ISSN 2327-3666

January 15, 2013

The Portrayal of African-American Women in the Poetry of Sonia Sanchez

IJRC | Vol. 02 No. 01 (2013) | Articles | POLITIDOU

Aristotle University of Thessaloniki
School of English
American Literature Department

This article explores the way Sonia Sanchez portrays black women in her poetry. It aims at demonstrating that Sanchez depicts black women as being in touch with their roots and aware of their history and tradition making this the source of their empowerment. The present article will also argue that Sanchez promoted women’s’ liberation in her writing by employing unconventional techniques in her poems. Sanchez is a revolutionary who breaks the syntactical grammatical and stylistic conventions of poetry writing. In doing so she intends to demonstrate that the emancipation of black women and women in general will allow them to hold many different roles within society moving away from conventional roles and to be perceived differently than before. Sanchez makes use of specific techniques and poetic forms in order to point out the need for a variety of roles to be ascribed to black women as free and equal-to-men members of American society.

Introductory Comments
This article examines the portrayal of African-American women in Sonia Sanchez’s coeytry collection titled I’ve Been a Woman (1978). Through a close reading of the poems “Woman,” “Earth Mother,” “Present” and “Rebirth”, it shall be argued that the portrayal of black females in her poetry is multifaceted and does not limit women only to one role. She portrays black females as being self-confident drawing power by the knowledge of their history, being as delicate and beautiful as white women, but at the same time champions of black women’s struggle against racism, sexism and oppression.

African-American people have a rich cultural and political history that has always affected the way they perceived themselves and the world around them. While they were still slaves in the plantations in the American South during the fifteenth century they would see themselves through the eyes of their oppressors. They had what was called second sight of themselves. They were the inferior race, their life had no value and the only thing they could do was to accept their fate as slaves. Even though they wanted their lives to be different, they knew that the situation was not an easy one to change. One of the people who influenced the most the way African-Americans should be viewed in a white world was W.E.B. Du Bois who in his essay collection The Souls Of Black Folk (1903) described how African-Americans felt in a dominantly white America when he said that

[a]fter the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of a seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world- a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness –an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (896)
As far as women are concerned during that period, they were seen as women of no honor and value. Women were perceived as sexual objects men could enforce their sexual drives upon. They were also those who would produce more laboring hands since their progenitors were born slaves as well. Women had to face the double discrimination of being black as well as women. It was this kind of treatment that caused black people to see themselves though the veil, that is, through the eyes of their oppressors.

This maltreatment they experienced in the early years of slavery caused black people to believe that they could never ameliorate their lives and that they did not have a right to education or freedom. Soon things began to change with the Emancipation proclamation in 1863 after which they were considered to be free men. But this was not the case broadly speaking. Even though there was a law proclaiming them free, many counties refused to implement it. In the Northern States, African-Americans were actually treated close to equal with white people. They could find decent jobs and have a salary, the women were respected by white people and they could work as well. However, they were not equal to white people yet. In the South things did not seem to have noted any progress; they disregarded the Emancipation Proclamation and it was several years after it was signed that the Emancipation Proclamation was actually taken into consideration.

It was not until 1964 when the Civil Rights Act was passed in the U.S. that gave African-Americans freedom and equal rights in their lives and the workplace. However, this document talked about free men and people thought it referred only to male African-Americans. Thus black women had not yet obtained freedom and equality. This came later after the many struggles of the feminist movement. The Civil Rights Movement period was also a period of artistic productivity when a plethora of African-American artists made their appearance in the arts scene because the Movement stimulated a feeling of empowerment throughout the African-American arts community. Black artists were gathered in groups and started to produce artistic works, for example in literature, painting, and music which led to the formation of the Black Arts Movement. There were two central themes in the writings of both male and female writers: one was the Civil Rights Movement and the other one was the breaking down of the stereotypes about African-Americans by claiming that “Black is beautiful”(Georgoudaki, “African American Female Poetry: An important side to American Poetry almost unknown in Greece” 39).

The first works of African-American literature were autobiographical dealing with the period of slavery. Black female writers and poets felt the need to write about the hardships of slavery years, the things they had to endure, the issue of rape, their children being taken away from them and being sold to another plantation and their daily struggle for survival. One such example is Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl (1861) by Harriet Jacobs where using the pen name “Linda Brent” she narrates a story of struggles focusing on the  birth of her two illegitimate children, escape and final reunion with them. Even though this may seem to us a farfetched story, it is not much different from the reality of some women who had to deal with such situations. Thus, one can realize the reason why African-American females dealt with the writing of autobiographies first. Most of the black female writers published their work under a pseudo-name, because it was not very common back then for women to engage in the writing of novels. Being black as well as women was even more difficult for the female writers to reveal their true identity, but there were some of them who used their real names right from the beginning.  

What is more, during and after the Civil Rights Movement being inspired by the fighting spirit of the period, African-American writers, both male and female, began to write about their personal experiences of the struggle. They also wrote about their participation in the marches and sit-ins which were held in many cities in the South. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were the two dominant personalities of the period that affected African-American fiction writers and poets the most. The dominant themes of this period were those of black empowerment and black intellect. In particular, Black female writers focused on the image of a black woman who is always in touch with her roots something which is empowering and self-strengthening. Black women were represented as being very powerful and beautiful in most of the literary works of the female African-American writers that appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.

 The image of the black mother is also very important and dominant in the works of that period as well as her parallelism with nature, with mother earth. The issue of birth and rebirth, of the creation of new life is also quite eminent in these writings due to their socio-political connotations. When African-American people established their freedom and equality they felt that it was time for a new beginning, as if they were reborn, ready to create a new history for their race and start a new life.

