Essay

Mother of Black Studies

Sarah Webster Fabio was an influential scholar, poet, and performer. Why isn’t she better known?

Published in 2014, SOSCalling All Black People is a reader of the Black Arts Movement, the 1960s creative complement to the Black Power Movement. The anthology, edited by Sonia Sanchez, John H. Bracey Jr., and James Smethurst, features many recognizable names: Sanchez herself, Amiri Baraka (from whose work the book takes its title), Haki Madhubuti, Askia Touré, and Nikki Giovanni, but there are others who didn’t become go-to names for black revolutionary poetry. One is Sarah Webster Fabio.

Fabio was a poet, teacher, and scholar of black literature; the author of numerous collections of poetry; editor of several anthologies on black and women’s literature; and a performer: she recorded four albums of her poetry on Folkways Records in the 1970s. She is often credited with helping to build a West Coast presence for the Black Arts Movement and to establish black studies as an academic discipline. She has even been called the “mother of black studies.” She taught for three years in the late-1960s at Merritt College in Oakland, where the Black Panther Party formed; Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale were students at Merritt during her tenure.

Despite her key role in these creative and political movements, Fabio’s work has not enjoyed the same resilient popularity as that of her peers and mentors. Her books—Saga of a Black Man (1968), A Mirror: A Soul (1969), and the seven-volume, self-published masterwork Rainbow Signs (1973) among them—are out of print, available only through rare book sites at extraordinary prices, if at all. Fabio is referenced in a number of seminal anthologies and texts prior to SOS, including But Some of Us Are Brave (1981) and The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature (2001), but her poems are not included in these texts. By many accounts, her work as a scholar, champion of black poetry, performance poet, and recording artist is an important link between the black art trends of the 1970s and today, yet history has obscured the woman who deserves the credit for these innovations.

Fabio was born Sarah Webster in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1928, the third of six children. An exceptional student, she graduated from high school at age 15. She wrote poetry as a teenager and studied English literature in college, first at Spelman College in Atlanta and then at Fisk University in Nashville, graduating at 18. It was during her time at Fisk, she met the man who would become her husband and the shadow force of influence on her career, Cyril Fabio.

Sarah and Cyril had five children together, the first three in three consecutive years, starting when she was 19. Soon after their third child, Cheryl, was born in 1949, Cyril, a military dentist, was deployed to West Germany. After becoming a mother, Sarah took graduate courses as her schedule permitted both in Nashville and Florida, another site of her husband’s work, but with the family’s move to Germany, she had to further delay her plans to pursue sustained graduate work.

Despite her inability to receive formal training, Fabio continued writing poetry. When she and her family returned from Europe, her sister suggested that Fabio should either “Do something with [poetry] or have [her] head examined.” Her sister further impressed that urgency by taking her to see famed Harlem Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps. Fabio describes the moment in the 1976 documentary, Rainbow Black, which her daughter Cheryl made as her graduate thesis project while at Stanford: “I remember that day Arna said to me the magic words: ‘Yes—you are a poet.’”

Fabio used this vote of confidence to set fiercely into writing, regularly producing and publishing work: “take away the fire-lust, / take away the fire, / send down the cooling waters, / send down the cooling rain,” she wrote in “Rainbow Signs.” “Give us, again, the rainbow sign, / give us, again, the rain.”

In 1963, Cyril retired from the military, and the family settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. This stability meant that Sarah could finally return to her studies, securing a master’s in creative writing with an emphasis in poetry. Completing this degree allowed her to earn her position at Merritt College and likely fueled the creation of her first book, Saga of the Black Man, published when she was 40. That her son Cyril Jr. graduated from high school the same day Sarah graduated from San Francisco State seems less a coincidence than one way of summarizing a major plot line of her life.

The way Fabio’s family obligations seemed to halt the progression of her career again and again is frustrating to read (often between the lines). But as is true for any writer, her family informed her work and, in the case of her recorded albums, helped create it.

Though Fabio’s books fell out of print, her four spoken-word albums, recorded in the 1970s for Folkways Records, are readily available on iTunes and Spotify. These four albums—Boss Soul (1972), Soul Ain’t, Soul Is (1973), Jujus/Alchemy of the Blues (1976), and Together to the Tune of Coltrane’s “Equinox” (1977)—feature Fabio reading her poems over a rollicking ’70s funk band reminiscent of Isaac Hayes or Curtis Mayfield, the bass, congas, and guitar licks just begging to be the soundtrack of a black action flick. The band was called Don’t Fight the Feeling, and featured her three sons: Ronald on bass, Thomas on special effects and as “narrator,” and Cyril Jr. on congas. A former student, Leon Williams, played piano, saxophone and flute; her son-in-law Wayne Wallace played lead guitar.

