By Gaetana Caldwell-Smith
In 2004, two African American women writers, Sonia Sanchez and Sarah Jones, came into prominence, appearing at separate venues in New York, reading and performing their works.
In late December, Sonia Sanchez, known primarily for her poetry, took the stage at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. The evening celebrated the release her first spoken-word CD in 25 years, “Full Moon of Sonia,” which includes a tribute to the artists who preceded her and to those who will follow.
Standing center stage, in graying dreadlocks, she recited, in a poetic litany inflected with African clicking sounds, names of diverse writers and other
major personages who influenced her life as poet, teacher, and activist. Among them were Tupac Shakur, Che Guevara, Danny Glover, and Allen Ginsberg.
Over her 40-year career, Sanchez, now 70, has become an important figure in both African American and women’s studies (She retired in 1997 as the Laura
Carnell Chair in English at Temple University). Not surprisingly, she is also a leading light to emerging hip-hop poets and rappers.
In the early 1960s, she supported the civil-rights philosophy and activities of the Congress of Racial Equity (CORE). Yet soon, after analyzing the message
of Malcolm X’s speeches, she began to consider herself a Black nationalist.
In 1968, she pioneered and taught Black Studies at what is now San Francisco State University. She left the Nation of Islam, after a five-year membership (1971-76), due to its repression of woman.
In 1985, as a long-time resident of Philadelphia (she’s lived there most of her life), she was deeply affected by one of the most egregious attacks ever
perpetrated upon African Americans in recent history. Philadelphia’s “finest” bombed a residential building in May of that year, in which members of the group MOVE lived.
Made up mainly of Black men, women, and children, MOVE disdained corporate ideology, tried to live naturally, and declared openly that the U.S. government was corrupt.
Police had been harassing MOVE since at least 1978. In response to alleged complaints by MOVE’s neighbors, the city authorities obtained a bomb from the FBI, which the police dropped onto the roof of the MOVE home from a helicopter. The resulting fire spread to some 50 homes, reducing more than an entire city block to blackened, smoking ruins, Several MOVE members and
children were killed. Of this tragedy, Sanchez wrote:
“Are you saying to me that we are at war with each other in this country? Is the message to be given to people that if we speak out and become non-conformists that certainly we can be killed? Or are you saying that in a black neighborhood anything goes?“
— from the video documentary, “A Moveable Feast”
c’mon girl hurry on down to osage st
they’re roasting in the fire.
smell the dreadlocks & blk/skin
roasting in the fire
— Excerpted from “Elegy: For MOVE and Philadelphia”
Sensitive to the feelings of the people of Philadelphia, Sonia Sanchez waited three years before presenting this poem to them, feeling that they needed
time to heal and to come to realize that her poem wasn’t a personal attack.
In a biography published by the University of Minnesota’s “Voices from the Gaps, Women Writers of Color,” the biographer stated that Sanchez took on the heavy responsibility of the elegy because she believes “we must never let this happen again.”
Sonia Sanchez was the keynote speaker in the Towards an Africa Without Borders Conference 2004, held in Madison, WI. She has written at least 16 books, mostly poetry, which range from haiku to ebonics.
Sarah Jones on Broadway
Solo performer and writer Sarah Jones, at 29, is less than half Sanchez’s age. In just a few years, though, she has already become a strong voice for America’s repressed, depressed, oppressed, and dispossessed, in much the same way as Sanchez, only in the vehicle of the writer and solo performer.
Unless poets read for the public, they often must wait till their work is in print for feedback; Jones however, gets an immediate response from her audience. The success of her new show “Bridge and Tunnel” is an indication that people want more.
“Bridge and Tunnel,” produced by Meryl Streep and others, opened at New York’s Bleecker Street Theatre last February. It closed its sold-out, record
breaking, Off-Broadway box-office success in August and will move to a yet unnamed (as of December 2004) theater on Broadway in March 2005.
(Sarah Jones’s “Women Can’t Wait” was reviewed by Socialist Action in April 2002, and her “Surface Transit” in our July 2003 issue.)
“Bridge and Tunnel” takes place in front of a set consisting of a back wall displaying colorful graffiti art. This is the Bridge and Tunnel Cafe in South
Queens, host of the annual “I Am A Poet Too” poetry slam. One of Jones’s many characters, slam MC Mohammed Ali, a kindly Pakistani, says that “I Am A Poet Too “ stands for “Immigrant and Multi-culturalist American Poets or Enthusiasts Traveling Toward Optimistic Openness.”
As in her previous shows, the gifted Jones makes her characters come alive by simply changing a shirt or jacket, adding a head scarf, removing a piece of
clothing, or slipping on a pair of glasses. For each character she changes body types, as well as distinctive clothing.
Her postures, voice, dialect, and accents stay true, dedicated to each character as she reveals them, whether depicting Mohammed Rashid, a Brooklyn rapper; old, hobbling, Lorraine Levine from Long Island; Habiba, a Jordanian; or Gladys, a young, self-advertised “poet-performer-playwright-spoken-word artist-actress.”
Through her depiction of immigrants in New York, Jones is able to get across her social, political, and cultural views. She has her characters recount candidly the troubles and frustrations they face when having to put up with racial and cultural slurs, discrimination, dealing with U.S. bureaucracy in
everything from job-hunting, job-choices, applying for a driver’s license, or school—and worst of all, the INS.
Still, she injects humor into her writing. Her characters often laugh at themselves, which allows audiences to laugh with them. Yet, a current of
poignancy runs through each rap, poem, or tale, as when a Vietnamese slam poet recites: This is not a model Minority poem It won’t fold your shirts, but it may air your dirty laundry. Look for Sarah Jones’s “Bridge and Tunnel” on Broadway in March.