Political vigor characterizes the work of African-American female writers. All of them in their works incite people to act and to participate in the struggle for equality, because even though they have obtained equal rights, safety and freedom, still they are not respected the way they should, so they feel this struggle has not ended yet. African-American women did not receive the respect and valorization they should have, not even from men of their own race. At first it was because they were black, now it is because they are black and female as well. This led to the emergence of a different type of feminism, as African-American feminists maintained that their issues were different from those of the white women’s. As Patricia Hills Collins points out in her essay concerning the construction of the Black feminist thought that

[f]irst, Black women’s political and economic status provides them with a distinctive set of experiences that offers them a different view of material reality than that available to other groups. The unpaid and paid work that Black women perform, the types of communities in which they live, and the kinds of relationships they have with others suggest that African-American women, as a group, experience a different world than those who are not Black and female. Second, these experiences stimulate a distinctive Black feminist consciousness concerning that material reality. (299-300)

 Thus all African-American women are called to act. Both Sanchez and Giovanni being part of the Black Arts Movement discuss in their poems taboo and socio-political issues as well as attempt to raise the awareness and the fighting spirit of other African-American people in general but black women in particular as the next two sections will attempt to show.

Sonia Sanchez’s perspective of the black female

The image of the African-American woman as a mother is an issue that Sonia Sanchez intensely explores in her poems entitled “Woman,” “Earth Mother,” “Present” and “Rebirth,” which originate from her collection A Blues Book For Blue Black Magical Women (1974). Sanchez played a very influential part in the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement which emerged from the Black Power Movement in the 1960s. After she was informed about the beliefs of Malcolm X and those of the Nation Of Islam, a group Malcolm X belonged to, she was very much influenced by their ideas and this caused her to focus more on her black heritage in her writings as being something separate from what white Americans produced.

Sanchez was quite emotionally attached to her grandmother, her “Mama,” who raised her after her mother died, passing on to her the ideas about spirituality in relation to the kind of knowledge we inherit form our ancestors. In an interview to Zala Chandler, she argues that in the 1960s African-Americans realized they were black and it was a good thing to be black, while in the 1970s African-American people started talking about engaging in action and the importance of education for their people (357-361). She believed that a combination of spirituality and politics was crucial for their advancement, a kind of spirituality deriving from knowledge about their ancestors and their contribution to the world (343). In the same interview, Sanchez discussed how the spiritual and the political are intertwined to offer black people a complete view of themselves by stating that  

I wrote a book A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women in 1973 and I realized that the book was really about the use of “memories.” I believe that’s very important to us. We can find lessons in the memories. Through writing the book, I began to go back and look at some of the things that had happened to me. And I offered that book as something to be informative for Black women. […]That book was a blues book. I attempted to speak about both the political part of us and the personal. I wanted to show that they are so intertwined. I wanted us to know that in order for us to be effective political people, we must be in control of the personal. (359)

With these lines Sanchez argues that it is important for African-Americans to remember what happened to them in the past, both as individuals and as a group, in order to embrace the future and engage in actions. Thus, to be spiritual, that is to have knowledge of one’s history and be able to remember it at all times, is what makes people to be political, that is, to become active.  

To begin with, in her poem “Woman” Sanchez calls for “earth mother” (1) to come and tell a black woman her history. The persona makes an invocation to mother earth to come and teach her her history because she does not know it. Sanchez’s beliefs about tradition and history and their role towards self-awareness are evident in this poem where she writes:

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 (1-7).

The poem is a request for help on the part of the persona. The persona is in a quest for self-awareness and she believes that the only one who can help her is “Earth mother”. Thus she asks her to tell her her history, to tell her what is her past in order for the persona to define herself in the present. Even though the title of the poem is “Woman,” one can understand that the persona is female only by the context of the poem. The poem offers neither a definition of womanhood nor a description of a woman, but it is about a woman who appeals to “earth mother” (1) for help. A brief analysis of the poem on the level of its form brings forth one of the many interpretations of the poem. First of all, some of the techniques that highlight the breath pattern of the poet are the shifting size of stanzas, the length of the lines and the gaps that exist between the stanzas as well as between the words inside the lines, as in “for i  want to rediscover me.   the secret of me” (16). Another signification of the gaps between the sentences is the intention of the poet to highlight particular meanings. The line “sing me my history O earth mother” (5), which is an invocation to earth mother and a personification of earth mother, is indented for emphasis as well. The verbs used to refer to earth mother are in the vocative case as the persona is calling for earth mother, such as “Come” (1), “sing me” (5), “tell me” (12), and there are a few verbs that refer to the persona’s past put into the Past tense as well like “became” (2) and “held” (12). As far as punctuation is concerned, there are commas and full-stops which manifest the progression of the thinking process of the poet. The poem is written in low case letters, a characteristic of Sanchez’s writing and the only capital letter is that appearing at the beginning of the poem. The poem is close-ended as it finishes with a full-stop which signifies the end of the thinking process.

