Sonia Sanchez

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John D. Williams (review date February 1979)

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SOURCE; "The Pain of Women, The Joy of Women, The Sadness and Depth of Women," in Callaloo, Vol. 2, No. 5, February, 1979, pp. 147-49.

[In the following review, Williams asserts that the poems in Sanchez's I've Been a Woman speak for and to all women.]

The Black Scholar Press has recently published a new book from Sonia Sanchez, and a powerful book it is indeed. A collection which includes a fine cross-section of Sanchez's earlier work as well as some of her latest poems, I've Been a Woman recounts the journey of one woman from the early stages of herself into the meaningfulness of herself as a woman and as a human being. One hears in the voice of this woman-poet the pain of women, the joy of women, the sadness and depth of women. The voice of this woman is pregnant with the voices of women, and ail readers of the collection are advised to listen closely.

I've Been a Woman is divided into six sections. The first four sections are comprised of poems and passages drawn from Sanchez's earlier volumes. In these four sections, there are many of those poems, as readers familiar with her work will recognize, that have come to safeguard our ears and our steps: from Homecoming: "Poem at Thirty," "Malcolm," and "Personal Letter No. 2"; from We a Baddddd People: "Blk/Rhetoric" and "Indianapolis/Summer/1969/Poem"; from Love Poems: "Poem No. 7" and "Old Words"; and from Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women: those indispensable passages which describe growing up in America and the fundamental transformation which occurs in the necessary reaching back to oneself. However, it is the final two sections of I've Been a Woman that we are concerned with here, because they are the new works of the poet, and, more importantly, because they are the celebration and praise of life that the transformed self, facing the death constantly masquerading before our eyes, must engage in daily.

Each of the short poems in "Haikus/Tankas & Other Love Syllables," the fifth section of the volume, is a re-energization of many of the words we have come to take for granted: love, responsibility, concern, pain. These poems line the world up with the immediacy and accuracy of our moment to moment feelings and sensations:

          never may my thirst
          for freedom be appeased by
          modern urinals.

          my body waiting
             for the sound of yo/hands is loud
             as a prairie song.

          these autumn trees sit
       cruel as we pretend to eat
    this morning goodbye.

          these words stained with red
       twirl on my tongue like autumn
             rainbows from the sea.

Sanchez's fingers are nimble here as she catches moments, hours and sometimes days in seventeen syllables:

     the rain tastes lovely
     like yo/sweat draping my body
     after lovemaking.

     who are you/   iden./
     tify yourself. tell me your
     worth amid women.

     i listen for yo/
     sounds prepare my nostrils for
     yo/smell that has detoured.

     you have pierced me so
     deeply i can not turn a
     round without bleeding.

These poems/these words are like a cutting flame burning deeply to the inside, welding together again/somehow reuniting a divided flesh.

The final section of this book, "Generations," is the poems of praise. They speak sufficiently for themselves. In a poem for Sterling Brown, Sanchez writes:

     how shall i call your name
     sitting priest/like on mountains
     raining incense
     scented dancer of the sun?
     you. griot of fire.
     harnessing ancient warriors.
     you. griot of the wind
     glorifying red gums smiling tom-tom teeth.

and in the poem for a young brother...

(This entire section contains 781 words.)

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named Gerald Penny:

     At first you do not speak
     and your legs are like orphans
     at first your two eyes cross
     themselves in confusion
     at first your mouth knows only
     the full breasts of milk
     a sweet taste of this world.
     Silently to life
     you spoke
     young male child.

     You praised life
     coming as a river between hills
     and your laughter
     was like red berries in summer
     and your shouting like giant eagles

and in the last piece in the book, "kwa mama zetu waliotuzaa," (for our mothers who gave us birth):

        call her back for me
        bells. call back this memory
        still fresh with cactus pain.

        call her name again. bells.
        shirley. graham. du bois
        has died in china
        and her death demands a capsizing of tides. olokun.
        she is passing yo/way while
        pilgrim waves whistle complaints to man olokun.
        a bearer of roots is walking inside
        of you.
        prepare the morning nets to receive her.

In these words we are able to see ourselves/to hear ourselves, emerging into our own vision of life. Sonia Sanchez's poems in this book are commendable and we thank her.


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Sonia Sanchez 1934–

(Born Wilsonia Benit a Driver) American poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Sanchez's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 5.

Sonia Sanchez is considered by many to be the leading female voice of the Black Revolution. Her poetry contains a visionary quality and a strong sense of the past. She typically presents positive role models and often harshly realistic situations in an effort to inspire her readers to improve their lives. Regina B. Jennings says. "Creating a protective matriarchal persona, she has through versification, plays, and children's books inscribed the humanity of black people."

Biographical Information

Sanchez was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934, to Wilson and Lena Driver. Her mother died when Sanchez was only one year old, and she spent the next eight years with various relatives. At the age of nine she moved with her father and stepmother to New York City. Sanchez began writing poetry as a child to battle the alienation and loneliness she felt as a shy stutterer, which she did not overcome until she was 16. Although not spoken in their home, Sanchez consciously learned the black dialect spoken on the streets. She would later base the rhythm of her poetry on the rhythm of this speech. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in 1955, then studied with poet Louise Bogan at New York University. Bogan was an important influence on Sanchez's poetry, especially with regard to her use of traditional structures and form. After completing her graduate work at NYU, Sanchez taught at several colleges, including San Francisco State, the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, Manhattan Community College, Amherst College, and Temple University. She co-founded the Black Studies Program at San Francisco State and was the first to develop and teach a course on black women in literature. Sanchez has also travelled extensively, including a trip to China, where she wrote many of the haikus in her collection Love Poems (1973).

Major Works

Sanchez's first collection of poetry, Homecoming (1969), focuses on embracing black identity. The poems in We aBaddDDD People (1970) have a political thrust and show the influence of jazz in Sanchez's work in the improvisation of the rhythm and in the attempt to imitate the sounds of different instruments. While Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People have urban landscapes, however, Sanchez began to use natural landscapes in Love Poems, but not the idyllic presentation usually found in poetry. Her poetry became much more lyrical in this volume and focuses on love, loss, and relationships. A Blues Book for Blue Black Magic Women (1973) relies on history as a liberating device. The poet acts as guide and teacher and urges readers to embrace their blackness and turn away from the falsity of Western values. The poems in this volume are very ritualistic and religious. Sanchez's I've Been a Woman (1978) follows the journey of one woman as she comes into being as a woman and as a human being. The poems in this collection speak to and for women and provide a more personal look at the themes which have consumed her work thus far, including oppression, exploitation, and loss. Homegirls & handgrenades (1984) is an autobiographical collection, in which the poet acts as a character in the work. In this volume, Sanchez employs techniques similar to those used by Jean Toomer in Cane, including the use of narration, dialogue, and poetry to create sketches. In addition to her poetry, Sanchez has also written several plays. Sister Son/ji (1969) presents five periods in the life of a black revolutionary shown through flashbacks. Son/ji moves from a first act of resisting racism, to a sense of betrayal by the male revolutionaries who abandon women, and finally to a maturity arising out of loss and survival.

Critical Reception

Some critics accuse Sanchez of repetition and a lack of originality in her work because many of her themes reappear numerous times. Others praise the continuity this repetition brings to the body of her work. Andrew Salkey says, "Altogether, the iron truthfulness in her work emerges out of her deep need to thwart existential gloom, to support her embattled self-esteem, and to renew her faith in herself in order to keep on keeping on." Some reviewers criticize Sanchez for falling into sixties rhetoric in We a BaddDDD People. Many critics preferred her more personal poems to her politically oriented ones, which they found shrill and harsh. Several critics praise Sanchez for her use of traditional forms and her ability to make them her own. David Williams says, "The haiku in her hands is the ultimate in activist poetry, as abrupt and as final as a fist." Many critics have noted that Sanchez has failed to garner much attention for her accomplishments as a vital member of the Black Revolutionary Movement. Kamili Anderson asserts, "Relative to her merits as both prolific poet … and social activist, widespread critical acknowledgment of Sanchez's talents has been remiss."

Andrew Salkey (review date May-June 1979)

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SOURCE: "In Appreciation of Sonia Sanchez," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 10, Nos. 8 and 9, May-June, 1979, pp. 84-5.

[In the following review, Salkey discusses the poems from Sanchez's I've Been a Woman and describes her poetry "as songs of difficult truth and harsh beauty."]

The title of this new collection of poems by Sonia Sanchez reads as if it were the poet's answer to the question, "What have you been doing since the '60s?" And so it may be construed.

Even a cursory reading of the text would yield evidence enough that the poet has been quintessentially herself, all the way throughout the emblematic '60s into the even more sign-confusing and numbing '70s.

And incidentally, for … A Woman, in the title, the equivalent, "radically compassionate," is amply suggested in the poems.

Indeed, I've Been a Woman is a richly layered and lucid statement of radicalism and compassion in which Sonia Sanchez has chosen the response of hard-edged truth over the rhetoric of hopelessness, in spite of her continuing experience of oppression, exploitation and personal loss.

The answer to the imagined question, therefore, is: "I've been radically compassionate."

While her earlier poems raised hopes of public liberation, her recent ones confront and penetrate the anguish of internal inequities which are the thorns at the heart of her concerns as a woman and a poet.

Altogether, the iron truthfulness in her work emerges out of her deep need to thwart existential gloom, to support her embattled self-esteem, and to renew her faith in herself in order to keep on keeping on.

The selected poems, here, provide a rewarding retrospective view of the highlights of the poet's way-forward over the last ten years. The new poems lock neatly into the on-going process. I admire and respect the choices; and the old favorites certainly tug at the memory.

I'll long remember the cautionary blast at the treachery of the intellectuals, when Sonia Sanchez reminded us of Malcolm's excellence (in "Malcolm," from Homecoming):

     he was the sun that tagged
     the western sky and
     melted tiger-scholars
     while they searched for stripes.

Then, there was her admission of the inevitable fighter's-pause in the struggle (in "Personal Letter No. 3," from We a Baddddd People), which caused some of her admirers, themselves, to take pause, at the time:

     it is a hard thing
     to admit that
     sometimes after midnight
     i am tired
     of it all.

And the excoriating truth-saying (in "Poem No. 7," from Love Poems):

     when he came home
     from her
     he poured me on
     the bed and slid

     into me like glass
     and there was
     the sound of splinters.

And this equally truthful look-back at her childhood trusting innocence (in "Sequences," also from Love Poems):

     in my father's time
     I fished in ponds
     without fishes.
     arching my throat,
     I gargled amid nerves
     and sang of redeemers.

Still another moment of owning up truthfully to the pain of her growth and development as a person making a strong bid for completeness (in "Past," from A Blues Book For Blue Black Magic Women):

     i sang unbending
     songs and gathered gods
     convenient as christ.

And in the new poems, "Haikus/Tankas & other Love Syllables," from I've Been A Woman, this revolutionary advice:

     familiarize your
     self with strength, hold each other
      up against silence.

And finally, this summary of the life's credo which Sonia Sanchez holds dear, and acts on, courageously (in "Kwa mama zetu waliotuzaa," in "Generations," also from I've Been A Woman):

     no longer full of pain, may she walk
     bright with orange smiles, may she walk
     as it was long ago, may she walk
     abundant with lightning steps, may she walk
     abundant with green trails, may she walk
     abundant with rainbows, may she walk
     as it was long ago, may she walk

     at the center of death is birth.

Among the precious few true poets of revolution and reclamation, in our time, Sonia Sanchez stands out, not only for her belief in achievable "green trails" and "rainbows," but also for her gritty understanding that they are glimpsed only on a long walk of renewal through the living death we are plunged into immediately after birth.

That alone will always make me think of her poetry as songs of difficult truth and harsh beauty.

Principal Works

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The Bronx is Next (drama) 1968; published in periodical The Drama Review; also published in Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present, 1971
Homecoming (poetry) 1969
Sister Son/ji (drama) 1969; published in New Plays from the Black Theatre, 1969
We a BaddDDD People (poetry) 1970
It's a New Day (poems for young brothas and sistuhs) (poetry) 1971
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (poetry) 1973
Dirty Hearts (drama) 1973; published in Breakout: In Search of New Theatrical EnvironmentsLove Poems (poetry) 1973
Uh Huh: But How Do It Free Us? (drama) 1974; published in The New Lafayette Theatre Presents: Plays with Aesthetic Comments by Six Black PoetsI've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1978
Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No More (drama) 1982
Crisis in Culture: Two Speeches by Sonia Sanchez (speeches) 1983
homegirls & handgrenades (poetry and prose) 1984
Under a Soprano Sky (poetry) 1987
Black Cats Back and Uneasy Landings (drama) 1995
Wounded in the House of a Friend (poetry) 1995
Does Your House Have Lions (poetry) 1997

David Williams (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Sonia Sanchez," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press, 1984, pp. 433-48.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes the changes that have occurred in Sanchez's poetry from her first collection, Homecoming, to her I've Been a Woman, including a new sense of rootedness.]

The title of Sonia Sanchez's first collection, Homecoming, marks with delicate irony the departure point of a journey whose direction and destination can now be considered. I've Been a Woman, her most recent book, invites such an appraisal, including as it does a retrospective of her earlier work as well as an articulation of a newly won sense of peace:

     shedding my years and
     earthbound now. midnite trees are
     more to my liking.

These lines contain an explicit reworking of images that dominate "Poem at Thirty," one of the most personal statements in Homecoming. That early poem pulses with a terror rooted in a consciousness of age as debilitating. Midnight and traveling, images of perpetual transition, bracket the poem's fear:

    it is midnight
    no magical bewitching
    hour for me
    i know only that
    i am here waiting
    remembering that
    once as a child
    i walked two
    miles in my sleep …
    travelling, i'm
    always travelling.
    i want to tell
    you about me
    about nights on a
    brown couch when
    i wrapped my
    bones in lint and
    refused to move.
    no one touches
    me anymore …

In the new poems of I've Been a Woman Sanchez revokes these images in order to establish her new sense of assurance. Midnight no longer terrifies; rootedness has succeeded sleepwalking as an emblematic image.

Correlating these poems in this way allows a useful perspective on the work of a poet whose development has been as much a matter of craft as it has been a widening and deepening of concerns. Homecoming largely satisfies Baraka's demand in "Black Art" for "assassin poems, Poems that shoot / guns"; but there is from the beginning an ironic vision in Sanchez's work that ensures that she differentiate between activist poetry and what she herself has labeled, in We a BaddDDD People, "black rhetoric." The difference is that between substance and shadow, between "straight / revolutionary / lines" and "catch / phrases." And it is clear from Sanchez's work in Homecoming that she believes that the ideal poetry demands the practice of a stringent discipline. The poems in that collection are characterized by an economy of utterance that is essentially dramatic, like language subordinated to the rhythms of action. The verse of Homecoming is speech heightened by a consciousness of the ironies implicit in every aspect of Black existence. The poems read like terse statements intended to interrupt the silence that lies between perception and action.

In the title poem of the volume, Sanchez presents the act of returning home as a rejection of fantasy and an acceptance of involvement:

     i have returned
     leaving behind me
     all those hide and
     seek faces peeling
     with freudian dreams.
     this is for real.

The opposition set up is enriched by her perception of other dichotomies: between youth and maturity, between Blackness and "niggerness." And Sanchez also knows that for a while earlier she had chosen Blackness over "niggerness":

     once after college
     i returned tourist
     style to catch all
     the niggers killing
     themselves with
     that cd
     not support
     their stutters.

She had been one of those "hide and seek faces" on the outside, looking in at the niggers; in the real world she is now a nigger:

         my beauty.

This, the climax of the poem, is the real homecoming; and the opening lines, reread, acquire a new resonance:

     i have been a
     way so long …

The division of "away" by the line break turns the second line into an extraordinarily weighted phrase; it rings like the refrain of a spiritual. This is a homecoming from very far away. The poem's closing lines, following the natural climax, provide an amplification of the earlier "now woman":

     i have learned it
     ain't like they say
     in the newspapers.

This truth, not learned in college, is at the core of a whole complex of meanings contained in the almost offhand casualness of the verse, which reads like transcribed speech.

"Homecoming" is a meditation meant to be overheard; the sense of an audience is a necessary part of the poem's meaning. Much of Sanchez's poetry in her first two collections is even more overtly dramatic, designed to be spoken as part of a larger performance in which silences and an implied choreography say as much as the actual words. "Summary," another focal point of the first collection, quickly abandons the initial pretense of being inner-directed:

           this is
      a poem for the world
      for the slow suicides
      in seclusion.
      somewhere on 130th st.
      a woman, frail as a
      child's ghost, sings.

The sibilances here are deliberately accusatory, and the simile is as generalized as it can be without becoming a cliché. The snatch of song that follows transforms the poem fully into what it is, a plaint for all the women (Cassandra, Penelope, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith) who have been victims. Spoken in the accents of this specific Black woman, "Summary" is rooted in a sisterhood of angry pain. As the poem's rhythm begins to stutter, its linear form disintegrates into a scattershot catalogue in which numerous lives and experiences are summarized:

     is no more than
           (99% american)
       killers (199% american) dreamers
         and drunks (299%
           i say
     is everybody happy / …

The emotion crests and breaks at this point, driven against a wall of futility. The voice falls back into the monotone with which the poem started—except that now it has been reduced to the barest of statements:

     this is a poem for me.
     i am alone.
     one night of words
     will not change
     all that.

The point, of course, is that these lines are more than just "a poem for me," and we are intended to perceive this. "Summary" is a performance in which an unobtrusive intelligence has acknowledged the presence of an audience.

The imagined response of this audience is occasionally crucial to the poems in Homecoming, some of which are, in essence, communal chant performances in which Sanchez, 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. "Nigger" is the heard half of a dialogue with someone who can almost be visualized; his response seems to fill the gaps between the surges of speech, which gather confidence until the word "nigger" has been exorcised and the poem's initial claim has been made good:

          that word
     ain't shit to me
     man …

The coupled poems "Black Magic" and "To a Jealous Cat" pick up the "my man" refrain from "Nigger" and transform it. In that poem it has the weight of a public epithet, a designation for someone whose relationship with the voice in the poem could only be that of an adversary. In "Black Magic," on the other hand, it has the warmth of a private endearment, a whisper in which both words are equally stressed ("my man") and therefore become an assertion of possession as well as of pride. In the process the phrase "black magic" is itself transformed:

        my man
    is you
    my body into
    a thousand
    smiles …

In "To a Jealous Cat" the appellation remains private, but it is now the privacy of anger and disappointment. The poem is the second act in the drama of a human relationship, and it makes bitter and ironic play with the same elements that make "Black Magic" so celebratory:

        no one never told
    you that jealousy's
    a form of homo

The lineation transforms "homosexuality" into an ironic shadow of the ideal sexuality earlier gloried in. At the same time the word is used as a bitter taunt:

          in other
     words my man
     you faggot bound
     when you imagine
     me going in and out
     out some other cat.

In retrospect, the earlier question ("don't you / know where you / at?") acquires a new and savage significance, and when "my man" recurs it is cruelly ironic. As a consequence, the deceptively ordinary lines with which the poem closes are really an indictment:

     perhaps you ain't
     the man we thought.

It is significant that the pronoun here is "we" and not "I." The lines are meant to underscore the ambiguity with which "my man" has been invested; sexual identity becomes, by extension, a metaphor for self-awareness.

Poems such as "Nigger" and "To a Jealous Cat" demonstrate that, in one sense, Sanchez has been "earthbound" from the beginning. Her use of Black speech as the bedrock of her poetic language ensures that her imagery remain sparse and wholly functional, even when it is most striking, as in the final lines of "For Unborn Malcolms":

             git the word
     out that us blk/niggers
             are out to lunch
     and the main course
     is gonna be his white meat.

Even here, the spirit of this extended image remains true to its origins; it accords with the poem's characteristic tone of dramatized anger. Sanchez can break open the routine hipness of street talk with a single word that allows a glimpse into the complexities of some area of the Black experience:

     some will say out
          baby i want
          to ball you
     while smoother
     ones will in
     tegrate your
     blackness …

"Integrate" is such a word; as used here, it sums up a whole history of betrayal and anger with a sharp wit that is itself characteristic of much of Sanchez's work. In "Short Poem" she recounts her man's praise of her sexiness; then, with impeccable timing, she delivers her assessment:

     sell it
     when he goes.

The ironic twist in the final line is reminiscent of such poems as "Widow Woman" and "Hard Daddy." where Langston Hughes uses the same device. Sanchez's wit is generally more cutting than Hughes', however. "Small Comment" is a deadly parody of the academic style of discourse; after successive restatements of the initial thesis have mired the poem in verbiage, the final "you dig" is devastatingly mocking. "To Chuck" is a different sort of parody; Sanchez offers a caricature of e. e. cummings, but the tone of the mockery is gentle. The poem, like "Black Magic," is ultimately celebratory:

    i'm gonna write me
      a poem like
          mings to
        day. a
    bout you
    ing iNsIDE
           me touc
    hing my vis
          cera un
        til i turn
      side out. i'
      n n
        a  sc
      u on   pap   er

There is also something of self-parody here: Sanchez is obviously aware of the parallels between cummings' approach to poetic form and that favored by the militant young poets of the sixties. The feeling celebrated by the poem is genuine, however. Beneath their deliberate anarchy, the lines suggest that sexual commitment is a species of revolutionary act.

The poems in Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People lie along a spectrum bounded by two extremes. At one pole there are those poems that almost seem to have exploded from the force of the raw anger at their center; for "The Final Solution" and "Indianapolis/Summer/1969/Poem," for instance, the visual shape on the page is the equivalent of a stutter:

          i mean.
            don't it all come down
      to e/co/no/mics.
              like. it is fo
      money that those young brothas on
      illinois &
           ohio sts
               allow they selves to
      be picked up
          cruised around …

Poems like these appear to be still in the process of being composed; words seem to have not yet settled into place. The poem in flux is given to the reader, and the act of reading becomes an act of composition. At the other pole are those poems where Sanchez creates the sense of a monotone by presenting a stream of meditation in which the individual semantic units flow into each other without any single word or image breaking the aural surface of the rhythm. In "Poem at Thirty," "Personal Letter No. 2," and "Personal Letter No. 3" the audience is relegated to insignificance. These poems are entries in a personal diary which is the extension, not the converse, of the communal scrapbook of being Black in America. The weariness of spirit they reveal finds its verbal counterpart in a vocabulary cadenced to a slower rhythm, one very different from the streetwise staccato of a poem like "Indianapolis…." "Personal Letter No. 3" is typical in this regard:

     no more wild geo
     graphies of the
     flesh. echoes. that
     we move in tune
     to slower smells.
     it is a hard thing
     to admit that
     sometimes after midnight
     i am tired
     of it all.

Midnight and travel: the emblems recur. They are mythic images that summon up vistas of Black history, even as they fix the particular anguish of an individual soul.

The most striking difference between Love Poems and Sanchez's earlier work lies in the widening of the range of her imagery. The world evoked in Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People is that of the urban nighttime, bereft of any glimpse of the natural landscape. From Love Poems on, images of trees, flowers, earth, birds, sea, and sky dot the verse. Sanchez, however, is very far from using them to suggest an idyllic universe: in fact, the natural world enters the verse of Love Poems, in particular, as part of a vision of an external reality in which things are out of kilter:

            this earth
     turns old
     and rivers grow lunatic
     with rain, how i wish
     i could lean in your cave
     and creak with the winds.

There are occasional instances of such images being used in a more upbeat fashion ("he / moved in me like rain"), but by and large they function as elements in an astringent lyricism that is a development of the mood of early poems such as "Personal Letter No. 3" and "Poem at Thirty." "Father and Daughter" is typical in this regard. The poem, which consists of paired sonnets whose formal structure acts as a brake on the emotional immediacy of the experience, closes with these lines:

     don't cry. late grief is not enough. the motion of
     your tides still flows within: the ocean of deep
     blood that drowns the land. we die: while young
     moons rage and wander in the sky.

This is a glimpse of apocalypse. The lines are reminiscent of Derek Walcott's "The Gulf," which ends with a frightening vision of America's future, and like Walcott's poem, Sanchez's turns upon the sense of a personal experience being magnified into a perception of an entire society. Ocean, earth, and moon, with their mythic associations, become the moving forces in this process. The imagery is the spark that ignites the poem.

The intensified lyricism of Sanchez's work partakes of the same economy of utterance that had marked her earlier poetry. If her use of the sonnet form in "Father and Daughter" represents an effort to compress emotion within a restraining mold, she carries that attempt even further in works such as "Poem No. 4." The supple surge of the verse strains against the compact, even form of the triplet used here; the poem succeeds precisely because of this tension:

     i am not a

     face of my
     own choosing.
     still. i am.

     i am …

Sanchez takes this principle of compression to its ultimate form in the haiku that punctuate Love Poems. In these, emotion has been concentrated and distilled into moments which capture the now and the then, the immediacy of an action as well as its intimations of change. Sometimes the act of compression is almost too drastic; the poem is pared down until there is little of real significance left:

      did ya ever cry
      Black man, did ya ever cry
      til you knocked all over?

There is no moment of intersection here, no sense of an abrupt discovery. At other times, however, Sanchez pulls off the haiku with tremendous authority, impaling a single perception with an image as definite and as inevitable as the climactic movement in a choreographed dance:

     O i am so sad, i
     go from day to day like an
     ordained stutterer.

