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Sonia Sanchez is often named among the strongest voices in black nationalism, the cultural revolution of the 1960s in which many black Americans sought a new identity distinct from the values of the white establishment. In most of her works, including collections of poetry and stories for children, she presents positive role models and often harshly realistic situations in an effort to inspire her readers to improve their lives. Her use of idiomatic language and obscenities reflects urban, black English and lends a powerful edge to her works. As she developed as a writer, she began to critique, not only the white establishment, but the treatment of African American women by African American men.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Rough Road from Alabama to Harlem
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, Sanchez was a shy child who rarely spoke because of a stutter. Her mother died when Sanchez was only a year old. For a time, Sanchez and her sister were cared for by their paternal grandmother, Elizabeth “Mama” Driver. This beloved grandparent is the ”Dear Mama” of Sanchez’s poem by the same name in Under a Soprano Sky (1987). Mama Driver died when Sanchez was five, and the frail youngster endured a period of family instability, including abuse and neglect by a stepmother and frequent moves from one relative’s house to another. The defiant women in her family—one of whom Sanchez watched spit in the face of a driver who asked her to leave a bus because of her race—impressed upon the author at a young age the inner strength of blacks.
In 1943 Sanchez moved with her father, Wilson L. Driver, to Harlem, a neighborhood on New York City’s West Side. Black migrants from the South had flocked to Harlem between the world wars. As a result, Harlem had been the center of a flourishing of African American cultural activity in the 1920s and 1930s, a period of time known as the Harlem Renaissance. The art of African American musicians and singers, painters and sculptors, writers and poets had been celebrated there. Driver, a musician, took Sanchez to hear such prominent jazz artists as Billie Holiday, Billy Eckstine, and Art Tatum.
Sanchez reached adulthood in Harlem. She studied political science and poetry at Hunter College and New York University during the 1950s. After graduating from Hunter College, Sanchez studied creative writing under Louise Bogan, whose interest in the young poet encouraged her to pursue a literary career. Along with Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) and others, Sanchez established a weekly writers’ group that gave public readings. She soon began publishing poetry in small magazines, and later, in black periodicals. She was instrumental in establishing one of the first university-level black studies programs in the United States.
Embracing the Nation of Islam
Committed to the black liberation movement of the 1960s, Sanchez supported the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). CORE was an interracial organization founded in 1942 to combat racism and discrimination; it used nonviolence and passive resistance techniques to expose white racism and the injustices of discrimination. In the early 1960s, the organization was instrumental in organizing sit-ins and freedom rides in the American South.
By the mid-1960s, Sanchez was a single mother of two sons. At that time, she, like many educated African Americans who enjoyed economic stability, held integrationist ideals such as those held by CORE. But after hearing Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam say that African Americans would never be fully accepted as part of mainstream America despite their professional or economic achievements, she chose to base her identity on her racial heritage. The Nation of Islam, led by Elijah Muhammad, was a branch of Islam founded in the United States that urged African Americans to separate from whites. Sanchez was a member of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam from 1972 to 1975. She stated that she joined the group because she wanted her children to see an ”organization that was trying to deal with the concepts of nationhood, morality, small businesses, schools. . . . And these things were very important to me.”
A Revolution Within
While a member of the Nation, Sanchez continued to give public readings and voice her opinions about the direction of the organization. Some of her ideas, however, conflicted with those of the organization, which viewed women’s roles as secondary to those of men, and Sanchez left the Nation after three years. A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1973), and several poems in Love Poems (1973), were composed during this time and reveal a strong commitment to family and support for the African American man.
While her early books speak more directly to widespread social oppression, the plays Sanchez wrote during the 1970s give more attention to the poet’s interpersonal battles. For example, Uh Huh; But How Do It Free Us? (1974) portrays an African American woman involved in the movement against white oppression who also resists subjection to her abusive husband. The women’s liberation movement began in the 1960s, but emerged as a strong force in the early 1970s, in part in response to the unequal treatment that women had received in the civil rights, black power, and antiwar movements. Women not only fought for equal civil rights, but also argued that ”the personal is political” and examined inequality in their personal relationships with men. Sanchez became a voice in what Stephen E. Henderson calls ”a revolution within the Revolution” that grew as black women in general began to reassess their position, as not only victims of discrimination based on race, but also victims of patriarchy within the black community. This consciousness surfaces in works that treat politics in the context of personal relationships. Sanchez’s dramas, such as Sister Son/ji (1969) and Uh Huh; But How Do It Free Us? have been identified as precursors of black feminist awareness.