A deeper analysis of the poem guides the readers towards many more interpretations. The persona calls for earth mother to tell her “… how i have become, became/this woman with razor blades between/ her teeth” (2-4). This image of a woman with razor blades between her teeth works as a metaphor here. This woman talks about issues that are as sharp as razors. Thus, she dares to challenge people and ideas with her words. Consequently, this woman depicted in these lines is a woman who dares to speak openly even about issues which are taboo. Sanchez believed that in order for black women to be empowered and their movement to be successful they had to be both spiritual and political, and to know their history and their origins in order to grow up as complete personalities. Thus, the persona asks for earth mother to tell her and describe to her how she has become the woman she is today since her birth. Sanchez believed that we are defined by our past and we need to be aware of it in order to move on to the future.  More specifically, Chandler in her interview with Sanchez informs the readers that

Sonia speaks of the many women made visible in her dreams, unsung women, nameless women who hold her up, who propel her to want to be “correct,” “righteous.” She projects the belief that any movement for change, if it is to be a successful movement must embrace both the spiritual and the political, must rely upon the people of ancient and current yesterdays who remain spiritually in Black people’s lives as they move forward. (343)
The woman in the poem continues to ask to be told her history and then she talks “about tongues multiplying memories” (Sanchez, “Woman” 6) which is a denotation of the tradition of storytelling that pertained history throughout the years before people started using writing in order to record history. Storytelling though is more about the history of tradition and not so much about global history. The tradition of storytelling refers to the oral tradition of African-American people. It is not about global history but history that comprises of personal experiences of the everyday life of people. Even in the modern western world, there are women who continue to tell stories to their grandchildren in the form of fairy tales. In lines 8 to 10, the persona makes a strange request to earth mother when she says, “pull me from the throat of mankind /where worms eat, O earth mother.” (8). It seems to me that this is also a political comment. As I mentioned earlier in this paper, Sanchez believed that one has to be both political and spiritual in order to feel complete and be able to act against discrimination. Thus, one must know his or, in this case, her own history in order to know herself and be able to evolve. This request to earth mother works as a political comment on the part of the poet. The persona lies in “the throat of mankind/where worms eat” (8-9) and she wants to pull her out of there. Thus, she is like African-American people who are still not acknowledged by society; however, if African-Americans learn their history and where they come from they will also be able to change their condition.

Furthermore, the woman depicted in the poem is the one who has given birth to five children and she “still [has] the thirst of the beginning sip” (14), that is she wants to be pregnant again. The persona wants to rediscover herself and her lost dynamism because it is only then that her words will become like wild rivers and will burst out so that the world will listen to what African-American women have to say. Once more, the poet’s beliefs about history empowering women become evident in the following lines: “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 like aqueducts/I want to make the world my diary/and speak rivers.” (15-20). It is as if Sanchez is asking persistently the reader to give an answer to her question, adding to the directness of the poem and to the creation of a sound effect as the reader can hear the perpetuating sound /l/. This printing of “tellLLLLLL” (15) is an allusion to the stuttering problem Sanchez had as a child. The fact that she is not afraid to use it in her poetry indicates that she is an empowered woman herself who wants to influence other women for their benefit. Through the knowledge of her history she feels strong and she is not afraid to speak openly about taboo subjects concerning herself. 

Moreover, in the last stanza the persona asks the earth mother for empowerment and inspiration in order for the persona to create a history for herself that will be “brighter than the sun” (29). There is a sense of dynamism all over the poem but it becomes more intense in the last stanza. In 1972, when the poem was written, Sanchez joined the activist organization Nation of Islam and this event influenced her writing style as is evident in this poem. Sanchez wrote poetry to tackle subjects concerning social and political activism. Therefore, Sanchez believes that only through the knowledge of one’s history one can be inspired to make a new and better history for himself/herself. It is only when African-Americans learn the complete history of their own people that they will be inspired to create a new and ameliorated history for themselves.   

In her poem “Woman,” Sanchez depicts two kinds of women with one asking for help and inspiration from the other. The personification of “earth mother” (1), as is evident in the invocation “Come ride my birth, earth mother” (1), generates the impression that she is the woman the title of the poem refers to. Out of the two women depicted in this poem it is only one, the earth mother, who is aware of her history both as an African-American and as a woman, while the other is still in the dark as regards these issues. There is thus a parallel between the woman who has and the woman who lacks knowledge. The one who lacks it desires to acquire it through information by the one who holds it. The comment the poet wishes to make by this depiction is that women will be empowered by solidarity and knowledge of their history and tradition in favor of a common cause. A combination of the spiritual and the political cause is the only successful policy for the feminist movement towards progress and effectiveness as it becomes evident in the analysis of the next poem.

The poem to be discussed is “Earth Mother.” In this poem, Sanchez depicts in great detail an African-American woman giving birth to a baby girl. In 1972, when the poem was written, Sanchez had already given birth to three children, a girl and twin sons. Thus Sanchez is aware of such an experience and she might even be describing her own experience in this poem as well. What distinguishes this poem from the ones already commented on is the “stage directions” that it contains, working as instructions as to how the poem can be read. Sanchez used to perform her poetry under the sound of chants or low drum sounds. Performance poetry is not solely about what is written on the page. The poem is also enhanced by the performance of the poet himself/herself. The reader, just by reading the poem, can contribute to the experience it attempts to evoke and the thinking process that triggers it by drawing his or her own conclusions and coming thus to different realizations. Every reader brings his or her own different interpretations to the poem. In this way, meaning is not preordained or fixed but it has to do with the perspective each reader brings to the poem when he or she reads it.

To begin with, this poem has to do with earth mother, a mother of nature, who is connected with everything around her—people, nature, buildings and all the things that have history inscribed on them— as she is part of them and they are part  of her. The title of the poem is “Earth Mother” who is there to help and advise the younger generations. Later on in the poem, the persona becomes the earth mother herself calling the girl who is being born to come close to her. Earth mother has transmitted her knowledge to her and now it is time for her to become the “earth mother” herself and pass on her knowledge to the next generation. The uneven length of the lines in the poem and size of the stanzas enable the readers to follow the voice of the poet. The gaps in the middle of the sentences as in “was that hungry once.  for knowledge” (17), are put there by the poet in order to demonstrate the way the poet’s breath fluctuates and place emphasis on certain words, such as “knowledge” (17). Moreover, the punctuation marks employed in the poem are full-stops and a few commas. Sanchez uses capital letters in her poem in order to highlight certain ideas and intensify the effect of the experience she describes, which is that of giving birth. So the words in capital letters create the impression that the persona is shouting due to the pain she feels from the pains of childbirth. The poem is close-ended which means that the thinking process comes to an end along with the articulation of the poem.