Unlike imagist poetry, this does not depend for its meaning on the ripples set off by a static image. The simile generates its own energy, compelling us to partake in the emotion. The haiku represents for Sanchez the point at which the irreducible statement of personal assertion ("still. i am. / i am.") converges with the ideal of "straight / revolutionary / lines." The haiku in her hands is the ultimate in activist poetry, as abrupt and as final as a fist.

But Sanchez is also concerned with experience as process, with the accumulation of small adjustments that constitute the data of individual and communal life. This concern involves more than just the juxtaposing of past and present; in "Sequences" and "Old Words," Sanchez struggles to divine the almost insensible shifts that result in our present dilemmas. The latter poem, in particular, attempts no less than an exploration of the growth of the malaise that Sanchez believes to be endemic in modern life:

     we are the dis
     enfranchised ones
     the buyers of bread
     one day removed
     from mold
     we are maimed
     in our posture …

Following this initial evocation of despair, Sanchez chronicles the race's (and humanity's) emotional history through a series of images that all connote a failure to communicate. Against these she places the iconic figures of Billie Holiday and Prez, both of whom tried to reach out through their music. They become, for Sanchez, part of a process of human history that has moved us from "herding songs" to "mass produced faces." In the penultimate section of the poem she summarizes the gradations in that process in a way that suggests a movement from life to death:

      Are we ever what we should be?
      seated in our circle of agonies
      we do not try to tune our breaths
      since we cannot sing together
      since we cannot waltz our eyes
      since we cannot love,
      since we have wooed this world
      too long with separate arias of revolution
      mysticism hatred and submission
      since we have rehearsed our
      deaths apart …

Each of these failures has contributed to our "maimed posture." The poem's facsimile of narrative catalogues the history of the human experience, then adds a somber coda:

      we have come to
      believe that we are
      not. to be we
      must be loved or
      touched and proved
      to be …

How we come to "believe that we are not" is the object of Sanchez's concern in her next collection, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magic Women. The principles and techniques of narrative dominate this volume. The poems, developing on the style of "Sequences" and "Old Words," represent the fulfillment of a truth and a form that Sanchez had touched much earlier in such works as "Summary," "Poem at Thirty," and "Summer Words of a Sistuh Addict." These early poems all turn upon the image of woman as ghost, as mummy:

     i want to tell
     you about me
     about nights on a
     brown couch when
     i wrapped my
     bones in lint and
     refused to move …

The music that twines around her is a dirge whose nursery-rhyme lyrics mockingly underline her impotence; it is as if her anguish, ultimately inexpressible, has to be contained in formulas. In Blues Book Sanchez, submerging her personal self in a persona that is deliberately generalized, undertakes a ritual of acceptance, confession, cleansing, and rebirth.

In "Past" that ritual begins with a prayer for cleansing:

     Come ride my birth, earth mother
     tell me how i have become, became
     this woman with razor blades between
     her teeth.
           sing me my history O earth mother …
     for i want to rediscover me, the secret of me
     the river of me, the morning ease of me …

The narrative is at the starting point of a movement back into the womb of memory, where the traumas of youth and adolescence can be relived. The verse leans heavily on repetition and incantation as the journey backward from woman to young girl is made. The movement is measured in terms of a descent into darkness—the darkness of the South, of remembered cruelty, of the savage games of adolescence:

    remember parties
    where we'd grinddddDDDD
    and grinddddDDDDD
    but not too close
    cuz if you gave it up
    everybody would know. and tell …
    then walking across the room
    where young girls watched each other
    like black vultures …

The backward movement of the narrative is finally arrested when this ritual of cleansing accomplishes its purpose of discovering how it all started:

     i walked into young
     womanhood. Could not hear
     my footsteps in the streets
     could not hear the rhythm of
     young Black womanhood.

This image is that of a ghost, the same ghost that haunts the lines of the early poems. The narrative has demonstrated how this state of nonbeing was reached. From this point the movement is in the other direction. "Present" moves us through a redefining of the now, up to the moment when this process conceives the possibility of the woman reborn:

       and my singing
     becomes the only sound of a
     blue/black/magical/woman. walking.
     womb ripe. walking. loud with mornings. walking.
     making pilgrimage to herself. walking.

The deadened senses are alive again; singing has replaced silence. The spirit of affirmation inherent in the blues creates the possibilities that are finally to become real in "Rebirth," with its images of gestation:

     whatever is truth becomes known. nine
     months passed touching a bottomless sea.
     nine months i wandered amid waves
     that washed away thirty years of denial …
     nine months passed and my body
     heavy with the knowledge of gods
     turned landward, came to rest …
     i became the mother of sun. moon. star children.

What Sanchez does in Blues Book is to use a sense of history as a liberating device. The wasteland of the present and the immediate past is transformed and renewed as the narrative takes us back to an awareness of beginnings, a green world whose innocence can redeem our sense of sin. It is no accident that the poetry of Blues Book is both ritualistic and religious. To sing the blues is to affirm a racial truth. Lyricism here has the special purpose of achieving a communal sense of worship, and Sanchez is the shaman, the "blue black magic woman" whose words initiate that process. The weight of meaning in Blues Book thus rests on the narrative, on the actual sequence of the ritual, for it is only in this way that the experience of change can be concretized.

The new poems in I've Been a Woman benefit from the sense of continuity and evolution conferred by the earlier work. The impact of the section entitled "Haikus/Tankas & Other Love Syllables" is immeasurably enhanced by Love Poems, for instance; the new poems, drawing on a relatively limited stock of images (water in various forms, trees, morning, sun, different smells), are an accumulation of moments that define love, age, sorrow, and pride in terms of action. Particular configurations recur: the rhythms of sex, the bent silhouettes of old age, the stillness of intense emotion. But taken together, these poems are like the spontaneous eruptions that punctuate, geyserlike, the flow of experience.

The other new poems in I've Been a Woman consist of a series of eulogies, collectively titled "Generations," in which Sanchez explicitly claims her place among those who speak of and for Black people. There is a schematic balance operating here: the individual poems respectively eulogize Sterling Brown (age), Gerald Penny (youth), Sanchez's father, and the idea and reality of mothers. The synthesis implied in this design is enacted in the poetry itself; the imagery and rhythms of the verse in this section convey an overwhelming sense of resolution and serenity. The poems dedicated to Sterling Brown, however, seem overloaded with busy imagery. This is especially true of the first of the two. Cast in the form of a praise song, it presents Brown as a priest-poet and simultaneously implies Sanchez's awareness of her own membership in the tradition which Brown has so honorably helped to maintain. But the effect of the poem is to dilute our sense of Brown's significance; the succession of carefully wrought images, along with the overly schematic structure, gives the poem the feeling of an exercise.

The same cannot be said of the other poems in this section. The Gerald Penny eulogy, built around its song-prayer refrain, is a convincing celebration of a life. Its images—rainbow, yellow corn, summer berries—are felt metaphors of fulfillment, and its diction manages to avoid naïveté while maintaining an appropriate simplicity:

     I am going to walk far to the East
     i hope to find a good morning
     I am going to race my own voice
     i hope to have peace
     somewhere …

By the time the poem arrives at its final refrain, its language has enacted a measured movement to a point of calm:

     I do not cry
     for i am man
     no longer
     a child of your

     There is nothing which does not
      come to an end
     And to live seventeen years is good
      in the sight of God.

This calm carries over into "Father and Daughter," the final entry in a diary which began, in We a BaddDDD People, with "A Poem for My Father." In this early work the anger is open and raw:

     when i remember your
     deformity   i want to
     do something about your
     makeshift manhood.

The vengeful rhythms of these lines allow no dialogue; but "Father and Daughter," deliberately repeating the title of an earlier poem which ends in a vision of destruction, moves quietly into a portrayal of family. The grandchild who frolics between father and daughter is an emblem of generation and reconciliation, as is the image of snow melting into a river. The final lines, slowing the graceful rhythm of the poem, pointedly return to the image of the cross with which "A Poem for My Father" closes. "Father and Daughter," which begins with the act of talking, concludes with a rejection of the gesture made in the earlier poem and an acceptance of a shared human frailty:

     your land is in the ashes of the South.
     perhaps the color of our losses:
     perhaps the memory that dreams nurse:
     old man. we do not speak of crosses.

The sense of reconciliation here evoked has its corollary in "Kwa Mamu Zetu Waliotuzaa." Alternating discursive, image-filled passages of verse with rhythmic, incantatory refrains, this poem enacts a ritual quest for peace that is finally attained through the hypnotic mantras of the closing lines:

     the day is singing
     the day is singing
     he is singing in the mountains
     the nite is singing
     the nite is singing
     she is singing in the earth …

This poem, as much as anything else in I've Been a Woman, actualizes the condition of being earthbound. The journey begun with Homecoming ends here, in a vision of earth and roots and parenting.

Rosemary K. Curb (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: "Pre-Feminism in the Black Revolutionary Drama of Sonia Sanchez," in The Many Forms of Drama, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, University Press of America, 1985, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Curb discusses Sanchez's revolutionary plays and states that the plays "dramatize the need for active cooperation among black women in political struggle for sexual as well as racial justice."]

In 1960 when the first sparks of Black racial discontent were igniting the roaring conflagration of the Black Revolution, Sonia Sanchez was twenty-five. At twenty she graduated from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts and continued graduate study at New York University. She had been writing poetry since her childhood in Birmingham, Alabama. By the mid-sixties, Sanchez was raising two sons as a single mother and declaiming her poetry at Black Power Conferences in northern cities across the country. She was generally regarded as the leading female literary voice of Black Revolution.

In the now classic collection of the period titled Black Fire, edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, published in 1968, only four of the fifty-six poets included are women. Barbara Simmons has one poem, Lethonia Gee two, Carol Freeman three, and Sonia Sanchez four. "To AM Sisters" by Sanchez succinctly presents the movement's orthodox position regarding the obligation of Black women to bolster Black male ego by reassuring Black men about their superior sexual power: "there ain't / no MAN like a Black man."

In most of her poetry and drama in the sixties, Sanchez promotes racial separatism, but she also hints at sexist oppression within the Black movement. Her recurring sub-motif, less popular with male revolutionaries than separatism, is the loneliness and sense of betrayal of Black women, loyal to the hope of a future Black nation, deserted by the men to whom they have given an almost religious allegiance. The lonely bitter female speaker in the more emotionally and rhetorically complex poem "summary," [sic] published in Black Fire, apparently represents many Black women in America, even though she has not recognized the collective nature of her oppression nor the collective male benefit of keeping women separated from each other in their private anguish.

Most of the Black revolutionary plays by women and men in the sixties present a majority of male characters. When unrelated women are presented together, they are usually portrayed competing for male attention. Among the ten plays is only one by a woman. "The Suicide" by Carol Freeman encourages woman-hating by portraying women abusing each other. A character called The Cop shouts: "Hey, Come in here, you gotta see this! Nigger bitches fighting over a dead man."

In Black revolutionary drama in the sixties female characters are rarely portrayed cooperating on a project which primarily aids women. Rarely do we see women educating each other about male oppression and offering strategies for independence and autonomy. Bell Hooks analyzes the motives of the sexist male revolutionaries:

Black leaders, male and female, have been unwilling to acknowledge Black male sexist oppression of Black women because they do not want to acknowledge that racism is not the only oppressive force in our lives. Nor do they wish to complicate efforts to resist racism by acknowledging that Black men can be victimized by racism but at the same time act as sexist oppressors of Black women.

About the same time that Black Fire appeared, Sonia Sanchez started writing plays because the longer dramatic form was useful when a poem could not contain her political message. The first published play by Sanchez appeared in The Drama Review special issue on Black Theatre, edited by Ed Bullins. The short play The Bronx Is Next is set in Harlem in the midst of a racial revolution. Revolutionaries are burning all the buildings in a poor section to force the construction of livable housing units. A character called Old Sister, who is judged by the male leaders to be too attached to her oppressive past in Birmingham, is sent back to her apartment to go up in smoke with her possessions.

The play's other female character, called Black Bitch, projects the strident Sapphire stereotype so despised by male leaders of the movement as a threat to male superiority. The woman is devalued as both promiscuous, if not actually a professional prostitute, and non-separatist. Not only is she caught in a compromising intimacy with a white policeman, but she spews forth condemnation of Black men's abuse of Black women, to which the male leader responds. "Oh shit. Another Black matriarch on our hands." The leader immediately punishes and humiliates her with a brutal sexual assault and then sends her back to her apartment to burn in the holocaust. Although the Black Bitch character criticizes abusive men, she is portrayed as an enemy of the revolution who must be sacrificed for the future purity of the Black nation. In the context of the dramatic piece her complaints sound trivial and irrelevant if not downright Black-hating.

Sanchez created her second play Sister Son/ji for New Plays From the Black Theatre, edited by Ed Bullins. This dramatic monologue presents in flashbacks five periods in the life of a Black revolutionary woman. Although the single speaking character does not present herself as a feminist, she acknowledges woman's frequent devaluation by abusive men intoxicated with self-importance. As Son/ji grows from her first act of resisting racism to a sense of betrayal by male revolutionaries who seduce and abandon women to maturity borne of loss and survival, the reader/audience watches the character grow into solitary strength.

At the opening, the title character appears to be an old woman collecting her memories. With grey hair, bowed head, dragging feet, she turns and addresses the audience from her dressing table: "i ain't young no mo. My young days have gone, they passed me by so fast that i didn't even have a chance to see them. What did i do with them? What did i say to them? Do i still remember them? Shd i remember them?" She recalls sadly that all four of her sons are buried there in Mississippi, and she decides to "bring back yesterday as it can never be today." With costume and makeup transformations, she changes into a successively older character, while lighting changes punctuate each flashback.

As a young Negro woman of eighteen or nineteen in the first flashback, Son/ji breathlessly tells her boyfriend Nesbitt, who has come up for the weekend from Howard University, how she raged out of her political theory class at Hunter College because the "ole/bitch" professor could not distinguish her from the other two Black women in a class of twelve students. Son/ji's first assertion of Black pride and rebellion against passive white racism is tinged with woman-hating:

she became that flustered red/whiteness that ofays become, and said but u see it's just that—and i finished it for her—i sd it's just that we all look alike, yeah, well damn this class

When the more conventional Nesbitt, fearful of offending white authority, apparently chides Son/ji for her impulsiveness, she replies: "it might have been foolish but it was right, after all at some point a person's got to stand up for herself just a little." Ironically Son/ji submits to Nesbitt's will to seduce her in the well-baited trap of his father's car and reluctantly loses her virginity. Aware of his insensitivity to Son/ ji's loss and her desperate desire for his approval, she asks: "nesbitt do u think after a first love each succeeding love is a repetition?"

In the next flashback Son/ji remembers learning at a Black Power Conference "about blk/women supporting their blk/ men, listening to their men, sacrificing, working while blk/ men take care of bizness, having warriors and young sisters." Although Sister Son/ji calls the asymmetry of the sexes within the movement "blk/love/respect between blk/men and women," the subtext of the orthodoxy demands female subservience to the male will to power.

While the ostensible purpose of asserting increased male dominance within the Black movement was to strengthen the race by glorifying Black masculinity and destroying the supposed Black matriarchy, Bell Hooks regards the promotion of patriarchy as a racist devaluation of Black women.

By shifting the responsibility for the unemployment of Black men onto Black women and away from themselves, white racist oppressors were able to establish a bond of solidarity with Black men based on mutual sexism. White men preyed upon sexist feelings impressed upon the Black male psyche from birth to socialize Black men so that they would regard not all women, but specifically Black women as the enemies of their masculinity.

Sanchez illustrates Son/ji's growing consciousness of the selfish hypocrisy of male leaders by juxtaposing the public rhetoric of the meeting with Son/ji's private lament to the particular man whose power she is supporting:

Is there time for all this drinking—going from bar to bar. Shouldn't we be getting ourselves together—strengthening our minds, bodies and souls away from drugs, weed, whiskey and going out on Saturday nites. alone. what is it all about or is the rhetoric apart from the actual being/doing? What is it all about if the doings do not match the words?

Just as she effectively counterpoints Sonji's first act of rebellion against white racism with her submission to seduction, "the mutual love and respect" that Sanchez believes essential for the growth of Black families seems out of Son/ji's reach. She finds herself trapped: assertive behavior wins her the label "bitch," but continued passive behavior reaps only further abuse and desertion.

In the next brief scene, which begins softly and builds to a crescendo, Sister Son/ji seems to be breaking down. In her mania, she weaves Black Power slogans with fragments from radio shows and childhood games, personal pleas to the man in her life with public shouts against white racism.

THE CRACKERS ARE COMING TO TOWN TODAY. TODAY TODAY. HOORAY. where are u man? hee. hee. hee. the shadow knows. we must have an undying love for each other. it's 5 AM in the morning. i am scared of voices moving in my head. ring-around-the-honkies-a pocketful-of-gunskerboomkerboomwehavenopains. the child is moving inside me. where are you? Man yr/son moves against this silence. he kicks against my silence. Aaaaaah. Aaaaaah. Aaaaaah. oh. i must keep walking. man, come fast. come faster than the speed of bullets—faster than the speed of lightning and when u come we'll see it's SUPER-BLOOD. HEE. HEE. HAA. FOOLED U DIDN'T IT? Ahhh- go way. go way voices that send me spinning into nothingness.

The absent but imagined deserting husband has become transformed in Sister Son/ji's fantasy into a Black macho superman. Her hollow laughter, which acknowledges the empty facade of masculinity, becomes increasingly chilling.

In the next scene Son/ji is an emotionally cool revolutionary warrior wearing a gunbelt and a baby carrier. She is preparing for an attack by the white forces by sending her younger children away from the battlefield with lunches, while her thirteen year old son Mungu fights and dies in the war. Son/ji resists accepting white people who have come to aid the Black revolutionary cause. In accord with Black Muslim tradition, she calls them "devils." Son/ji says that she does not "mind the male/devils here but the female/devils who have followed them." After grieving for her son, she calls for the expulsion of a "devil/woman" who has apparently attached herself to one of the Black warriors:

have we forgotten so soon that we hate devils. that we are in a death struggle with the beasts. if she's so good. so liberal. send her back to her own kind. Let her liberalize them. Let her become a camp follower to the hatred that chokes white/america.

Sister Son/ji suggests executing the man if he tries to keep his white female lover in the camp. Michele Wallace, analyzing the sudden increase of northern middle class white women going down South to battle for civil rights and becoming involved with Black men, conjectures that the women were eager to avoid being called racist. Inevitably Black women despised the influx of white women who were attracting Black male attention.

The third revolutionary play published by Sanchez in the sixties. Uh, Uh; But How Do It Free Us? presents three scenes which have no narrative connection but which illustrate the oppression created by power imbalance implicit in sexual polarity. The oppressed women in each scene suffer as a direct result of male selfishness and vanity. The male antagonists in the first and third scenes are portrayed as less pernicious than the female competitors for male attention.

The absurdist middle scene throws light on the power struggles in relationships dramatized more realistically in the framing first and third scenes. In the absurdist scene four (Black) brothers and one white man ride rocking horses as a theatrical metaphor for their narcotic addictions. A Black woman and a white woman, both called whores and costumed appropriately, cater to the sado-masochistic fantasies of the men by whipping them and bringing them cocaine upon demand. The scene concludes with a bizarre "queen contest" between the Black whore and the character now called "white dude" prancing around the stage in drag and shouting, "See, I'm the real queen. I am the universe." Finally the white dude punches his opponent to the floor declaring, "Don't look at her. She's Black. I'm white. The rightful queen." The scene suggests that all women are servants and caretakers for all men, regardless of race, but that only Black men possess the true macho qualities inherent in the American masculine stereotype. White men easily degenerate into women.

The first and third scenes both centrally portray Black revolutionary leaders whose vanity requires the sexual and nurturing attention of several women. Malik's two wives, both pregnant, are not sufficient to feed his insecurity. The reassurance of conquest is luring him on to pursue other women. The conservative homebody Waleesha contrasts with younger revolutionary activist wife Nefertia. Despite his past attentions, Malik has apparently tired of both of them by the time the play opens. Michele Wallace notes that the inordinate value placed on Black masculinity tended to devalue Black women's humanity to such an extent that young Black women were dropping out of school because their boyfriends had convinced them that doing anything other than having babies and performing domestic chores was "counterrevolutionary."

The longer, more fully developed third scene dramatizes the dilemma of an unnamed Black man. Both costume and stage set illustrate the split allegiance of the revolutionary leader. His costume is half African dashiki and half white American business suit. One side of the stage is the apartment of a white woman, the Black man's weakness/addiction but also his source of material wealth. The other half is the apartment he shares with a Black woman who has come to California from New York to live and work for the revolution with him. As the Black woman becomes more well known in the movement, the Black man's interest in her and devotion to her decline:

It's just hard for me, you know, to see you up there on stage gittin' all that applause. Makes me wonder why you chose me. After all, I'm not really famous yet. I'm working on it. But you, everybody knows you.

The frantic oscillation of the man called Brother between Black and white women finally reaches a climax on the evening he tries to be with both of them simultaneously. Although Brother refuses to accompany Sister to her reading, he promises to wait at their apartment for her return. Meanwhile he rushes over to his white woman lover, who is drowning her grief at her anticipation of losing Brother to Sister with Scotch and sleeping pills. Brother frantically tries to wake her.

I am committed to you, lady. Don't nobody mean to me what you mean to me. C'mon, baby, you gonna be all right. I'm you mannnn. Nothing can change that, you know. So what if she's having a baby. It's something she wanted. I guess it fulfills her as a Black woman, but it didn't bother you and me, baby. Not us. We were together before she came and we'll stay together.

Brother thanks the unconscious white woman for the money that put him through school, money that enables him to travel and dress well. He even says, "I'm a man because you've allowed me to be a man."

Although Brother seems to need the white woman's affection and approval as much as he needs her money, other Black men justified their involvement with white women not only as a means of gaining money to support themselves and the movement (a curious blend of masculine and political prostitution) but also used the sexual availability and willingness of white women, who "didn't put them down and made them feel like men" as a means of controlling or devaluing Black women. According to Michele Wallace, some Black men regarded a white woman as "a piece of the white man's property that he might actually obtain."

In the final confrontation with Brother, Sister unleashes her fury: "To you being a Black woman means I should take all the crap you can think of and any extra crap just hanging loose. That ain't right, man, and you know it too." Like Son/ji, Sister urges Brother to follow the puritan code of abstinence from alcohol, drugs, and tobacco that the revolution preaches. After the man makes his final exit, Sister decides not to leave him because she believes that he will change.

He'll understand why a Black man must be faithful to his woman, so she'll stop the madness of our mothers repeating itself out loud…. I am the new Black woman. I will help the change to come. Just gots to rock myself in Blackness in the knowledge of womanly Blackness and I shall be.

All three Black revolutionary plays by Sonia Sanchez produced or published in the sixties portray Black women being abused by Black men. The two female characters in the first play are verbally condemned by the male revolutionaries and rewarded for their self-assertion of counterrevolutionary views with the "poetic justice" of extermination. The play does not present them as strong or even sympathetic characters.

Sister Son/ji, however, is portrayed as heroic in her solitary strength. Nevertheless, the man or men who abuse her are not presented as representatives of the oppressive system of patriarchy but as isolated flawed men. Thus Son/ji's struggle against masculine vanity is seen as an isolated dilemma. At no point does she acknowledge that any portion of her suffering results from a system of male domination which separates women from mutual struggle. Despite her name, Sister Son/ji seems bereft of loving and supportive sisters. She exhibits no hint of feminist consciousness or sense of solidarity with other women battling against patriarchy. Both Sister Son/ji and Sister in the third section of Uh, Uh; But How Do It Free Us? survive alone. Even though the women are admirable, such dramatic portraits do not promote the liberation of Black women.

Bell Hooks explains how sexism within the male Black revolution camouflaged the need to struggle against women's oppression and silenced Black women from speaking out in their own behalf:

Without a doubt, the false sense of power Black women are encouraged to feel allows us to think that we are not in need of social movements like a women's movement that would liberate us from sexist oppression. The sad irony is of course that Black women are often most victimized by the very sexism we refuse to collectively identify as an oppressive force.

Although none of the three revolutionary plays by Sonia Sanchez asserts a conscious feminist position, their portrayals of the victimization of strong women constitute a preliminary raising of consciousness. They dramatize the need for active cooperation among Black women in political struggle for sexual as well as racial justice. Chronologically the plays progress toward feminism.

Further Readings

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Clark, Sebastian. "Sonia Sanchez and Her Work." Black World 20, No. 8 (June 1971): 41-8, 96-8.

Discusses the main themes found in Sanchez's poetry and asserts that "her very life-style is perpetually proposed as a link to the ideals and realizations of Blackness which so profoundly pervades her work."

Root, William Pitt. "Anything But Over." Poetry 123, No. 1 (October 1973): 34-56.

Provides an overview of Sanchez and her poetry.

Sonia Sanchez with Herbert Leibowitz (interview date Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1985)

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SOURCE: "Exploding Myths: An Interview with Sonia Sanchez," in Parnassus, Vol. 12, No. 2, and Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter, 1985, pp. 357-68.

[In the following interview, Sanchez discusses her poetry and the development of her career.]

[Leibowitz:] Do you think there is a feminine sensibility which differs conspicuously from that of the male?

