Sanchez, Sonia 1934–
Sonia Sanchez 1934-
(Born Wilsonia Benita Driver) American playwright, poet, songwriter, and children's book author.
For additional information on Sanchez's career, see Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1.
Sanchez is recognized as a chief proponent of racial and feminist concerns in the arts. In addition to her accomplishments as a poet and playwright, Sanchez has played an important role in the black studies movement. From the beginning of her literary career during the cultural revolution of the 1960s to her later successes as an author and educator, Sanchez has worked to inspire and empower those seeking an identity outside of the European American mainstream. Her experimentation with the traditional structure and aesthetic of poetry and theater has contributed to the changing landscape of American literature.
Sanchez was born in 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama. When she was one year old, her mother died, and she was sent to live with her grandmother, with whom she resided until her grandmother's death five years later. Sanchez lived with various other relatives before moving to Harlem, New York, in 1943, joining her father, Wilson L. Driver, and his third wife. Driver, a musician, took Sanchez to hear such prominent jazz artists as Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, and Art Tatum. Sanchez began writing poems as an adolescent, which helped her to overcome a prominent stutter. After graduating with a B.A. in political science from Hunter College in 1955, she began graduate work at New York University, studying writing under poet Louise Bogan. Around this time Sanchez heard Malcolm X speak, and her interest in racial politics increased dramatically. She formed a writers' workshop in Greenwich Village with a group of other poets from the Black Arts Movement, most notably Amiri Baraka and Askia Muhammad Touré. By the early 1960s Sanchez had founded the "Broadside Quartet" with her husband, Etheridge Knight (whom she later divorced), Haki R. Madhubuti, and Nikki Giovanni. She taught at San Francisco State College from 1967 to 1969, where she played an integral role in developing several of the nation's first courses in black studies. In 1969 her first volume of poetry, Home Coming, was published. The following year she became an assistant professor at Rutgers University and began to sever ties with the "Broadside Quartet."
In the early 1970s Sanchez moved back to New York City, where she held a variety of teaching positions and produced several original plays, including Dirty Hearts (1971). From 1972 to 1976 she belonged to Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, which she eventually left because she felt that women were relegated to a subordinate role in the organization. Throughout the 1970s she continued to publish a variety of work, including her first book of poetry for children, It's a New Day (1971). She received a PEN Writing Award in 1972 and the National Education Association Award in 1977. Critical recognition of her work grew in the 1980s with the publication of her poetry collection homegirls & handgrenades (1984), which won an American Book Award. She was granted a PEN fellowship in the arts in 1993 and her volume of poetry Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition to serving as a contributing editor of Black Scholar and the Journal of African Studies, Sanchez held the Laura Carnell Chair in English at Temple University, where she taught for twenty-two years. She received the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching upon her retirement from Temple in 1999.
The poems in Home Coming are a celebration of the urban lifestyle that Sanchez had left for a time during her early years as a teacher. Writing in free verse and utilizing frequent line breaks, Sanchez replicated the unique rhythm and mannerisms of the urban black dialect throughout the volume. She continued writing in an avant-garde style in her next collection of poetry, We a BaddDDD People (1970), with political overtones that are much stronger and more confrontational. Sanchez surprised many of her readers with her next volume, Love Poems (1973). In contrast to the jazz-inspired rhythms of her earlier work, Love Poems consists mainly of haiku and lyrical verse. Many of the poems in this introspective collection were composed during a trip to China and involve intimate subject matter and natural landscapes. Written while she was affiliated with the Nation of Islam, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) is a prose-poem dealing with the struggle between African American ancestry and the dominant history of Western society. In this work, Sanchez examined rituals of the past and the values of modern culture, offering her readers a vision of a hopeful, integrated future.
Sanchez's next volume, I've Been a Woman (1978), details the personal, spiritual, and political journey of one woman as she strives to establish her own identity. Sanchez inserted herself as a character in homegirls & handgrenades, an autobiographical collection in which she incorporated dialogue and narration to create poetic sketches bringing to life individuals from her past. Under a Soprano Sky (1987) continues to develop themes of racial identity and self-empowerment while addressing such topics as loss and aging. In this collection, Sanchez's thoughts on the death of her brother from AIDS and modern young people's lack of awareness of their heritage are expressed in an elegiac tone. For Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995) Sanchez created a type of poetry called sonku, which consists of five lines with five syllables each. The symbolism in this volume is more ambiguous than that in much of her other writing, but the central theme of mistreatment of African American women by men is one of Sanchez's long-standing concerns. The poems of Does Your House Have Lions? feature elements of Greek tragedy and African storytelling, recounting the life of Sanchez's brother and the effect of his illness and untimely death on her family. The love poems in Like the Singing Coming off the Drums (1998) are highly erotic, overtly musical, and based upon Japanese verse structures. The volume also contains poetic tributes to such public figures as rapper Tupac Shakur, jazz vocalist Ella Fitzgerald, and academic Cornel West. Shake Loose My Skin (1999) is a selection of Sanchez's verse spanning over thirty years and includes four new pieces.
Although Sanchez is known primarily for her poetry, she has also written a number of plays and children's stories. Her first play, The Bronx Is Next (1968), exposes the oppression of African American women within the Black Arts Movement. Another drama, Sister Son/ji (1969), contains a series of highly stylized dream sequences in which a woman remembers her life as a black revolutionary. The play Malcolm/Man Don't Live Here No Mo' (1972), which details major events in the life of Malcolm X in verse form, was written for children. Sanchez's The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead (1973) began as a story that the author told her children, and highlights Sanchez's efforts to educate young people about tolerance, compassion, and self-confidence.