In addition, sound and rhythm are two prevailing elements in this poem according to the directions Sanchez provides. In her poem “Earth Mother,” the intensity of the experience described can be perceived as a low singing sound which can be heard when the poem is performed. Also there is the constant repetition of the word “Bells. bells.  bells.” (1), which is also repeated in lines 2, 3 and 4 further intensifying the sound effects this poem creates. In the third line, “BELLS.  BELLS. BELLS.” is written in capital letters creating the feeling of a loud sound. The repetition of the word throughout the poem also communicates to the readers the gradual increase of the sound. Another characteristic of Sanchez’s writing style being represented in this poem is the use of colloquial and conversational language, such as “ah” (18) and “butt” (28). The kind of language a poet uses indicates the audience he or she addresses and the effect he or she intends to create. In this case, Sanchez addresses everyday people from all backgrounds, since colloquial language is easy to be understood by both upper and middle-class people, educated or not.

Sanchez in this poem introduces three kinds of female images: that of a woman giving birth, that of a woman helping her and that of a newborn baby girl. It is as if three generations of women come together. Sanchez uses interesting symbolic images to argue on issues of social and political activism. Giving birth to a child is a toilsome procedure that does not take place within a predetermined temporal framework. When the movement came to an end with the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, African-Americans were like newborn babies that did not know anything about the new world they were coming to and someone had to show them how to proceed from that point onwards. Thus, Sanchez tackles the issue of racial equality through this very interesting metaphor by bridging civil rights struggle together with a childbirth experience. The pains of child birth are compared to the pains of the African-American people. After the Civil Rights Movement, African-American people had to adjust to a new reality and find their place in it. According to Sanchez, in order to do that, they had to know their history and that of their ancestors, as she claims in her poem: “yes.  there you are.  i have stuffed /your whole history in my mouth/ i.  your earth mother was that hungry once. “for knowledge” (14-17). There are three generations of women in this poem representing the past, the present and the future of African-American history. Sanchez believes that in order for one to move to the future, one has to be aware of his or her past. Consequently, “earth mother” (2), bearing the role of the past in the poem, will teach the newborn child its history in order to strive in this new world she is now entering. So tradition is calling this baby girl to “COME CLOSER” (13) to her, in order to come to the world, to be part of the world. According to Zala Chandler, Sanchez believed that “… you cannot ‘be’ unless you understand your history…the history of all the ‘Mamas’ of the world who always wanted something better for you…” (354).

The newborn child coming to this new world in the poem is a “little girl” (Sanchez, “Earth Mother” 21). Sanchez in an interview stated: “I don’t speak singularly-for myself. I speak for the many, many women who, though physically dead, remain spiritually alive through me. And I speak for those women here on earth with me, like me. And I speak for the women yet to be born” (Chandler 354). This is exactly what she does in this poem, she writes for the women yet to be born. She writes this poem in order to inform the next generations of women about the importance of tradition and spirituality which she believed were basic constituents in the formation of well-developed individuals. Sanchez’s persistence in young children learning their history is rooted in her own personal beliefs about education. In an interview to Chandler, Sanchez has argued about the education of young African-Americans by saying:
[…] you must begin to take over schools. You must begin to make the churches be responsive to new times. You must go to school and get more of an education so that you can then go into our community public schools and teach or go into the universities and teach. You must continue to struggle and make sure that African-American history is taught, that African-American culture is taught, that Black Studies is taught, that Black Women’s Studies is taught-so that we don’t have another generation of black students coming through life thinking that their people have contributed nothing to the world. (359)
Thus, Sanchez believed that in order for the new generations to be aware and proud of their origin they had to know the cultural and socio-political contribution of their ancestors to the world. In her opinion the only way to achieve such a thing is to educate as best as possible those who are going to transmit knowledge to the next generations.  

Consequently, in this poem, Sanchez depicts different types of females. First of all, she portrays in full detail a woman giving birth:

ring the bells to announce
this your earth mother.
For the day is turning
In my thighs And you are born

This is a typical image of childbirth, featuring a woman in labor pains probably yelling due to the pain she feels. The second image is that of an older woman paralleled to mother earth. This is a woman who possesses the knowledge of history and tradition, and she is the one helping the woman in labor like a midwife would do. The last female or woman-to-be portrayed in this poem is the newborn baby. Her portrayal is a more detailed one, since the poem records her history from birth to adulthood “running from seven to thirty-five/ in one day” (22-23). One can picture her as a child “girl made of black braids” (25) also playing with other children the “double dutch” (28) and then entering the “arena of youth” (27). This little girl turns into a woman quite quickly if one judges form the length of the poem. Thus, Sanchez argues that time passes by very quickly and if women wish to bring about change by transmitting their knowledge to the next generations, they should start engaging in action immediately. Children grow up very quickly like the child in this poem, so women have to hasten because, by loosing valuable time they may end up with another generation of women who are ignorant about their history and do not have the means to change it as the discussion of the next poem points out.

