January 6, 2009
The Politics of Art
Sonia Sanchez, poet, playwright, and activist, used her upbringing as the backbone to her writing. Much movement and displacement early in her life eventually brought her to Harlem, where she resided for 30 years. Her experiences as an African American woman in Harlem highly influenced her writing, which simultaneously were a means of self-analysis and an exploration of the community. Her writing became a platform to disseminate issues of race and gender relations, prodding readers to make changes within their own communities. Sonia Sanchez’s writing raised self-awareness and did so especially through her use of conversational, informal diction, concise syntax, and slang, which rejected traditional structural techniques of the written language. In this manner, Sanchez both emphasized self-empowerment at her refusal to adhere to tradition and connected her closer to her audience by reflecting their own style of language. Sanchez’s audience would therefore be more receptive to the ideas she presented.
Wilsonia Benita Driver more commonly known as Sonia Sanchez was born on September 9, 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her father Wilson Driver was a drummer in a jazz band while her mother Lena Jones Driver passed away when Sanchez was only a year old. It was then that Sanchez began living with her paternal grandmother, amicably referred to as “Mama” (Uminski). Mama and the new environment fostered Sanchez’s love of the written word; at the age of four she learned to read. Sanchez herself noted, “It is that love of language that has propelled me [to write, and] that love of language that came from listening to my grandmother speak black English” (Kelly).
Mama’s death when Sanchez was six proved to be a devastating emotional blow for her and catalyzed the writing of her first poem in an attempt to manage the grief. The next period of Sanchez’s life was characterized by aimless movement until she eventually settled in Harlem with her sister, Patricia, her father, and her stepmother, where she remained for 30 years. Her love of logopeia was further developed at Hunter College in New York, where she took creative writing classes and studied poetry with Louise Bogan. She eventually formed the “Broadside Quartet” with Etheridge Knight, Don L. Lee and Nikki Giovanni, characterized as a group for radical poets (“Sonia Sanchez Biography”).
Sanchez however earned her B.A. in political science, an interest that both manifested itself in her writing and fueled her political activism throughout much of the 1960s and 1970s. She became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and eventually joined the activist group the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). At this juncture, Sanchez befriended Malcolm X who not only influenced her politics but her writing as well. Malcolm X’s candid style of speech, especially in terms of black heritage, soon became characteristic of Sanchez’s own poetic style. “From Malcom X she also learned how to present her poetry and always sustain the attention of the audience,” (Uminski).
Between 1965 and 1967, Sanchez taught in San Francisco at the Downtown Community School and then at San Francisco State University until 1969. It was there that she helped establish a Black Studies program, nonexistent prior to this time.
By the late 1960s, Sanchez had compiled her first book of poetry, Homecoming. “Sanchez's early work responds to political and personal upheavals of the 1960s with radical experiments in form, style, and theme,” (“African American Literature”). Other works include Homegirls & Handgrenades, which was published in 1984 and Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems which was published in 1999, among more than 10 other books, a number of plays, and a CD. Although the subject matter differs from piece to piece, Sanchez’s work always remains deeply personal, lyrical writing that coalesces the political with the personal (“Sonia Sanchez”).
This cohesion between social and personal issues was present in the poem “Personal Letter No. 2” from the book Shake Loose My Skin. In it, Sanchez dually emphasizes the loneliness and self-empowerment that comes from aging and being a black woman during this period. Sanchez accomplishes this especially through her deemphasized use of language structures including lowercases, profuse punctuation, and unconventional spellings. Sanchez’s tone conveys a particular nostalgia for her youth while her diction is concise but lyrical. In this manner, Sanchez touches upon gender relations by maintaining that it is both a gift and curse being a woman.