Critics have commended Sanchez's versatility and unreservedness as a poet. The evolution of her style from brash, avant-garde verse to poetry characterized by nuanced intimacy and formality is applauded by reviewers, as is the celebration of cultural differences in her art. Though she has adopted many styles of writing throughout her career, critics recognize her steadfast attitude toward her political convictions and social activism. Furthermore, her emphasis on ancestral African ritual and tradition has been viewed as an important educational tool as well as an innovative literary device. Acknowledged as unique and distinctive, her work has been compared favorably to that of such notable figures as T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman. Sanchez's plays have been recognized for their depiction of powerful females within a repressive social environment. Some of Sanchez's writing has been criticized for sacrificing artistic subtlety in favor of political rhetoric, but her profound influence on a generation of readers and students is equally noted. A renowned poet, playwright, professor, and activist, Sanchez has been a powerful and persistent voice in African American and women's literature for the past four decades.
The Bronx Is Next (play) 1968; published in journal Drama Review
Home Coming: Poems (poetry) 1969
Sister Son/ji (play) 1969; published in book New Plays from the Black Theatre: An Anthology
We a BaddDDD People (poetry) 1970
Dirty Hearts (play) 1971; published in journal Scripts
It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs (juvenilia) 1971
Malcolm/Man Don't Live Here No Mo' (play) 1972; published in journal Black Theatre
The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead (juvenilia) 1973
Love Poems (poetry) 1973
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (poetry) 1974
Uh Huh, But How Do It Free Us? (play) 1974
I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1978
A Sound Investment: Short Stories for Young Readers (juvenilia) 1980
homegirls & handgrenades (poetry) 1984
Under a Soprano Sky (poetry) 1987
Wounded in the House of a Friend (poetry) 1995
Does Your House Have Lions? (poetry) 1997
Like the Singing Coming off the Drums: Love Poems (poetry) 1998
Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1999
Full Moon of Sonia (songs) 2004
Regina B. Jennings (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: Jennings, Regina B. "The Blue/Black Poetics of Sonia Sanchez." In Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, pp. 119-32. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.
[In the essay that follows, Jennings focuses on the Afrocentric perspective of Sanchez's poetry, emphasizing the poet's use of the form and structure of the blues.]
As a poet, Sonia Sanchez has evolved since her first book Homecoming published in 1969 during the heart of the Black Power Movement. Back then her poetics included a strident tropology that displayed a matriarchal protection of black people. Today, after publishing twelve books of poetry, including the acclaimed Homegirls and Handgrenades and Under a Soprano Sky, one can still discover poetic conventions developed during the Black Arts Movement. The purpose of this artistic movement involved challenging the Eurocentric hegemony in art by developing a new aesthetic that represented the ethos, pathos, and expression of African Americans. These neo-renaissance artists were inspired by the rhetorical eloquence and activism of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. From this era of intense political activism, artists such as Sonia Sanchez wrote poems illustrating a resistance to inequality best described in "Black Art" by Imamu Amiri Baraka (1969).
It is obvious that revolutionary fervor characterized some of Sanchez's work, but it is essential for understanding her poetics, as well as the neo-aesthetic of the sixties, to recognize that anarchy was not the goal. These poets considered themselves to be word soldiers for black people, defending their right to have equality, honor, and glory. In each of Sanchez's volumes of poetry, for example, one finds the artist handling themes that include love, harmony, race unification, myth, and history. Her poetic personas are diverse, incorporating themes from China, to Nicaragua, to Africa. Yet, there is a pattern in her figurative language that blends an African connection. In this article, I shall examine the Afrocentric tropes that embody Sanchez's poetics. To use Afrocentricity in this regard is to examine aspects of traditional African culture not limited by geography in Sanchez's work. A body of theory that argues such an African commonality is in Kariamu Welsh's The Concept of Nzuri: Towards Defining an Afrocentric Aesthetic. Using her model will enable this kind of topological investigation.
Houston Baker, Jr. presents a different aesthetic in Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature. This book is a point of departure from Africa, concentrating solely on discussions of African American art from a black American perspective. On the back cover of Under a Soprano Sky, Baker maintains that blue/black motif appears in selected works by Sanchez. Baker's definition of the blues constitutes a transitory motion found precisely in this motif. The blues manifests itself in Sanchez's prosody in varying degrees and in differing forms. It determines shape and category, directs the vernacular, and informs the work. To demonstrate this specific vitality in Sanchez's poetry, Baker's construct of a blues matrix is an apt qualifier.
One can identify the blues as matrix and Afrocentric tropology in Sanchez's literary vision when one understands the significance of her axiology. Her ethics informs not only her creativity but her essays and articles as well. Her focus is to inscribe the humanity of blacks to challenge the Eurocentric perspective of black inferiority. Her particular axiology emerged during the greatest period of social unrest between whites and blacks. In the sixties, African American artists deliberately fused politics and art to direct social change. That Sanchez's axiology influenced her ethics has to be con- sidered in order to understand why her poetry inverts the tropology of "white" and "black." The artists of the Black Arts Movement were at war with America. Their tone and perspective encouraged black people to rethink their collective position and to seize control to direct their destiny. Consider this Sanchez poem entitled "Memorial" :
i didn't know bobby
hutton in fact it is
too hard to re
cord all the dying
in this country.
but this i do know
part of a long/term/plan
he was denmark
garvey. all the
of our now/time
check it out. for
bobby wd be living today.
check it out & don't let
it happen again.
we got enough
blk/martyrs for all the
yrs to come
that is, if they
after all the shit/
yrs of these
white/yrs goes down
The ethics in "Memorial" involve the dichotomy between "white" and "blk" (black). By positioning Bobby Hutton historically in the pantheon of heroic black men who died fighting against racial oppression, Sanchez elevates him. In death, she has magnified the significance of how he lived. The conditionality of being black in this poem denotes heroism against tyranny. In fact, D. H. Melhem (1990) argues that heroism exists in Sanchez's poetry. In the ideology of black people, Panthers are resistance leaders (Foner, 1970; Brisbane, 1974). Thus, by capturing the humanity of heroes in the first five stanzas, the persona suggests to the reader that he or she too can incorporate Hutton's heroics.