In the next poem to be analyzed here entitled “Present,” Sanchez constructs yet another female image but this image is somehow different from the one appearing in the previous poem. In this poem, as its title “Present” suggests, Sanchez provides the reader with feedback on the present status of African-American women. She outlines the progression of the lives of African-American women from the past till their present struggle of establishing themselves as equal social beings in society. It seems to me that this poem is an account of what African-American women have experienced in the past. Sanchez’s strong beliefs as regards history and tradition in relation to black people are expressed in this poem as were in the previous poems touched upon in this paper.

To begin with, there are not clear stanza forms here; the poem is structured in free verse and the varying length of the lines denotes the way the poet’s voice fluctuates. There are three different kinds of punctuation marks. These are commas, full-stops and slashes. Commas in the poem indicate the breathing pattern of the poet and allow the reader to pause for a while so as to elaborate on the ideas he or she comes across in it. The use of full-stops highlights the poet’s firmness with regards to her beliefs. Slashes are usually used to show the potential of various choices the reader can make on the mode of interpretation and reading of the poem. In “Present,” Sanchez employs slashes to emphasize certain ideas and in some cases a different reading of the poem as in “drink my woman/coconut/ milks” (42). Sanchez chooses to write the poem in low case letters, uses slashes and hyphens as well as coins a new word “honeycoatedalabamian” (8) in order to question the notion of proper language use. Her father was a schoolteacher and, as a result, she and her siblings spoke Standard English instead of a southern or black dialect. It was not until she and her brother rejoined her father in Harlem, New York, when she was nine years old, that Sanchez learned the speech of the streets that would later become so important to her poetry.

Furthermore, Sanchez in this poem depicts the woman of the present as the title of the poem suggests. This is a woman who has been “forgotten/before memory came” (3-4). The woman of the present wishes to talk about her experiences using intense words or expressions, such as “bursting forth/ like coltrane’s melodies all mouth” (5-6). The reference to John Coltrane is not accidental here. Being an African-American jazz saxophonist and composer, Coltrane’s music was very spiritual and had a profound impact on the audience. He was known for his revolutionary use of multi-phonic systems in his music. In general, when playing a wind instrument, the tone that comes out consists of the fundamental—the pitch usually identified as the note being played—as well as pitches with frequencies that are integer multiples of the frequency of the fundamental. Normally, it is only the fundamental pitch that one perceives when hearing an instrument playing. By controlling the air flow through the instrument and the shape of the column (by changing fingering or valve position), a player may produce two distinct tones not part of the same harmonic series, and thus perceive them independently. This is exactly what Coltrane was doing while playing the saxophone. Accordingly to this multi-phonic system in music, it could be suggested that there is a “multi-phonic” system in society where marginalised groups, such as African-Americans, will move from the periphery to the centre of attention without losing their distinct characteristics. Sanchez was quite influenced by jazz music and music has always been a leading element in her poetry. In her poem “Present,” Sanchez alludes to Coltrane’s work in order to comment on the importance of spirituality in the development of black people’s voice. Sanchez forms a parallel of Coltrane’s use of a multi-tonic system in his music to a potential construction of a multilingual and multi-racial society according to Sanchez’s activist beliefs.

As for the word “honeycoatedalabamian” (8), this is a compound one consisting of three words, those of honey, coated, and Alabamian. Thus, the woman this word refers to is sweet like honey, is sweet and beautiful as if she were coated with Alabamian honey. Sanchez’s reference to Alabama is not accidental either. It is known that Sanchez herself originates from Alabama so she knows firsthand about the riots that took place there during the Civil Rights Movement.[1] Thus, Sanchez may be referring to such events with her use of “honeycoatedalabamian” (8) that probably took place in Alabama as well. Another reference she maybe making is to the various lynchings of black people that took place there as well: with honey being a glutinous substance, she may be alluding to the tar that was used in lynching. Furthermore, there were a lot of court challenges taking place there dating to “one man, one vote” and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which finally provided the groundwork for Federal court action. It also led to the creation of a stateside redistricting plan in 1972 which together with the renewal of the voters rights enabled hundreds of thousands of Alabama citizens to participate for the first time in the political system.

In order for Sanchez to define black women like the one in the poem, she needs to employ complex words because the definition of African-American women is a complex one. Andrée Nicola McLaughlin seems to share beliefs with Sanchez as regards this issue and argues that,

while the condition of most women’s lives has been attributed to economic class oppression based upon race (racialism) or nationality (colonialism and imperialism) and gender (sexism and patriarchy), such a view is too simplified. Women’s lives–as they experience them–are far more complex. (151)
This kind of complexity is evident when Sanchez presents this woman as acquiring a “rhythm of blue/black/smiles” (9). The blues songs and jazz music are closely related to the African-American people as they are considered to be part of their folk culture and the continuation of slavery songs.[2] She is a woman who could not make her voice be heard up to now but now she can speak up by revealing to the reader her secrets and memories, as the poet reports in lines 1 to 18. The woman presented in this poem is not afraid to talk about her past experiences and her history since she wishes to make her experiences known to the world. While the woman is narrating her history, she is “reviving the beauty of forests and winds” (15), so her beauty is natural but still not acknowledged by those surrounding her. Sanchez claims that “there is no place/for a soft/black/woman” (19-20) in society taking into consideration the feelings black women experienced due to their exclusion from society. She describes women of her race as “soft/black/women” (20). The slash denotes that they can bear all these three characteristics at once or separately being just soft or women or black. Thus according to Sanchez, African-American women can be delicate like white women and part of the African culture at the same time. Being aware of and in touch with her history and tradition, this woman celebrates her birth and embraces her African identity as being something beautiful and special.