Much of Sanchez’s work can be seen as autobiographical in nature. A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, which has been called ”a spiritual autobiography,” follows the development of one woman’s consciousness as she ages and explores her personal and social position within a black Muslim community. The volume reveals what it is like to be female in a society that, according to Sanchez, ”does not prepare young black women, or women period, to be women”; it also tells about the author’s political involvements before and after her commitment to ethnic pride. Sanchez extends her personal experience to encompass that of all black people. She commented: ”We must move past always focusing on the ‘personal self’ because there’s a larger self. There’s a ‘self of black people.” Love Poems contains many of the haiku Sanchez wrote during a particularly stressful period in her life. She embraced haiku as a powerful medium that allowed her to ”compress a lot of emotion” into a few lines, as well as to express her increased interest in Eastern cultures.
A Maturing Style
Two of Sanchez’s later volumes of poetry, the American Book Award winner homegirls & handgrenades (1984) and Under a Soprano Sky, received overwhelming praise, with many commentators claiming that the poet had matured personally and stylistically without losing her political fervor. Her focus in many poems turned to drug addiction, homelessness, and loneliness, celebrating, according to Sanchez, ”some home-girls and homeboys . . . who needed to be celebrated but never came through the Harlems of the world.”
Sanchez has given presentations at more than five hundred universities and colleges nationwide throughout her career and has traveled around the world reading her poetry. She was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University in Philadelphia in 1977. She served as the Laura Carnell Chair in English at Temple until she retired in 1999. She continues to live in Philadelphia.
Works in Literary Context
Use of Dialect
One aspect of Sanchez’s stand against acculturation to white society is a poetic language that does not conform to the dictates of standard English. Haki R. Madhubuti credits her with ”legitimizing the use of urban Black English in written form. . . . She has taken Black speech and put it in the context of world literature.” By inserting extra letters in some words and extra space between lines, words, and syllables within a poem, Sanchez provides dramatic accents and other clues that indicate how the poem is to be said aloud. In addition, Sanchez developed techniques for reading her poetry that were unique in using auditory elements, such as traditional chants and differences in volume, which made her a highly sought-after public speaker. According to Kalamu ya Salaam:
—- The sound elements, which give a musical quality to the intellectual statements in the poetry, are akin to Western African languages; Sanchez has tried to recapture a style of delivery that she felt had been muted by the experience of slavery. In her successful experimentation with such techniques, she joined … others in being innovative enough to bring black poetry to black people at a level that was accessible to the masses as well as enjoyable for them.
Sanchez was one of the pioneers of the renaissance of African American art in the 1960s that began to use street language and black dialect to convey the black speaking voice. In using black dialect, she was a direct descendant of Paul Laurence Dunbar, one of the first African American poets to become widely recognized and who was best known for his poems in dialect. Sanchez credits Malcolm X with influencing her use of language. Sanchez commented: ”A lot of our words and language came from Malcolm. He was always messing with the language and messing with people, and sometimes in a very sly kind of way demanding things of people . . .” She commented on her decision to write in black dialect: ”I decided along with a number of other Black poets to tell the truth in poetry by using the language, dialect, idioms, of the folks we believed our audience to be.” Another poet who developed this poetic style was Haki Madhubuti.