The term "white" adjectivally expresses the racism in America responsible for all the "years" of heroic deaths. White is now an inverted symbol, the antithesis of its traditional meaning of purity and goodness. Imamu Amiri Baraka, one of the definers of the black aesthetic, along with Larry Neal, "modernized the black poem by fusing it with modernist and postmodernist forms and ideas (Harris, 1985:136)." William Harris writes that poets such as Sanchez learned from Baraka to invert poetic techniques. "Even the most cursory reading of contemporary black poetry reveals the extent to which it was influenced by projective form and avant-garde" (Harris, 136). However, Sanchez herself states that her inversion of symbols derived directly from the Muslims and Malcolm X (Braxton, 1990:357). The meaning of avant-garde has to broadened to include the philosophy of Malcolm X. To adopt a projective form was crucial to the sixties poet who stood before audiences during this politically tense era. Poets such as Sanchez were in the forefront of reshaping the ideology and activism of black people. Elements of the avant-garde challenged the status quo in society and in art. Welsh writes: "the idea of art for the sake of art has firm roots in European culture. Africans, for the most part, do not believe in the concept of art for art's sake (Richards, 1985). The life force is the motivating factor in the expression and the product of art (Barrett, 1979:5)."
In "Memorial," the lines "check it out & don't let it happen again" speak directly to the reader, suggesting three modes of action. First, it encourages the reader or listener to review the situation inherent in the poem. Second, it expresses the need for a defensive and offensive posture against oppression. Third, it speaks of black control. This utterance of action points to the passivity of the audience. In this matriarchal persona, using accusatory language and tone in such lines as "part of a long/term/plan," Sanchez infuses the fracture that has historically wounded African American advancement. Likewise, the concept of black annihilation is in the denotation of the final terms "goes down."
Annihilation is a seminal notion in the collective black psyche based upon African enslavement (Kardiner, 1967; Kovel, 1984; Cress-Welsing, 1991). Therefore, Sanchez's linguistic war with America comes out of the ethos of black people. Conversely, another seminal theme throughout her body of work is one of racial solidarity. Using this theme, her persona as matriarchal protector assumes mythic dimensions. The following untitled poem from We a BaddDDD People is an example:
i am a blk/wooOOOOMAN
will spread itself over
this western hemisphere and
for i will be called
Here one can see that the ontology of "blk" has mythological and historical advantages. Male and female dei- ties enrich the mythology of traditional Africa. As "queen," the black woman is an avatar, possessing extraordinary powers, stretching her "face" across the continents (Thompson, 1984:79-83). To be black in this archetypal voice is to be potent, omnipotent, and good. In "Memorial" and in the above black woman poem, a feature of deictics, (verb tenses, adverbials, pronouns, demonstratives) (Culler, 1975:165) is similar, in particular, the concept of time. Both poems converge the timeless present with the future. However, in this black woman poem, the power of myth determines a success that will occur in the future. This sense of continuity depicts power, harmony, and victory. Welsh writes: "It is the consciousness of victory that produces in cyclical fashion an aesthetic will. The consciousness of victory will involve redefinition and reconstruction and a fundamental understanding of the creative processes, historical factors, and cultural legacies of Africa" (8-9).
In the above poem, the aesthetic will is victorious because of the "redefinition" of black that has broadened into a nationalistic "consciousness." This nationalism that challenges Eurocentricism in art and society is an utterance that welcomes its own distinctiveness. It has a concern for all black people distinguished in the gradations of hue. Pragmatics this deliberate demonstrate how deeply Sanchez's poetics emerge from the concept of race solidarity. Unlike black poets of previous decades such as Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, Sanchez finds victory in being black. The ontology of black in the poetry of Cullen and McKay, on the other hand, involves one or all of the following declensions: inferiority, shame, denial, and escape (Bell, 1989; Davis, 1974; Cooper, 1973). Form is another difference in Sanchez's poetry. She does not write poems in traditional taxonomy, imitating and revising established meter, versification, and rhyme. Her poetic patterns are avant-garde.
The theme and genre of the black woman verse show a definite African connection. This is a praise poem popular in Africa since 2000 b.c. (Lomax, 1970:xx). By writing the above poem, Sanchez gives honor to the power of the female principle which will not only be "remembered" but be "sunnnnnnnNNNGG." Song and its traditional significance in African culture has already been established (Bebey, 1975; Chernoff, 1979). From the mundane to the extraordinary, it is interwoven within traditional African culture. When a child cuts its first teeth, the people sing. When a king is coronated, the people sing. Larry Neal writes: "Most contemporary black writing of the last few years has been aimed at consolidating the African American personality. And it has not been essentially a literature of protest. It has, instead, turned its attention inward to the internal problems of the group" (Black Fire, 647).
Pigmentation problems have plagued African Americans since their sojourn in this country. Sanchez suggests this problem by lyrically presenting the solution. Her presentation demonstrates the realism inherent in an Afrocentric aesthetic because it must be "representational of the ethos of black people" (Welsh, 1990:3). Sanchez continues:
and the world
colors. and be
To be reborn black again is a prelude to collective self-reliance. The final two lines suggest that blacks were in power prior to whites; therefore, seeking control is in concert with past behavior. Her historical reference probably points toward the ancient Egyptians or Kemitans (Asante, 1990). This reach back to Africa for a common past is a commonality argued in The Concept of Nzuri: "Numerous writers have expounded on the historical and cultural bond between continental and diasporan Africans. It is not based solely on color, but the bond exists because of a common African heritage that dates back to predynastic Egypt" (3).