Therefore, Sanchez offers the reader the image of a woman who by visiting her roots she is ready to face her present and shape it according to her own liking either for herself or the generations to follow. This retrospection to her past empowers this woman and enables her to face her present. Coming to terms with the realization that she is a black woman, she is able to appreciate and love herself for what she really is. In this way, it is as if Sanchez attempts to encourage African-American women to embrace their identity and heritage as well as love themselves for what they are. If they cannot accept themselves, they will never convince the rest of the world to do so. She claims that “[t]he realization of who you are, I believe, is necessary for any artist–or anyone else for that matter–who is concerned and involved with liberation” (354).   

For this reason, it is quite important to focus on the commentary of Sanchez’s “Rebirth.” In this poem, Sanchez talks about the experience of a woman who goes back to her place of birth and the emotions this place evokes for her. The title of the poem informs the reader about its context and works like a headline to the poem. This woman is reborn after she visits the place of her origin where her foremothers lived and fought for her generation to be free. The poem is structured in stanzas and their varying sizes along with the sometimes short and other times long lines highlight the energy of the poetic voice. Furthermore, as far as punctuation marks are concerned, Sanchez employs commas, full-stops and slashes once again to allow the reader to reflect on what he or she is reading and she employs slashes “warm/blue/green seas” (25)for the creation of a sea effect. The poem ends in a full-stop and is therefore close-ended, which indicates firmness with which the thinking process evolves. The use of capital letters, such as “LOOK” (86), make the word stand out and immediately connect to the voice of the persona. This mother is asking or maybe ordering the world to look at her newborn son as a savior because it is young people the ones who keep on struggling on a daily basis. Her son, as well as all the African-American sons, is the one who will become the “savior” of the African-American people and change the world.

In this poem, Sanchez resorts to the African-American dialect using words such as “’gainst” (38) and “nite” (53). Generally she uses conversational language and an abbreviation sign “&” (30), instead of the word “and” so as to highlight the conversational and arbitrary tone of the poem. Once more, Sanchez writes the poem in low case letters and there are no capital letters except for the word “LOOK” (86), the times she refers to the newborn boy as “Black Man” (84), and the part where the persona appears to be singing:

arch me softly
O summery winds, I am
strict as the sun.
rock me O pulse
i knock all over.
sing. sing. sing. you
sister waves. i shall paint
his silence with seeds. (41-47)

In these lines she invokes the winds of summer to give her the pulse of nature so as to feel closer to her ancestors who lived in it; in this invocation Giovanni employs capital letters to emphasize the desire of the persona to commune with her ancestors.  

To begin with, Sanchez in her poem “Rebirth” narrates step by step the history of a woman who, while being pregnant, returns to her birthplace to give birth to her son. Her son assumes the role of a “savior” (86) as he helps her start a new life knowing her tradition. In this journey back to her roots, she recollects her entire life from her birth to that of her son’s in an attempt to be reborn. Sanchez comments on the need of the African-Americans to be aware of their history and tradition. She achieves this by capturing the feeling of awe the persona experiences when she steps on the land of her foremothers:

When i stepped off the plane i knew i was home.
had been here before. had been away
roaming the cold climate of my mind where
winter and summer hold the same temperature
of need. (1-5)

Thus when she arrives at her place of origin she feels as If she had lived there her whole life. In the 1970s, it was popular for African-American people to visit Africa and experience the tribal life of their ancestors. Georgoudaki claims that due to the rejection African-Americans felt on the part of their Americaness they turned to Africa. Black people sought their ancestral roots in Africa, travelling and learning the history, tradition and the mythology of its various people as well as the historical course of millions of African people who were sold as slaves in the New World. Thus Africa became a source of racial pride and artistic inspiration, and formed a new way of living for black Americans many of whom defined themselves as African-Americans by adopting African names, hairdos and clothing style while listening to African music (Georgoudaki 39-40). Black people were not afraid of letting others know about their African origin so they would often visit the place of their ancestors in an attempt to experience tribal life similarly to what the persona in the poem does. Being in her “place/of birth” (Sanchez, “Rebirth” 24-25), she feels as if she is swimming in the “warm/blue/green sea” (25), which creates a feeling of warmth and lightheartedness.

So what Sanchez has her persona do in this poem is much like what Malcolm X upheld that African-American people should do, make a pilgrimage to their place of origin. In an interview to Chandler, Sanchez talked about her influence by Malcom X and said the following:

Yes, Malcom kept saying that we’re Black men, we’re Black women, we’re Black people. And that really stirred the imagination in the same fashion that Marcus Garvey did when he asserted that Black people are Black, are African. Malcolm made the same impact on writers in the sixties that Garvey made on writers in the Harlem Renaissance period. Garvey made poets say, “What is Africa to me?” He made people begin to talk about “my Black self.” People really began to respond to him-many people who might never have responded before. (358)

Likewise writers who were much influenced by Malcolm X and his beliefs, like Sanchez was, emphasized in their writings the importance of visiting Africa and experiencing firsthand the daily routine of their ancestors.