Sanchez’s emphasis on poetry as a spoken art, or performance, connects Sanchez to the traditions of her African ancestors, an oral tradition preserved in earlier slave narratives and forms of music indigenous to the black experience in America. Her autobiographical writings, which may be called ”neo-slave narratives,” share a similar purpose to the originals in that genre by pre-Civil War writers such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, and Harriet Jacobs. In slave narratives, the life of an individual or family was used to comment on the evils of slavery and the necessity of abolition; they ultimately aimed for psychological and physical freedom. Sanchez’s overtly political work comments upon the social condition of contemporary Afro-Americans in an effort to accomplish their psychological freedom and, where necessary, their physical freedom. In homegirls & handgrenades, she builds the neo-slave narrative to a stunning artistic summit in prose poems that reflect on a lifetime of struggle. This volume contains Sanchez’s best-known prose piece, ”After Saturday Nite Comes Sunday.” Based on her life and delivered in tattered, yet vivid images, the work concentrates upon a woman whose love is being abused by a man strung out on dope. Images of dope—the debilitating drug first noticed in her childhood in a New York tenement— pervade Sanchez’s work as a metaphor for ultimate evil; it is a living death, a snuffing out the will to live. From such debilitations, Sanchez would make her people free.
Works in Critical Context
Sonia Sanchez has been recognized as one of the preeminent authors writing about African American equality and black feminist issues. Her writing evolved from a confrontational, brash style during the black power movement to the intimate tone of her later works. She pioneered in using language, both writing in black dialect and her experimentation with dramatic reading styles, to express black power and nationalist ideas. Kamili Anderson writes of her style:
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.
We a BaddDDD People
Critics laud Sanchez for reflecting black consciousness in her poetry. Critics argue that her book We a BaddDDD People (1970) most exemplified ”the ideals and realization of blackness,” which, wrote Sebastian Clarke, ”so profoundly pervades her work.” Critics believed the poems in this work signaled her move into ”a new life of militancy and social activism.” Sanchez’s poems, writes Johari Amini in a review in Black World, actually ”hurt (but doesn’t anything that cleans good) and [the] lines are blowgun dart sharp with a wisdom ancient as Kilimanjaro.” Haki Madhubuti’s essay in Black Women Writers (1950-1980) comments on this same effect, first remarking that Sanchez ”is forever questioning Black people’s commitment to struggle,” saying again later that she is ”forever disturbing the dust in our acculturated lives.” In the volume, writes another critic, ”Sanchez is wielding a survival sword that rips away the enemy’s disguise” while celebrating ”black love, talent, courage, and continuity.”
homegirls & handgrenades
Homegirls & handgrenades, an autobiographical collection of sketches of individuals from Sanchez’s past, was widely praised for its depth and honesty, but also for its skill in illustrating ”significant truths.” Wrote one critic, ”From the past, she draws images that explode the autobiographical into universal truths.” Critics called the book a ”marvelous collage of thirty-two short stories, poems, letters, and sketches that often ring loudly with the truth of an autobiographical fervor.” Joyce A. Joyce calls the volume, like its title, ”forceful, realistic, and hard hitting.” Joyce praises the work for communicating Sanchez’s ”strong vision of the self and her desire to use that knowledge to awaken the spirit and heighten the political awareness of African-Americans.”
- Basel, Marilyn K. ”Sonia Sanchez.” Black Writers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1989.
- Evans, Mari. Black Women Writers: A Critical Evaluation. New York: Doubleday, 1984.
- Gabbin, Joanne Veal. ”The Southern Imagination of Sonia Sanchez.” Southern Women Writers: A New Generation. Edited by Tonette Bond Inge. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1990.
- Joyce, Joyce Ann. Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African Poetic Tradition. Chicago: Third World Press, 1996.
- Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York and London: Continuum, 1983.
- Clarke, Sebastian. ”Black Magic Woman: Sonia Sanchez and Her Work.” Presence Africaine vol. 78 (1971): 253-261.
- Saunders, James Robert. ”Sonia Sanchez’s Homegirlsand Handgrenades: Recalling Toomer’s Cane.” MELUS vol. 15 (1988): 73-82.
- Sonia Sanchez. Academy of American Poets Web site. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/276.
- Sonia Sanchez. Voices from the Gap. Retrieved November 15, 2008, from http://voices.cla.umn.edu/vg/Bios/entries/sanchez_sonia.html.
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