Sonia Sanchez's poetic voice is visionary and archetypal. She wrote the above black woman poem twenty-one years before scholars in a focused manner textualized the notion of a common African aesthetic. Another facet of this theoretical aesthetic is found in the staggered formation of letters in particular words. This formation is an element of the avant-garde, introduced during the 1960s. For example, consider the spelling of the sign "change." Its orthographic repetition signals a specificity in quality and energy of expression (Richards, 1989:11-12). Dona Richards defines this energy as ntu, a manifestation of the energy informing our ontology. By transforming the orthography of "change," Sanchez causes her listeners and readers to enter a textured relationship with the sign's denotation, connotation, and sound. To hear or read a word formulated this way gives an unsettling tension. This orthography for the effect of sound is a poetic praxis that demonstrates the Black Arts Movement's theory of audience involvement, which can be traced back to traditional Africa. David Miller writes that some of Sanchez's poetry is "in essence, communal chant performances in which [she] as poet, provides the necessary language for the performance. The perceptions in such poems are deliberately generalized, filtered through the shared consciousness of the urban black" (Evans, 1984:16). It is here where Sanchez's style sharply contrasts the performances of other sixties poets. Houston Baker would compare this technique to that of the blues or jazz singer making and improvising the moment simultaneously. To compare Sanchez to a more traditional poet is like comparing how singers Patti LaBelle and Paul Simon hit high notes. Thus, Sanchez's "quality of expression" as defined by Welsh, produces an energy that electrifies audiences, involving them in the experience of the performance.
An Afrocentric artist does not view society impartially because "society gives visions and perspectives to the artist" (2). This interrelationship between poet and audience can also be examined in this next poetic praxis. Sanchez prefaces her poetry in a manner that warms the audience. Before she recites, she generally talks informally to her public. By the time she actually reads a poem, they have come to know her as friend, mother, sister, or guide. The following selections demonstrate how Sanchez speaks directly to and with her audience, requesting guidance, direction, companionship, and leadership. The first short excerpt is from a poem entitled "blk rhetoric" and the second is from "let us begin the real work" :
who's gonna make all
that beautiful blk/rhetoric
mean something …
* * *
with our blk/visions
let us begin
the begin/en work now.
remember us & looooooove.
"Blk rhetoric" begs for an answer. The reader can be silent or the listener can shout the answer. It doesn't matter; the question encourages a response. Here the poet is asking for direction and guidance. She is asking either to join or to be joined in the task of building a better future for black people. In "let us begin the real work," the deictics (pronoun usage) illustrate further the nonseparation between poet and audience. The pronoun "I" is absent. Jonathan Culler writes that the artist constructs a "model of human personality and human behavior in order to construct referents for the pronouns" (1975:165). Sanchez's "human behavior" is represented in the possessive case pronouns throughout the work. They bind the artist not only to her creation, but also to her audience. She takes responsibility for the behavior she calls forth in the poem. The use of "our" in particular shows the respect and interrelatedness the artist has for the audience, and by extension, society. She is "with" them, representing their ethos and pathos in poetry and performance. Terminology such as "our" visions and "our children" creates a commonality of purpose and strongly indicates her position as one of the people. The pragmatics suggest that she is not a leader but an utterer and clarifier of what is already known. To paraphrase Malcolm X in a 1972 film about his life, Sanchez is only telling the people what they already know.
Similarly, the blues is a creative form indigenously American that has always been known. In selected poems from Sanchez's collection, one finds, as Houston Baker points out, a blue/black motif.
we are sudden stars
you and i exploding in
our blue black skins
To the redefinition of "black" as aesthetically and mythically good, Sanchez adds the color blue. This blue motif changes meaning in different poems, but it consistently demonstrates itself as a literary engagement issuing specific denotations to expression. Houston Baker defines the blues as matrix. It is an impetus for the search for an American form of critical inquiry. The blues is, of course, best known as a musical art form removed from linguistics and semantics. Naturally when one thinks of the blues perhaps one conjures up a grits and gravy black man fingering his guitar or a whiskey brown woman moaning about her man leaving town. Baker extends these cultural metaphors. In Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature, his theoretical blues matrix informs African American literature, giving it inventive play in symbol and myth. Its expression gives the literature an emotive of music. The blues emerges out of black vernacular expression and history. It is the motion of the enslaved American Africans bringing coherence to experience.
In the above poem entitled "Haiku," Sanchez gives us the energy of the blues "exploding" inside a distinctive American couple. Being both black and blue is an American duality that symbolizes the tragic institution of European slavery and the vital energizer that reformed the tragedy. It is significant that in Sanchez's collection of poetry, she frequently writes symbolically in sharp and brilliant haiku that form a "locus of a moment of revelation" (Culler, 175). "Haiku" reveals the heights of cosmological love, one boundless as the universe, with energies constantly in transformation and motion. Baker writes:
To suggest a trope for the blues as a forceful matrix in cultural understanding is to summon an image of the black blues singer at the railway junction lustily transforming experiences of durative (increasingly oppressive) landscape into the energies of rhythmic song. The railway juncture is marked by transience.
Only a radically altered discursive prospect—one that dramatically dissociates itself from the "real"—can provide access to the blues artistry.
