Black Arts Movement: White-Balled
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BAM, San Francisco, and Sonia's Homecoming
"The Black poets of the 1960s explored new aesthetic values whose goal was the spiritual, cultural, political awakening of the common man as well as the artist. The Black Arts Movement sought to give a total vision of man." - Joyce Anne Joyce, Ijala
"It was beautiful to see people recognize that they had to be political if they were to survive, to live, to "be"" - Sonia
In 1965 Sonia set out for San Francisco. She would become a pioneer in developing black studies courses at what is now San Francisco State University, acting as a professor from 1967 to 1969. 1965 was also the year that Malcolm X was assassinated. Since the decade had started, Medgar Evers and Jimmy Lee Jackson were among the many that were murdered; Watts had erupted in riots; Fannie Lou Hamer and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party had been refused at the Atlantic City by the Democratic National Convention. The Black Power Movement began to flourish, relaying its message that African Americans had to reject the possiblity of equal partnership in the white American project. The political condition required a response in cultural practice. The Black Arts Movement (BAM) would provide this response. Dudley Randall began the Broadside Press in Detroit in 1965 and would publish the work of black nationalist poets. In San Francisco, Joe Goncalves would establish The Journal of Black Poetry providing new black poets of the West Coast a space to publish their work. In this same year, Amiri Baraka established the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School in Harlem, dedicated equally to performance and education.
Sonia would become one of the central members of this generation. BAM was the umbrella under which Sonia's poetry would become a principal instrument in the political education of the new black cultural and political nationalism. "The climate of the sixties was all aglow with the words of Malcolm and other people who were saying positive Black things and being very much the activists. The poets of the day could not just stay introspective." (Zala Chandler interview, Wild Women in the Whirlwind, p. 358) With their verses, the poets sought to make clear the connection between the personal and spiritual with the public and political/economical. The Black Arts poets became the chief transmitters of the new black cultural nationalism. There was a decided rupture of the Black Arts Writer with the Western canon. In 1965, Amiri Baraka defined the Black artists mission as "the destruction of America as he knows it." In 1967, following a convention, in the The Journal of Black Poetry the leaders of BAM embraced four responsibilites: "a devotion to the struggle," "leadership," "promulgation of the truth," and "interpreting to the people what their condition is." BAM poets created a new aesthetic that embraced jazz improvisation and the common vernacular, challenging the codes of respectability that were strictly observed by the black middle-class. They developed a rhetoric that challenged the hegemonic, racist, patriarchal, WASP culture.
The BAM poets stressed the necessity of spreading the culture to the common people. Taking the street-orator tradition approach of going to the people to a further level, the poets began to do readings in bars. Sonia recalls the effectiveness of the new aesthetic at her first reading in a bar: "Before the people in the bar could moan because the music's gone, we started to go "pshom t-t-t-t", staccato-style, "d-d-d-d"-you know, like machine guns. And of course we used a couple curse words because we knew that would gather them. People stopped when they heard the curse words. After we got them, we didn't use any more curse words, but they were listening now." (David Reich interview, World)
San Francisco: White-balled
"I thought all that was literature, and America thought it was seditious." - Sonia
Sonia would refine her aesthetic and performance style in San Francisco. She continued to perform her pieces in bars and in the street. "I remember one time we went in [a bar] and someone said, "Hey, ain't you the poet that came in here to read?" That was good. it became an important cultural event. They got to testifying in that bar, becasue they were listening to poetry that was really dealing with what they were about." (interview with Claudia Tate) Beyond reaching and involving a new audience, reading in bars reflects some of the most important tenets of the aesthetics of the Black Arts movement. The poet was to have an ultra-public role, committing herself to communal work. Entering bars, and using vulgar language created a distance from the middle class codes of black respectability. In San Francisco, Sonia would have the chance to bring the didactic aspect of her poetry to the classroom. She began to develop the first black studies program in the United States at SF State University from 1966-1969. Sonia's curriculum included Pablo Neruda, Nicolas Guillen, W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Marcus Garvey. A favorite story for Sonia is the FBI visit to her apartment, when FBI agents asked her landlord to evict her due to her classroom activities. The harassment was not limited to housing, Sonia soon found that government agents repeatedly blocked job offers. "When I helped to organize the black studies program at San Francisco State, the FBI came to my landlord and said put her out....That's when I began to realize just how much the government was involved with teachers in the university. I then tried to get another job in New York City--no job. I had been white-balled. The word was out, I was too political. Sonia Sanchez was too political; do not hire her."
this is for real.
black niggers my beauty.
i have learned it
ain't like they say
in the newspapers.
