Sonia Sanchez's Literary Uses of Personal Pain
"To love is to express our humanity, but love cannot exist in a vacuum nor can love flower in the dirt of racism, capitalism and sexism. Time and time again, as Sanchez's personal pain bears witness, we find that all our attempts at love are twisted by systemic exploitation and oppression that deform our psyches and personalities, especially the male psyche. If we are to achieve love, we must fight for liberation."
By Kalamu ya Salaam
Although Sonia Sanchez has been publishing since the mid-sixties, there has been no diminishing of her poetic powers as she has aged; in fact, the exact opposite is the case--the poetry in her first book, Homecoming (1969), is no match for the brilliance of homegirls & handgrenades (1984) and is but a flicker when compared to the incandescent intensity of Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995). Rather than a brief candle who burned lyrically for a few years and then immolated herself in either self-destructive behavior or a selling-out of her talents to produce pap in exchange for momentary popularity and/or pecuniary reward, Sanchez instead has been a consistently blossoming beacon, ever shinning and in fact glowing brighter and brighter, while lesser lights dimmed around her. Like Langston Hughes and fine wines, over the years turned to decades, Sanchez ripened and matured rather than atrophied and lost potency.
But her's has been a hard won consistency. Life for Sanchez has been no crystal stair, particularly in her attempts to actualize a stable woman/man relationship. She has slipped and been tripped, fallen down and sometimes briefly been turned around, but she has never quit, never stopped climbing. Sanchez has, with a minimum of whining and with a courageousness and feistiness inversely proportioned to her diminutive body build, demonstrated a remarkable staying power, an archetypal persistence in embodying the advice the old folks constantly admonished: you just got to keep on keeping on--to keep on going despite whatever hardships and disappointments you suffer in your personal life.
Sonia Sanchez's keeping on has produced a body of work terrible in its honesty about the joys and pains of her personal life as well as profound in the relevance that the lessons drawn from Sanchez's bittersweet years impart to us. Chief among those lessons is a constant refutation of internalized oppression. While there is both greatness and suffering in Sanchez's work, there is no tragedy in the classic sense of the individual suffering because of an alleged fatal flaw in their makeup. As Sanchez sagaciously points out, the majority of our suffering is because of man's inhumanity to man--more specifically, Whites' historic inhumanity to people of color and men's general inhumanity to women.
Although a philosophical investigation of the relationship between suffering and art as illustrated by the work of Sonia Sanchez would be of major interest, my purpose here is much more specific. I intend to review Sonia Sanchez's creative use of the personal pain which resulted from her attempts to actualize long term, intimate female/male relationships. Simultaneously, I will suggest how Sanchez's work and the attitudes expressed In her work mirror what I propose are tenets of a dialectical African-American, African-derived life philosophy/worldview. I will also ascribe to her creative prose a privileged position in both Sanchez's own body of work as well as within the context of 20th century American literature as a whole.
In Homecoming, Sanchez's poetic debut, amid fanged poetry which snarls at and attempts to bite the alabaster hand of racism, there are also the first inklings that Sanchez's concern is with gender issues as well as race matters. The book ends with the short poem "personal letter no.2," a gem of unsentimental self-definition:
but I am what I
am. woman. alone
amid all this noise.
The norm of poetry about personal relationships is a romanticizing of the desire for and the struggle to achieve fulfilling intimate unions. But rather than an ingenue cooing romantic pop tunes in search of Mr. Right, Sanchez is a classic blues diva shouting away her blues and concluding that what she really needs is to be in control of herself and her social relations:
i've been two men's fool. a coupla black organization's fool. if ima gonna be anyone else's fool let me be my own fool for awhile,
This self-assertive, self-affirmative blues-based outlook informs the bulk of Sanchez's personal poetry. Yet as potent as Sanchez's poetry is, there is another aspect of her work which supersedes her poetic achievements.
By citing her own situations and wrestlings, Sanchez challenges us not only to admit we suffer, she also challenges us to move beyond suffering. She challenges us not with lofty appeals to ideals but rather by pain filled sharings and by identification with the wounds of others, even identification with self-inflicted wounds. Thus, we now come full circle to understand that liberation and love go hand in hand: we need love to be truly human and without liberation (and the struggle to attain and maintain liberation) we are prevented from consummating true love.
To love is to express our humanity, but love cannot exist in a vacuum nor can love flower in the dirt of racism, capitalism and sexism. Time and time again, as Sanchez's personal pain bears witness, we find that all our attempts at love are twisted by systemic exploitation and oppression that deform our psyches and personalities, especially the male psyche. If we are to achieve love, we must fight for liberation. That is the summation of Sanchez's creative use of personal pain. Sanchez's creative poetry and prose is not only physical evidence of an exemplary act of courage, her work is also, and more importantly, a significant contribution to the ongoing battle "to create a human world."
A luta continua--the struggle continues.
[Full essay here]
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