The persona moves on to describe her feelings when she sees the place of her birth. At this moment, the chants of her ancestors come to her mind:

arch me softly
O summery winds, i am
strict as the sun.
rock me O pulse
i knock all over.
sing. sing. sing. you.
sister waves. i shall paint
his silence with seeds. (Sanchez, “Rebirth” 40-47)

The persona upon coming in touch with the place of her origin feels serene and the sound of the waves she is hearing resembles a lullaby. Furthermore, if the waves are her sisters and they are singing, one may realize that she is listening to the voices of her foremothers singing songs to her so as to help her relax and absorb everything about this experience of being in touch with one’s roots. Next in the poem Sanchez moves on to ascribe to the sea motherly characteristics. The persona longs for the touch of the sea while the sea acquires a cleansing and liberating quality. The persona is cleansed by the mistakes of her past and she feels redeemed of the hardships and sufferings she had to endure up to now. In this process, water is the prevailing element. It resembles a christening after which the baby is cleansed of the sins of its ancestors (Adam and Eve in Christian religion) and is ready to enter the world anew. Therefore, this process leads the persona to the beginning of a new life free of the burden of her past.
Sanchez challenges the male belief that women can never become something other than mothers and housewives by placing her persona beyond her foremothers: “one day/you’ll be taller than i.” (64-65). It is as if Sanchez urges women to dare and do more than their predecessors did by gradually moving beyond subordination. Knowing their past, they can make new meaning of their present. This idea relates to the progression of black feminist thinking. In particular, Patricia Hills Collins states that

[b]lack feminist thought’s potential significance goes far beyond demonstrating that Black women can produce independent, specialized knowledge. Such thought can encourage collective identity by offering Black women a different view of themselves and their world than offered by the established social order. This different view encourages African-American women to value their own subjective knowledge base. By taking elements and themes of Black women’s culture and traditions and infusing them with new meaning, Black feminist thought rearticulates a consciousness that already exists. More important, this rearticulated consciousness gives African-American women another tool of resistance to all forms of their subordination. (302)
Thus Sanchez’ intention is to make African-American women aware of the fact that they already possess the strength they need in order to change their status quo in contemporary society.

In the poem, Sanchez visualizes the persona as a pregnant woman who gives birth to a child. This child is to be paralleled to her reborn self, one that is now aware of the fact  that when one has “forgotten tribal life” (50) is not able to fulfill all his needs but only “a small part” (56) of them. The sea in this case acts as a cleansing element, one that brings the persona in touch with tribal life. Sanchez describes the feeling the persona experiences upon the sensing of the sea on her body as follows:

i remembered the first time I made love
in a room on seventh avenue
on a street of forgotten tribal life
and as the sea entered my pores and
made me stretch and open to be filled
I remember a nite we stretched our
Bodies and poured our juices into each other.
it was summer and you called me little one
for my body was filled only a small part
of your need. (48-57)

In these lines, Sanchez describes two people exchanging fluids. This depiction relegates to the exchanging of fluids of sexual intercourse. Thus, the persona, as soon as she comes to touch with the sea, experiences a feeling of pleasure similar to that of making love.

The experience of giving birth is not presented as something painful and the woman is not screaming as in Giovanni’s “Poem (for Nina)” where the pregnant woman feels entrapped due to her painful labor. In this poem, the experience of giving birth has a soothing effect upon the persona. Throughout the poem the persona is experiencing, what is called, a laying on of hands experience. According to Joanne V. Gabbin,

[t]he term signifies an ancient practice of using hands in a symbolical act of blessing, healing and ordination. By its very act it appears to bestow some gift. […] Others see the practice as central to the African concept that the body and spirit are one. “The sensuality is essential to the process of healing and rebirth of the spirit.” For the purpose of this discussion, the practice represents the transmission of a miraculous power that heals, restores, and transforms all that it touches. However mystical the practice appears, the existence of such power is readily accepted by initiates who have experienced a laying on of hands. (247)
According to Sanchez, this miraculous power that heals the persona is her son who is presented in the poem as a savior. The persona feels redeemed after giving birth to this boy. She has an opportunity to teach this boy his history and tradition, giving him thus better opportunities in life than the ones her parents had given her. Through the birth of her son the persona feels reborn, as the title of the poem declares.

Finally, Sanchez’s poetry brings forth a fighting spirit since she focuses on the depiction of African-American female history from the past to the present. In Sanchez’s poetry, history, tradition and self-awareness play a leading role. In her poetry, Sanchez outlines the history of African-American women from the years of slavery to the present. Sanchez through her writing style offers the reader powerful female images and uses punctuation marks such as full-stops, commas and slashes. She also writes in low case letters but she also employs capital letters to achieve certain effects as she address in her poems prominent African-American artists who are also activists, such as Stevie Wonder and John Coltrane. As a result, her poems reach a much wider audience since these artists are well-known and liked by people who belong to various cultures and social groups.

Concluding remarks

To conclude, African-American people in the turbulent decades of the 1950s and the 1960s were struggling to win equal rights through the Civil Rights Movement in an effort to redefine themselves within the American society as equals, giving them the opportunity to be reborn as well as find their place within a new reality. The contribution of people of the Arts and Literature in this effort was of great importance. In the 1970s, after two decades of struggles African-Americans had achieved their goal of equality and they had to adjust to the new order of things so as to discover their place in a mainly white society. In this decade, African-Americans were celebrating blackness and they started organisations for the advancement of black people. During this time there was an emergence of various African-American Studies programs throughout American universities.  

Artists, fiction writers and poets, such as Sonia Sanchez attempted through their art to make African-American people realize that they had to coil up to a common cause in order to achieve equality. They attempted to awaken people’s consciousness and fighting spirit and urged them to engage in action. Naturally, being female Sanchez viewed this struggle through a female perspective and focused more on the liberation of women. In her poetry, she alluded to female images of the past and the present in order to support her argument for self-appreciation and self-awareness that would in extension lead to that of society in its whole.