[Sanchez:] Yes. Women are quite different from men in what they feel and think and how they view the world. I use feminine imagery which is drawn from ancient cultures. I use words like Olokun—she is the goddess of the sea—so that people understand when we're talking about the sea that we're talking about women. I use Oshun and Yémaya who are the female riverain goddesses. Some of these goddesses use bells to announce, resoundingly, their teachings. From the pine tree to water reflecting water, a lot of my poetry expresses what it means to let people taste and feel sweetness and power running together, hate and love running together, beauty and ugliness also running together. My poetry has talked about what it means to be a woman ironically, too, in portraits of women who have been violated, as the earth has been violated. I try to focus attention on injustices, on wrongs, but I try to do it in a way that is both sharp and loving. Black poetry often incorporates "playing the dozens," that bawdy and tough talk about family and love and race. Americans never had people talk to them in this fashion, at least not out loud. What some of us women poets did was come out with a sprinkling of curse words to needle the finicky.

Do you think there's a language which belongs to women, to black women poets?

Sometimes. Sometimes. It depends on the subject matter, on whether the poem happened to be cerebral, political, lyrical, or just moving somewhere else.

Do the young women on the street play the dozens in the same way that the young males do?

I think it's less violent with women. We hear it and understand it but we play it less, of course. It was a way of getting attention, of bringing black culture into poetry. You can't criticize the poetry unless you understand the culture. And if you don't understand the culture, you don't understand Sterling Brown or Gwendolyn Brooks or Margaret Walker, their use of blues, poetry, and folk poetry, and black language. In the same way, I can't criticize the poetry of other ethnic groups in this country, not unless I first study their histories. Just because people are what I call "American-made" does not necessarily mean that they can be quickly analyzed. My generation and perhaps the generation coming after me did not play the dozens in such a violent way, but young women in the schools today are as "bad" as some of the young men. (I mean "bad" in the good sense.) They have no compunctions against saying and doing what they damn well please.

How does black dialect and the vitality and humor of street talk get into your poems?

That happens from listening and talking and speaking, not just as an adult but as a little girl. Not, interestingly enough, as an Alabamian, not those eight years in Alabama. My memory is very quick on that because when we came to New York City I remember we didn't have a southern accent—you know how people expect you to have a southern accent? Well, we didn't—and we had not even eaten chitterlings. We spoke very tactfully, very properly, no street talk. My father was a schoolteacher in Alabama. But we learned street talk because everyone else outside the house spoke it. I learned it consciously. I made mistakes initially and people would laugh. And it was hard for me because I was a stutterer as a young girl. And I didn't stop stuttering until I came out of high school at sixteen; I would memorize how I was going to say things, so when the words came out they came out right. I'd listen very carefully and I'd never say anything unless I repeated it twenty times in the sanctity of my room, in the sanctity of my head, and going down the hallway; then I would come outside and burst right out with it.

You have a very good ear for street talk.

My stepmother, who was a very interesting woman, spoke what I call black English. I remember coming home from school and carrying on dual conversations with her. In school, they were pulling us to get beyond ourselves, beyond our "defects." But I used to listen to the students who would not conform in class, the hip kids. I would walk with them sometimes and think, "that's really a great way of saying it." But above all, I remember my grandmother, who also spoke in black English. She was not an educated woman but I remember listening to her imagery. I didn't stutter when my grandmother was alive, only after she died (I was about six). It was a kind of self-protection, I think. No one bothered me once I began to stutter; people would say, "oh, she's strange, a quiet one. Give her food and leave her alone." So I sat and read and wrote and no one really intruded. But when my grandmother was alive and spoke, I remember taking her words sometimes and repeating them. "Why?" she would ask. "Because I like to float into words," I answered. Now that was a child's way of saying that her words were beautiful and couched in interesting similes and images. I could really see them floating. And she was so permissive and loving that she allowed the imitations. She knew I wasn't mocking her. She gave me that language. Now I hear some little kid out in the street acting tough and sassy and speaking black English, and I'll stop and talk to him and say, "isn't that pretty?"

Black kids invent metaphors with ease?

Their metaphors are unbelievable. I taught one of the first courses in black English at San Francisco State. The English Department was wondering what in the hell I was going to do. I shrugged. "I know how the students will greet me, how nervous they'll be in the classroom. I'm going to let them understand that black English exists alongside standard English and that it's fascinating." I didn't know how to teach it initially. I had to fight through it, to come home and even battle myself, but that was a very exciting class. My students were able to release a part of themselves without shame or guilt.

When did you write your first poem?

In Alabama, after Momma died. I must have been seven. I was sitting in the corner and I had a real "Live" stepmother—I had three of them—who was really classic, mean like in the fairy tales. She came over and grabbed what I was doing and read it to someone (I believe it was her sister) who said, "that's a poem!" My first real poem as such, if you can call a ten-year-old's scribblings poems, was about my grandmother, memories of her that began to come back in a very sharp fashion in New York. We were not accustomed to living in a small apartment, or to a bedroom window that faced a blank wall. I began to suffer from claustrophobia. The poem was about Mama and how she let me run; I ran with the boys instead of playing with dolls. She allowed that. I could come home with my dresses torn and she'd say, "Don't put those on her, she's not a fancy girl." I've never worn frilly things; I've kept my style to this day. If I see little girls dressed in pinafores, I collapse. So the first piece I wrote was about that. I don't have it anymore. You get older, and see that it's terrible and throw it out. But the Schomburg—I'm giving my papers to the Schomburg Collection—they get upset about things like that. The first poem I ever published, in the New England Review, was again about the South. Once an aunt and I were on a segregated bus on which blacks could only sit at the back and whites up front. When it got very crowded, blacks had to move to the last seat and when it got jammed, they had to stand up. That day the driver stopped it and said, "Get the hell off." Well, she wouldn't get off You know how tall I am now, you can imagine at that age how little I was. I was also very thin. I was holding on to her. This bus driver came towards her and she spit on him. There was an uproar and so she was rushed out of town under cover of darkness.

Why did you choose poetry instead of prose?

I don't know. Perhaps because of the fun with words I had with Momma. I've always been trying to recreate that. I did it in a streetwise manner in New York City where I spent all my years from nine on. We spent time playing dozens, and tripping people out. The poems were my way of protesting: how could you let me grow up in this country and not tell me about black history? How could you make me feel so inferior? Playing with words, as i used to, was like going outside and running and jumping over walls and getting cuts that are still with me. I was running into words because I thought they were so inventive and beautiful. My grandmother was a deaconness, and the Sisters would have meetings on Saturdays at our house. I'd go behind the couch or sit under a table and listen. That's where I learned how to watch people. My grandmother would become very emphatic about a particular kind of woman she respected or despised and to this day I identify people from what she said to me.

In Homegirls and Handgrenades you do have several long pieces that are not exactly short stories, not prose, but prose poems. You seem to have moved quite comfortably into vignettes that remain poetic. Everybody's favorite seems to be"Just Don't Never Give Up on Love."

That's one of my favorites also.

How did it come to be written?

It really is unbelievable. One morning I went out to the playground with my twins. I saw this old woman who was not eighty-four, but ninety-four; no one would believe that someone ninety-four could be that lucid. I'd come outside to read a book and write a review for a journal. When I got up on her, she was nodding in the sun, and she opened one jaundiced eye. My whole body movement said, "Don't bother me, old woman; I have work to do." I sat with my back to her and opened the book I'd been assigned to review. Anyway, as I watched the twins go back and forth, I suddenly felt this nudge and it was she. She actually had slid across from her end of the bench to the middle. I turned and began to stutter—I reverted—because I didn't know what she wanted or what she was saying. Looking at me, she said her first words in black English, and I responded: "Look, woman, please don't talk to me, I have work to do, I'm so far behind that people are screaming and it's my fault." But she was very persistent, as older people are, and kept talking. When I said something abrupt like, "yeah, that's nice," she laughed. I stopped, then put my book down, and looked at her because this old woman really laughed, and she said, "you've got some kind of spunk about you, after all. Come on, sit close to me." She had been married five times, though she talked about two marriages. The first man was beautiful, but he would have killed her if she hadn't left him. Afterwards I hugged her and the next day there she was and we talked again.

Which writers were the important influences on your work?

When I first started to write in school I had to read the usual people—Longfellow, Whittier, Scott—and I knew I didn't write poetry like them. I never read any real modern poets until I was in college. And then I found a black woman in the library on 145th St. who gave me Langston Hughes and Pushkin, which was fascinating. I'd come in and she'd say, "you're always in the poetry section. You should read this man because he was a black man." And then she said, "Have you read Robert Browning?" She began to redirect me, handing me, interestingly enough, some of the Latin poets I'd never touched, and though I didn't quite understand some of their imagery, I still read the poems. I didn't understand Pushkin completely but I read him.

Louise Bogan was a very important influence. I studied with her at NYU. One of the first things she said was: If you're going to write poetry, you must read it aloud. None of us believed that. I was one of the first people who had to read aloud in that class, and as I read the damn poem, Bogan, in her droll, distant fashion, remarked, "Did you read that poem aloud, Miss Sanchez?" The rest of the students looked at me as if to say: I'm glad it's you. I was literally caught, and I started to fake it. Bogan just looked away and commented, "Well, I hear some problems in the poems." But she never rewrote any of the content, and I felt safe on that point.

At that time of course I didn't write anything that really said anything about being black or being a woman because no one wanted to bring her face or sex to anyone's attention; that was naughty, especially if you were a woman who declared "I'm a woman." People would say, "Please, you shouldn't be writing poetry if you're a woman. Or if you're black, by god, you shouldn't be writing poetry at all." So I never referred to it. But every now and then something would creep in. Usually I'd write a mild little poem about something that was happening in the south; the civil rights struggle was intense. And a poet in the workshop said: "We don't want to hear that at all." It was really rough.

How did Bogan respond to your poems?

I never came out and asked: "Do you think I can write?" She remarked dryly, "There are some people who can write and others who can't. I would say that you can write if you work and study form." Then I began to read her work and I saw her structures. This classical woman poet was shaping a lot of us. Though some resisted form as too rigorous, I did not because I thought that my sprawling work needed form. To this day, I teach my students the villanelle, the sonnet: I preach all the exercises and discipline that Bogan gave to me. I began to move, to see how form can work, can demand a certain kind of response. That was very important for me. I realize now that she was not necessarily interested in her students. She was not a woman who'd open up to you, but she was honest and fair. That was what I needed.

It sounds fortunate to have had so rigorous a mentor at the foundation of your career rather than somebody who was permissive. What other poets exerted an influence on you?

Neruda and Lorca for their imagery, their showing that you could pile image on image and still make people understand. Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker. At the Schomburg Collection, I met Jean Hutson, the curator, who told me that the library was devoted to books about black folk. My reaction was, "You must be kidding." I had just gotten out of Hunter College and hadn't read anything by blacks. She gave me an entire library; that's where I first read W. E. B. Dubois, Claude McKay, and Zora Neale Hurston. One day I turned to Jean Hutson and said: "I'm going to have my books in here," and she looked at me as though thinking that I was a rash young woman, but now she tells my students, "This is the young woman who vowed that one day she'd have her books in here," and she hugged me. After I read these black writers, I knew I was on the right track. They nurtured me. Later on I greedily read a lot of women poets: Atwood and Piercy, Brooks and Walker, Dickinson and Bogan. Then I began to buy books of poetry—that's the one thing I would spend money on—and write in the margin, to indicate the things I liked and disliked. I also read aloud. Bogan really insisted that a poet must read her work aloud. She said, "You will not always have people with you who will tell you whether something's good or bad, but your ear will."

Could you talk about Neruda's importance to your writing of political poems?

My early poetry was introspective, poetry that probably denied or ignored I was black. I wrote about trees, and birds, and whatever, and that was hard, living in Harlem, since we didn't see too many trees, though I did draw on my residual memories of the South. People kept saying to me, if you write a political poem, it will be considered propaganda—an ineffective and poor poem—but I read Neruda and saw that he didn't deny the personal. In the early Sixties I became aware that the personal was the political. Even my loneliness was never just my own but a much larger loneliness that came out of a society that did not encourage blacks to learn for the sheer joy of it, to expand beyond drinking a bottle of beer at the end of the day and watching the idiot box. I may show you a picture of an alienated and hostile person, but there are reasons for it, and lessons to learn, too.

You call your latest book Homegirls and Handgrenades. A hand grenade is very explosive, destructive. Do you intend us to think that poetry is in some way like a grenade?

The hand grenade can also explode myths. Take the poem about the Amtrak ride. It really happened. A young/old/black man bopped on at Newark; he had a mobster's look. I immediately put my shopping bag on the seat, warning him that I didn't want to be bothered. He looked away but sure enough, he sat right behind me and began to talk to a middle-class white man. I heard this man inhale, from unease, you know, and I felt that the young old man heard it also. They had a conversation that I had to record because myths exploded there. It finally ended with the man not taking in those uneasy breaths and the black man saying simply. "I've been trying to deal with the problem of how non-work makes you less of a man in this country" and then they said goodbye and smiled at each other. That's what I mean: hand grenades are the words I use to explode myths about people, about ourselves, about how we live and what we think, because this is really the last chance we have in this country.

Were you stereotyped as a political poet?

Writing has been a long, tense road of saying what I wanted and needed to say. When I gave my book Love Poems to a friend, she said, "god, I didn't know you wrote love poems." But in every book of mine there's been a section of lyrical pieces. If you describe me, as some critics do, as a lyrical poet, I say yes, I am, but I'm also a hard-hitting poet and a political poet because this is a lyrical world and a terrible world, too, and I have to talk about that.

I have also been deeply involved in Philadelphia with what they call the literacy campaign. I go to older men and women who are learning how to read and read the poems aloud and discuss them. Once someone said to me. "I read that because it was about me, and I read it well." This person actually said good, I read it good, and I felt that she did read it good. "If this is poetry." they say, "I like poetry." And the whole point is to bring poetry to a larger audience, something I've tried to do for a long, long time.

Are you conscious of writing for a particular audience?

No—but I know my audience, if that makes sense. From the beginning I've had a black audience, women, and students, black and white. Now because of what's happening in this country, that audience has widened. I get letters from people saying "I understand what you're doing because I feel the same thing." What I felt as a woman, as a black woman, had to set translated to other women, too.

Ishwael Reed made a comment recently that he wished Alice Walker had written about strong black men rather than unreliable males in The Color Purple. Is there a conflict between black male and female writers?

America doesn't allow two or three major black writers to exist at the same time. You know the business: when Baldwin came along he had to kill off Wright, and when Ellison came along he had to kill off Wright, also, because Wright had maintained that position of power. Whether you have genius or not, if what you're saying sells, then by golly, by gee, they'll elevate you. Alice Walker is a talented woman. She's one of the nurtured, so therefore black success could happen.

Nurtured by?

By the establishment, by her publishers, purposely, so the flowering happens. Ishmael and some of the other writers are perhaps announcing: we, too, have something to say and it's not necessarily getting the play it deserves.

Not reaching the same wide audience?

Ish should understand that there's a different movement happening: a special interest in what women are saying, a lot of support of women writers now. Some black women writers are creating characters that reflect the negative aspects of some black men. The problem is that there's no balance in the marketplace. For that we shouldn't fault the writer; instead we should understand the need to provide progressive images. But black writers, male and female, have to maintain a sense of themselves, politically and as writers. I never look up to see who's better or worse. When I finish a reading and people come up and hug me, not because I've been sassy and smart but because I've prodded them and insisted that they think, and they say, "You've made me go another step." I know why I write.

My work, really, has always been motivated by love. In the Sixties, the country had to be shocked with the horror of how it had raised Negroes who hated themselves, who were bent on wiping themselves out, intent on not seeing themselves, on being invisible. So I have a poem about Norma, who had a genius for language. I saw her on 145th St. years later, with tracks on her damn legs. What in the hell could she have done? Can you imagine what her four little girls, involved in that drug scene, see and know? She said they're going to be different, but of course I knew they weren't going to be different. This is what, finally, I'm talking about in my poems.

What is your argument when somebody, not only a conservative, says that poetry transcends gender, that ultimately a poet has to be judged on the variety and brilliance of the language rather than on the question of being male or female, black or white?

That time has not arrived. So the poet must educate people, which is what a lot of us are doing. If someone says, I am this, because my hair curls when it gets in water, there can still be beauty in the work. There can still be brilliance in the language that informs. Exhorts.

Isn't there an implicit bias that such a poem favors content over style?

For many of us our change in style was synonymous with a change in content. This forged a new and exciting creation, movement.

Mallarmé's comment to Degas that poems are not made out of ideas but out of words is a favorite piety of modernism. Perhaps the twentieth century has gone too far in the direction of purity of language and we need the pendulum to swing back more toward substance.

Good poets write all kinds of poems. Women poets today might make a political statement about what it is to be Hispanic or black or Jewish, whatever; their poems give me an understanding of their pain, their joy, their determination to be what they are, what they want to be. This amplifies poetry as opposed to narrowing it.

What are your criteria for deciding whether poems are good?

Is it well structured? Is the imagery vivid? Is there beauty in it? I might say something smartly, but the poem must have another leap and another bound to it so that style and content can walk together, can become fused. When a poet relies only on the crutch of "I'm this or I'm that" and does not bring us the sharpened tools of craft, we have to look up and protest. Some people think that the poem should not have a race or gender; it should be weightless. Whether you're Wallace Stevens or Audre Lorde, you bring what you are to the poem.

Where does the criticism of your work come from? From black critics?

Mostly black critics. Black women critics have done some of the best work to date. But every audience I read to becomes a profound group of critics. Their reactions affect the work, affect me. When I write, I tune in to the collective unconscious, and there I hear voices, lines, words, I hear music. For a long time I rejected the music because I felt I couldn't sing, I'm not a singer, but now in some of my pieces, I do sing. In the Martin Luther King poem, I chant. When the chant first came out, I literally shook, I said what the hell, how can I do this? But I wrote it out. When Biko was killed in South Africa, the women had come out singing ke wa rona, ke wa rona, so I wrote that down, with some other words around it, to chant. It was frightening to me but I just did it. I wrote that poem for the University of Pennsylvania's celebration of King's forty-sixth birthday. As I stood up to recite it, I said, I will just say ke wa rona: Malcolm, ke wa rona: Mandela, ke wa rona: Martin, you know, and they will know what that's about. Forces had come to me while I wrote it and I did exactly what they wanted me to do.

When did the African influence enter your poetry? I take it you're fascinated by African religions.

There were some phenomena I could not explain, like the collective unconscious, but I wanted to. When I read Flash of the Spirit, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, I laughed. That's the person I talked to, that was Yemaya. I was born on the ninth month and the ninth day and one of the numbers for Yemaya is nine. I was bringing into the arena of poetry the sense of another sensibility, another way of looking at the world, another life force. If I touch you, I give you a life force, also. To those who record desolation and say you can't do anything about it, I'm affirming that a person can do something, I'm saying yes. In other words, I'm taking what might be considered a metaphysical concept, this collective unconscious, and using my relationship to it to change real things.

Sonia Sanchez with D. H. Melhem (interview date Fall 1985)

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SOURCE: "Sonia Sanchez: Will and Spirit," in MELUS, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 73-98.

[In the following interview, Melhem provides an introduction to Sanchez's career, which is followed by an interview in which Sanchez discusses the influences, themes, and forms of her work.]

Dynamic: the word immediately describes Sonia Sanchez and her art. Petite, attractive, her diminutive size, like that of actress Vinie Burrows, seems to acquire physical volume on stage. Born to Wilson L. and the late Lena (Jones) Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama, Sanchez was named Wilsonia after her father who had wanted a boy. She has an older sister, Patricia. Her half-brother, Wilson S. Driver, Jr., about whom she is writing, died in 1981.

At the age of nine, Sanchez moved to New York, where she attended elementary school, junior high, and George Washington High School. She was graduated from Hunter College in 1955. Selected for a poetry workshop, she studied at New York University with Louise Bogan, for whom she has the highest respect. Her daughter, Anita Sanchez, product of an early marriage, was born on May 24, 1957. The twin sons, Morani Meusi ("Black Warrior" in Swahili) and Mungu Meusi ("Black God") were born on January 26, 1968.

Sanchez has taught at several colleges, including San Francisco State (1967–69); University of Pittsburgh (1969–70); Rutgers University (1970–71); Manhattan Community College (1971–73); and Amherst College (1973–76). At Temple University, where she has been teaching since 1977, currently as Associate Professor, her courses include creative writing, Black Literature, and Women's Studies. She has taught at Graterford Prison as part of a community writing program since fall 1980. In our interview, April 1, 1981, at the Statler Hilton, New York, where she was staying for the Fifth Annual Conference of the National Council for Black Studies, she discussed her love of teaching:

I get a lot of joy out of teaching. I think it is important for those who have vision to be around students and make them see what this country is about and have them see their relationship to their parents…. A teacher can give them a sense of reality, a sense of the future, of what can be, what they can be. It makes them take chances, bring new ideas and new possibilities into the curriculum.

Sanchez speaks rapidly, fluently with conviction. One finds it difficult to believe she ever had a speech problem. The following exchange gives remarkable testimony to her will in overcoming the impediment and in determining early to write poetry.


[Melhem:] What was the first art form that interested you? When did you start writing, and was poetry your first genre of expression?

[Sanchez:] I think the first art form was poetry. I first started to write poetry when I was a little girl in Alabama. As a child I stuttered, and I was what Black people call "tongue-tied," too. It was a hell of a combination (laughs). So I would go, "Det-det-det-uhm"; I would go "Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-I." I was a very introspective kind of child as a consequence of that, and I started to write these little things on paper, and someone finally told me, "That's a poem," and I said "Oh!" And I just kept writing.

When we moved to New York, I continued to write; didn't show it to anyone, actually. One day my stepmother called me into the kitchen. You know how children wash dishes sometimes. I mean the dishes aren't clean, and she had, the way mothers do, she had decided to fill up that sink with hot water again, and she proceeded to put the dishes—all the dishes—back into the sink. She said they were greasy, what a terrible job I had done. And so when I heard her call, I ran, because the kind of call she actually sent into that bedroom was like, "You'd better get here in one minute, Sonia." So, I was writing a poem, and I left the poem on the bed, something I never did. No one knew that I wrote poetry in that house or had continued to write poetry. And I ran in there and I said, "Just a minute." She says, "Right now, young lady." So I was, sort of like, I had to do it at that point. Well, while I was washing dishes, out comes my sister with the poem in her hand, and I reached for it with my soapy hands, and she pulled away, and the whole family was in the kitchen, and she started to read this poem that I had written—I don't have a copy of it, I wish I did, about George Washington crossing the Delaware—(Laughter) you can imagine, right? Because we were home on holiday that day; it was George Washington's birthday, when it was celebrated on the twenty-second. And she read this poem, "Da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da, da-da." Well, I was utterly mortified. I was utterly hurt, and I felt so betrayed. So I grabbed—I finally grabbed it and took it into the bedroom and hid it someplace, and I came back, and they were all laughing at this poem I had written, and I was very much upset. So, from that point on, no one actually knew that I was still writing, because they never found anything….

You said that you stuttered. Now you are a beautifully articulate person. How did you get over it? Was it the poetry that helped you?

When I was in high school—you know in high school when you have to give all these damn speeches—


We were in a speech class, and the most terrible time for me was to get up and give a speech, or to open my mouth and say anything. I just very seldom talked to anyone, period. As I was studying this speech, oh, almost day in and day—every night. And I would read this speech for my sister—she says, "Oh, it's fine, it's fine." But what she meant by that was that she understood what I said, and so she had no difficulty with the way I presented it. But I was determined that I was going to give this speech without one stutter, because everybody, I was sure, was just laying for me to get up and make this speech and then to try and speak very fast at the same time and just wreck this whole thing. So when I got up to give my speech—and I was about the last person to give a speech, too—I took my nails and literally dug my nails into my hand like this. (Gestures.) And when I finished, I saw blood. And every time I heard a stutter begin, I would just go—(gestures).

That's amazing. You taught yourself, really, to stop. You conditioned yourself.

That's exactly what it was all about. Even time I felt pain I would just—(gesture). It wouldn't come out. When I finished, I said to my sister—we were in the same class—I said, "How was I? How was I?" She said, "It was o.k." I said, "No, but how was I?" What I was really asking her was had I stuttered. And she really hadn't paid any attention to it at all, because she was accustomed to the way I spoke, et cetera, but the difficult part about a stutterer is that he or she always hears the stutters, you see, in the back of the head. So for years, even though I didn't stutter, I always heard the stuttering. So it didn't make me all of a sudden, since I had "conquered" that, in quotes, o.k., that I was then going to jump up and just be a fantastic speaker. (Laughing.) I was still quiet in school.

(Laughs) Yes. It's like a fat person losing weight and still seeing that fat person in the mirror.

Yes. I still heard—in fact, that was even to the point the first time I had a reading in New York. I was going to chicken out and not read, because I figured I would get up there and just, you know, go out, stutter, whatever. And finally I said, "I'm not going to read." And they said, "Of course, you're going to read! Other people are reading, so you just go on out." So I went out and read a couple of poems, and I came back and I said, "How was it?" And they said, "Fine, Sonia," and I said, "I mean, really, how was I?" I went to another person, and he said, "O.k., Sonia." They thought I was getting a big head! What I was really afraid to ask was had I stuttered, because I still heard the stutters.