To adjectivally describe "stars" as "sudden" marks this transience. Considering that the blues is always in motion contextualizes the differing modes of exploration that Sanchez creates when this motif appears. Using "blue" to denote mythic propensities, she creates it as a healing force, not just for her own personal self, but as a remedy for the distress that disturbs humanity. Consider this excerpt from "Story."
when will they touch the godhead
and leave the verses of the rock?
and i was dressed in blue
blue of the savior's sky.
soon, o soon, i would be worthy.
Notice that the voice is restrained and reverent as if in prayer. The mythical elements are obvious, giving a timeless quality to the poem, but a certain deictic movement signaled by the word when quietly reaches back into antiquity. For a specific effect, Sanchez's typography moves inward in the final three lines. This kind of typographic movement alerts the reader that something special is occurring in those lines. It is the persona, perhaps being either ritualized or anointed for the job of saving souls. The comparison of "blue" as the color of the garment worn with the "blue" of the "savior's sky" dramatically accentuates the healing potential of "blue" as color and as spatial covering of the universe. This blues matrix is undertoned with a subtle sadness; yet it is not the sadness normally associated with the blues singer. It is more like the melancholy of a holy person relinquishing her personal wants to be able to fulfill an ordained prophecy. Larry Neal called it the Blues God that survived the Middle Passage: "The blues god is an attempt to isolate the blues element as an ancestral force, as the major ancestral force of the Afro-American. It's like an Orisha figure" (Baker, 1988:157-58).
Orisha are African deities that can interact with mortals through prayer, sacrifice, and dance. They are either male or female, each controlling specific powers that inform human existence (Thompson, 1983; Jahn, 1961). In traditional African culture, one of the ways people can become avatars is through ritual where those chosen dress in the colors of the god and adorn themselves or are adorned in natural objects of the diety's habitat. For example, the riverain goddess Oshun heals with water and carries a fan crafted in a fish motif because her spirit moves through fish. In "Story," the persona's spirit is placated and made reverential through blue as motif. This shows a specific example of how the blues matrix influenced Sanchez's poetics. From the mythic to the commonplace, it can determine content, category, and form. A point of contrast is in the next selection where Sanchez writes a blues poem written in black vernacular expression.
will you love me baby when the sun goes down i say will you love me baby when the sun goes down or you just a summer time man leaving fo winter comes round.
This poem entitled "blues" can be sung or recited in the style of a blues song. Its mimesis is in the melody and lyric of music. Repetition is a poetic as well as a blues convention reifying the stated question. The terms "i say" merely add stress, signifying the importance of the initial inquiry. Langston Hughes gave the concept of the "blues-singing black" prominence in poetry. As a folk poet or a poet of the folk Hughes's works have marks of orature. According to Richard Barksdale in Black American Literature and Humanism, Hughes poetry contains naming, enumerating, hyperbole, understatement, and street-talk rhyming. Plus, Hughes's has a recurring motif of a "sun down" image. Sanchez in a real sense is a disciple of the Hughesian school. In her repeated line is a signifying "sun down" image.
An examination of the deictics of verb tense demonstrates the converging of the present with the future. The speaker is asking a question that can only be answered in the future. Baker refers to blues translators as those who interpret the experiencing of experience (1974:7). The persona is allowing the readers to partake of her knowledge of distinct circumstances that ended in grief and loss.
Metaphorically ingesting her "man" demonstrates the music in lyrical and figurative language. Cannibalistically, this man is very much a part of the persona. Yet, an irony is in the final two lines: the persona is not going to suffer grief and loss again. Larry Neal writes: "even though the blues may be about so-called hard times, people generally feel better after hearing them or seeing them. They tend to be ritually liberating in that sense" (Baker, 1988:158).
Aware of experiencing experience, the persona, "sees" the probability of sorrow lying before her. In the seeing is the "liberating" because she is free to make choices about her life. She can choose to continue her present course, or she may redirect her situation, excluding the danger signal in front of her, or she may take some other mode of action, keeping the situation in tact but with some element of difference. This series of options in this folksy expression is heightened because of the final stanza.
This is the inventive play of the blues. Was the persona teasing us all along? Will she indeed start a brand new life? Will she continue to question the stability of her mate, or is she preparing him for the difference, the changes that life automatically brings? The answer rests in the mystery of the Blues God, always in motion, forever in productive transit.
The poetry of Sonia Sanchez continues to be in productive transit. She is a poet spanning over two decades, creating a new aesthetic that fused politics and art. She believes that the artist is the creator of social values (Sanchez, 1983) and her legacy and artistry indicate that single purpose. As the co-founder of the Black Studies Program at San Francisco State College, in 1967 she has been the antithesis of the ivory tower scholar. Sanchez's activism is difficult to equal. Not only did she fight for a Black Studies Program, but she is the first person to develop and teach a course concerning black women in literature. Sanchez has lived and created in an Afrocentric perspective before this way of knowing became textualized. Creating a protective matriarchal persona, she has through versification, plays, and children's books inscribed the humanity of black people. Being our champion and critic, she has forged a blue motif that cleanses, heals, mystifies, and rejoices.
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Kovel, Joel. (1984) White Racism: A Psychohistory. New York: Columbia University Press.
Lomax, Alan and Raoul Abdul, eds. (1970) 3000 Years of Black Poetry. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company.
Malcolm X. (1972) The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Warner Bros Studio.
Melhem, D. H. (1990) Heroism in the New Black Poetry. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Sanchez, Sonia. (1983) Crisis and Culture: Two Speeches by Sonia Sanchez. New York: Black Liberation Press.
Sanchez, Sonia. (1969) Homecoming. Detroit: Broadside Press.
Sanchez, Sonia. (1984) Homegirls & Handgrenades. New York: Thunder's Mouth Press.