The speaker of the poem employs the personal pronoun, “I,” and in this manner, the first person perspective forges a highly personal piece, further attested by the title, “Personal Letter No. 2.” At least initially, the personal letter seems to refer to an ambiguous “you,” as the speaker notes, “i speak skimpily to/ you about apartments i/ no longer dwell in” (Sanchez 1-3). It is here that Sanchez also establishes the nostalgic tone as she discusses elements of the speaker’s past. Beyond simply the apartments she “no longer dwell[s] in,” Sanchez conjures images of children in choruses, likely referring to those from Church choruses or school choruses, regardless, both being aspects of the speaker’s childhood. Her old community in Harlem, NY and later Philadelphia, PA deeply resonated with Sanchez and her inclusion of childhood details merely attests to this. She goes on to add “if i were young/ i wd…” (Sanchez 7-8). The inclusion of the word “if” adds a condition to her ability to use “wild words,” implying that it is age that thwarts the speaker from using them (Sanchez 9). Childhood is viewed wistfully, as a time of possibility.
Most overwhelmingly however, the reader notes Sanchez’s structural and organizational techniques throughout the poem. In the very first line Sanchez writes, “i” (Sanchez 1), visibly lower-case. Her decision to use lowercase was a decision to reject the overemphasis on self, and the constrictions set by society- arbitrarily determining “I” be capitalized. Her movement away from such traditional structural practices was also evident in her use of “wd” as a spelling for “would” and disobedience spread between two lines as “dis” and “obedience.” The language is also simple, with very few descriptions beyond the concession of “skimpily” in the first line. In this manner, Sanchez uses her structure to not only free herself from the constraints of the English language but to also make the writing more readily reflect its audience. As the JRank Encyclopedia stated, Sanchez “used the language of the streets instead of the language of academe” (“Sonia Sanchez Biography”).
A shift occurs in the last three lines of the poem however that most actively manifests itself in the shift in tone. After speaking wistfully of an aspect of her life that will never return, Sanchez notes both a dual self-empowerment and solitude. She resigns herself to a fate of aging and change noting, “but i am what i/ am. woman” (Sanchez 12-13). The speaker accepts her fate because it is inevitable and unchanging, but then uses the negative concession, “I am what I am” as a tool of self-empowerment, of being a woman. This fact is especially emphasized through Sanchez’s use of periods separating the words “am” and “woman.” The periods provide an extra pause between the two words and thus the reader is able to further contemplate the implications of being a woman. Another smaller shift occurs in the second to last line as Sanchez concludes the poem. After evoking images of womanly strength and worth, the tone becomes melancholy again. She notes that she’s a woman “alone/ amid all this noise” (Sanchez 13-14). While proud of being a woman, the speaker concedes that she will always be a solitary force among dissenters, or “noise.” In choosing to conclude with a focus on solitude and loneliness, Sanchez establishes that a woman, unlike a man, always suffers within a gender-biased society, and that this emotion overshadows even female pride.
This poem touched upon many of the common characteristics of Sanchez’s poetry, including but not limited to her unconventional use of the English language: lowercases, abbreviations, spacing, etc, sensibilities from the ghetto, and her activist stance. In this case, Sanchez focused on the identity of a black woman and the dual pride and loneliness that results, however in other poems she chose to focus on specific race relations or gender relations. Still in more samples, she spoke to specific groups of people urging them to create changes for themselves or others. In the poem, “Malcolm” she praised the work of Malcolm X to whom she forged a close bond with. Writing became a tool of release for Sanchez as she struggled with instability and the loss of a beloved grandmother and especially when she became more cognitive of the mistreatment of African Americans as a child (“Sonia Sanchez Biography”). The images of her youth were the subject of many of Sanchez’s poems, with elements of the sights, sounds, the characteristics of the women and men, their speech, etc. While simultaneously, Sanchez’s political activism remained at the core of her poetry, hoping to instill changes. Beyond simply her ability to address the pervading issues of the time, Sonia Sanchez was always a starkly original writer and performer. Like her social and political ideals, she refused to be confined to the structural techniques of the English language including punctuation and capitalization and thus her writing style reflected self-empowerment even in the text itself. Sanchez’s writing is truly an expression of identity and heritage coalescing the political and the artistic and as she herself concedes, “I am keeping the love of life alive, the love of language alive. I am keeping words that are spinning on my tongue and getting them transferred on paper. I'm keeping this great tradition of American poetry alive,” (Kelly).