What I have attempted to explore in this article is how Sanchez portrays black women in her poetry. I tried to prove that she depicts black women as being in touch with their roots and aware of their history and tradition making this the source of their empowerment. What is impressing about Sanchez’s writing is that she promoted women’s’ liberation in her writing by employing unconventional techniques in her poems. She is thus a revolutionary breaking the conventions of poetic writing symbolizing the breaking of societal conventions of the time and signalling a new era of change. Sanchez’s poems have a particular sound quality, while opening up to different readings. She writes in free verse breaking the restrictions stanzas impose on poems, encouraging thus the reader to generate various interpretations. By breaking the syntactical grammatical and stylistic conventions of poetry writing, Sanchez intends to demonstrate that the emancipation of women will allow them to hold many different roles within society and to be perceived differently than before. What is impressing about Sanchez’s poetry is the fighting spirit that they emit inspiring the reader to engage in action. Thus, Sanchez by using specific techniques and poetic forms points out the need for a variety of roles to be ascribed to black women as free and equal individuals in society.

In the 1970s, African-Americans were trying to form a new identity without having to reject their past. It was thus, a decade of memory and this was also conveyed in the literature of the period.  Sonia Sanchez, writing during this period, undertakes the effort to promote the development of self-awareness of African-Americans emphasising the reliance on the knowledge of history and tradition for the attainment of self-awareness. In her poems “Woman,” “Earth mother,” “Present,” and “Rebirth,” she highlights the importance of the role of history in the life of African-American people and especially women. Sanchez portrays black women as carriers of knowledge and power deriving from their ancestors. She emphasizes the need for one to be in touch with her roots and claims that this can be the primary source of empowerment. Her main belief is that in order for one to move on to the future one has to be aware of her past maintaining that, to be spiritual is to be also political and vice versa. Thus, Sanchez underlined the importance of education for the present generations and the generation to come.

Sanchez did not cease to promote female African-American culture. After the 1970s she continued to produce works regarding this subject. Her continuous efforts to create a female tradition within the African-American tradition have been successful. Sanchez’ literary work has been taught to many African-American culture programs of various universities in America and Europe opening up new horizons for the African-American culture in general, and the female African-American culture specifically. The development of various programs of African studies, African-American studies and Black Women’s studies in Universities throughout the world has projected her work, among that of other writers, promoting the teaching, research and studying of African-American literature and culture. Sanchez has been awarded several literature awards and honorary doctorates for her contribution to the advancement of Black female literature and culture. Sanchez has been the founder of Black Female Studies programs in the several Universities she has taught and she has also organized Black female poetry Workshops as part of her teaching program. Sanchez, still continues to give talks in book clubs and other events as is evident by her forthcoming speeches to be held in Birmingham, Alabama on June 12, 2010.[3] What all these highlight is that in the hands of Giovanni and Sanchez poetry transforms into a means by which they transmit their message to the readers and promote the Black female culture as well as self-acknowledgement and self-respect. 


[1] One of them relating to this word is described in Thulani Davis’s novel 1959 (2001). This novel narrates a shop boycotting that takes place in Turner, Virginia, in order to stop school integration because people fear for the safety of their children if the integration is realized. One day during a sit-in of eight college students in the counter of Woolworth’s shop some white customers tried to make these students leave by tossing on them ketchup, sugar, cigarettes and anything else they could find in the store. This story narrates the real events that took place in Greensboro, North Carolina.
[2] For more information about the relation of slavery songs to blues songs see Steber “African –American Music from the Mississippi Hill Country : ‘They Say the Drum was a-Calling’.”
[3]  For more information on the awards and current work of the two poets the reader may visit the official websites of the poets at <> and <>.


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Du Bois, W.E.B. “From the Souls of Black Folks: The Forethought.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Vol. C.7th ed. Ed. Jeanne Campbell Reesman and Arnold Krupart. London and New York: W.W. Norton&Company, 1979. 894-910. Print.
Hills Collins, Patricia. “The social construction of black feminist thought”. Black Women in America: Social Science Perspectives. Ed. Micheline R. Malson, Elisabeth Mundimbe-Boyi, Jean F. O’Barr and Mary Wyer. Chicago: University Chicago Press.1977. 297-325.  Print.
Gabbin, Joanne V. “A Laying On of Hands: Black Women Writers Exploring the Roots of Their Folk and Cultural Tradition.” Wild Women in the Whirlwind :Afra-American culture and the contemporary Literary Renaissance. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andrée Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 246-62. Print.
Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. «Ποίηση Αφρο-Αμερικανίδων: Μια σημαντική πλευρά της Αμερικάνικης ποίησης σχεδόν άγνωστη στην Ελλάδα». [“African American Female Poetry: An important side to American Poetry almost unknown in Greece”]. Η Αμερικάνικη Ποίηση Στην Ελλάδα American Poetry in Greece. Ed. Tatiani G. Rapatzikou. Thessaloniki: Hellenic Association for American Studies, 2006. 35-48. Print.
McLaughlin , Andrée Nicola. “Black Woman in the Quest for Humanhood and Wholeness: Wild Women in the Whirlwind.” Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American culture and the contemporary Literary Renaissance. Ed. Joanne M. Braxton and Andrée Nicola McLaughlin. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1990. 147-77. Print.
Palmer, R. Roderic. “The Poetry of Three Revolutionists: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni.” Modern Black Poets: A collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Donald B.Gibson. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc, Eaglewood Cliffs.1973. 135-46. Print.
Sanchez, Sonia. I’ve Been a Woman. Chicago: Third World Press,1978. Print.
Steber, Bill. “African-American Music from the Mississippi Hill Country: ‘They say the Drum was a-Calling’.” The ARF Reporter. Vol. 19, No. 2, 1999

Sofia Politidou is an MA candidate at the MA program of American Literature and Culture, School of English Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. Her research interests are African-American poetry and culture, race studies and electronic literature. She has published articles on poetry and race studies in ECHOES online journal and the journal American Studies Today On Line. She is currently doing research in electronic literature and race studies for the completion of her MA thesis (to be submitted in February). Politidou is also a peer reviewer for several academic journals.