Sanchez, Sonia. (1987) Under a Soprano Sky. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press.
Sanchez, Sonia. (1970) We A BaddDDD People. Detroit: Broadside Press.
Thompson, Robert Farris. (1984) Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. New York: Vintage Books.
Welsh, Kariamu. (1991) The Concept of Nzuri: Towards Defining an Afrocentric Aesthetic. Westport, C.T.: Greenwood Press.
Yoshinobu Hakutani (essay date spring 2000)
SOURCE: Hakutani, Yoshinobu. Review of Like the Singing Coming off the Drums, by Sonia Sanchez. African American Review 34, no. 1 (spring 2000): 180-81.
[In the following review of Like the Singing Coming off the Drums, Hakutani contends that by adopting thestyle of the Japanese haiku, Sanchez "poignantly expresses a desire to transcend social and racial differences and a need to find union and harmony with nature."]
While Sanchez is known as an activist poet, much of her poetic impulse in Like the Singing Coming off the Drums derives from the tradition of Japanese haiku, in which a poet pays the utmost attention to the beauty inherent in nature. A great majority of Sanchez's latest collection of poems are entitled haiku, tanka, or sonku. Reading such poems indicates that Sanchez, turning away from the moral, intellectual, social, and political problems dealt with in her other work, found in nature her latent poetic sensibility. Above all, her fine pieces of poetry show, as do classic Japanese haiku and tanka, the unity and harmony of all things, the sensibility that human beings and nature are one and inseparable. Much of Sanchez's poetry, therefore, poignantly expresses a desire to transcend social and racial differences and a need to find union and harmony with nature.
Traditionally as well, the haiku, in its portrayal of human beings' association with nature, often conveys a kind of enlightenment, a new way of looking at humanity and nature. Some of her poems in Like the Singing Coming off the Drums follow this tradition. In the second stanza in "Love Poem [for TuPac]," the lines "the old ones / say we don't / die we are / just passing through into another space" suggest Sanchez's fascination with the Buddhistic world view of reincarnation. The last line "let it go … like the wind" in this haiku,
what is done is done
what is not done is not done
let it go … like the wind.
spontaneously expresses an enlightenment achieved in Zen philosophy. Another haiku included at the end of the first section, "Naked in the Streets," also concerns the Zen-like discipline of thought:
let us be one with
the earth expelling anger
In the middle section, "Shake Loose My Skin," Sanchez offers another Zen-inspired haiku:
you are rock garden
austere in your loving
in exile from touch.
Although most of the short poems collected in Like the Singing Coming off the Drums are stylistically influenced by the poetics of haiku as well as by the aesthetics of modernist poetry, much of Sanchez's ideological concern is post-modern and post-colonial. Many of her poems aim at teaching African Americans to achieve subjectivity and value their heritage. Even such a haiku as
mixed with day and sun
i crouched in the earth carry
you like a dark river.
succinctly expresses what Langston Hughes conveys in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers." Moreover, the most important thematic concern is love of humanity, an act of faith that must begin with self-love. The last poem in the collection, dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, is a response and rejoinder to such a poem as Brooks's "The Mother." Not only is Brooks portrayed as "a holy one," she has become a universal symbol of the mother with enduring love and humanity: "restringing her words / from city to city / so that we live and / breathe and smile and / breathe and love and / breathe her … / this Gwensister called life."
The penultimate poem in Like the Singing Coming off the Drums is dedicated to Cornel West. In contrast to the rest of the poems, it is a prose poem like Whitman's Song of Myself. West, a Harvard professor, is not presented as a spokesman of academia but characterized as a cultural activist like Whitman, Hughes, and Brooks, each of whom in a unique way sought to apotheosize the humanity of the land. Sanchez sees West as the foremost individual at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a spokesperson always "questioning a country that denies the sanctity, the holiness of children, people, rivers, sky, trees, earth." Sanchez urges the reader to "look at the father in him. The husband in him. The activist in him. The teacher in him. The lover in him. The truth seeker in him. The James Brown dancer in him. The reformer in him. The defender of people in him. The intellectual in him." Rather than dwelling on the racial conflict and oppression the country has suffered, Sanchez admonishes the reader to see cross-pollination in the various cultures brought together to the land. West is "this twenty-first-century traveler pulling us screaming against our will towards a future that will hold all of humankind in an embrace. He acknowledges us all. The poor. Blacks and whites. Asians and Native Americans. Jews and Muslims. Latinos and Africans. Gays and Lesbians."
Whether Like the Singing Coming off the Drums is Sanchez's best work will remain to be seen in the new millenium, but an effort to use diverse principles of aesthetics in molding her poetry has few precedents in American literature. Thematically, American poets such as Emerson, Dickinson, and Whitman were partly influenced by various cultural and religious traditions, just as Pound, Wallace Stevens, Gary Snyder, and Richard Wright at some points in their careers modeled their work on Eastern poetics. Sanchez, on the other hand, remains one of the few American poets intent on relying on cross-culturalism for both the style and the content of her poetry.
Joanne V. Gabbin (essay date 2002)
SOURCE: Gabbin, Joanne V. "Sonia Sanchez." The History of Southern Women's Literature, edited by Carolyn Perry and Mary Louise Weaks, pp. 535-40. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
[In this essay, Gabbin provides an overview of Sanchez's life and career and discusses her as a Southern writer.]
