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Sarah Webster Fabio, poet, educator, activist and literary critic

Herb Boyd | 8/10/2017, 11:05 a.m.
No matter which of the endeavors consumed her at the moment—poet, scholar, educator, musician, activist, literary critic, performer or mother—Sarah ...

No matter which of the endeavors consumed her at the moment—poet, scholar, educator, musician, activist, literary critic, performer or mother—Sarah Webster Fabio did it with uncommon flair and creativity. But there was more than one occasion when all these facets surfaced as one, when her poetic voice took a scholarly bent in the classroom or in a lecture hall, and even at a political rally.

Born Jan. 20, 1928, in Nashville, Tenn., Fabio was a precocious child, and shortly after graduating from high school at 15 she enrolled in Spelman College. During her two years at the college she majored in English and history. When she returned to Nashville, she continued her academic pursuit at Fisk University, graduating at 18 in 1946.

She never explained why she didn’t return to Atlanta, but it might have been her infatuation with a dental student at Meharry Medical College. That infatuation matured into love and she married Cyril Leslie Fabio right after her graduation.

Soon the couple were off to Florida where Cyril Fabio, now a dentist, served in the military. For all Sarah Fabio’s ambitions to complete her master’s degree, there was the challenge of caring for five children, all of whom were born between 1949 and 1956.

It was not until Cyril Fabio ended his military stint and the family settled in California was there enough stability to allow Sarah Fabio to complete her master’s degree at San Francisco State College, now a university. Almost immediately after obtaining her degree she began teaching at Merritt College in 1965. She was there when the Black Studies movement flowered on the California campuses, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale founded the Black Panther Party and when Maulana Karenga created his cultural institutions and the US Organization.

With an abundant amount of energy and as a talented poet and teacher, in 1966 Fabio was among a coterie of young writers, artists and activists who attended the First World Festival of Negro Art in Dakar, Senegal. Later, she became even more ensconced in the Black Arts movement, and her leadership skills were often demanded at many of the universities in California and beyond. So valuable were her academic accomplishments and activism that she was among those who established the first Black Studies department at the University of California at Berkeley.

Her literary career blossomed in 1968 with the publication of her first book of poetry, “Saga of a Black Man” and a series of articles that appeared in all the leading journals and magazines, including Black Scholar, Black World, and the Journal of Black Renaissance. Her first book of poetry was defined as a “historical pageant” by Darwin T. Turner, who taught with Fabio at the University of Iowa. This “historical pageant” Turner mused was “a form more frequently used in Black theater than in modern American theater as a whole. Always intended for a Black community audience, the pageant, created by such Blacks as Langston Hughes, W. E. B. Du Bois and LeRoi Jones, does not imitate the well-made-play structure of initial situation, rising action, climax and dénouement. Instead, mixing historical with fictional characters and incidents, the dramatist, by means of episodic vignettes, sweeps the audience from the historical past of Blacks to a climactic present.”