Street Lit

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Sonia Sanchez’s widely acclaimed poetry might best be called “Street Lit,” a relatively new term for a literary genre with a rich past in African American letters. Sanchez is considered one of the chief shapers of “Street Lit” more specifically and of African American poetry more generally. In the Heath Anthology of American Literature, the editors suggest that to examine Sanchez’s pieces, one must forget traditional definitions of poetry. The editors go on to note that Sanchez’s work is intentionally “anti-intellectual” and opposed to academia, aimed at challenging readers to formulate their own conceptions about what is or is not aesthetically pleasing. Just as W. E. B. Du Bois claimed that all art is, or should be, political, Sanchez unabashedly fuses art and issues of social justice so seamlessly in her poetry that it seems that art must be political to matter. That said, to call Sanchez a political poet would be to misunderstand her deep contribution to American arts and letters that moves well beyond what one may consider political. Just as the great poets who preceded her, Sanchez writes poems that move well beyond the personal and the political to resonate universally.

One of Sanchez’s major themes is not merely survival but the will to renewal; the personal and political are often combined in Sanchez’s poems, one dimension of experience illuminating the other. This poetry is also often public poetry, in the sense...

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Suspicion of the Mainstream

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

After college, Sanchez was active in the drive for desegregation as a member of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), but she was also skeptical of mainstream American culture and its materialistic focus. In Sanchez’s view, integration did not include abandoning what was vital in African American culture. Homecoming, her first book, includes a “Memorial” for the popular female singing group The Supremes: “cuz they dead,” having changed their rhythm-and-blues performance style and “bleached out/ their blk/ness” in order to appeal to a white, mainstream audience. Consistent with this outlook, Sanchez was closely involved with efforts to establish black studies in the college curriculum during the 1960’s, working with others such as playwrights Ed Bullins and Marvin X. She began her own teaching career at the Downtown Community School and at San Francisco State College. She was also to teach at the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, City College of the City University of New York, and the University of Massachusetts. In 1977, Sanchez was appointed a professor of English and women’s studies at Temple University in Philadelphia as the first presidential fellow. Sanchez held the Laura Carnell Chair in English at Temple University until she retired in 1999. Sanchez, like literary foremother Frances E. W. Harper, continues to present her poetry internationally and has produced a compact disc of her poems put to music titled Full Moon of Sonia...

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Poetic Performance

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Sanchez’s brilliant recitation of her own work spurred its popularity. A Sun Lady for All Seasons, an album issued by Folkways Records in 1971, reveals that Sanchez’s oral presentation of these early poems blends chanting and sung passages that are akin to the modulations of both blues and spirituals. She also, in an avant-garde manner, sometimes includes jazz scat singing of nonlexical syllables with dramatic shrieks of agony and keening cries.

Sanchez’s Full Moon of Sonia (2004) is a compelling selection of her poetry accompanied by music. On this album, Sanchez uses hip-hop, rap, Afro-Cuban music, jazz, and rhythm and blues, illustrating her deep contribution to contemporary music as well as her continued relevance to African American culture. One particularly compelling recitation/song is “Under a Soprano Sky,” inflected with a simple piano and a single horn. In this piece, Sanchez ponders the nature of poetry and where she fits into it. Unlike some of the more raucous and thumping presentations, “Under a Soprano Sky” offers listeners a quiet, almost meditative song. In “For Langston/I’ve Known Rivers,” Sanchez offers a slow funk rendition of her poem that is underscored by a recitation of Hughes’s classic poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” first published in the popular Harlem Renaissance journal The Crisis in 1921. This pastiche, or mixing, between Sanchez and her literary predecessor serves to...

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Islam and Spirituality

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

For a period in the early 1970’s, Sanchez was a member of the Nation of Islam and, under the Islamic name Laila Mannan, wrote a series of important articles for the Muhammad Speaks newspaper. The patriarchal regimen of the Nation of Islam under Elijah Muhammad’s leadership apparently created a certain amount of tension for the poet, and many of her Muhammad Speaks articles explored the basis for equality of the sexes as she found it through extensive research into African history. This period also saw the publication of her most ambitious poetic work, a long poem sequence entitled A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, which combined her historical research with Black Muslim motifs and an exploration of what it means to be female. Sanchez’s long poem is a major work structured as the performance of a ritual modeled on ancient Greek and Egyptian mysteries. Like most initiation rituals, this one involves a symbolic death and rebirth, and the poem dramatically details a spiritual “possession” that leads the performer (or speaker) and her audience to a level of greater self-awareness. The poem also provides Sanchez with an opportunity to demonstrate her virtuosity in handling several different rhetorical modes.

The book opens with an introduction entitled “Queens of the Universe.” This rhythmical prose section restates many of Sanchez’s familiar exhortations to African American women to improve their lives, heighten their consciousness, and nurture their families. She urges women to embark on a mystical journey to achieve self-knowledge: “we must looook/ at our past. not be angered at it. nor upset.” Such an attempt will result in a valuable inventory of both strengths and weaknesses (much as Sanchez records in her later “Dear Mama”), providing the necessary knowledge for building a better future. The next section, titled “The Past,” presents five interconnected poems that reexamine the autobiographical material from childhood into an imagined old age. Part 3, “The Present,” is a transition from the trancelike voices of the previous section and allows the poet to reveal the insights gained from her “possession” by those spiritual voices.

Among the allegorical figures utilized by the poet...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. The Folk Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1974. Discusses Sanchez and her early contemporaries as the extension of African American folk traditions. Provides a helpful historical context for interpreting her work.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Contains an interview with Sanchez entitled “Ruminations/Reflections” and an overview of her poetry.

Frost, Elisabeth A., ed. The Feminist Avant-Garde in American Poetry. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003. Brings together a diverse group of women writers, including Harryette Mullen and Sonia Sanchez, to challenge readers’ views about the avant-garde. In a compelling study of Sanchez’s work, Frost shows how the text becomes a feminist site of protest and exploration.

Joyce, Joyce. Black Studies as Human Studies: Critical Essays and Interviews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2005. Includes a discussion of Sanchez’s place at the intersection of African and African American literary traditions.

Joyce, Joyce. “The Development of Sonia Sanchez: A Continuing Journey.” Indian Journal of American Studies 13 (1983): 37-71. A lengthy, thorough discussion of...

(The entire section is 503 words.)