Sonia Sanchez, poet, playwright, essayist, and educator, carries her southernness in the rhythms of her song. The spoken word, the singing/chanting voice are her quintessential features. The cultural rhythms that pulse through her poetry result from a confluence of qualities rooted in her southern imagination. Though she spent only a short time in the South, her way of looking at the world reflects values she learned during her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. A deep and abiding humanism, the importance of family and love relationships, a fascination with the past and ancestry, a search for roots and identity, an exploration and appreciation of the folk culture, an evangelical religious experience, and a militancy that slices like a blade of sugarcane shape her personality and her poetry. Hers is a voice that invents, attacks, and resuscitates the past. Even the silences in her poetry are often as telling as the words, for she is a master of understatement, nuance, and ellipsis. Her poems witness an exorcism of pain and rage done within the province of love.
Few poets have sustained the intensity that Sonia Sanchez has over three decades of literary outpouring. In her poetic retrospective, Shake Loose My Skin (1999), Sanchez speaks about her beginnings, locating herself in a world of contrasts and contradictions. In the poem "Aaaayeee Babo (Praise God)," she provides some major clues to her life and purpose:
I came to this life with serious hands
I came observing the terrorist eyes moving in and out of
I wanted to be the color of bells
I wanted to surround trees and spill autumn from my fingers
I came to this life with serious feet—heard other footsteps
gathering around me
Women whose bodies exploded with flowers.
As a writer and activist "with serious hands," Sanchez, through the publication of fourteen books, from Homecoming (1969) to Shake Loose My Skin, continues to trust in the power of the written word to capture her community's most sacred meaning. In an essay in Mari Evans' Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation (1984), Sanchez says that the poet has the power "to create, preserve, or destroy social values, to manipulate the symbols, language, images which have been planted by experience in our collective subconscious, and ultimately to bring forth the truth about the world as she sees it." In keeping faith with this philosophy, Sanchez has been an activist for a long time. Even before she joined ranks with Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, and Askia Touré in the political and cultural activism of the black arts movement in the mid-1960s, even before she fought from 1967 to 1969 to get the first black studies program at San Francisco State University, she "came to this life with serious feet." The South had already rooted her in a history of black struggle, with its lessons of fear, segregation, and rebellion, and in an awareness of her place. It was the specter of an enforced place, the demanded silences, and the marauding fear that the young girl absorbed in her consciousness and later spat out in stutters.
In 1934, Sonia Sanchez was born in Birmingham to Wilson L. Driver and Lena Jones Driver. Given the communal name Wilsonia Benita, she was only one year old when her mother died in childbirth, and she and her sister were left to the care of their father's mother, Elizabeth "Mama" Driver. Mama Driver, whom Sanchez describes as a "heavy-set, dark complected woman," was the head deaconess in their African Methodist Episcopal church and became the foundation upon which the child built her understanding of the struggle between sin and salvation and the attendant hypocrisies. She symbolized Wilsonia's sense of the community in which family constituted continuity and well-being. In Under a Soprano Sky (1987) Sanchez expresses the legacy of love from which she sprang:
My life flows from you Mama. My style comes from a long line of Louises who picked me up in the nite to keep me from wetting the bed. A long line of Sarahs who fed me and my sister and fourteen other children from watery soups and beans and a lot of imagination. A long line of Lizzies who made me understand love. Sharing. Holding a child up to the stars. Holding your tribe in a grip of love. A long line of Black people holding each other up against silence.
When her grandmother died, Wilsonia was a frail child of five. As a way of managing her loss, she withdrew behind a veil of stuttering that remained with her for the next twelve years.
Moving to Harlem at the age of nine, she attended the public schools, began writing poetry, and earned a B.A. in political science at Hunter College. She also attended New York University, where she took a course from poet Louise Bogan, a prolific writer and teacher who inspired Sanchez's serious interest in writing. She later organized a writers' workshop that met every Wednesday night in Greenwich Village. It was there that she met Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal and began to read with them in the jazz nightspots. These experiences provided Sanchez with the foundation to launch her developing consciousness, one that began to reject the Western aesthetic tradition and embraced an aesthetic of black liberation. As Joyce A. Joyce writes in Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African Poetic Tradition (1996), "The content and physical form of the Black poetry of the 1960s are outward and visible signs of a new consciousness. … The Black Power Movement, Stokely Carmichael's speeches, Malcolm X's speeches, John Coltrane's music, and the new Black poets repudiated this imitative relationship, emphasized the uniqueness of Black history and stressed the Black community's need to withdraw from the malign influence of the Euro-American political, social, and aesthetic entrapments."
The career of Sonia Sanchez stretches over three decades, and she remains a consistently strong and relevant voice. In her first books of poems, Homecoming, It's a New Day (1971), Love Poems (1973), A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), and I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1978), her voice is experimental, radical, sometimes scatological, and often saturated with the sounds and rhythms of black speech and black music. Her tone ranges from gentle to derisive as she unveils public and private hurts, celebrates her heroes, and analyzes the political and social upheavals that dramatically changed American society. The complexity of her full-voiced lyricism is readily seen in A Blues Book. In Southern Women Writers (1990), edited by Tonette Bond Inge, this writer suggests that A Blues Book signaled a turning point in her writing: "The scope here is large and sweeping. The language is no longer the raw vernacular of Homecoming, though, as in We a BaddDDD People (1970), it is possessed by rhythms of the chants and rituals. At its most prosaic, it is laden with the doctrine of the Nation of Islam and ideologically correct images. At its best, it is intimate, luminous, and apocalyptic. Tucked inside A Blues Book is a striking spiritual odyssey that reveals the poet's growing awareness of the psychological and spiritual features of her face."