And it took me years, I mean throughout college days I always would be talking and still would hear the stutters. I mean for years, years, years. It's almost ironical that I decided to go into something which required talk, speech, whatever. And I don't know why I chose that. The interesting thing, when I was in school, when I was in college, I would say I wanted to be a lawyer. I wanted to go to law school, and again, the choice of speaking. It's almost really sadistic, I thought—(laughs).

Sort of an act of will.

Probably. Well, you know, my name is Wilsonia. My father's name is Wilson—


W-i-l-s-o-n. So they expected a boy and, as the custom sometimes in the South, sometimes they have relatives naming you, and I guess he was so disgusted with having another girl that he called someone in the family and said, "Well, I have another girl. I have no name. We were going to call this boy coming 'Wilson,' and now I have another girl." So she said, "Don't worry, I'll help you out." So she called back, my father tells the story, a couple of hours later. She said. "Well, name her 'Wilsonia,' after you. Benita. Wilsonia Benita." (Laughing.) So I had a tag called "Wilsonia Benita." And I always think that people do name you, on some levels, in some ways.

And you're right. I have always made use of the will as if it's a muscle, which needed to be exercised and trained and disciplined. And as a consequence, the only way I have ever been able to do anything is via disciplining myself, sometimes very harshly, I think. But otherwise I couldn't have done twelve books if I hadn't. I mean, working the way I've had to work, in my time, without that discipline.

Who and what were some important influences on your work? Haki Madhubuti, with whom your work has been compared, feels there have been only Black influences on his poetry. How would you view your own art in this respect?

I would say, when I first started to write, I read everything, and I still do, to this day. I read all poets, and when I teach in the classroom. I make my students read all poets. Period. Because they don't get much Black poetry. I would quite often read a lot of Black poets to them. Or because they don't get a lot of Latin poets or African poets, whatever, I will read a lot of that, also. I begin a class, always, with a poem that's not in the textbook that we have, and in that way, I'm always able to share other kinds of poets with them, which I think is important.

When I first started to write, I was reading—there's a librarian in my neighborhood—not actually my neighborhood but in the library, and she used to see me. I used to live in the library; I was in the library all the time. And finally she said, "Well, you read a lot." And I said, "Yes." And she says, "Do you like everything?" And I said, "Yes." Well, the next time I came she had Langston Hughes, for me, and she had Gwen Brooks, also, and someone else … Pushkin, also. I never forgot this Black woman who worked in that library, the first Black woman I found in the library. She said, "This man, you should read, because he was a Black man who lived in Russia." And my head just kind of swirled with that information, and I remember reading some of his poetry, not understanding it all, but being very much involved with the imagery, and just the sheer words, the power of the words, et cetera.

But I would just go in at will and pick up a poet's work. It didn't matter, really, who it was, and would read. In that manner, I stumbled across a man by the name of Lorca, and it was really wild, just roaming through that library. And to this day I love Lorca, you know, for the passion that's involved with his work, et cetera. And I remember reading his plays and also some of the things he had done at that time….

It was also my smutty period. One of the reasons why I was going to the library so often was because I was reading novels—(Laughter) and I was reading all the good parts of the novels. I had to go through the whole book to get to the good parts, sometimes. And so I always maintain that like you leave people alone, even when they're going through a smutty period, because if they're reading, it really doesn't matter what they read, as long as they continue to read.

[Sanchez also mentioned Zora Neale Hurston, Countee Cullen, and Sterling Brown as positive figures and influences. Paul Laurence Dunbar she found "coy": "One always felt that Dunbar was dealing with minstrels."]

You've written some fine tributes to Brown in I've Been a Woman. Beautiful tributes. Your reading, as well as your poetry, is both dramatic and musical. How did you develop your compelling style of presentation?

… It occurred to me at some point, and I tend to think that was in San Francisco, because in San Francisco we really, many of us really got out, began to get our teeth into that whole reading bit. And, you must remember, when we were reading poetry at that time, there was not that interest in poetry. Period. People had their ears tuned to radios and whatever, et cetera, and you know, something with a beat. So you had to engage people in a dialogue to draw them into what you were going to do. So I began to, when I got an audience that was like really rough or loud, or perhaps saying, "Well, what is this?" before someone comes on the scene, or "Where is this pot coming from?" before the dance or whatever, I began to talk about what the poem was about, or something about the poem which would lead right into the poem. And then you had people, they'd listen to what you said, and then, when you had their ear, you'd take them into a poem.

This was in the early sixties.

This was in the early sixties. This was also when the poetry began to change and move towards Black themes much more. We're talking about '65, '66. And what that meant simply is that, for some reason, I began to understand the need to integrate the talk with the poem—

The rapping with the reading

Yes. Right. And as a consequence, you didn't know where one began and where the other one left off, et cetera. It was such an integration of the two, which I think is quite often important.


After the sixties, her reputation grown as a figure in the new Black poetry and in the drive to establish college-level Black studies programs, Sanchez gave a year-long workshop at the Countee Cullen Library in Harlem. three hundred and sixty degrees of blackness comin at you, her anthology culled from the student writings, includes poetry, short stories, and plays. In 1972, as part of a cultural tour, Sanchez traveled to Guyana, Bermuda, and Jamaica; the following year to the People's Republic of China. She visited Cuba in the summer of 1979, on a tour sponsored by the Venceremos Brigade.

Introducing her first book, Homecoming, published by Broadside Press, Haki Madhubuti (then Don L. Lee) notes: "Black people's reality is controlled by alien forces. This is why Sonia Sanchez is so beautiful & needed; this is also why she is dangerous." He sees her poetry as love poetry, "the love of self & people," negating negative influences, inspiring pride and hope. The first poem, "home-coming," tells of her return home from college:

      i returned tourist
      style to watch all
      the niggers killing themselves with
      3 for oners
      not support
      their stutters.

The poet returns home as teacher. Her return to Black identity is a "home-coming." Stuttering becomes a metaphor of weakness. A practical moralist, she sees the self-destructive anger in her people and seeks to reverse its path. In "nigger," she scores use of the word among Black people and points the way to pride: "i know i am black. / beautiful. / with meaning. / nigger. u say. / my man / you way behind the set." The last phrase conveys being behind the times, not keeping up with the "set" or music being played; the term has come into general use at poetry readings. (Sanchez also favors the word gig, originally a jazz musician's job, in referring to her reading engagements.) There is a sense of colloquial, up-to-the-minute speech, the quickness of speed-writing ("cd" for "could," frequently), unconventional, attention-getting devices: words fully capitalized; words scattered on the page in relation to breath and emphasis; change of pace. Responding to my questions on technique, regarding her lowercasing Sanchez noted:

It has a lot to do with the ego on many levels; having to deal and control it and move in such a way that moving into work, moving into a realm that is important, but also making the writer be less important.

While her technique may be experimental, Sanchez's moral canon is a stern one, issuing from her own self-discipline. Like Madhubuti, she is a vegetarian who neither smokes nor drinks alcoholic beverages. She, too, views love as strictly heterosexual, ideally family-oriented, and shares his impatience with homosexuality. In "to a jealous cat" she warns her man "that jealousy's / a form of homosexuality." In "black magic," blackness proves essential to the power of love: "black / magic is your / touch." In "short poem," the intense lover says "he can / smell me coming," the gerund ambiguously connoting orgasm and approach. The poet wryly asks whether she should bottle the scent "and / sell it / when he goes," skeptically anticipating his departure, "to Chuck" parodies the style of e e cummings ("i'm gonna write me / a poem like / e.e. / cum / mings to / day."). It shows to advantage Sanchez's humor, admits of self-parody, and defends her lyricism while it acknowledges cummings' liberating features.

The personal poems in Homecoming are self-revelatory, full of anger and compassion for her sisters, edged with loneliness and melancholy introspection. The touching lyric, "poem at thirty," reflects upon her childhood when "i walked two / miles in my sleep," and depicts a poet who is still "traveling, i'm / always traveling." In a powerful image of isolation, the speaker describes how she spent "nights on a / brown couch when / i wrapped my / bones in lint and / refused to move." Then, in a gesture to another isolated being, she calls:

     you you black man
     stretching scraping
     the mold from your body.
     here is my hand.
     i am not afraid
     of the night.

The poem, begun in solitude, at midnight, a time of decision, at thirty, looks past early youth, struggles out of the self that "no one touches" anymore, toward a mature confrontation. Mounting its images toward growth, it culminates in a brave offering of love.

Again in first person, "summary," "a poem for the world / for the slow suicides / in seclusion," describes an unhappy "stuttering self" that projects its misery onto a perfidious American culture. Poems "to all brothers" and "to all sisters" attack Black stereotypes of white women, in the former, as desirable, in the latter, as exemplary. Sanchez assures her Black sisters that the white woman has no advantage, except her whiteness; that Black men are superior and worth loving, even though love may bring pain: "hurt ain't the bag u / shd be in. / loving is / the bag, man." The poet seeks to elevate the pride of both sexes, thus turning them to each other.

Of the political pieces, some address heroic figures: Malcolm X, Bobby Hutton of the Black Panthers, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. Others are general, like "small comment," a lesson in compulsive inquiry:

     the nature of the beast is the
     man or to be more specific
     the nature of the man is his
     bestial nature or to
     bring it to its elemental terms
     the nature of nature is
     The bestial survival of the
     fittest the strongest the richest …

The "man" is, of course, the white man. The poem instructs in both language and politics. As a sentence unpunctuated until the last words—"you dig?"—its rhetorical structure defines white capitalist American society. Like motifs or themes with variations, the words "man," "beast." and "nature" recur in new configurations and semantic contexts. Finally, the clear simple language has communicated both basic and complex issues.

Like many elegies by Black poets for the slain leader, "malcolm" elicits some of Sanchez's most moving lines and images. Its anger reflects Malcolm's own ("he said, 'fuck you white / man. we have been / curled too long, nothing / is sacred now.'"), yet it articulates an overwhelming sorrow. The poet, who will "breathe / his breath and mourn / my gun-filled nights," knows she, too, will die, and with delicacy asserts that "violets like castanets / will echo me." As she merges with the fallen Malcolm, "what could have been / floods the womb until i drown." But the womb connotes procreation and continuity. Though the grieving poet maintains "death is my pulse," she has assured us from the beginning that she rejects martyrdom: "i don't believe in dying."

Another political poem, "the final solution," asserts that America's version of genocide is sending Black men to fight in Vietnam. Sanchez speaks ironically from the leaders' viewpoint. "for unborn malcolms" splutters rage over the assassination, warns that revenge ("an eye for an eye") will be taken. Her triptych, "Memorial," comprises "1. the supremes—cuz they dead," a rebuke to a singing group as "bleached"; "2. bobby hutton," an angry elegy that ranks the Black Panther leader, martyred by policemen's bullets, with Denmark Vesey, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey; and "3. rev pinps," a poem that mocks translation of Black revolutionary fervor into sensuality. "ain't nothing political / bout fucking," she admonishes.

The two children's poems, "definition for blk/children" ("a policeman / is a pig / and he shd be in / a zoo") and "poem (for dcs 8th graders—1966–67)," the latter exhorting the capital's children to consider their proud history and blackness, target the thinking of Black children. "personal letter no. 2" ends the volume with another personal cry of loneliness that ends, nevertheless, with courage. "but i am what i am what i / am. woman. alone / amid all this noise." Amid disorder, chaos, a world of transience and disobedient children, the mature poet looks back wistfully at youth, remains stalwart, aware of realities and willing to face them.

We a BaddDDD People, published in 1970, was criticized for its "noisy exhortation." Haki Madhubuti found fault with its shrill sixties rhetoric and, like Dudley Randall, who wrote its Introduction, preferred Sanchez's more personal poems. Randall notes in the Introduction:

Some of her poems are political, but I think the most moving are those in which she talks of man and woman, of women and of drug addiction. It is apparent that she has suffered during the writing of this book. Her suffering has moved her to song, sometimes to inarticulate screams.

Suffering, much of it related to her marriage (Etheridge Knight had a drug problem), and political fervor mark this volume. It is dedicated to "blk/wooomen: the only queens of this universe." A breathless racing to uplift reveals most of the poems as rescue attempts. At times the emergencies override delays of shaping, grasp quickly at facile rhetoric. "221-1424 (San/francisco/suicide/number)," which, for this reason, Madhubuti suggests may be "a minor disaster," opens the volume and the first section, "Survival Poems." Yet its monologue dramatizes the ironic situation: a Black expressing rage, then feeling better and advising the "honky" at the suicide prevention number to "hang it up." "a poem for my father," the most personal, exposes a young woman's chagrin at the love affairs and six marriages of her father.

The main thrust of the book, however, is political. In "blk/rhetoric," she asks:

     who's gonna give our young
     blk/people new heroes
         (instead of catch / phrases)
         (instead of cad / ill / acs)
         (instead of pimps)

pointedly marking the syllables and words with a solidus. "catch" invokes "slavecatcher;" "cad," "ill," and "acs," negative images ("acs" suggests "aces," gambling, "acts," "axe"), join as Cadillac, automobile symbol of luxury and American capitalism. The poem is frankly "an S O S."

In the first section, personal poems commingle with public ones. The lyrical "personal letter no. 3" muses on time and aging, confessing that "sometimes after midnight / i am tired / of it all." "hospital / poem (for etheridge 9/29/69)" expresses the poet's feelings about her husband's immortality, despite medical predictions that he will die of drug abuse. Poems on television, like "summer/time T.V. / (is witer than ever)," attack white cultural values imposed on Blacks "in the yr/of/ tele/vised ass/asi/nations. 1968." In "blk/ chant" ("we programmed fo death/") and "in the courtroom." Sanchez continues to attack the falsity of white justice for Blacks, "on watching a world series game" suffers from the same excess as "221-1424," but "summer words of a sistuh addict" movingly interprets the history of a young drug addict. Shifting dramatically from the girl's voice, the poet ("someone") asks, "sistuh. / did u / finally / learn how to hold yo / mother?"

The second section, "Love/Songs/Chants," reveals Sanchez's ample lyric gifts; her personal struggle with the man she loves, who is "on shit" (heroin). She mourns, tries to retrieve his spirit, fails, and identifies with Billie Holiday, also a drug victim, in "for our lady." Having uttered her love in "poem for etheridge," she turns to "a chant for young/brothas/ & sistuhs," using her own tragedy of the man "who went out one day & died." The section ends with "blk / wooooomen / chant," a demand that Black men appreciate their women who have been

     waiten. waiten. WAITEN, WA1TENNNNNN
          A long AMURICAN wait.

In this section, so passionately expressive, typography clearly registers intensity, shifts in emphasis, rhythmical beats and breaks.

The last section, "TCB/en Poems," carries the acronym for "Taking Care of Business" or meeting one's commitments efficiently. The business here is "blk/nation/hood builden." In "listenen to big black at s.f. state," Sanchez calls for constructive action at San Francisco State, where she had taught, and praises Malcolm, Elijah Muhammad, and Amiri Baraka ("Imamu") as "chiefs." In a poem like "TCB" she reveals her humor, even while seriously criticizing the substitution of rhetoric for action. She repeats "white/motha/ fucka" with alternate endings of "whitey," "ofay," "devil," "pig," etc., and ends with, "now. that it's all sed. let's get to work."

Two of the strongest poems in the section, "we a baddDDD people (for gwendolyn brooks / a fo real bad one)," and the closing, "a/coltrane/poem," together with the Nina Simone tribute, reveal a vital jazz influence. Using an improvisational flux of rhythms, they sometimes attempt to imitate sounds of the instruments. The poem to John Coltrane, the great tenor saxophonist, is difficult to perform, as the poet notes in the next interview fragment. Despite occasional excesses of rhetorical zeal, its musicality leaps at the reader, confronting with possibly baffling passages of words and sounds to be sung, to be chanted.


[Melhem:] We a BaddDDD People, especially, reflects the influence of jazz improvisation. Do you want the reader to improvise interpretation of some of the musical passages, or do you prefer an attempt to achieve a uniform rendition?

[Sanchez:] I think that sometimes when people hear me read from We a BaddDDD People, they say to me, "I didn't read it that way," and I say, "That's o.k." I think poetry works on many levels. One level is to come hear the poet read her/his work. Another level is to take the poem home and then read it to yourself, quietly, silently. And then, at other times, for you to read it loud and then, whatever. And it doesn't really matter what that's all about….

One of the first poems that I did where I actually said "to be sung," it was in We a BaddDDD People. It was "a coltrane poem," but I never read it aloud. I would read it at home…. Well, to make a long story short, I was going to a gig at Brown University, and we had bad weather, and we were late coming into that place. And by the time I got there it was like nine thirty, ten o'clock, and the reading was supposed to be at eight, and people actually had stayed; they had gone to get something to eat and come back, and so I said. I'll have to give a good reading—these people have waited all this time. So I gave a long reading, about an hour and a half; I was really tired when I had finished. And one little hand went up in the audience and said (laughs): "Would you read the Coltrane poem?" Right? And I looked down, as if to say, "I'm tired; we've been circling this damn place for hours, and thinking we were going to run out of gas and have to go back to New York;" I mean it was really that kind of terrible kind of set. And then I said, "Well, since you've been such a good audience. I will."

So I read that poem. And I did the whole thing, from like banging on my thighs to singing and tapping my foot at the same time, and it was really interesting, the response. People actually started to stamp their feet and cheer. And, I don't know, wherever it was I was working—sometimes they send the things back to the universities when you're working, like "Professor So-and-So was here, and I thought you might want to hear"—and it seems that someone an editor or a newspaperman was in the audience, and when I finished reading that poem which talks a lot about Rockefellers—


and very graphic things—


that need to be done, he said that I was there instigating students, you know, to stretch people's necks, and (laughing) whatever whatever whatever. Because what they had done was they responded—not only response but a loud, standing up, going "Yeah" that kind of thing, and people actually were doing that, and I had never read that poem before.

When I started off I was so nervous, but the section that says, "are u sleepen / brotha john brotha john," which is the coltrane section in there, and then when I actually got to the part where I literally had to do the sounds that he had done, I kept thinking, I was like looking down in advance at it saying, "How the hell are you going to do this?" And I didn't really remember it. But the crowd was with me. It's amazing what a crowd will do, also. They were just that friendly and just such a good crowd, that by the time I got to it, people were making sounds in the audience at the same time. It was just like kind of a very interesting set.

And so it just flowed, until the time I got to "are u sleepen / brotha john," to the tune of "My Favorite Things," I literally had tears in my eyes, because I remember seeing Coltrane for the last time, here in New York when he was playing with Alice [Coltrane], and the whole group had left the stage and left the two of them on stage when she was playing the piano and he was playing, and they were playing back "My Favorite Things," which became very apparent that each one was the other one's "favorite thing."

And did you sing part of that?

Yes, I did. I sang it, I sang. I did the actual "Woo oo oo da" on down to the singing part, and I think I haven't read that poem no more than maybe ten times in my life, because it is an exhausting set, to do it. Period. But I think the times might demand that a poem like that come back, because it says a lot about capitalism and whatever….

Yes. I think it's an amazing poem, too. I know that you use slash marks in that, and in We a BaddDDD People you use slash marks a lot. Were they sometimes just arbitrary, or did you think of them in terms of breath or

I thought of them sometimes in terms of emphasis, sometimes in stoppage—

Different reasons, different functions


Yes. O.k. Were there musical and dramatic influences in your childhood environment?

Oh, yes, yes. My father, you see, is an ex-musician, and today, after I had finished talking, and he had come to hear me talk, a woman had come up, and I introduced my father to her, Queen Mother Moore, and he was talking about people like musicians were always around us in the South, and even in the North.

I was raised on Art Tatum; the music that we heard—I would walk in someone's house and hear Art Tatum playing, and people would say, "Art Tatum—well, how did you know Art Tatum?" My father would let us hear Art Tatum and, you know, Count Basie, and he took us down to Fifty-Second Street to meet people like Billie Holiday and introduce us to them.

Oh—you met Billie Holiday

Yes, Sid Catlett, people who used to work those clubs on Fifty-Second Street, you know, you would shake the hands, and whatever. He took us to the Paramount to meet Billy Eckstine, Count Basie, Art Tatum, Sid Catlett, the big drummer, people like that, but then at the same time, I remember in Alabama, when they had parties at night they would play songs by Billie and people like that, and I remember Bessie [Smith], but they wouldn't play them during the day, interestingly enough, but during the day the radio would go on to a Doris Day singing "Que Será Será" (laughs).

Did your father play an instrument?

Drums. He played drums. And so those are the people that we were involved with, and then, of course, living in New York, being involved with growing up on Symphony Sid, on many levels, which had a lot to do with a whole lot of jazz things, et cetera. And then later on, always beginning to turn on the jazz stations here in New York; there's always been that kind of influence. I am not here to say that I was always a person who fully understood all the ramifications. I always know what I like. I don't always know the reasons why, if you know what I mean. The reasons why you like certain things, but you do know you like them, you know what I'm saying?

That's why I'm saying I would go and listen to Coltrane and other people. But I'm not a mixer. It takes a lot for me to get up and go out some place…. So a lot of things I hear and enjoy—it does come via records that, you know, people get to me. One of the records I was stricken by, however, years ago, was Max Roach's and Abbey Lincoln's Freedom Suite. I will never forget hearing that for the first time, which for the first time made me hear some people talk about freedom on a record in such a—I guess it was almost a belligerent manner. And then there's a part that Abbey does on that record that is like a series of moans and groans. Have you ever heard Freedom Suite? It's a fantastic suite. I sat down and wrote from that piece because of what was happening there….

[Despite Sanchez's deep concern with music and craft, it is their political meaning and usage that lie at the root of her art, determining her view of the contemporary scene.]

In 1971, you stated in a Black World interview with Sebastian Clarke, "I think the prime thing with art, or being a writer, he it a playwright, a poet or even a musician, etc., is to really show people what is happening in this country. And then show them how they can change it." Does this substantially represent your position now?

I think so. And by that I meant that at the same time you show what is wrong you show what can be or what could be. At the same time you show the horror, you show some beauty. You know, you always need that; you always need the movement of one and the other. You need the beauty, whatever that beauty is, if it's self, children, or ideas, whatever, to keep people moving. Otherwise, people will not move; if all they see is horror, they say, "The hell with it. I'm not going to involve myself anymore with any of this." So I think, yes, that's about true. I think it's important that artists not just involve themselves with themselves, and almost like an egotistical thing, I think we have, we do involve ourselves with ourselves. You can't help but do it on some levels. But, at the same time, I think we must always be aware of what is happening in the world, and I think we've got to make statements about what is happening in the world….

You've spoken, in the Black Collegian, of the 1970s as "ushering in an Age of Reason." How do you view the 1980s?

I view the '80s as a very dangerous time for Black people, or anyone who intends to survive. I think it is a time of the humanitarians vs. the inhumanitarians. I think that is very important for us to understand. I think it is time for us to recognize that we are now in the midst of a struggle to save Black people, political white people, people who have actually seen what America is about, and recognize the fact that it must be changed; Third World people, all over the planet Earth who also must understand what this is about, that we're in a world struggle at this particular point to wrest control from the inhumanitarians who are in power at this point, and who could very well succeed in blowing up this whole damn world. You see, you can't keep on polluting the minds and bodies of one segment of your community or of your country, and then not expect for it also to seep among other segments of your community or country….


Three years after We a BaddDDD People, Sanchez entered a new creative phase. Remarried and having moved to Massachusetts (Amherst College), her lyricism flourished. Love Poems abounds in haiku, several of which were written in China. There are poems of love and loss, of father/daughter (two sonnets), parent/child, and of man/woman relationships, mostly difficult, at times ecstatic. Marked by simplicity and delicacy, the poems move in clear images that swirl about the reader. As the author notes on the dust jacket:

      These poems are the sun stretching
      like red yellow butterflies across
      the sea,
      these poems are you and me running
      toward each other hands reaching
      out to hold the morning,
      These poems are yesterday, today
      evaporating with fireworks of touch
      These poems are love

I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems garners from four volumes of adult poetry; a fifth section is called "Haiku(s)/Tankas & Other Love Syllables"; the concluding sixth, "Generations." The sampling enables us to sort the strands of development.


[Melhem:] Your early books of poetry are written mainly in free verse, with the influence of blues and jazz. Then, in Love Poems, there are haiku and sonnet forms: haiku, the sonnet, and African rhythms in your new work in I've Been a Woman. What is your attitude toward the study and use of conventional forms?

If you notice, in I've Been a Woman I have haiku, tankas, and again, the movement towards what I call "African" ideas and feelings, and also the movement towards a Black ethic and a feminine one, too. If you really read the poem that I did to Shirley Graham Du Bois and my mother, "Kwa mama zetu waliotuzaa" (for our mothers who gave us birth), that has a lot of feminine kinds of energy in there, woman kinds of things. Repeat the question; that's the tiredness, now. I still have that headache, so you'll have to forgive me, from that blow. [The poet was referring to her fall in a supermarket.]

All right. What is your attitude toward the study and use of conventional forms?