[excerpted from "homecoming" in Homecoming]
Sonia married fellow BAM poet Etheridge Knight, in 1968, the same year that he got out of an eight year incarceration on robbery charges. On January 26, 1968, Sonia gave birth to twin sons who were named Morani Meusi ("Black warrior" in Swahili) and Mungu Meusi ("Black God"). Her family has a constant presence in Sonia's work. Several poems in We a BaddDDD People (1970) stem from Etheridge's struggles with heroin addiction, his time in jail, and how Sonia coped with this love. Sonia would publish her first collection Homecoming in 1969, through Broadside Press. This collection of poems has been described by Joyce Ann Joyce, in Ijala as "being poems." In these poems Sanchez writes about "the ways she be, her friends be, her lovers be, and the world be." The book was the culmination of a decade's work in the Black Arts Movement. The language Sonia used in this poetry was based on the common vernacular; obscenities and 'vulgar' images are prevalent throughout the work and perform a political rejection of middle-class values. The poetry transitions from reflection on the personal("homecoming," "poem at thirty," "personal letter no. 2), the political ("small comment," "the final solution"), the social ("nigger," "to blk/record/buyers," "memorial"), and the didactic ("definition for blk/children," "nigger," "poem (for dcs 8th graders--1966-67)"). Sonia addresses black men and women, imploring the need for love between them ("to all brothers," "to a jealous cat," "to all sisters"). Two poems perform a magnificent elegy to Malcolm X, whose voice Sonia adopts to address white America in "malcolm": "fuck you white man. we have been curled too long. nothing is sacred now. not your white faces nor any land that separates until some voices squat with spasms."
Sonia's second compilation would not be far behind. We a BaddDDD People was published in 1970. While Homecoming sought to explore the internal self, Sonia broadens her scope in We a BaddDDD People, developing a focus on a collective peoplehood. Many of these poems were written while Etheridge Knight was in jail, and his struggles with heroin addiction are a source of consternation for Sonia. Despite the FBI's harassment, Sonia also managed to find work at other schools, writing some of these poems while working at the University of Pittsburgh. The poems exult the need for public, political fervor ("blk/rhetoric," "blk/chant," "in the courtroom," "TCB/en Poems," "blk/nation/hood/builden"), survey her personal life ("hospital.poem (for etheridge. 9/29/69)," "on shit"), and address the intertextuality of the personal and public ("sumer words of a sistuh addict." "for our lady," "a chant fo ryoung / brothas / & sistuhs"). The musical influence of jazz on her poetry becomes even more defined. "a/coltrane/poem" is the first poem to which she adds "to be sung." Sonia addresses how television plays a role in shaping black minds, and she challenges her audience to reject the message from 'wite' America.
It's a New Day (poems for young brothas and sistuhs) continued Sonia's work of rejecting the social ills that afflict the black community and the black youth. This collection hinted at Sonia's increased interest in the Nation of Islam (NOI) including a poem "We're not learnen to be paper boys (for the young brothas who sell Muhammad Speaks)," in which the ideology of the Black Muslims formed the basis of the poem. This collection is most marked by the disappearance of obscenities in the poems. Sonia has attributed this decision, in various interviews, to a group of students' request that she remove obscenities from her work as their school had banned Homecoming because of the obscenities. "And I said to them very dramatically," Well, I will write a book for you with no curse words!" And I did." (D.H. Melhem interview, Heroism in the New Black Poetry) Sonia's commitment to create poetry accesible to the youth is demonstrative of the common theme amongst women poets of BAM to teach and bring others
"I think, looking back on the period that we all were involved in, when we all discovered Blackness in America, it was via two men: malcolm and Elijah Muhammad. And I think that everyone had to go into that period, to move through that period, because they were the most viable people organizations going here at this particular time."
Having gone through the political and cultural nationalism that exploded in the 1960s, joining the Nation of Islam was a logical progression for Sonia Sanchez. Joyce Anne Joyce writes, "Her desire for cohesiveness within the Black community and her desire to enlighten the Black community of the vils of middle-class white America made her a natural follower of the teachings of Elijah Muhammad." In 1971 Sonia joined the Nation of Islam. She would
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