During the 1980s Sanchez showed the further deepening of her consciousness. In Homegirls and Handgrenades (1984), she goes inside herself to explore her residual memory. From the past, she draws images that explode the autobiographical into universal truths. Here she introduces her prose poem, a genre Joyce A. Joyce says "captures the most dynamic and dramatic dimensions of her craft." Bubba, the Black Panther of Harlem, lost in a sea of drugs and unfulfilled dreams; Norma, black genius that lay unmined; Sandy, in "After Saturday Night Comes Sunday," valiant in her love and sacrifice for a drug addicted husband; or the old "bamboo-creased" woman in the prose poem "Just Don't Never Give up on Love" show Sanchez distilling "sweet/astringent memories" from her own experience. In two of the most important poems in the volume, Sanchez moves the urgency of her message to global relationships. She concludes the volume with "A Letter to Dr. Martin Luther King" and "MIA's." Though very different in form, they are companion pieces that articulate her impatience with the democratic evils (racism, apartheid, imperialism) that stunt the physical and spiritual growth of black youth, corrupt hope through gradualism, and stall freedom. In "MIA's (missing in action and other atlantas)," the datelines—Atlanta, Johannesburg, El Salvador—serve to show the world of oppression in microcosm, and the machinations that promote death.
Under a Soprano Sky (1987) features the mature, lyrical voice of the poet expressing the source of her spiritual strength, establishing and reestablishing connections that recognize the community of humankind, and singing of society's strange fruit sacrificed on the altars of political megalomania, economic greed, and social misunderstanding. The poem "Elegy (For MOVE and Philadelphia)" is emblematic of the steady and searing scream the poet reserves for institutions and principalities that desecrate life: "How does one scream in thunder?"
In the 1990s Sanchez shows in her poetry the intensity with which she began her career. However, it is different, more directed, more moving. She continues to blast racism, sexism, intolerance, classism, and violence perpetrated on innocents. In Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995), the speaker in the title poem has been rejected in love and is psychologically and spiritually wounded. In a dramatic dialogue, the two estranged lovers operate at different points on the continuum called relationship, one using every ruse to destroy the relationship and the other using every trick to preserve it. Using the biblical scripture Zechariah 13:6 as the leitmotif, Sanchez speaks of hurt and ultimate wholeness that comes with the realization, "I shall become a collector of me … and put meat on my soul." Emerging from her own "grave" experience, the new woman ascends to a higher level of self-actualization and redemption.
Sanchez in Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) fingers the tender chord of grief at her brother's death from AIDS. Dying in 1981 before a name was attached to the disease, her brother is portrayed in compassionate strokes as he confronts his father, rejects his sister's overtures of love and reconciliation, and weaves around his mother a necessary web of fantasy and myth. Writing in the elaborate complexity of rhyme royal stanzas, Sanchez makes uncommonly beautiful and poignant the epic migration of a family through estrangement, terror, reconciliation, forgiveness, and love:
brother. let our mouths speak without harangue
let my journey sing a path they sang
O i will purchase my brother's whisper.
O i will reward my brother's tongue.
In Like the Singing Coming off the Drums (1998), Sanchez trains her own tongue to curl around the many sounds of love. Whether they are elegiac, bluesy, romantic, sisterly, or sensual, the notes she strikes vibrate with her essence—compassion, concern, humanity, hunger for justice, vulnerability, and strength. In this volume she returns to the haiku and the tanka, which appeared earlier in Love Poems and I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, and adds the blues haiku, and the sonku, an invented form. She writes:
love between us is
speech and breath. loving you is
a long river running.
Almost twenty years later Sonia Sanchez more than ever deserves the incisive critique of Margaret Walker Alexander in a 1980 review in Black Scholar that her poetry is "consistently high artistry that reflects her womanliness—her passion, power, perfume, and prescience."
Aware of her own indebtedness to generations of women who shaped her poetic vision, Sanchez makes the final poem in Shake Loose My Skin, "Aaaayeee Babo (Praise God)," a fitting praise song to "women whose bodies exploded with flowers." From Mama Driver, from Shirley Graham Du Bois, from eighty-four-year-old Mrs. Rosalie Johnson, from the not so small voices of LaTanya, Kadesha, Shanique, from Mrs. Benita Jones, an angry black woman in Philadelphia, hounded by racism out of her home, Sonia Sanchez has extracted the sweet nectar of their lives and has it nourish and sustain her. For it is these women, and many more like them, who in "recapturing the memory of our most sacred sounds" remind Sanchez of the humanity, the peace, the community, and the purpose that she learned while encircled by the big Charles White arms of her southern upbringing.
Curb, Rosemary K. "Pre-Feminism in the Black Revolutionary Drama of Sonia Sanchez." In The Many Forms of Drama, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, pp. 19-29. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.
Traces Sanchez's emerging feminist consciousness in her plays The Bronx Is Next, Sister Son/ji, and Uh, Uh, But How Do It Free Us?
Sanchez, Sonia, and Jacqueline Wood. "‘This thing called playwrighting’: An Interview with Sonia Sanchez on the Art of Her Drama." African American Review 39, nos. 1-2 (spring-summer 2005): 119-32.
Sanchez comments on such areas as her creative process and work ethic, her concern with the issues of black women, and aspects of individual works. Includes brief synopses of several of Sanchez's plays.
———, and Danielle Alyce Rome. "An Interview with Sonia Sanchez." In Conversations with Sonia Sanchez, edited by Joyce A. Joyce, pp. 62-9. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Sanchez discusses such subjects as her literary ideology, her use of Black English, and her creative process.
Additional coverage of Sanchez's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 1:3; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 18; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 33-36R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 49, 74, 115; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 5, 116, 215; Contemporary Poets, Eds. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7; Contemporary Southern Writers; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 41; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 8; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Authors; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Eds. 1, 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers (eBook), 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 9; Something about the Author, Vols. 22, 136; and World Poets.