I teach poetry. And people are always stricken—sometimes, when they first come into my class, I teach form. I teach form on purpose. I do it in a way where we start off with something called "Free Association Exercises." I do that from taste and smell, whatever, to, in a sense, release them from a lot of things that they might have, et cetera. And then I also move into the haiku. Someone said to me, "Sonia, you shouldn't be teaching college students haiku or the tanka form, because they'II never give you any great haiku or great tankas." I say, "That might be so, but I use the haiku and tanka form for discipline and for what I call 'word choice.'" I tell someone they have three lines, and sometimes seventeen syllables or thirty-one syllables. They've got to choose the right word to make a certain motion come across. That's word choice there; that is work. Period. And so I make use of the haiku and tanka in terms of making them look up and recognize the fact that whether the poem is a haiku, a tanka, a sonnet, whatever, that you are involved with choosing words, and quite often the best word that you can find in a poem, and once you get into that habit of choosing the best word, or then you understand why, when you deal with free verse, the free verse also has discipline, and also the need and necessity for choosing the correct words for that, and not just go and sprawl.

When students first come to me they sprawl everything all over the page. What I do is I compress them. I start with something, the smallest form you can possibly do, the haiku, tanka, cinquain, whatever. Then, after I compress them for about three or four forms of haiku, tanka, cinquain, and perhaps their own syllabic verse, I say, "Here, you can do a free verse." and all of a sudden they look up and they say, "Oh, I don't know. I had difficulty doing a free verse." And I do that on purpose, because I said, "I know; then you really recognize what a free verse is all about. It is not free. It is not sprawling all over that damn page. There's a reason for having one word on one line, not just because you feel like it, but there is also—you must begin to hear that reason, and understand that reason, also." And that's how and why I do form. And then we do ballads and blues….

Now the sonnet interested you in your earlier

Well, yes, I had done sonnets. Bogan also gave us form—I studied with her—which like used to bore the hell out of me. I had to write a villanelle with Bogan, and I teach the villanelle, also—(Laughter) and the first time my students—I gave them a villanelle, and they said. "Are you kidding?" But when they started dealing with the rhyme, an interesting thing happened. They learned that if you are going to repeat or if you are going to use rhyme, you really must, one, get a rhyming dictionary; two, you're not talking about "you" and "blue" for the rest of your life, the way some of us just hear easy rhymes; and third, you're talking about repetition. That means you've got to have strong lines. Any time you repeat something, you cannot have weak lines. It just teaches all that….

Are you a reviser? Do you revise

Oh, sure, sure. I write in notebooks, so I have all my poems that, as it moved towards a second, third, fourth, fifth revision, et cetera.

Do you wait for inspiration or do you write regularly?

I write regularly. If I waited for inspiration, I'd be finished. (Laughter.)


So I'm a regular writer of poetry—of not just poetry—of many things. I keep a diary, for one, so usually I write in the diary impressions and thoughts and ideas. And it's something that I always go back on at night, sometimes, some days, and just really remembering what I was doing in 1974 someplace.


Sanchez's finest poetry, perhaps her strongest artistic achievement until homegirls & handgrenades, is represented by A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women. Of this "mountain-top poem," George E. Kent writes that it

possesses an extraordinary culmination of spiritual and poetic powers. It is in part an exhortation to move the rhythms of black life to a high peak through deep and deeper self-possession; in part, an address to all, with specific emphasis upon women: in part, a spiritual autobiography.

Dedicated to the poet's father and to Elijah Muhammad "who has labored forty-two years to deliver us up from this western Babylon," the book carries an epigraph from the Quran. In five parts, it begins with "Introduction (Queens of the Universe)," addressed to Black women, urging them to "embrace / Blackness as a religion/husband," turning away from acquired, false Western values. The voice is that of the poet as Teacher, a guide at one with her audience yet standing a little apart in order to gain and share perspective.

The longest section, Part Two, "Past," details the poet's physical and spiritual growth, beginning with an address to the "earth mother," whose voice responds. Birth, adolescence, the move from South to North, painful childhood experiences with a stepmother, confusion of identity with white culture, and then the rejecting, "vomiting up the past" until

     i gave birth to myself,
     twice, in one hour.
     i became like M t,
     unalterable in my
     love of Black self and
     and i heard the
     trumpets of a new age
     and i fell down
     upon the earth
     and became myself.

Part Three, "Present," lyrically affirms her position. She accepts the Nation of Islam as her faith. In Part Four, "Rebirth," the poet returns to an ancestral home, one imaginatively inspired by Sanchez's travels in the Caribbean (Bermuda, Jamaica, Guyana). She also traveled to the People's Republic of China before finishing the book. In "Rebirth," her plane trip becomes a metaphor for her spiritual odyssey, "roaming the cold climate of my mind where / winter and summer hold the same temperature of need." The poet states that she has destroyed her imperfection, has "become like a temple," made her form from the form of Allah, and is "trying to be worthy."

Part Five, "Future," begins with a Blakean kind of vision.

      When the sun spins and rises in the West
      when the stars lose their boundaries
      when ancient animals walk together
      when the oceans recede …

describes the "day of accounting" and continues with a series of five visions. "We Are Muslim Women" asserts the faith. "in the beginning," the fourth and concluding subsection of Part Five, utters a hypnotic chant of continual creation: "in the beginning / there was no end." This is repeated twice, with the poet's note: "(to be sung)." "let us begin again the / circle of Blackness" introduces the closing lines:

          me and you
          me and you
          you and me
          me and you
          you and me
          me, me, meeeeEEE
     & have no beginning

The emphatic spelling and capitalization are used judiciously in the book. Discussing the work, Sanchez revealed some interesting facts about its nature and composition.


[Sanchez:] I had visions during the time I was writing that poem, which was very interesting. And so people have asked me a great deal about what books, what was I reading during that time, and I always give some off-handed comment. But the point of that book is that during the time I was writing that book, I used to wake up in sweats and with visions. I pictured a lot of this. The first part was a very obvious part in terms of being almost—it was a section I had written in Pittsburgh when some women had asked me to write something for them, to keep them holding together. So that's how I did "Queens of the Universe." And then I sent it to Black Scholar and they published it, from Pittsburgh, about '68, I guess, around that time. So that seemed like a logical, introductory theme to the book.

But when I went into the second part, "Part Two," which is called "Past," I wanted to show people the movement of me in America, and what that meant in the South and in New York City, and during junior high, high school, college days, and the movement as a young Black woman, and then the movement as a woman, and then the ending of "Past" with the present, being a woman who was then involved with Africa and Africanisms as such, and reclaiming of the past. That's what that whole "Present" section is about. Then, after I went from "Present" I figured that that was the end of the book, because I had struggled through a lot of the writing of that book. It was just not very easy on many levels, you know, to do that whole book. I said, "That's it. Forty-two pages is enough for me." (Laughter) Then I started—you know how you write a book, and you know that you're not finished, although you say you're finished. Well, I knew this book was not finished, and I'd start waking up in the middle of the night, and I had these visions of destruction in this country. I also—I went to China; I was in Guyana, then into China. Guyana reminded me—the Caribbean reminded me a great deal of the Continent. Although I had never been to the Continent. I could see it. So the "Rebirth" section came next. Being that I had seen all those Black people there, and it was the first time being in America and not really being around a lot of Black folk was something else again. You don't live in Black towns or see Black people running things in America. So that's what "Rebirth" is all about. That motion. You know, "when i stepped off the plane i knew i was home," that's what I'm saying. You knew what that was about. That whole section, which is very much part of nature and water and birth; walking out on the sea.

One line I like a great deal—"i rowed out from boulevards / balancing my veins on sails"—it was moving from the cities, you know. Being there, amid the water, the water that was blue. The first time I saw water that was blue-green, as opposed to the Hudson River dirt. The ocean—I saw the ocean—seas—the way they should have looked before pollution hit them….

[She mentioned Baraka's influence on "in the beginning."]

In Black Mass, Baraka discusses the Jacoub myth. But what had stricken me about it was the idea of inventing just for the sake of inventing, and what I did in "in the beginning" at that time—I wrote this after I saw that play, that's what it was. It had come from having seen something. Quite often I do that, I come in so full. And that's what that was about. The way they talked about being first man on the planet, you know, an original man on the planet, too. And then the idea of inventing or making people who would kill other people, because in the play Black Mass, the scientist invents, makes what he calls a beast, and the beast turns around and kills all the people that are there. And I took that whole Jacoub myth and put it into that poem. The reason why I remember that poem so well is because I knew I had done it before this book. It's a poem that I chant; it's not just read, it's a poem that is chanted altogether.

It's a wonderful poem. I was wondering whether there was any thought of Eliot's "East Coker": "In my beginning is my end."

No, I didn't—I hear what you're saying.

Or even in the beginning of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word."

Right. No, that came just on the level of—basically, I don't know where it came from. I walked into that house after I had seen that play, and literally it poured out almost just as it is….


Although Sanchez has left the Nation of Islam, she sees the period and her work in historical perspective. In her discussion she observed:

At some point you had to see something that resembled you, or something that was positive, besides the very negative stuff. I don't consider any of that time a wasted time, especially not when one looks, views Blues Book, and you see the work you've done.

I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems presents work from Homecoming, We a BaddDDD People, Love Poems, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, "Haikus/Tankas & Other Love Syllables," and "Generations," its sixth and last section, which importantly celebrates a heroic heritage. "A Poem for Sterling Brown," one of two tributes to him, reveres him as a "griot of fire / harnessing ancient warriors … griot of the wind …" with language and imagery suggestive of Africa and its music. There is a sonnet, "Father and Daughter," in which the poet comes to terms with the relationship. And the final eulogy, the stirring "Kwa mama zetu waliotuzaa," proclaims that Shirley Graham Du Bois "has died in china / and her death demands a capsizing of tides." By coincidence, the poet's stepmother died the same year.

Sanchez's closeness to her own children sparks her affinity for children's literature, an interest reminiscent of Gwendolyn Brooks. It's a New Day (poems for young broth as and sistuhs), published in 1971, is filled with inspirational poems like "It's a New Day," "don't wanna be," "We're not learnen to be paper boys (for the young brothas who sell Muhammad Speaks)," poems that are "teachen new songs to our children … cuz we be a new people in a new land / and it will be ours" (from epigraphs to Sets 2 and 4). The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead and Squarehead, an illustrated story about three friends on a pilgrimage to Mecca, teaches that "Slow is not always dumb / and fast is not always smart … / Just as a lion is never dangerous without a head / so a people never progress without a leader." A Sound Investment, short stories for young readers, offers moral tales followed by discussion questions.

Sanchez is also drawn toward writing plays. While there is a strong dramatic tendency in her other work, it is interesting to observe her flexibility and to see how she began as response to a challenge. The Bronx Is Next; The Death of Malcolm X; Sister Son/ji; Uh Huh, But How Do It Free Us; and Dirty Hearts deal with the world as it is for Black people and seek to change it. The form of the one-acters is flexible, ranging from personal monologue (Sister Son/ji) to plays with a broad range of characters.


[Melhem:] What is the special appeal for you of writing plays?

I don't know—I started to write plays—I think I still have to tell you, because I had written a first play for Black Fire. Someone asked me, "If you write poetry, do you also write plays? And I said, "Sure."

(Laughs) And you'd never written one.

Never written a play, except I had done plays in college, when I was pledging a sorority, I did a takeoff on 1984. It was a funny play that I had done, you know, I had done this play that was really with commercials and everything, et cetera, and also in teaching, I'd have students always do plays. It was always comedy, never serious plays. And so I said, "Sure, I do," and I literally sat down in my apartment again, one or two days, and wrote. The Bronx Is Next, without saying, "What should I write about?" And I wrote The Bronx and typed it up myself like this (gestures)—I'm a lousy typist—and sent that. Luckily enough, I had a carbon in there. Anyway, it got lost. Ed Bullins used it in Tulane Drama Review, the Black Drama Review of Tulane Drama Review. Then the next time I was in California and Ed called me and said, "Sonia, I'm doing a collection called New Plays from Black Theatre, and will you do a play?" I said, "Oh, sure, I'll do a play!" (laughing). So, I guess what happens is that the head begins to work on it. I had the twins, and then Ed called me one day and said, "Where is that play?" All the plays were in, except mine. So I said to Ed, "Oh, but you must understand, I just had these babies." He said, "Look, don't tell me your problems, I want the play!" (Laughter)


In both poetry and drama, Sanchez maintains she is trying to reach all kinds of audiences. She sees no real change in Black life since the sixties, and says, "I couldn't write Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People now." While the point of Black Pride has been made, it is time to progress from there toward concrete gains, by organizing well and powerfully through—and here she differs radically from Madhubuti—interracial coalitions. "Organize in terms of particular issues?" I asked her. "Always, always, always," she replied.

Sanchez offers this advice to beginning writers:

Read and read and read and read everything you can get your hands on. One of the things Louise Bogan told me was, "Whatever you write, read aloud. Your ear will be the best friend you will ever have." And join a workshop at some point when you really feel you want to work more and/or apprentice yourself to a poet or writer and study with her or him.

Only near the conclusion of the Wednesday evening interview, which followed a heavy schedule of Conference activities, did Sanchez refer to her fall in a supermarket the previous Sunday. The accident had left her with an almost constant headache, one she had endured without complaint throughout the interview. Grace and good humor bespoke not only her professionalism but also her strict, personal discipline, put to the service of social commitment. For such writers, categorical imperatives are understood; morality is fife. And life is common purposes, goals that far exceed the boundaries of self-expression. The Lucretia Mott Award Sanchez received in 1984 attests to her humanity as much as to her distinguished writing.

In a recent telephone conversation, I discussed with the poet her latest book, homegirls & handgrenades. "I enjoyed doing that book because I was able to celebrate some homegirls and homeboys, like 'Bubba' and 'Norma,' who needed to be celebrated but never came through the Harlems of the world."

The fiction and poetry of homegirls & handgrenades—its I becoming—eye—fully commands the poet's range of private and public concerns. Back cover tributes by Margaret Walker and Amiri Baraka are joined by Andrew Salkey, who commends "her poetry as songs of difficult truth and harsh beauty." Lyricism, the gift of her love poetry, moves the first two sections, "The Power of Love" and "Blues is Bullets"; animates the humanitarian poems of "Beyond the Fallout"; and splashes the public poems of "Grenades Are Not Free."

In stories like "Just Don't Never Give Up on Love," relating an encounter with an old woman on a park bench, and "Bluebirdbluebirdthrumywindow," about a chance encounter with a homeless Black woman ("This beached black whale.") in a Pennsylvania Station restroom; "Bubba" and "Norma," bright friends from her childhood and school, who stayed behind in Harlem among the rubble of their thwarted dreams, Sanchez reveals the compassionate immediacy with which she relates to the lost ones of earth, and her felt responsibility as an artist to voice their inarticulate despair.

Richness of that voice culminates in public poems of the last section. As she writes to Ezekiel Mphahlele, the exile returning to South Africa after twenty years; addresses Dr. Martin Luther King, Margaret Walker, Jesse Jackson; reflects on the June 12, 1983 March for Disarmament; and exhorts Third World working-class people in "MIA's (missing in action and other atlantas)"; visionary hopefulness transforms her anger and pain into a call for action. "MIA's," the concluding poem, interspersed with Spanish and Zulu, explodes its real and surreal images to light a landscape of suffering from Atlanta to Johannesburg, South Africa. It invites:

     plant yourself in the eyes of the
     children who have died carving out their
     own childhood.
     plant yourself in the dreams of the people
     scattered by morning bullets.

Sanchez's "Haiku," written from Peking to her children, epitomizes the dedication of this extraordinary poet.

     let me wear the day
     well so when it reaches you
     you will enjoy it.

James Robert Saunders (essay date Spring 1988)

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SOURCE: "Sonia Sanchez's Homegirls and Handgrenades: Recalling Toomer's Cane," in MELUS, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 73-82.

[In the following essay, Saunders analyzes the techniques Sanchez employed in Homegirls and Handgrenades which are reminiscent of those Jean Toomer used in Cane.]

It is appropriate when analyzing a work such as Homegirls and Handgrenades to wonder about what might have been the motivation for its subject matter and form. It might be declared by some that this is just another in a long line of Sonia Sanchez's books of poems. Her very first volume, Homecoming, was an impressive display of staggered-lined poems with word-splitting diagonals. We a BaddDDD People and It's a New Day contained even more of the same stylistic devices. Part of Sanchez's early effort was to experiment with words in verse to create a new perspective on how blacks should perceive themselves within the context of a nation struggling to admit them into the fold of social equality. Although that task remains incomplete, one can nevertheless sense a development on the part of the poet as she advances her work to include the mystical A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women as well as Love Poems where there can be seen an attempt to reconcile all the various aspects of black culture for the benefit of progress. I've Been a Woman and Under a Soprano Sky are further examples of how the author has examined, in particular, the plight of black women as they strive toward freedom in a world not always conducive to that undertaking.

Nonetheless, it is in Homegirls where Sanchez delivers what Henry Louis Gates has characterized as "the revising text … written in the language of the tradition, employing its tropes, its rhetorical strategies, and its ostensible subject matter, the so-called Black Experience." Gates further explains how many black writers have either consciously or subconsciously "signified" on previous authors' works so as to explore their own impressions while yet remaining faithful to certain literary strategies used by their predecessors. The former slave, Olaudah Equiano, wrote his narrative based to a large extent on what a previous slave narrator, James Gronniosaw, did. Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man is largely a response to the literary work of Richard Wright. And recently, Alice Walker has drawn on the basic themes and dialect style of Zora Neale Hurston to render her prizewinning novel, The Color Purple. This tradition of signifying on what other writers have done is a deep-rooted feature of black writing that has as its origin the culture of blacks as a whole. It is, interestingly enough, the mark of black culture in its most creative posture, that of being able to play upon what is available, in terms of form and substance, and convert it into something new and unique.

Such is the achievement of Sanchez who, in Homegirls, has rendered a marvelous collage of thirty-two short stories, poems, letters, and sketches that often ring loudly with the truth of an autobiographical fervor. In one short story, entitled "Norma," the narrator describes:

I was rushing to the library. The library had become my refuge during the Summer of '55. As I turned the corner of 145th Street, I heard her hello. Her voice was like stale music in barrooms. There she stood. Norma. Eyelids heavy. Woman of four children, with tracks running on her legs and arms.

"How you be doing Norma? You're looking good, girl."

"I'm making it Sonia. You really do look good, girl. Heard you went to Hunter College."

We observe the author as also a personality in the literary work. Both the autobiographical character, Sonia, and the author, Sanchez, attended Hunter College in New York, and to a large extent the writer is engaged in self-analysis even as she evaluates Norma. Similarly, Jean Toomer's Cane is as much a study of the author as it is the presentation of various characters and scenes aimed at depicting black life. Moreover, in Homegirls, Sanchez has exploited the Toomer technique of using narration, dialogue, and poetry to render her own portrayals most efficiently.

It is of great significance that the two poems Sanchez has positioned just before "Norma" are "Poem Written After Reading Wright's 'American Hunger'" and "Blues," for they provide an effective introduction to a major theme in the following vignette that shows Sonia's friend, Norma, as the quintessential victim, once a mathematical genius while in high school, now the mother "of four children, with tracks running on her legs and arms." Both of the poems are symbolic of how relationships between black men and black women have deteriorated to a level of immorality that corresponds with society's reaction to the black masses in general. In the poem about Wright, Sanchez condemns insensitivity on the part of that great black author who could not understand why a poverty-stricken girl from Chicago's South Side would want to go see a circus. Noting, in the second part of his original autobiography, how insurance agents often accepted sex in exchange for the otherwise required ten-cent premium, he callously expressed, "I stared at her and wondered just what a life like hers meant in the scheme of things, and I came to the conclusion that it meant absolutely nothing." Sanchez's response is worth repeating in its entirety:

      such a simple desire
      wanting to go to the circus
      wanting to see the animals
      orange with laughter.
      such a simple need
      amid yo/easy desire
      to ride her
      while clowns waited offstage
      and children tugged at her young legs.

      did you tell her man that we're
      all acrobats tumbling out of
      our separate arenas?
      you. peeling her
      skin while dreams turned
      somersaults in her eyes.

      such a simple woman
      illiterate with juices
      in a city where hunger
      is passed around for seconds.

Sanchez calls the late author to task, asking why he declined to tell that sex partner how we are all "acrobats," that absurdity is one of life's conditions, and that the wish to see a circus has just as much meaning as his need for sexual diversion. Instead of possessing the sort of forthrightness one might imagine Sanchez admiring, Wright took on a persona that is shared by many who would similarly manipulate a woman for selfish advantage.

One sees, in "Blues," the private Sanchez again expanding her perspective to such an extent that it encompasses many black women. The third stanza conveys the poem's main message:

     what do you do when you need
     a man so much it hurt?
     i say where do you go when you
     need a man so much it hurt?
     you make it down to the corner
     and start digging in the dirt.

By "digging in the dirt" that narrator specifically means that her loneliness has driven her into the arms of a twenty-year-old man-child who now substitutes for the maturity she had expected from a former lover. This act of desperation is reflected in the final lines:

     you see what my needing you
     has done gone and made me try.

Unfortunately, the loneliness remains and though the narrator of "Blues" fares better than what we could ever hope for Norma, there is the same emptiness that results from failed relationships.

An important issue in the construction of Homegirls must have been, for Sanchez, one of determining the best means to conduct her search for meaning in the midst of such social chaos. Gates notes, "in general, black authors do not admit to a line of literary descent within their own literary tradition." Much of that phenomenon is a consequence of certain kinds of jealousies that have occurred within the black literary community due to a tendency among quite a few publishers to be satisfied with one great black writer at a time. How many black authors can afford to give too much acknowledgment in light of such a circumstance? Notwithstanding, Sanchez, in a 1983 interview, has offered insight: "You don't come out of a vacuum. We're not like Topsy; we don't just grow." Further analyzing what she perceived to be a definite connection between earlier black writers and those of a later time, she added, "Each generation builds on a higher level. They were supposed to produce us in spite of themselves."

Such remarks become even more fitting as we consider the circumstances of Toomer who, in the words of Darwin Turner, used Cane as "perhaps merely an interlude in his search for understanding." Toomer alternatively passed for black and white depending on where he was and what he was trying to accomplish at the time. Turner further informs us that Toomer, in 1923, met Georges Gurdjieff, a spiritual leader who "professed to have the ability to help people fuse their fragmented selves into a new and perfect whole—a harmony of mind, body, and soul—through a system of mental and physical exercise emphasizing introspection, meditation, concentration, discipline, and self-liberation." Toomer himself became a disciple, adhering for ten years to strictures of the Gurdjieffian cult. Clearly, as Turner has suggested, the search was on for Toomer far into his post-Cane years. Experiments with Jungian psychology, psychoanalysis, and Eastern mysticism would follow virtually up until the time of his death in 1967.

Still, regardless of Toomer's lengthy introspection, in the final analysis we are left with Cane as a primary source for investigating the author's literary purpose. Consisting of twenty-nine short stories, poems, and sketches, this work is largely the result of a brief visit Toomer made to Sparta, Georgia, in 1921, to fill in as the head of an industrial and agricultural school for blacks whose principal had left temporarily on a fund-raising drive. Just as Sanchez would do sixty-one years later in Homegirls, Toomer supplied Cane with an autobiographical essence that varies from section to section. Within the context of his first three stories, he assumes the pose of an omniscient narrator who has in some ambiguous sense been touched by the circumstances of Karintha, Becky, and Carma. However, once we get to Fern's story, the author places himself as a character among the many other men who have been filled with uncontrollable desire. Toomer writes:

I first saw her on her porch. I was passing with a fellow whose crusty numbness (I was from the North and suspected of being prejudiced and stuck-up) was melting as he found me warm. I asked him who she was. "That's Fern," was all that I could get from him. Some folks already thought that I was given to nosing around; I let it go at that, so far as questions were concerned. But at first sight of her I felt as if I heard a Jewish cantor sing. As if his singing rose above the unheard chorus of a folksong. And I felt bound to her. I too had my dreams: something I would do for her.

But no matter how much men do for Fern, she is ultimately unfulfilled, and realizing this; men "leave her, baffled and ashamed, yet vowing to themselves that some day they would do some fine thing for her: send her candy every week and not let her know whom it came from, watch out for her wedding-day and give her a magnificent something with no name on it, buy a house and deed it to her." The tragedy comes with the lack of realization on the parts of those men that material possessions and sexual relations add little to the development of the unique Fern who, like many of the other women in Cane, had been cast adrift in a world where women in general had yet to be thought of as individualistic human beings. They had too far to go before the notion of equality would be considered their birthright.

It can easily be said that Toomer was a man before his time as he considered the "dilemma" of women's equality in the 1920s. However, Cane leaves us with no happy ending. As we move from the South to settings in the North and then back to the South, in the three basic parts of this so-called novel, we are made to be constantly aware of at least one thing, and this is that men and women, particularly black men and black women, have fallen prey to society's limitations and allowed a chasm to develop, preventing the very understanding that Toomer had sought with such diligence. Taking on the forms of "Professor" Kabnis and the "queer feller," Lewis, in the final section of Cane, Toomer makes one more attempt at ascertaining the proper direction, but both alter egos succumb to the urge to partake of "corn licker, love th girls, an listen t th old man mumblin sin," that old man being the gray-haired Father John who can barely fend for himself in this underground world where both men and women fumble on in the darkness.

