prison sentences. In a new West Philadelphia location at 6221 Osage Avenue, members frequently broadcast their message by bullhorn day and night. As the protests continued, neighbors became aware of suspected health and hygiene issues within the house; MOVE also identified as an animal rights group and kept numerous dogs, cats, and even wild rats. Some neighbors worried for the health and wellbeing of the children in the house, and rumors circulated that some children were not being sent to school.

As complaints mounted, District Attorney Edward Rendell (b. 1944) issued search warrants for 6221 Osage Avenue with the approval of Mayor Wilson Goode (b. 1938). Police were sent to execute the warrants on May 13, 1985, with the understanding that members of MOVE would be reluctant to respond. When the MOVE members in the house refused to come out, police were given permission to use firehoses and tear gas. However, these tactics did not work either, and a violent shootout ensued. Finally, police dropped C-4 explosives onto the house via helicopter, ultimately setting the MOVE house and sixty other homes in the neighborhood ablaze.

The controversial bombing of the MOVE house killed eleven people, including five children, and left 250 Philadelphians without homes. The decision to bomb the house became a major point of contention as officials pointed fingers at each other. In addition, majority of the homes that were lost in the fire remained abandoned and boarded up until a campaign for rehabilitation began in 2016. The bombing left behind a legacy that tainted Philadelphia as “the city that bombed itself.” (Photograph by Joe Pipette via Flickr)

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Related Reading

Arnold, Deborah. “Sonia Sanchez.” The Mezzo Cammin, accessed on October 27, 2019.

Burton, Jazmyn. “Philadelphia Names Sonia Sanchez First Poet Laureate.” Temple Now, January 23, 2012.

Kieran, David. “Remembering Lynching and Representing Contemporary Violence in Black Arts Poetry.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 41, no. 1 (2008): 34-45.

Sanchez, Sonia. Under a Soprano Sky. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1987.

Sanders, Kimberly, and Judson Jeffries. “Framing MOVE: A Press’ Complicity in the Murder of Women and Children in the City of (Un) Brotherly Love.” Journal of African American Studies 17, no. 4 (December 2013): 566–86.

Uminski, J. “Voices from the Gap: Sonia Sanchez.” University of Minnesota, 2009.

Vitale, Tom, and Sonia Sanchez. “Wear the Day Well.” A Moveable Feast: Profiles of Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5. New York: Atlas Video, 1990. Video.

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