Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934)

    Contributing Editors:
    Joyce Joyce and John Reilly

    Classroom Issues and Strategies

    There is a widespread feeling that protest and politics are either inappropriate to literature or, if acceptable at certain times, the time for it has now passed.

    The whole course should be founded upon an acceptance of the fact that there are no a priori definitions for literature. Poetry is what the poet writes or the audience claims as poetry. The real issues are whether or not the poet sets out a plausible poetics (one neither too solipsistic nor so undiscriminating as to dissolve meaning) and whether or not the practice of the poet has the local excitement and disciplined language to make it aesthetically satisfying. Upon these premises, the study of Sonia Sanchez can proceed with attention to her idea of revolutionary poetry associated with nation building, as it was discussed in the 1960s and 1970s.

    Operating on the assumption that there is some common tradition underlying work of poets who declare ethnicity (African-American) as their common identity, useful discussion is possible about ways Sanchez differs from Michael Harper and Jay Wright. What differences in aesthetic and practice account for the relative complexity of Harper and Wright when contrasted with Sanchez? But, then, what allows us to consider them all black poets? Surely not merely the selection of subject matter?

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The historical and political are boldly set out in Sanchez's poetry. The personal may be overlooked by the hasty reader, but the poetry develops a persona with a highly subjective voice conveying the impression of a real human being feeling her way to positions, struggling to make her expressive declarative writing conform to her intuitions and interior self. This tension once observed makes all the themes arranged around the black aesthetic and black politics also accessible.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    The "eye" devices (lowercase letters, speed writing, fluid lines) along with the free form of verse and vernacular word choice are avant-garde devices seen in the work of many other poets. The point here is to see them associated with an aesthetic that privileges the oral and musical. For Sanchez it would be valuable to point to the frequency with which African-American poets allude to jazz performers, even making their lines sound like a musical instrument, just as, historically, musical instruments imitated the sounds of voice in early jazz and blues. This would make the vigor of the poem on the Righteous Brothers understandable, for music is a talisman of African-American culture. It would also set up a useful contrast between poetry written for print and poetry written to simulate the ephemerality of performed music or song.

    Original Audience

    For Sanchez these questions have great importance, for she has undergone important changes that have brought the spiritual and personal more forward in her verse. Dating her poems in connection with political events is very important. One might, for example, talk about an avowedly nationalist poetry written for a struggle to assert values believed to be a source of community solidarity. There are many parallels to suggest, including the writing of Irish authors in English, Jewish-American writers adapting the sounds of Yiddish to an exploration of traditional values in English, etc. Following the nationalist period of her work we see a shift of focus. One must ask students if the elements centered in the newer poems were not already present before. The appropriate answer (yes) will permit assertion of the developing nature of a writer's corpus, something worth presenting in all courses.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    "Just Don't Never Give Up on Love" could be contrasted with confessional verse such as Sylvia Plath's "Daddy" to distinguish the ways feeling can be distanced. Similarly the feminist voices of Adrienne Rich and Marge Piercy can introduce subtle distinctions when contrasted with the same Sanchez narrative/poem. What, we might ask, is the basis of distinction: formal or attitudinal?

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing

    1. Recalling the use made of the mask by Paul Laurence Dunbar, consider what differences have occurred to change the meaning of that image in the 88 years until Sanchez published "Masks."

    2. A society may be culturally diverse; yet, that does not mean that cultures are similarly powerful or influential. Discuss the way that Sonia Sanchez and other revolutionary black poets see the relationship between their culture and that of the dominant white society.


    Joyce, Joyce A. "The Development of Sonia Sanchez: A Continuing Journey." Indian Journal of American Studies 13 (July 1983): 37-71.

    __. Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African Poetic Tradition. Chicago: Third World Press, 1996.

    Harris, Trudier and Thadious Davis, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Afro-American Poets Since 1955. 1985. 295-306.

    Tate, Claudia. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum Press, 1983.132-148.