Comparing Cane to such works as W. E. B. Du Bois' The Souls of Black Folk and James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man, Alan Golding maintains that "Cane advanced on these works by pursuing such modernist prose techniques as the breakdown of continuous narrative into juxtaposed fragments, an emphasis on psychological over narrative realism, snatches of plot more symbolic than literal, and the elevation of governing metaphors to almost mythic status." Furthermore, Golding notes that quite a few of the parts making up Cane were originally published as separate pieces, specifically in such periodicals as Crisis, Broom, Double Dealer, Liberator, and The Little Review. Similarly, various items that went into the making of Homegirls had already been published in Callaloo, Essence, The American Poetry Review, and Confirmation. Still, the important point to remember when analyzing Cane and Homegirls is that Toomer and Sanchez, in their separate literary arenas, did finally involve themselves in the exercise of accumulating those various parts, among others, in the effort to create a single product. Commenting on how Cane's form puzzles readers, Turner informs, "Some have identified it as a novel—perhaps because it has a thematic and structural unity, or because it faintly resembles Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, or because a few literary critics—for reasons of their own—have labeled it a novel, or merely because they have not known what else to call it." Golding defines Cane as a modernist work, perhaps due as much to the era in which it was produced as anything else. Nevertheless, it can just as easily be called postmodern as it conducts searches for individuality, employs language to reflect a certain absurdity, and reflects a world that might already have extinguished the means to resolve some of our crucial issues.

In Cane's final section, Kabnis sulks and contemplates "these clammy floors … just like th place they used I stow away th wornout, no-count niggers in th days of slavery … that was long ago; not so long ago … no windows." From visions of American slavery and its consequences, in Cane, we move to a different and yet similar type of slavery in South Africa elaborated upon by Sanchez in her final poem, "MIA's," where she assumes the voice of an oppressor, reporting:

     i regret to announce that Stephen
     biko is dead. he has refused
     food since sept. 5th. we did
     all we could for the man.
     he has hanged himself while sleeping
     we did all we could for him.
     he fell while answering our questions
     we did all we could for him.
     he drowned while drinking his supper
     we did all we could for the man.
     he fell
          hanged himself   starved
     drowned himself

There are key differences, in terms of speaker and context, between what Toomer has presented and Sanchez's postmodern depiction, but a basic thrust remains the same. There is an element of self-hatred, explicit in "Kabnis" and implied in "MIA's," that is based on assumptions about how blacks should react to their condition, symbolized by the prison without windows in Kabnis' mind and the bars seen by Biko from day to day.

Social restrictions are at the heart of both Cane and Homegirls, and just as it cannot simply be stated that Cane is a novel, it should not be concluded that Homegirls is just another of Sanchez's volumes of poems. What both writers sought was an adequate means to investigate a most intricate situation, and the literary collages exemplified in those two works are more indicative of what is taking place in black society than has ever been accomplished through any one genre. Black life in America involves such a high degree of complexity that the multiple genres—the sketches, short stories, and poems in each book—are crucial to the rendering of a proper perspective. And even in the stories the poetic aspect is so powerful that what is rendered is more than just prose. At the very beginning of Cane we see this in "Karintha carrying beauty, perfect as dusk when the sun goes down." While that phraseology is somewhat vague it does convey the almost mystical beauty this girl has possessed since her early youth. Moreover it provides reinforcement for the actual poem that also serves as a prologue:

     Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon,
     O cant you see it, O cant you see it,
     Her skin is like dusk on the eastern horizon
     … When the sun goes down.

Three more times in the tale of Karintha we are provided with poetic refrains, and though we might still wonder what Karintha looks like exactly, we do feel the intensity of what it was that attracted men while she was yet a child.

We will be reminded here of what Sanchez has done with her "Norma" who:

would sometimes shake off her friends and sit down with the "pip-squeaks" and talk about the South. She was from Mississippi. She ordained us all with her red clay Mississippi talk. Her voice thawed us out from the merciless cold studding the hallways. Most of the time though, she laughed only with her teeth.

It was apropos for Toomer to have made Karintha possessed with great beauty. During the time he was writing Cane, being pretty was often all that a black girl could hope for; it at least allowed for some options within the realm of black womanhood. Norma, on the other hand, has in her early development become a mathematical whiz. She "pirouetted problem after problem on the blackboard." She could, as Sanchez poeticizes, "shake off" friends, "thaw … out" classmates; she "ordained" them with her southern talk. Just as was the case with Karintha, Norma has awesome power only to have it depleted far before her prime.

The movement north that is evidenced in both Cane and Homegirls does little to diminish the suffering that continues to be experienced by blacks whose lives are consumed in a vicious pattern. Even in the tragic tale of "Bona and Paul," with its Chicago setting, Toomer directs us back toward the South with language that evokes nature. The source of the problem, with regard to what might have been a successful interracial union, can be traced to another place in time as:

Paul follows the sun, over the stock-yards where a fresh stench is just arising, across wheat lands that are still waving above their stubble, into the sun. Paul follows the sun to a pine-matted hillock in Georgia. He sees the slanting roofs of gray unpainted cabins tinted lavender. A Negress chants a lullaby beneath the mate-eyes of a southern planter. Her breasts are ample for the suckling of a song. She weans it, and sends it, curiously weaving, among lush melodies of cane and corn.

We sense there is a power to be attained through Paul's connection with the sun; it allows him to transcend time and space. Yet, what he discovers among those "slanting roofs of gray unpainted cabins" is something over which he has no control even as it causes pain.

In Sanchez's story of "Bubba" it is the moon that enables him to transcend time and space. He ponders:

"When I was real small … I used to think that the moon belonged to me, that it came out only for me, that it followed me everywhere I went. And I used to, when it got dark there in North Carolina. I used to run around to the backyard and wait for the moon to appear.

Transported from Harlem to the southern locale where he formerly lived, Bubba reminisces "about seeing behind trees and walking over seas with flowers growing out of my head." Again we are made privy to the potential for power in nature. But as Bubba's father, also a feature of that faraway past, hollers, "Stop that foolishness boy," we are snapped back to reality.

Golding had pointed to the use of "juxtaposed fragments" as an innovative prose technique in Cane, and the same writing strategy is employed by Sanchez. Moreover the use of poetic prose continues as a device as in Cane we move to Esther who, realizing that she and the well-traveled Barlo can never have a life together, feels that there "is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared" although many of the townsfolk are there, jeering at what was her failed attempt. The psychological absence of air, the street, and the town best conveys Esther's alienation.

Likewise, Sanchez is ever the poet, even while writing prose. Hoping, in "After Saturday Night Comes Sunday," that she and her well-traveled man can attain a satisfactory union, Sandy awakens one morning to find:

The bed wuz empty. She ran down the stairs and turned on the lights. He was gone. She saw her purse on the couch. Her wallet wuz empty. Nothing was left. She opened the door and went out on the porch, and she remembered the lights were on and that she wuz naked. But she stood fo a moment looking out at the flat/Indianapolis/street and she stood and let the late/nite/air touch her body and she went inside.

The narrator's assertion that "nothing was left" is reminiscent of Toomer's Esther for whom there is no air or street or town. Esther "wheels around and walks stiffly to the stairs"; Sandy similarly goes inside. The going inside is symbolic in both situations, for it signifies not only a return inside from the outdoors but also a going back into the self for solace in spite of the gloom.

It is in the final section of Cane, the "Kabnis" segment, that Toomer makes his most ardent attempt to investigate the deepest recesses of his own psyche as he also seeks to reconcile tragedies that have befallen black Americans. What we are left with, however, are the babblings of a false prophet, Father John, who can offer very little in the way of direction. At the end of Homegirls, Sanchez likewise can offer no final solution. But in broadening the scope of concern to include places such as South Africa and El Salvador, we can see how the dilemma goes straight to the core of all human existence. Unchecked power can wreak tortuous consequences, whether in the midst of just two individuals or as used to subjugate an entire people. Sanchez's advice is for the masses to take a long hard look at their lives and then undertake the challenge to generate change.

Kamili Anderson (review date Winter 1989)

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SOURCE: "Giving Our Souls Ears," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1989, p. 14.

[In the following review, Anderson asserts that "the poems in [Sanchez's Under a Soprano Sky] are tempered and configured to scorching extremes, they are, simultaneously, her most introspective and intricate."]

The name Sonia Sanchez may be the most undeservedly underspoken of contemporary women poets in America. Relative to her merits as both prolific poet (she has authored thirteen books) and social activist, widespread critical acknowledgment of Sanchez's talents has been remiss. No doubt this is a result of the boldly rhetorical nature of her work and her involvement with so-called "radical" Black literary and cultural factions. But her poetry, for its precision and insightfulness, warrants far broader recognition, no matter how belated.

Sanchez was a leading spokessister for the women's side of things in the defiant Black Arts literary upsweep of the 1960s and 1970s. It was often she who, even as a female follower of the Honorable Elijah Muhammed and the Nation of Islam, was the strongest feminist poetic voice in a cultural movement with strong sexist leanings. Noted for her dramatic and moving articulations of her own work, Sanchez now (she is in her fifties) presents an intriguing study in juxtapositioned extremes. Her poetry has burned consistently with a fierce but expertly controlled intensity. With each collection, that fire has burned hotter and cleaner.

Her latest and finest work, Under a Soprano Sky, is hot enough to melt rock, and it comes hard on the trail blazed by her previous book, Homegirts & Hand Grenades. Although the poems in this collection are tempered and configured to scorching extremes, they are, simultaneously, her most introspective and intricate. They deal with age, AIDS, alienation awareness, Africa, and all of us, men and women.

Sanchez has a penchant for enlisting words to imagery. She can mesmerize with scenarios that require readers to transfuse all of their senses, so much so that the ability to discern whether one is reading with the soul or with the eyes, or listening with the heart or the ears, is lost.

This is deep, deep stuff that conjures and commingles the senses in a potpourri of images. "i shall spread out my veins," she writes, "and beat the dust into noise." "i hear the wind of graves moving the sky"; "hands breathing"; "my eyes put on more flesh" and "i hear the bricks pacing my window" are more of the same. "Under a soprano sky / a woman sings / lovely as chandeliers," sings the refrain from her title poem. Lovely and fiercely, she should add.

Under a Soprano Sky offers a full dose of a mature woman-poet rising to the height of her powers, a woman very much like the older Black women Sanchez writes respectfully of in "Dear Mama": "women rooted in themselves, raising themselves in dark America, discharging their pain without ever stopping." This collection poses the "full moon of sonia/shining down on ya" to anyone who might take her or her sisters' visions lightly. With it comes the warning: "you gon known you been touched by me / this time."

Few poets write with more succinctness or intensity: Sanchez's expansive poems can incorporate guttural sounds insistent upon vocal rendition or be terse, taut haikus. Haikus such as those "for domestic workers in the african diaspora," "i works hard but treated / bad man. i'se telling you de / truth i full of it." and "for a black prostitute," "redlips open wide / like a wound winding down on / the city / clotting." provide searing examples.

From "fragment 3" echoes the call:

    come all you late twenty
    year olds you young thirties
    and forties and fifties.
    O lacquered revolutionists!
    all you followers of vowelled
    ghosts painted on neon signs.
    O noise of red bones cascading dreams.

    come to conscripted black
    mounted on a cell of revelation
    come and salute death
    while the rust of tombs
    murmur old sonnets
    and my grave sinks with
    the pleasure of insects
    who wear no diadem.

Sonia Sanchez is a poet not to be disavowed further. Her work is high reality transformed into high rhetoric, transformed into high art. Under a Soprano Sky and the corpus of her work deserves a thorough reading that is worthy of her substantial and finely honed literary talents.

Joanne Veal Gabbin (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: "The Southern Imagination of Sonia Sanchez," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 180-202.

[In the following essay, Garbin discusses the themes of Sanchez's works in terms of what she calls "Sanchez's strong Southern imagination, one that was born in the impressionable times of her youth in Alabama, where the tensions of struggle were fed with mama's milk."]

Death is a five o'clock door forever changing time. And wars end. Sometimes too late. I am here. Still in Mississippi. Near the graves of my past. We are at peace … I have my sweet/astringent memories because we dared to pick up the day and shake its tail until it became evening. A time for us. Blackness, Black people. Anybody can grab the day and make it stop. Can you my friends? Or maybe it's better if 1 ask:

Will you?

The woman who utters this challenge at the end of Sonia Sanchez's play Sister Son/ji has the gift of second sight: she is a visionary, a prophet, a revealer of truths. She has touched love, births, deaths, danger, tumult, upheaval, and change and has distilled from these experiences "sweet/astringent memories." Willing to pick up the day and "shake its tail until it became evening," she helped to bring into being an order that transformed time and defied death itself.

In many ways, Sister Son/ji becomes a metaphor for the poet herself and the visionary quality and sense of the past that pervade much of her poetry. Like Sister Son/ji Sonia Sanchez has been a singer during turbulent times, a translator of the needs and dreams of black people. Sanchez has written to challenge black people—all people—to change the world, "to make people understand … that we are here to perpetuate humanity, to figure out what it means to be a human being," "to show what is wrong with the way that we are living and what is wrong with this country … to correct misinterpretation and bring love, understanding, and information to those who need it." If this all sounds idealistic, it is. For Sanchez matured as a writer in an era in which ideas took on an elasticity heretofore unheard of. It was a time when a visionary president challenged the nation to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade; when a black power movement, led by such political thinkers as Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and Elijah Muhammad, ushered in a change in race relations in America; when 250,000 people, culminating several difficult years of boycotts, sit-ins, voter registration drives, marches, and riots, marched on Washington to make America accountable to black and poor people. It was a time when Americans protested an undeclared war in Vietnam, and the country mourned and immortalized its fallen heroes: John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. This era shaped the mettle of the poet, and like the Mississippi woman, Sanchez has become an armed prophet whose voice is at once a prod and a sword.

In her eight volumes of poetry, which appeared between 1969 and 1987, Sanchez's voice is sometimes abrasive but never as profane as the conditions she knows must be eradicated; her tone ranges from gentle to derisive, yet the message is one of redeeming realism. Also undergirding her poetic expression is a deep concern for heritage; for the sovereignty of time with all its ramifications of birth, change, rebirth, and death; for the impress of the past and memories; and for nurture, nature, and God. Moreover, these themes reveal Sanchez's strong Southern imagination, one that was born in the impressionable times of her youth in Alabama, where the tensions of struggle were fed with mama's milk.

Homecoming, Sanchez's first book of poems, is her pledge of allegiance to blackness, to black love, to black heroes, and to her own realization as a woman, an artist, and a revolutionary. The language and the typography are experimental; they are aberrations of standard middle-class Americanese and traditional Western literary forms. As such, they reflect her view of American society, which perceives blacks as aberrations and exploits them through commercialism, drugs, brutality, and institutionalized racism. In this book and the poetry that follows, the vernacular and the forms are clear indications of her fierce determination to redefine her art and rail against Western aesthetics. Homecoming also introduces us to a poet who is saturated with the sound and sense of black speech and black music, learned at the knees of Birmingham women discovering themselves full voiced and full spirited. The rhythm and color of black speech—the rapping, reeling, explosive syllables—are her domain, for she is steeped in the tradition of linguistic virtuosity that Stephen Henderson talks about in Understanding the New Black Poetry. Black music, especially the jazz sounds of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and Pharoah Sanders, pulse, riff, and slide through her poetry.

In her second volume, We a BadddDDD People, Sanchez is wielding a survival sword that rips away the enemy's disguise and shears through the facade of black ignorance and reactionism. Arranged in three groups, "Survival Poems," "Love/Songs/Chants." and "TCB/EN Poems," the poems extend the attack begun in Homecoming and tell black people how to survive in a country of death traps (drugs, suicide, sexual exploitation, psychological slaughter via the mass media) and televised assassination. Her message, however, is not one of unrelieved gloom, for it is rooted in optimism and faith: "know and love yourself." Like Sterling A. Brown's "Strong Men" and Margaret Walker's "For My People," "We A BadddDDD People," the title poem of the volume, is a praise song that celebrates black love, talent, courage, and continuity. The poems appear rooted in a courage learned early from aunts who spit in the face of Southern racism and sisters who refused to be abused by white men or black men. In this volume, Sanchez reveals her unmistakable signature, the singing/chanting voice. Inflections, idiom, intonations—skillfully represented by slashes, capitalization (or the lack of it), and radical and rhythmic spelling—emphasize her link with the community and her role as ritual singer.

In It's a New Day, a collection of poems "for young brothas and sistuhs," Sanchez nurtures young minds, minds that must know their beauty and worth if the nation is to be truly free. Her belief in the seed-force of the young led her to write the children's story The Adventures of Small Head, Square Head and Fat Head.

In 1973, her fourth volume, Love Poems, appeared. Haki Madhubuti calls this "a book of laughter and hurt, smiles and missed moments." The poems are collages of the images, sounds, aromas, and textures of woman-love. With the clarity and precision of Japanese ink sketches, Sanchez skillfully uses the haiku to evoke emotion:

     did ya ever cry
     Black man, did ya ever cry
     til you knocked all over?

Using the haiku, the ballad, and other traditional forms that advance her preference for tightness, brevity, and gemlike intensity, she fingers the raw edges of a woman's hurt and betrayal:

     When he came home
     from her
     he poured me on
     the bed and slid
     into me like glass.
     And there was
     the sound of splinters.

The poet also celebrates the magic that love has to transform and transcend:

     i gather up
     each sound
     you left behind
     and stretch them
     on our bed.
       each nite
     i breathe you
     and become high …

A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women is a dramatic departure from the poetry of earlier volumes. The scope here is large and sweeping. The language is no longer the raw vernacular of Homecoming, though, as in We A BadddDDD People, it is possessed by the 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.

In 1978, Sanchez culled some of her best poetry from earlier volumes in I've Been a Woman: Sew and Selected Poems. To these she adds a collection of haiku and tankas that is dominated by the theme of love: the sensual love of a man, the love of old people and young, the love for a father and spiritual mothers. She brings to this theme a style that is replete with irony, wit, and understatement. And in most of her poetry, her feelings are intensified and her symbols, those of nurturing, birth, growth, freedom, civilization, are deeply feminine. Here, as Margaret Walker Alexander states, is poetry of "consistently high artistry that reflects her womanliness—her passion, power, perfume, and prescience."

In homegirls & handgrenades, Sanchez shows the further deepening of the poet's consciousness, for it is a sterling example of her going inside herself, inside the past, to pull out of her residual memory deeply personal experience. From the past, she draws images that explode the autobiographical into universal truths. The predominant genre in this volume is the sketch, much like those that stud Jean Toomer's Cane. Bubba, "the black panther of Harlem," lost in a sea of drugs and unfulfilled dreams; Norma, black genius that lay unmined; or the old "bamboo-creased" woman in "Just Don't Never Give Up on Love" all live again and vividly show Sanchez distilling "sweet/astringent memories" from her own experience.

Distinguishing much of her poetry is a prophetic voice that brings the weight of her experience to articulating the significant truths about liberation and love, self-actualization and being, spiritual growth and continuity, heroes, and the cycles of life. Her vision is original because it is both new (a fresh rearrangement of knowledge) and faithful to the "origins" of its inspiration. Therefore, it is not surprising that in her most recent volume of poetry, Under a Soprano Sky, the mature voice of the poet is giving expression to the sources of her spiritual strength, establishing and reestablishing connections that recognize the family-hood of man/womankind, and singing, as another Lady did, of society's strange fruit sacrificed on the altars of political megalomania, economic greed, and social misunderstanding.

Throughout her poetry, which will be the focus of this study, Sanchez demonstrates the complexity of her Southern imagination. Though she spent a relatively short period of her life in the South, her way of looking at the world is generously soaked in the values she learned during her childhood in Birmingham. Alabama. The importance of the family and love relationships, her fascination with the past and her ancestry, her search for identity amid the chaos and deracination of the North, her communion with nature, her exploration of the folk culture, her response to an evangelical religious experience, and her embracing of a militancy nurtured in fear and rage are Southern attitudes that inform her poetry. Especially in A Blues Book, I've Been a Woman, and Under a Soprano Sky, Sanchez's fascination with the concept of time, her faith in the lessons of the past, and her deep notion of continuity firmly root her in the tradition of Southern imagination.

In The Immoderate Past: The Southern Writer and History, Hugh Holman explores the relationship between the concept of time and the Southern writer:

The imagination of the Southerner for over one hundred and seventy-five years has been historical. The imagination of the Puritans was essentially typological, catching fire as it saw men and events as types of Christian principles. The imagination of the New England romantics was fundamentally symbolic, translating material objects into ideal forms and ideas. The Southerner has always had his imaginative faculties excited by events in time and has found the most profound truths of the present and the future in the interpretation of the past.

In part two of A Blues Book, the poet invites her readers to:

     Come into Black geography
     you, seated like Manzu's cardinal,
     come up through tongues
     multiplying memories
     and to avoid descent
     among wounds
     cruising like ships,
     climb into these sockets
     golden with brine.

Describing history as the spiritual landscape of events and images, she invites the reader to travel back in time, through what George Kent calls her "spiritual autobiography," her "own psychological and spiritual evolution in the past." Sanchez has the past define the features of her identity and uncover her origins. Calling on the earth mother as the inspiration and guide on the journey, she implores her to reveal the truths locked in time:

      Come ride my birth, earth mother
      tell me how i have become, became
      this woman with razor blades between
      her teeth.

               sing me my history O earth mother
      about tongues multiplying memories
      about breaths contained in straw.

The poet realizes that the essential clues to who she is are there in the dusty corners of history, in the myths and tales preserved by "tongues multiplying memories," in the seemingly inconsequential bits that can be gleaned from those who live in the spirit and in the flesh. Because she is in tune with her oral tradition, she shares with other Southern black writers, such as Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, Ernest Gaines, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker, what Ellison calls some of the advantages of the South:

I believe that a black Southern writer who does know his traditions has some of the advantages which William Faulkner or other white Southern writers have had: the advantage of contact with a long accumulation of history in a given place; an experience which has been projected in other forms of artistic expression, which has traditional values and variants, and which has been refined by being defined by generations of people who have told what it seemed to be: "This is the life of black men here…."

This is one of the advantages of the South. In the stories you get the texture of an experience and the projection of values, and the distillation of a kind of wisdom.

For Sanchez, who she is and who she is to become have much to do with the texture of experience, the values, and the wisdom alive in the folk community of Birmingham. Alabama.

Sonia Sanchez was born in Birmingham on September 9, 1934. Her parents, Wilson L. Driver and Lena Jones Driver, faced with naming a second girl (the first daughter was named Patricia), gladly turned over the task to relatives, who returned quickly enough with the name Wilsonia Benita. The communal name turned out to be a portent of the role relatives would play in her upbringing, for when she was one year old, her mother died in childbirth, and she thus began a series of moves from one relative's home to another during the next nine years.

After her mother's death, Wilsonia and her sister were cared for by her father's mother. Elizabeth "Mama" Driver, whom Sanchez describes as a "heavy-set, dark-complected woman," was the head deaconess in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. In an interview, Sanchez remembers her grandmother: "My grandmother spoiled my sister and me outrageously. She loved us to death … she loved us so much that she used to walk us to Tuggle Elementary School. This old, old woman used to walk very slowly up that hill…." Mama Driver brought the girls into the circle of the rituals of the A. M. E. Church. They experienced the sonorous roar of the minister, who strode across the pulpit of the wood frame church; the buzz of the congregation when a sister got "happy" and threw her pocketbook "clean across the aisle"; and the wonderment of the spirituals when all those choir members, dressed in white, sounded like the angels at the gates of the city.

Sanchez remembers the many occasions her grandmother had allowed them to sit quietly at her knees while she talked with the women who visited their modest house in a Birmingham housing development. In "Dear Mama" in her most recent book, Under a Soprano Sky, she recalls vividly the Saturday afternoons when she "crawled behind the couch" and listened to the old deaconesses as they told of their lives "spent on so many things":

And history began once again. I received it and let it circulate in my blood. I learned on those Saturday afternoons about women rooted in themselves, raising themselves in dark America, discharging their pain without ever stopping. I learned about women fighting men back when they hit them: "Don't never let no mens hit you mo than once girl." I learned about "womens waking up they mens" in the nite with pans of hot grease and the compromises reached after the smell of hot grease had penetrated their sleepy brains. I learned about loose women walking their abandoned walk down front in church, crossing their legs instead of their hands to God. And I crept into my eyes. Alone with my daydreams of being woman. Adult. Powerful. Loving. Like them. Allowing nobody to rule me if I didn't want to be.

And when they left. When those old bodies had gathered up their sovereign smells. After they had kissed and packed up beans snapped and cakes cooked and laughter bagged. After they had called out their last goodbyes. I crawled out of my place. Surveyed the room. Then walked over to the couch where some had sat for hours and bent my head and smelled their evening smells. I screamed out loud, "oooweeee! Ain't that stinky!" and I laughed laughter from a thousand corridors. And you turned Mama, closed the door, chased me round the room until I crawled into a corner where your large body could not reach me. But your laughter pierced the little alcove where I sat laughing at the night. And your humming sprinkled my small space. Your humming about you Jesus and how one day he was gonna take you home….