[Listen to Jujus & Sarah Webster Fabio - Alchemy of the Blues.]

The issue with spoken word over music—whether funk, congas, upright bass, or smooth jazz—is that the relationship between poet and band can often be unclear and unrehearsed. A singer aligns with her melody, a rapper with her beat. But with spoken word, there’s no clear expectation about how to make it musical. That’s what’s different about Fabio’s albums, particularly Jujus and Boss Soul: they’re more than talking over music, arranged to be actual, listenable songs, works distinct from her books.

It’s no surprise, then, that Fabio envisioned herself beyond the limits of the printed word: as she says in Rainbow Black, “First, I was a poet who wrote linear poetry for the page, but later I became a performer.” She wasn’t the only poet of her day who recorded spoken-word albums—Baraka and Langston Hughes recorded poetry albums, and the Last Poets met great success with their forays into proto hip-hop—but she was one of the few whose albums are better known, and more accessible, than her books. For any non-mainstream artist, having one’s work available on a service such as Spotify introduces it to a whole new audience. But for Fabio, it’s doubly important because it’s one of the few ways to access her work.

Fabio continued to write and publish poetry even as she recorded her albums, but it’s clear that much of her work functions better set to music than on the page. Her themes and subject matter—love, family, black pride, self-appreciation—are common to any number of poets from then or now but often rendered in ways that fall flat: “Somehow, / I can’t get beyond / that wall, looming tall, / between us now,” she writes in “Looming tall, that wall,” from 1973’s My Own Thing.

Fabio’s ascent into the literary canon was certainly hindered by how long it took her to get started, but in addition to that, she died young. When she was 47, newly enrolled in a PhD program at the University of Wisconsin, she was diagnosed with colon cancer; she died four years later in 1979 at the age of 51. Within the seven-year span between the publication of Saga of a Black Man and her decline in health in 1975, she published 10 poetry collections and anthologies, recorded four albums, gave readings around California (and a few years earlier, in Dakar, Senegal), and taught at the university level, including at Oberlin College. Considering how much work she produced, one could easily miss that Fabio had such a short career—a late start and an early finish.

She is at her best in the 1971 essay “Tripping with Black Writing,” a poetically stylized tour through black literature from Jupiter Hammon to Zora Neale Hurston to her peers: Baraka, Sanchez, Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, calling them by name and quoting their work. The essay is a manifesto and a jubilation, a long medley of all the great work being done by the black poets of the day in spite of the oppressions of white America, literary and otherwise. She writes, “Black writers, finding themselves up a tree with ‘the man’s’ rhetoric and aesthetic, which hangs them up, lynching their black visions, cut it loose.”

“No turning back, though,” she continues. “Black writers—most of them poets plus—have always been barometers, even when America kept bell jars on them. Have always been / still are / will be.”

 

 

Originally Published: February 23rd, 2016

Kyla Marshell is a writer whose poems and other work have appeared in BlackbirdCalyxGawker, the Guardian, SPOOK magazine, Vinyl Poetry, and elsewhere. Her work earned her Cave Canem and Jacob K. Javits fellowships and an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College. A Spelman College graduate, she is the the former development/marketing...

  1. February 26, 2016
     Garrett Caples

    Thank you, Kyla Marshell, for writing this! Listening to Fabio on youtube
    right now.

  2. February 27, 2016
     Dominique

    This is amazing. Thank you for sharing. I'm
    encouraged by her tenacity at the end of
    her life to keep going!

  3. February 27, 2016
     Diana Harrell

    I so appreciate being able to listen to Sarah Webster Fabio's Work !! I had never
    heard of her until today I am proud and thankful to have had the opportunity to get
    to know her in the spirit would have loved to have known her in the flesh , her work
    and her life speaks for themselves She lives on ! Peace

  4. February 27, 2016
     Mary Lewis

    Sister Sarah kept the words flowing throughout space and time and we are privileged to experience her outflow! Thank you, Sarah. Peace.