Mama Driver also gave the children a sense of continuity as she acquainted them with the long line of aunts, uncles, and cousins who made up their extended family. She acquainted them with a community that held dear the notion of family ties and took for granted the willingness of family members to take another member in: "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 Mama Driver died, the small frail child of five experienced the manufactured adult mystery of death and the in-sensitivity of relatives who shut children out of this fact of nature. As a way of managing the loss and the pain, she withdrew behind a veil of stuttering that remained with her for the next twelve years. When she and her sister lived with her father and his second wife, the stuttering protected her from the brunt of her stepmother's cruelty. In part two of A Blues Book, she raises the specter of this woman:

     And YOU U U U U U U step/mother.
     woman of my father's youth
     who stands at a mirror
     elaborate with smells
     all shiny like my new copper penny.
     telling me through a parade of smiles
     you are to be my new mother. and your painted lips
     outlined against time become time
     and i look on time and hear you
     who threw me in angry afternoon closets
     till i slipped beneath the cracks
     like light, and time stopped.
     and i turned into myself
     a young girl breathing in crusts
     and listened to those calling me.

to/ no matter what they do
be/ they won't find me
chanted/ no matter what they sayi won't come out.

The collective images of the woman—her stepmother's resentment, her rages, her neglect, and her authoritarianism that weighed heavily on the two girls—had the effect of distorting time itself ("and your painted lips / outlined against time"). The mature sensibility records the prominence of the cruel punishment that loomed prodigiously in the child's mind ("and time stopped / and i turned into myself") and indelibly marks her personality. She, the youngest, had hidden behind her "black braids and stutters"; she, the strange one, the quiet one, would not come out. When her father learned of his second wife's treatment of the children, he sent them to live with relatives, and they remained with relatives or friends until their father married again and took them to New York, reenacting the solemn ceremony that many thousands of black people performed as they migrated to Northern cities.

Reflecting on her childhood, Sanchez said that, despite the unhappy experiences, she had "a good Southern girlhood." Her grandmother had initiated her into the rituals of black life; aunts and uncles and cousins had given connections, continuity to her sense of self, and Birmingham, Alabama, had rooted her in a history of black struggle, with its lessons of fear, segregation, rebellion, and an awareness of her place. Years later, in her first published poem, she urges from her subconscious the memory of a cousin who, when made to move from her seat on the bus, spits in the white driver's face.

From 1944 until she graduated from Hunter College, Wilsonia Driver lived in Harlem at 152d and St. Nicholas Place, where there was "no space." In the small apartment she shared with her sister, her father, and his third wife, she felt hemmed in. Her tiny bedroom, whose window faced a redbrick wall, further mocked her sense of loss, now far from the greener, open space of the South. She also felt hemmed in by the kind, yet restrictive, care of her new stepmother and by the unwritten expectation placed on a young girl growing up in an environment that did not offer its girl-women protection but demanded that they protect themselves or run the risk of scorn and censure:

     coming out from alabama
     to the island city of perpetual adolescence
     where i drink my young breasts
     and stay thirsty
     always hungry for more than the
     of america.
        remember parties
        where we'd grinddddDDDD
        and grinddddDDDD
        but not too close
        cuz if you gave it up
        everybody would know, and tell.

In those early Harlem days, the young girl was hungry for more than the restrictions of the island city, so she daydreamed and began to write. In an Essence magazine article, Sanchez recalls that she started writing because it was a way to express herself without the annoying stuttering. She remembers writing a poem about George Washington's crossing of the Delaware. The poem, which was left out while she rushed to rewash dishes, was found by her sister, who began reading the poem to their parents in a singsong rhyme. "I reached for the poem, but she pulled it away and finished reading it to everybody in the kitchen. They all laughed. I don't really remember it as cruel laughter, but I was a very sensitive little girl. So I was very much upset and after that I began hiding my poems. I doubt if anyone knew I was still writing."

This incident recalls a similar experience related by Richard Wright in his book Black Boy. After he read one of his stories to a woman in his neighborhood, he realizes that she cannot possibly understand his desire to write: "God only knows what she thought. My environment contained nothing more alien than writing or the desire to express one's self in writing." According to Ladell Payne in Black Novelists and the Southern Literary Tradition, Richard Wright's life of imagination sustained him in his estrangement but also served to isolate him further from his family and community. Similarly for Sanchez, from the very beginning, writing was a solitary endeavor that simultaneously isolated her from others and gave her the distance that she needed to see herself, her family, and community reconstituted in a new light.

As the young woman matured, her estrangement extended into most areas of her life. At Hunter College, she wanted more than the benign indifference that left her sense of self unnourished. She was not only alienated from those at school, but she was also separated from those on her block. They left the serious-eyed, quiet, college girl alone. However, in "Bubba" in homegirls & handgrenades, the poet remembers one who saw more in her than she was prepared to acknowledge: "One summer day, I remember Bubba and I banging the ball against the filling station. Handball champs we were. The king and queen of handball we were. And we talked as we played. He asked me if I ever talked to trees or rivers or things like that. And I who walked with voices for years denied the different tongues populating my mouth. I stood still denying the commonplace things of my private childhood. And his eyes pinned me against the filling station wall and my eyes became small and lost their color."

And the alienation reached her in her home. She had not really known her father. Though she lived with him from the time she was ten until she left college, on many levels, they remained strangers. "A Poem for My Father" in We A BadddDDD People and "Poem at Thirty" in Homecoming tell poignantly of this relationship.

But more significantly, the young poet felt alienated from herself and her roots. In A Blues Book, she recalls those times when she "moved in liquid dreams":

     and i dressed myself
     in foreign words
          became a proper painted
          european Black faced american
          going to theatre parties and bars
          and cocktail parties and bars
          and downtown village apartments
          and bars and ate good cheese
          and caviar with wine that
          made my stomach stretch for artificial warmth.

          danced with white friends who
         included me because that was
          the nice thing to do in the late
          fifties and early sixties

     and i lost myself
     down roads
     i had never walked.

     and my name was
     without honor
     and i became a
     stranger at my birthright.

Perhaps it was this sense that she had lost her birthright that turned her thoughts to her past. And the South became the place where the mysteries of her past could be discovered. There too was the knowledge of her mother.

It was not until she graduated from college that she learned anything about her mother. When her father showed her a photograph of Lena Jones Driver, a beautiful Latin-looking woman with fair skin and dark eyes, she became aware of the void that existed in her life. On a pilgrimage to the South in 1980, she found a wizened old man who held the knowledge that had long since been lost in county records. He told her that her mother was the daughter of a black plantation worker and her white boss by the name of Jones. The revelation convinced the poet of her intimacy with historical events and finds its way into her upcoming novel, After Saturday Night Comes Sunday, in which a woman who is going crazy because of a man must spiritually find her mother's mother. Only then, when she had traversed the void, can she become the kind of woman she is capable of becoming. In After Saturday Night Comes Sunday, as in part two of A Blues Book, the reader experiences an almost cinematographic sensation, as Sanchez reverses the projector, making the frames from the past flick in rapid retrogression. In much the manner of Alejo Carpentier as he envisions a "journey back to the source," the poet manipulates time and harnesses the power and magic of the rivers to give birth to herself:

     tell me. tellLLLLLL me. earth mother
     for i want to rediscover me. the secret of me
     the river of me. the morning ease of me.
     i want my body to carry my words tike aqueducts.
     i want to make the world my diary
     and speak rivers.

The ritual invocation of the earth mother has its analogue in the rituals of the Orisha, the Yoruba gods. As if drawing on the Jungian collective unconscious, the poet reveals a close relationship between the riverain goddesses who reside at the bottom of the river, and Earth, whom they recognize as the pure force, the ashe, the power to make things happen. In Flash of the Spirit, Robert Farris Thompson gives a description of one of the riverain goddesses, who has an uncanny resemblance to the spirituality revealed in A Blues Book:

Divination literature tells us that Oshun was once married to Ifa but fell into a more passionate involvement with the fiery thunder god, who carried her into his vast brass palace, where she ruled with him; she bore him twins and accumulated, as mothers of twins in Yorubaland are want to do, money and splendid things galore…. When she died, she took these things to the bottom of the river. There she reigns in glory, within the sacred depths, fully aware that so much treasure means that she must counter inevitable waves of jealousy with witchcraft, by constant giving, constant acts of intricate generosity. Even so, she is sometimes seen crowned, in images of warlock capacity and power, brandishing a lethal sword, ready to burn and destroy immoral persons who incur her wrath, qualities vividly contrasting with her sweetness, love, and calm.

Oshun, in fact, can well be a metaphor for Sanchez's power. For in her poems, one senses a power that is feminine, and consciously so. It comes from her understanding of her connections with the universe, her connections with her ancestors, and her strong matrilineal ties with a universe that has given to its kind not only the responsibility but, indeed, the power to bear the children and nurture seed. Her power comes from a faith in continuity; seeds grow into flowers and produce their own seeds. Sanchez clearly presents the life cycle and cherishes it.

Sanchez calls the phenomenon that makes sense out of these mystical connections and recurrent archetypal images "residual memory." It is her capacity to draw on this memory that deepens the implications of her poetry. And on another level, it provides a source of implications that even the poet cannot fathom. Some would call this simply—inspiration.

In speaking about how she writes, Sanchez explains a process in which one sees the art of the poet and the role of the prophet merging. In an interview that appeared in Essence magazine, she says that sometimes lines of poetry come and she jots them down and that sometimes a feeling comes and she will write down lines that respond to that feeling. Often for Sanchez, the inspiration comes after rereading a favorite book or the work of a poet she admires. During her best time for reflection—early in the morning, from twelve midnight until four, she reads and reworks lines, "fussing at those things that obviously don't work." However, sometimes the poet gives way to the prophet, whose voice "derives its authority, not from some inner reservoir, but from an outside … source." Sanchez says: "Sometimes I actually see something that moves me or makes me angry or whatever, and then line by line just pours out from God knows where. Whenever people compliment me after a reading or tell me they enjoyed one of my books, I'll say, 'thank you so much.' But inside I'll say to myself, 'It's not just me.' Everything that you or I could write has been written before; there's that energy there in the universe for us to pull from. Many of us just become attuned to that energy."

It was this energy that helped Sanchez begin her career as a writer. While attending New York University, she began to write seriously. At NYU, she took a course from poet Louise Bogan, a prolific writer and teacher who disliked intensely "bad writing and bad writers." Sanchez found Bogan fascinating and sincerely interested in her growth as a writer, and she did not sense in her the patronization and indifference that she had encountered at Hunter.

Encouraged by this experience, she organized a writers' workshop that met every Wednesday night in the village; there she met Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Larry Neal, the poet-critics who became the architects of the black arts movement, and began to read with them in jazz night spots. She also joined the New York CORE and the Reform Democrats Club. At this time, she was married to Albert Sanchez, a first-generation Puerto Rican American. He did not understand her intense commitment to causes or her need to write. After four years of marriage and the birth of her first child, Sanchez found herself moving away from the narrowly defined bounds of that relationship:

     and visions came from the wall.
     bodies without heads, laughter without mouths.
     then faces crawling on the walls
     like giant spiders,
     came toward me
     and my legs buckled and
       i cried out.

And when the break was complete, she

    woke up alone
    to the middle sixties
    full of the rising wind of history …

In 1967, Sanchez started teaching at San Francisco State College. Her two-year tenure there was marked by student unrest, demonstrations, and the fledgling stretching of the black power movement. She found herself in the midst of the struggle to make black studies a part of the college's offerings. She, along with psychologist Nathan Hare, played a significant role in the establishment of the first black studies program in the country. She also began to document the ironies and nuances of the overall struggle for black awareness in poems that would appear in her first volume, Homecoming.

Also during this time, Sanchez met poet Etheridge Knight through Gwendolyn Brooks and Dudley Randall. While he was in prison, they began to correspond, and in 1969, they married. Twin sons, Mungu and Morani, were born to them. After little more than a year, the marriage ended in an uneasy alliance. "Poem for Etheridge," "last poem i'm gonna write bout us." and other poems in We A BadddDDD People and Love Poems reveal the often poignant, sometimes tragic nature of their relationship. However, what is significant in these poems is the ability of the poet to transcend the bounds of her own experience and speak with an authority that comes from going many times to her own personal wailing wall. For example, in "Poem No. 8," Sanchez brilliantly captures the sense of interminable waiting that only a woman knows intimately:

    i've been a woman
      with my legs stretched by the wind
       rushing the day
        thinking i heard your voice
         while it was only the night
          moving over
           making room for the dawn.

From 1967 to 1975, Sanchez was intensely involved in continuing her career as a poet and a teacher. During that time, she completed nine books and published her poems and plays in several periodicals, including Black Scholar, Black Theatre, Black World, Journal of Black Poetry, Liberator, Massachusetts Review, Minnesota Review, New York Quarterly, and the Tulane Drama Review. She also taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, Manhattan Community College, and Amherst College. While at Amherst, from 1972 to 1975, she taught one of the first courses on black women writers offered in an American college. For a brief period from 1972 to 1975, she was a member of the Nation of Islam, directing its cultural and educational program and writing for Muhammad Speaks. She resigned from the Nation of Islam in 1975 and one year later came to Philadelphia to teach at the University of Pennsylvania. After a year, Sanchez began teaching at Temple University, where she has taught Afro-American studies, English, Pan-African studies, and creative writing since then.

In 1978, Sanchez published I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems. In this volume, she concludes with a group of new poems that fall under the rubric "Generations." These poems attest to the significance she places on the vestiges of the past that have been gathered to bring meaning, value, direction, and inspiration to an individual's present.

In "A Poem of Praise," which is dedicated to Gerald Penny, a student who died on September 23, 1973, and to the Brothers of Amherst College, Sanchez reconciles the loss of a young warrior by giving promise to the cycles of his life. The truth of the poem is that the man has been on earth and has experienced a life that is no less beautiful, dramatic, or meaningful because it has been short. One sees the poet developing a view of the universe that holds man as a traveler, who comes from another space, walks from the morning through day, to evening, tasting "in himself the world":

     In your days made up of dreams
     in your eyes made of dawn
     you walked toward old age,
     child of the rainbow
     child of beauty
     through the broad fields
     and your eyes gained power
     and your limbs grew long like yellow corn
     an abundance of life
     an abundance of joy
     with beauty before you, you walked
     toward old age.

This traveler brings to mind another one who came "trailing clouds of glory." William Wordsworth's youth must travel from the East, farther from the splendid vision of celestial light that was his when he was born. However, consistent with the teaching of Islam (during the writing of this poem, the poet was a follower of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad), Sanchez envisions a universe in which the young man walks toward the light, wisdom, and rebirth:

    For i am man
    and i must
    run with the evening tide
    must hold up my hands
    for my life is opening
    before me.

    I am going to walk far to the East
    i hope to find a good morning

This youth need not content himself with the memory of radiance that once was, for life moves in cycles and progresses toward endings that have, at their center, beginnings.

Sanchez's poetic kinship with Native American tribal poets is striking here. There is the same understanding of "the cyclic continuities" that make up the circle of life. There is the same respect for the generative power of language, a language that is medicinal, rooted in nature, dignified, and spare. Kenneth Lincoln, in his book Native American Renaissance, writes:

Oral tribal poetry remains for the most part organic, for tribal poets see themselves as essentially keepers of the sacred word bundle…. They regard rhythm, vision, craft, nature, and words as gifts that precede and continue beyond any human life. The people are born into and die out of a language that gives them being. Song-poets in this respect discover, or better rediscover, nature's poems. They never pretend to have invented a "poetic" world apart from nature, but instead believe they are permitted to husband songs as one tends growing things; they give thanks that the songs have chosen them as singers.

In a real way, Sanchez's attitude about her purpose as a poet is rooted in a way of thinking about the world that is similar to that of the poet-singers of more than five hundred Native American cultures who send out the voice. Her early Southern experience watered her sensibility—the greening of her mind—and nourished her purpose as a poet: to create positive values for her community. She writes in "The Poet as a Creator of Social Values" that the poet is a manipulator of symbols and language—images that have been planted by experience in the collective subconscious of a people. She believes that "the poet has the power to create new or intensified meaning and experience" and, depending on the visibility of the poet and the efficacy of the poetry itself, "create, preserve or destroy social values."

However, even more than these conditions, the poet's power depends on the clarity of her vision, her ability to interpret human nature, and her willingness to speak in tongues that will confirm her vision. For Sanchez, poetry is "subconscious conversation." She says, "When I say something on stage, I make them remember similar experiences that they have not even brought up, but I bring them up and say look remember and people say, 'Yes, I remember.'" And given this process, "poetry is as much the work of those who understand it as those who make it." Thus, when Sanchez eulogizes the Amherst student whose life ended prematurely, she is sending a voice among the people who hear and speak:

      There is nothing which does not
          come to an end
      And to live seventeen years is good
          in the sight of God.

The cycle-of-life theme that provides the frame for "A Song of Praise" gets a deeper, subtler exploration in "Kwa mama zetu waliotuzaa." Significantly, the poem begins with the line, "death is a five o'clock door forever changing time," which first appeared in Sister Son/ji, a play written in 1970. By repeating the line, the poet emphasizes the consistency, the predictability, and the weight she attributes to this theme. According to critic Joyce Ann Joyce:

This line along with the title of the poem echoes the "In the beginning / there was no end" of Blues Book. Just as Sister Son/ji reaches out to the audience and asks if they will "grab the day and make it stop," "Kwa mama zetu waliotuzaa" illustrates how the physical, temporal, historical reality becomes an embodiment of the spiritual. For if we grab the day and make it stop, we will see that death is a concrete reality (a five o'clock door) that rules the process of life. For the death of the natural world brings forth the birth of the spiritual (forever changing time) as Sister Son/ji learns.

The lines that follow dramatically show the cyclic nature of life and ironically reveal the human attempt to still a process that is as unrelenting as waves against a shore:

          and it was morning without sun or shadow;
     a morning already afternoon, sky, cloudy with incense,
          and it was morning male in speech;
     feminine in memory.
     but i am speaking of everyday occurrences:
     of days unrolling bandages for civilized wounds;
     of guady women chanting rituals under a waterfall of stars;
     of men freezing their sperms in diamond-studded wombs;
     of children abandoned to a curfew of marble.

The poem, whose title translates "for our mother who gave us birth." is at once a praise poem for the mothers (biological and spiritual) of black women and a eulogy for Shirley Graham DuBois, biographer, teacher and lecturer, whose career spanned over forty years and took her to Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the opening passages, the poet remembers her father's third wife, Geraldine Driver, a kind, caring Southern woman who was saddled with notions of her place and feared breaking loose to ride out her potential. Here, however, in memorializing her (she died of cancer in Detroit), Sanchez uses the symbolism of nature to represent continuity, growth, fruitfulness, and joy, and in effect, she undercuts the pain and unfulfillment that were hers in life:

         mother, i call out to you
     traveling up the congo. i am preparing a place for you:
           nite made of female rain
           i am ready to sing her song
           prepare a place for her
           she comes to you out of turquoise pain.

           restring her eyes for me
           restring her body for me
           restring her peace for me

         no longer full of pain, may she walk
         bright with orange smiles, may she walk
         as it was long ago, may she walk

         abundant with lightning steps, may she walk
         abundant with green trails, may she walk
         abundant with rainbows, may she walk
         as it was long ago, may she walk …

For Shirley Graham DuBois, who was "a bearer of roots," who taught the poet the truth of the African past, who "painted the day with palaces," Sanchez, in broad sweeps of pantheism, calls up the bells, Olokun (the goddess of the sea), the spirits of day and night. For through their persistence, their repetitiveness, their predictability, they reassure the poet of her mentor's continuity and her triumphal passage to the land of the ancestors.

At several turns in the poem, the privileged perception cuts through the eulogy:

     as morning is the same as nite death and life are one.
     at the center of death is birth
     death is coming, the whole world hears
     the buffalo walk of death passing thru the
     archway of new life.

From the very first metaphor, the poem is unified by the epigrams concerning death. Death is one with life and continuity; at its center is a beginning.

The dimensions of Sanchez's Southern imagination become imposing in Homegirls & Handgrenades. Her fascination with time and the past, her communion with nature, her reverence for the folk, her search for identity and self-actualization through meaningful relationships, and her intense spirituality born of a faith in roots and continuity predict the themes and metaphors that unify the book. With a language pregnant with the images of war, armaments, and nuclear proliferation, the poet suggests that love and the greening of the mind are the only reasonable weapons in a world dangerously toying with annihilation. In the most effective vignette in the volume, "Just Don't Never Give Up on Love," the poet recounts her meeting with an eighty-four-year-old woman who inveigled her to hear her message on the power of love:

"… C'mon over here next to me. I wants to see yo' eyes up close. You looks so uneven sittin' over there."

Did she say uneven? Did this old buddah splintering death say uneven? Couldn't she see that I had one eye shorter than the other; that my breath was painted on porcelain; that one breast crocheted keloids under this white blouse?

I moved toward her though. I scooped up the years that had stripped me to the waist and moved toward her. And she called to me to come out, come out wherever you are young woman, playing hide and go seek with scarecrow men. I gathered myself up at the gateway of her confessionals.

As Mrs. Rosalie Johnson talks with her about her husbands and love, the young woman cries for herself and "for all the women who have ever stretched their bodies out anticipating civilization and finding ruins." Mrs. Johnson's message is cathartic; by allowing the old woman's healing words to slough off the bitterness and fear built up from past relationships, she is again open to love.

Moving 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 share Sanchez's urge to articulate the democratic evils (racism/apartheid/imperialism) that stunt the spiritual growth of black youth, corrupt hope by gradualism, and stall freedom. On the occasion of Martin Luther King's fifty-fourth year (the poet addresses the slain leader as a living spirit), she declares anew a faith in the regenerative power of blackness, which eschews fear and moves toward "freedom and justice for the universe." The letter ends with an explosion of feeling as the poet, remembering the chanting of black South African women at the death of Stephen Biko, adopts the chant "Ke wa rona" (he is ours) and calls the roll of black deliverers:

… On this your 54th year, listen and you will hear the earth delivering up curfews to the missionaries and assassins. Listen. And you will hear the tribal songs.

   Ayeeee   Ayooooo   Ayee
   Ayeeee   Ayooooo   Ayeee
Malcolm …          Ke wa rona
Robeson …          Ke wa rona
Lumumba …          Ke wa rona
Fannie Lou …         Ke wa rona
Garvey …           Ke wa rona
Johnbrown …         Ke wa rona
Tubman …           Ke wa rona
Mandela …           Ke wa rona
  (free Mandela
  free Mandela)
Assata …            Ke wa rona

As we go with you to the sun,
as we walk in the dawn, turn our eyes
Eastward and let the prophecy come true
and let the prophecy come true
    Great God, Martin, what a morning it will be!

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 (murder / assassination / "redwhiteandblue death squads"). The centerpiece of the poem is a disturbingly accurate account of the death of Biko. Here one is aware of the substantial capacity of the poet to work with the ironic voice, which gains power by the incremental repetition of "we did all we could for the man":

         sept. 13:
    hear ye. hear ye. hear ye.
    i regret to announce that Stephen
    biko is dead, he has refused
    food since sept. 5th. we did
    all we could for the man.
    he has hanged himself while sleeping
    we did all we could for him.
    he fell while answering our questions
    we did all we could for the man.
    he washed his face and hung him
    self out to dry
    we did all we could for him.
    he drowned while drinking his supper
    we did all we could for the man.
    he fell
        hanged himself starved
    drowned himself
    we did all we could for him.
    it's hard to keep someone alive
    who won't even cooperate.
    hear ye.

Whether conjuring up Stephen Biko, or the "youngblood / touching and touched at random" in the killing fields of Atlanta, or the young men with "their white togas covering their / stained glass legs" in Central America, she exhorts the men and women to harvest their share of freedom.

In Sanchez's most recent volume, Under a Soprano Sky, she captures in the poem "for Black history month/February 1986" the essence of her Southern sensibility as she reflects on her visit to the Great Wall of China. As she "started to climb that long winding trail of history and survival," her thoughts turned to voices and visions that propelled history, demanded survival, and forged the cultural links of which continuity is made. Moving deeply within her culture, Sanchez "had to peel away misconceptions about Blacks." As she sang the blues, hummed the spirituals, explored the myths, and walked "a piece" down the road with Nat Turner, Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Garrison, John Brown, Martin Delany, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, David Walker … her racial memory nourished in Southern soil bears fruit. Her sense of reality, her sense of history rejected Old Black Joe, one of the plantation tradition's favorite sons, "Sambo-hood," and Jim Crow. Her sense of history embraced Lady Day's voice as she sang of strange fruit and blood on the magnolia, embraced Robeson's voice as he sang of deep rivers and the quest of the soul for peace on the other side of Jordan or the Mississippi or the Ohio. Her sense of the past, her roots, her ostensibly Southern imagination has allowed her to keep sight of her vision, a vision of peace and community that was first conceived in the green days of an Alabama childhood.

Frenzella Elaine De Lancey (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Refusing to be Boxed In: Sonia Sanchez's Transformation of the Haiku Form," in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 21-36.

[In the following essay, De Lancey asserts that "As [Sanchez] textualizes the form, forging her Afrocentric vision and Afrocentric structure within the discipline of the haiku form, she moves closer to a unique structure that carries her own signature."]

One of the few titled haiku written by Sonia Sanchez, "Walking in the rain in Guyana" is an excellent example of both the poet's artistic vision and artistry:

          watusi like trees
     holding the day like green um/
            brella catching rain.

Elements consistent with definitions of classical Japanese haiku as a lyric verse form in three unrhymed lines, with a 5-7-5 syllable count are evident, so, too, is the requisite emphasis on external nature. The clarifying title tells us that this haiku derives from a walk in the rain in Guyana and announces the poet's intention to "localize" the haiku in a particular manner. Sanchez uses Afrocentric motifs to textualize the haiku, making it not some universal statement about rain and tree but a particular experience, filtered through the poet's consciousness. Though Guyana is located in South America, African people are among its inhabitants; the watusi trees evoke images of the Burundi Watusi, again, images associated with Africa. Sanchez localizes this image by inserting "like" in the first line, forcing it into service as she forges an adjective-phrase, "watusi like" to describe the trees. Such techniques signal reader: this is haiku with a difference.

We recognize, however, that Sanchez's "Walking in the rain in Guyana" conforms to a basic concept of haiku to what haiku master Basho (1644–1694) describes as simply what is happening at this place at this moment. Equally evident is how much Sanchez's Afrocentric content textualizes the form. Forging function with ethos, she observes rules while breaking them. Sanchez's poetic practice is informed by a philosophy that utilizes function and ethos as two important distinctions in poetry. She sees poetry as form that accommodates political and personal ideas. Imamu Amiri Baraka offers a useful definition of form and content that can be applied to Sanchez's transformation of the haiku form. According to Baraka, form is "simply how a thing exists (or what a thing exists as)." Content, on the other hand, "is why a thing exists."

In her transformation of haiku Sanchez often forces the reader to ask "why." She notes that writing for her has been a "long tense road of saying what I wanted and needed to say." In "Walking in the rain in Guyana," the poet fuses an unspecific, unbounded image from external nature to a particular, specific moment, filtered through her consciousness. More than a personal poetic construction, this haiku is also an example of Sonia Sanchez's conscious decision to imbue haiku form with Afrocentric motifs, and ultimately move beyond the form as prescribed to a fusion of traditional haiku form with her own structure. In other words, Sanchez is making the haiku say what she wants it to say.

Sanchez's transformation of the form is more radical than mere structural alteration, although she sometimes changes the structure of the haiku by using simile, conjunction, and metaphor. Her use of these structural markers can always be identified as functional; they are used to make the haiku speak her words, reveal her vision. In fact, Sanchez's use of the haiku form is a revolutionary textualization of both structure and form. Sometimes working within the structural strictures of classical Japanese haiku form, other times altering the form to fit her needs, and always textualizing it, Sanchez forces the form to accommodate her vision. By imbuing the haiku form with Afrocentric motifs, Sanchez textualizes the form in a specific manner, and in the instances where she must abrogate universally observed strictures, she does so to force the haiku to conform to her needs and her vision. In her haiku, then, the effect is a movement through the uneven strictures imposed by dicta reintroduced for the English haiku. Referring specifically to her book I've Been a Woman, Sanchez discusses her use of haiku and tanka, and her conscious use of African themes. In I've Been a Woman, she points out, "I have haiku, tankas, and again, the movement towards what I call 'African' ideas and feelings and also the movement toward a black ethic and a feminine one too."

The fifth section of I've Been a Woman is entitled "Haikus/Tankas & Other Love Syllables" and in it Sanchez offers haiku which focus on a number of subjects. Some are interesting fusions of nature and human elements:

         i have looked into
      my father's eyes and seen an
             african sunset.

Often these fusions of external nature and humanity emphasize one over the other. At other times, humanity and elements signifying nature are perfectly balanced in metaphorical phrases. Thus, function and form are important in the transformation Sanchez effects. For example, her use of simile and conjunction is also functional. Though she only alters the haiku 5-7-5 infrequently, her use of simile, metaphor, and other structural devices usually alert readers to important structural changes and, of course, with these changes, an unusual textualization of form. In another haiku dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, Sanchez signals Brooks's importance by using images from external nature to create an image of Brooks's essence as sacred:

         woman, whose color
     of life is like the sun, whose
       laughter is prayer.

We note Sanchez's use of metaphor and simile showcases Brooks. Such showcasing transforms this haiku into a compressed praise song for Gwendolyn Brooks, and external nature serves as handmaiden to Sanchez's vision. Suggesting that Brooks's vision is an exemplar, a sacred model, Sanchez clusters images for associative value within the permitted 5-7-5 syllable count and with the forbidden simile and metaphor. After establishing Brooks through metaphor, Sanchez equates Brooks's laughter with "prayer." In this final vehicle, this final image of a woman who is a sacred model, is effective in this haiku. Again, Sanchez fuses human and natural elements through clustered images and structural transformation, a woman whose essence rivals the sun becomes a sacred figure.

In the same section of I've Been a Woman, there are other haiku in which nature takes on the coloring of the human actors in the poetic structure. And although most of the haiku offered below do not have discernible Afrocentric motifs, they are examples of the poet's willingness to abrogate haiku strictures to accommodate her vision:

                     shedding my years
               earthbound now. midnite trees are
                     more to my liking.

Nature becomes the clarifying element as the image of rooted trees suggests the experience of being earthbound. Sanchez converts this feeling into a transformative moment consonant with the speaker's perspective by playing against our most commonly held conception of trees. Viewed at midnight, rather than in the sharply clarifying light of day, the trees as image are subject to greater imaginative possibilities. Earthbound, the speaker continues to retain the right to see things in her own way.

With the same ease that she subordinates external nature to humans in some haiku, Sanchez also imbues her haiku with highly personal moments, ignoring the stricture against the personal in haiku.

                  the rain tastes lovely
                like yo/sweat draping my body
                    after lovemaking.

Traditional haiku conventions of nature, taste, feeling, and present time all interact in a rather unconventional manner here. Most noticeable, of course, is "rain" representing nature in the first line perfectly balanced against "lovemaking" in the last. Between the first and the last line, water as in rain has been transformed into the perspiration produced by the efforts of the two lovers. The haiku's argument suggests nature as human and other, and its structure effectively forges the two. But this is also a haiku imbued with the personal and is, therefore, a transgression of conventional practice. In another transgression, Sanchez dares to be intensely introspective in her haiku:

                       what is it about
                 me that i claim all the wrong
                  lives, the same endings?

Signaling metaphysical crisis, the speaker questions past practices and centers herself in the haiku. In this profoundly personal and introspective moment of crisis, the speaker questions the patterns of her life, and to do so, she moves from present to past. Her mistakes are tallied in words like "all" and the plural "lives" and "endings." Ignoring the censure demanding external nature, Sanchez transforms the haiku form in incisive and startling linguistic turns:

                   you have pierced me so
                    deeply i cannot turn a
                 round without bleeding.

                      missing you is like
               spring standing still on a hill
                   amid winter snow.

Introspective moments rarely produce epiphanies; at most, they are moments of fragmented insight. The haiku form complements Sanchez's poetic renderings of such moments and is thus particularly appropriate; yet, this is a revolutionary move. In their quiet intensity, each haiku represents the poet's vision. While not obviously Afrocentric in terms of motifs, these haiku represent the view of an African American woman. Specifically, they represent an artist aware of censure choosing to work against the imposed norm. Even in those haiku that are not decidedly Afrocentric, one finds Sanchez presenting her own vision in her own way and saying what she wants to say.

So far, I have advanced the notion of Sanchez's haiku as decidedly revolutionary, whether she is presenting introspective moments or making political statements. In changing the form by textualizing it, Sanchez demonstrates her own considerable skill as poet. But to truly understand the imperative that informs Sanchez's transformations, one must examine briefly the nature of certain strictures in haiku writing.

Claims about what constitutes haiku are curiously antithetical to general practices. For example, there seems to be general agreement that Japanese haiku is rimeless, its seventeen syllables usually arranged in three lines, often following a 5-7-5 pattern. However, in The Art and Craft of Poetry: An Introduction, Lawrence John Zillman writes that in haiku one is not concerned "with metrical feet, rime, or contrived stanzas." Rather the emphasis should be on the "two basic patterns" in which "everything is to be said in either thirty-one or seventeen syllables. The tanka, the longer structure, is made up of five lines, of tanka 5-7-5-7-7 syllables respectively." In fact, writers of English haiku often ignore such patterns. Rime, then, appears to mark the important difference between Japanese and English haiku. This single adjustment seems to be the only acknowledged transition from the Japanese to the English haiku. But it is also evident that certain strictures are deeply ingrained. Still to be considered is the often cited constraint from Basho urging the restriction of content in haiku to what is happening in this place and this moment.

Editors and critics frequently ignore the flexibility of Basho's definition of haiku. Rather, they evoke the strongest strictures, insisting not only upon the "present moment" in haiku, but also that the subject matter of haiku focus on external nature—that the poet focus on what can be seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. In her haiku, Sanchez most often observes one stricture while transforming another. While her observation of the 5-7-5 seventeen syllable stricture is most consistent, she takes the "present moment" and imbues it with any number of Afrocentric images or her unique, sometimes introspective vision. In the intensely personal haiku about lovemaking, she reinvests the stricture of taste, taking it from conventional dicta and turning it on its head.

According to X. J. Kennedy, "Haiku is an art of few words, many suggestions. A haiku starts us thinking and feeling." Sonia Sanchez uses the haiku form in a manner that forces her readers to think, and she does it successfully because she alters the form. It would seem then that some flexibility must be offered to the poet who wants to textualize haiku; yet, a cursory examination of the 1990 Poet's Market finds that many strictures continue to dominate in a rather monolithic manner: "Do not use metaphor/simile/" and "Do not tell your emotions."

Unlike Kennedy or Zillman, many editors are unyielding proponents of traditional strictures. They expect the content in haiku to focus on external nature; they expect haiku writers to reject simile and metaphor. And these editors exercise some control over poets by their ability to reject haiku that do not conform to strictures. This, in turn, influences the poetry community, wedding haiku writers who want to publish to traditional strictures. Apparently monolithic, this perspective seems to be based on false notions, and as in all arbitrary dicta, the contradictions serve as imperatives for poets who want to alter the form. One of the more clarifying statements about Japanese haiku is offered by Kennedy, but even his flexible comments present censures against Sanchez's transformation of the haiku form:

Haiku poets look out upon a literal world, seldom looking inward to discuss their feelings. Japanese haiku tend to be seasonal in subject, but because they are so highly compressed, they usually just imply a season: a blossom indicates spring; a crow on a branch, autumn; snow, winter. Not just pretty little sketches of nature (as some Westerners think), haiku assumes a view of the universe in which observer and nature are not separated.

The obvious difference between the description offered by Kennedy and Sanchez's haiku is that she does not hesitate to look inward, producing introspective haiku. Yet Kennedy's statement confirms that there are still misconceptions among practitioners and editors about what constitutes haiku. Further, the obvious gap between these misconceptions and views such as Kennedy's, is a proving ground that Sanchez stakes out for herself as she redefines the haiku form. Thus, the contradictions become Sanchez's imperative for transforming haiku.

As Carolyn Rodgers, George Kent, and others point out, Sanchez has traditionally used new forms. In one of her articles "Black poetry—where it's at." Rodgers offers a comprehensive typology of black expression in poetry. She identifies Sanchez's use of the "shouting" poem as an example of her utilization of new forms. George Kent offers a more extensive analysis of Sanchez's skill, not as a poet experimenting with new forms, but as a poet who has experimented with form and mastered it. Citing her mastery of mountain-top poetry, Kent refers specifically to Sanchez's A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women as "a culmination of spiritual and poetic powers." He speaks of Sanchez's earlier experiments with language and spelling as "efforts to force the speaking voice to speak from the printed page." He applauds her "simplicity of diction" and her "careful but undistracting uses of natural and mechanically induced pauses." In textualizing haiku. Sanchez produces exciting experimental forms and verifies earlier critical assessments of her work. Indeed, she reveals herself as a poet at the top of her craft. Just as she forces the stricture concerning nature in haiku to accommodate her vision of human nature and external nature, and the relationship they share, so, too, does she push the form and herself. This fusion of form finds Sanchez offering beautiful images of external nature in harmony with man:

                    the trees are laughing
                    at us. positioning their
                   leaves in morning smiles.

Seemingly antithetical elements of nature are made to serve, through artistic skill, a different function:

     We are sudden stars
      you and i exploding in
       our blue black skins.

In the forbidden use of metaphor Sanchez combines the external nature, represented by the "stars," with the human element, thereby creating a certain texture in the form: the "you and i" and the "blue black skins" are human elements fused with stars. One becomes the other. In another lyrical instance Sanchez combines disparate elements, including simile, to make external nature and humanity complement each other:

                     O this day like an
               orange peeled against the sky
                    murmurs me and you.

Sanchez uses powerful elements from external nature perfectly equipoised against the human aspect. Furthermore, we have another instance of Sanchez using the forbidden simile and conjunction to establish the harmony important in human relationships and textualizing the poem in terms of several antithetical elements: structure and form; nature and man. The love for humanity comes through in this haiku precisely because Sanchez uses simile and conjunction. The effect of "like" between the orange and the sky balances them against the "me and you" of the haiku. Aspects of nature work for the humans in the poem, and there is harmony.

In another beautiful image of harmony, nature, and man, poet and haiku strictures merge to become a Sonia Sanchez construction wholly Afrocentric in technique, becoming what Carolyn Rodgers calls a "mindblowing" poem:

                  morning snow falling
                astride this carousel called
                     life. i am sailing.

"Mindblowing" because it uses the haiku to demonstrate poetic skill as well as poetic vision, this haiku reveals a poet boxing her way out and away from prescriptive form. Her refusal to yield to form is a lesson in itself. The opening lines signal conventional haiku, but each line moves the haiku away from the conventional toward individual technique and vision. Internal punctuation in the last line suggests that the poet will simply settle for the injection of the word "life" to signal her experimentation with form. On this introspective note, she is, in fact, situated in the present, but as she muses about "carousel called life" we recognize this structure as both synchronic and diachronic in nature; it is, therefore, introspective. However, after the period, which makes it appear to be an afterthought, the phrase "i am sailing" alters our response to the haiku. One could argue that this is the most powerful line in the haiku. "Mindblower poems" according to Rodgers, "seek to expand our minds, to break the chains that strangle them, so that we can begin to image alternatives for black people." The artist's technical finessing thrills the reader who expects the poem to move in one direction, but finds it moving in another. This haiku, like others, not only signals Sanchez's mastery of form, it also reveals her ability to forge her own technique with those aspects of haiku that she needs. Although she forces it to accommodate Afrocentric vision, Sanchez has healthy respect for haiku form. Keenly aware of the form's possibilities, she applauds its power to discipline novice poets. Thus, she is not attempting to destroy this existing form as a reactionary response to arbitrary dicta. In fact, an examination of her haiku convinces one that though her altering of structure is revolutionary, the extent to which Sanchez imbues the content and structure of haiku, tilling it with an Afrocentric texture filtered through her unique womanist vision, is even more revolutionary. This tension between form as control and form as discipline informs Sanchez's most political haiku. Political vision in her work both disrupts the structure and offers future possibilities for form:

                       redlips open wide
               like a wound winding down on
                      the city. clotting.

A political poem that is indeed "mindblowing," this disturbing haiku offers a poetic argument. It incorporates the poet's sense of her role as vatic poet who serves the dual function of communicating with a particular community and the wider world. A powerful vignette, its vision is prophetic and moves the poet toward a new form that is Afrocentric in both structure and form. Sanchez breaks some rules while retaining others. As noted earlier, the insistence upon the present and external nature in haiku is important in conventional dicta. In this example, Sanchez turns this stricture on its head, inverting it so sharply that we sense an urgent note. The present tense Sanchez offers is not a soothing photograph of nature, but an intrusive and disturbing vignette, beginning an ominous chapter. Inherent in this haiku is the tension between present and future that the poet observes and advises. Thus, the texture, philosophy, and structure of this poem combine to render it wholly Afrocentric. As a poet, Sanchez observes and then tells what she sees, hinting at future implications. This is her strongest forte as a poet, and the haiku's compressed form works to her advantage. Forced to be brief, she must communicate her vision quickly. This rapid closure adds to the urgency of the moment.

As she forces this form to do much more than is expected, Sanchez also forces the reader to interact with the haiku, to go beyond the three lines to the implications of the vignette, to seek and know the future the poet thinks the circumstances augur. In effect, the reader is forced to inquire as to what is beyond its frame. Even if we did not have the dedication "for a blk/prostitute," we would recognize this as a political haiku. Sanchez's careful structuring also alerts us that we must become involved not only in analyzing her haiku, but in responding to the situation she describes. In effect, she is producing haiku that make us feel and respond in much the same way that X. J. Kennedy suggests. Sanchez goes beyond form, in this instance creating a personal situation between poet and community. Indeed, her technical skill moves this haiku beyond Afrocentric content to Afrocentric discourse as we recognize the required interaction between poem and reader as "call-and-response," an Afrocentric form of discourse.

From the beginning the images elicit associations bordering on the grotesque. The synecdochic image "redlips open wide" suggests the myriad functions the prostitute serves, but in the simile "like a wound" the grotesqueness is deepened with the comparison of the lips to a wound with infectious connotations. "Clotting" further suggests unnaturalness, but this impression is achieved by reversing our preconceived notion of clotting. We must shift from the impression of clotting as positive, stemming the loss of blood, to clotting as negative, cutting off the heart's circulation. As a clot, the prostitute places the entire community at risk. In the case of the African American community, she is a special risk, but because she is a member of the community, her pain becomes communal pain: "Winding down on the city" reinforces the image of veins, circumscribing blood's course through the body. This "black prostitute," then, is headed to the heart of our existence; as a clot, she presents mortal danger. Once we have the picture in focus, it becomes for us a vignette. Sanchez's message comes in her careful structuring of images. In addition to the alignment of images, she uses the end-stop powerfully. In fact, she is "bringing it on home" to the reader. "Redlips open wide" is a powerful, lingering image, etching in the mind's eye a picture of the prostitute walking down the street. But the whole of its impact is made by Sanchez's structural innovation. End-stop as used by Sanchez in this instance, provides the tension between present and future, between the poet's prescience and our own dawning awareness. The period after "city," and the final word "clotting" moves the reader from disinterested observer to worried inner-city dweller or African American member of the community.

Sanchez is perceived as a militant writer. Such a perception has as much to do with the themes she addresses in her poetry as the form she uses. Critics, however, tend to focus on her militant themes. Certainly it is understandable that critics focus on Sanchez's use of certain themes in her work, but her disruption of the haiku form is directly related to her fusion of function and ethos in poetry, and though she is consistently revolutionary, she is also a skilled artist. Ironically, because of the general perception of her as militant, Sanchez's use of the haiku puzzles some scholars who associate her militancy solely with free verse and rarely with haiku. In an interview with Herbert Leibowitz, Sanchez talks about the perception of her as militant and places her work in perspective:

My early poetry was introspective, poetry that probably denied or ignored I was black. I wrote about trees, and birds, and whatever, and that was hard, living in Harlem, since we didn't see too many trees, though I did draw on my residual memories of the South. People kept saying to me, if you write a political poem, it will be considered propaganda—an ineffective and poor poem—but I read Neruda and saw that he didn't deny the personal. In the early Sixties I became aware that the personal was the political.

Sanchez's statement reveals her own philosophy of poetry: poetry can be both personal and political. Further, this statement accounts for her unique fusion of external elements, introspective elements, and highly personal elements in her haiku. For Sanchez, the use of nature in an artificial sense serves no useful purpose. Human concerns fuel her structures. She uses nature in a way that forces it to serve a function. As she points out, her journey from the point at which she struggled to write about trees and plants from residual memories to her own realization that she could write revolutionary poetry has been a "long, tense road."

Because of her tendency to focus on the human condition in her poetry, Sanchez is often associated with militancy. Two misconceptions account for this tendency: Sanchez's highly militant and often publicized free verse poetry, which employs tropes and themes associated with political struggle, and the conventional notion of haiku that influences both the poetry and critical community. Sanchez's insistence upon her own vision puzzles both critics and friends alike. Her account of a friend's reaction to her love poetry offers an example of how she is perceived:

When I gave my book Love Poems to a friend, she said, "God, I didn't know you wrote love poems." But in every book of mine there's been a section of lyrical pieces. If you describe me, as some critics do, as a lyrical poet, I say yes I am, but I'm also a hard-hitting poet and a political poet because this is a lyrical world and a terrible world, too, and I have to talk about that.

Terrible lyricism informs and surprises in the haiku dedicated to John Brown:

                  man of stained glass legs
                 harvesting the blood of Nat
                    in a hangman's noose.

A perfect 5-7-5 form, this praise poem for John Brown exemplifies the terrible lyricism to which Sanchez refers. This haiku does not focus on nature, but on the bravery of John Brown's stand, situating him in history with Nat Turner. But it also deconstructs history in a surprising manner. Though she concedes with the reference to "stained glass legs" that John Brown's stand deserves our respect, Sanchez is also making it clear that Nat Turner was the first to die. Ironically, John Brown, though branded as a maniac by Lincoln, receives recognition that makes him a hero in the fight for African American freedom from European slavery. Afrocentric texture is apparent in this haiku, but so is its "teaching" or "running it down" quality. Rodgers defines "teaching" or "running it down" poems as those attempting to give direction to African American people. And in this dedication to John Brown, as in the prostitute poem, Sanchez is teaching, "running it down" to those who suffer from historical amnesia.

What is most striking about this form is the reader's sense that Sanchez has almost overwhelmed the form with the weight of significance. Yet, her lyricism not only saves the haiku, but gives it a cutting edge: "stained glass legs" is an overwhelmingly beautiful image. The reader inclined toward facile sympathy for John Brown is prohibited by the clarifying images. The fragile, glass legs are placed in proper perspective by the images of Brown "harvesting" Nat Turner's blood. Nat Turner becomes the model for John Brown, as is made clear by the image of Nat in the "hangman's noose." This deliberate use of form is as shocking as the vignette of the prostitute moving down the street. In the prostitute haiku, Sanchez is poet predicting future consequences; in the haiku dedicated to John Brown, she is the poet correcting the past. In another haiku dedicated to Paul Robeson, Sanchez is the poet suggesting the importance of Afrocentric vision. Reading our figures through Afrocentric lenses moves us closer to our African roots.

                  your voice unwrapping
                   itself from the Congo
                   contagious as shrines.

Interestingly, this haiku does not conform to the 5-7-5 haiku constraints (it is 5-6-5 in this case). In content and texture, it resembles the haiku dedicated to John Brown. Both poems were deliberately pressed into the service of the African American experience. Though both are Afrocentric in nature, in the latter example, we also see Sanchez's introduction of "African" motifs and forging connections with African as a homeland. In each case the dedication identifies the haiku as political. Most powerful is the poet's decision to connect a hero figure with the African homeland. Like the haiku that opens this essay, the haiku dedicated to John Brown and Paul Robeson are political, yet lyrical.

In The Militant Black Writer in Africa and the United States Stephen Henderson talks about the inevitable distortion which occurs when African Americans attempt to fit themselves into the disinterested categories America prescribes for them. Offering Phillis Wheatley as an example of an artist who experienced geometric death, Henderson maintains that Wheatley was boxed in by alien forms. He views Wheatley as a "privileged slave" or "black prodigy" unable "to come to grips honestly with her blackness." As a poet, she was "boxed in by the right angles of the heroic couplet,… an early emblem of geometric death." Henderson sees Wheatley as a tragic African American poet subsumed by form. But even if we qualify this view by indicating the extenuating nature of Wheatley's circumstances, we must admit that African American authors frequently must renegotiate prescribed forms to offer their own vision of the world.

In transforming haiku, Sonia Sanchez declares her own "linguistic manumission," refusing to be boxed in by its form. As she textualizes the form, forging her Afrocentric vision and Afrocentric structure within the discipline of the haiku form, she moves closer to a unique structure that carries her own signature.

Regina B. Jennings (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "The Blue/Black Poetics of Sonia Sanchez," in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 119-32.

[In the following essay, Jennings describes Sanchez's aesthetics and asserts that her work has "inscribed the humanity of black people."]

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.

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 considered 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
               he was
      part of a long/term/plan
          for blk/people.
            he was denmark
              garvey. all the
           of our now/time
           and ago/time,
           check it out. for
     bobby wd be living today.
             and all.
      check it out & don't let
         it happen again.
            we got enough
      blk/martyrs for all the
          yrs to come
          that is, if they
         still coming
        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 argues that heroism exists in Sanchez's poetry. In the ideology of black people, Panthers are resistance leaders. 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." 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." However, Sanchez herself states that her inversion of symbols derived directly from the Muslims and Malcolm X. The meaning of avant-garde has to be 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. The life force is the motivating factor in the expression and the product of art."

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. 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
             my face.
             my brown
        will spread itself over
     this western hemisphere and
          be remembered.
       be sunnnnnnnNNNGG.
      for i will be called
           QUEEN. &
           walk/move in

Here one can see that the ontology of "blk" has mythological and historical advantages. Male and female deities enrich the mythology of traditional Africa. As "queen," the black woman is an avatar, possessing extraordinary powers, stretching her "face" across the continents. 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) is similar, in particular, to 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."

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. 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. 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. 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."

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." Sanchez continues:

             and the world
                shaken by
              my blkness
     will channnNNNNNNGGGGGEEEE
             colors. and be
                blk. again.

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. 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."

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. 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." 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." 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
                    with our blk/visions
                        for blk/lives.
                         let us begin
                the begin/en work now.
                          while our
                      children still
               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." 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." "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."

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. 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

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. 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."

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 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.


Sonia Sanchez Poetry: American Poets Analysis


Sanchez, Sonia (Vol. 5)