Revolutionary Time Capsule: Coming of Age and African-American Womanhood in Sister Sonia Sanchez’s A BLUES BOOK FOR BLUE BLACK MAGICAL WOMEN
Reading A Blues Book For Blue Black Magical Women by Sonia Sanchez is like opening a time capsule that is still vibrating with life and blood and guts. Sanchez’s social justice narrative/battle cry is moving and fascinating on a language level, but holds equal or even more weight as a record of a Black Arts movement poet soaking herself deeply in the black Islam movement, which was in full throttle in 1974 when this book was published. Sanchez, just a year later, moved away from the Nation of Islam because her views on women’s rights differed from theirs. But in this volume, we see Sanchez express her anger and dismay and agitation for change in how African-Americans were treated by the white world both historically and contemporaneously, and how they treated one another. Regarding the first part of the book, scholar Joyce Ann Joyce writes, “The introduction is a monologue that speaks directly to Black women, enumerating the malignant aspects of the American culture, explaining how Black people (the Black women) must instigate their own change, emphasizing what must be done for Black children, outlining the essential role of the Black woman, and ending with an urge for Black people to organize in the Nation of Islam so that they can be reborn in Blackness.”
At times—especially in the penultimate part of the book, entitled WE ARE MUSLIM WOMEN—Sanchez seems to see herself as a prophetess, speaking with religious, prayerful grandeur and zeal. She writes, “WE ARE MUSLIM WOMEN/wearing the garments of the righteous/recipients of eternal wisdom/followers of a Divine Man and Message…” This is by far the least interesting part of the book, but works when considered as a component of the lyrical, spiritual autobiography that is ABBFBBMW. This book-length poem informs readers not solely at the societal-cultural-ideological macro level, but as a part of Sanchez’s own personal evolution and self-investigation as a woman, African-American, and poet.
While considering ABBFBBMW, I am reminded of what poetry critic Paul Fussell warns about letting message get in the way of art: what matters is that poems are “re-readable once we have fathomed what they ‘say.’” Sanchez, I think, has passed that test with flying colors. Her capacity to intertwine ultrapersonal narrative with big-picture visions is largely responsible for this—ABBFBBMW entertained 100% and was so full, rich, and varied, I would only be able to absorb everything on a second read. Here are the components that make this piece successful/challenging/exciting, and in many ways comparable to The Waste Land for its depiction of social dissonance, emotional crisis, and a world at its worst, at its knees (although Sanchez has a far more concrete idea than Eliot of what the resolution should be and how to get there):
1. Theatricality: This book is meant to be read out loud, akin to Ginsberg’s Howl . At first, I resisted the poem—it seemed to take itself so seriously, was so unabashedly direct—and then two things happened: a) the chant and the theatricality worked their magic (like my first yoga class—from What is this mumbo jumbo? A chakra? C’mon. to Ahhhhhh get it now.) and b) I realized, this is/was serious—both to Sanchez, and on the larger cultural plane. Sanchez incorporates elements of stage direction throughout her text, as in section 2, “The Past”, where she indicates in parentheses “(low singing is heard),” and in the same passage builds a crescendoing repetition of sound one can imagine being very effective and hypnotic in performance:
Bells. bells. bells.
let the bells ring.
BELLS. BELLS. BELLS.
ring the bells to announce
this is your earth mother.
for the day is turning
in my thighs And you are born
Especially when juxtaposed with direct address and narrative detail to provide a framework, as seen in the above stanza. Which brings me to my next point…
2. Rhythmically Hypnotizing & Carefully Crafted: In one undergraduate English class I’ll never forget, our professor posed the question, “Is Howl a work of art? Why or why not?” A girl raised her hand to drop some pearls of wisdom on us: “Well, of course it’s not art. Ginsberg wrote the whole thing on random napkins he found while he traveled across the country strung out, and then smashed them together—pretty haphazardly, if you ask me—and that’s Howl. It’s nothing like when I play one of Beethoven’s sonatas. I mean, you can tell Beethoven put work into it.” Of course, she’s wrong, and of course, the professor told her so as politely as possible, but I bring this up because ABBFBMW has a Howl-ian vibe—off-the-cuff and in-your-face style, but with clear intent and carefully wrought. Sanchez uses a variety of forms in the poem, as well, to produce a variety of effects: dense with few line breaks for an intense, jampacked delivery of information; a stanza aligned to the left of the page followed by a stanza aligned to the right of the page, and so forth, to evoke a more lyrical and associative mindset—the list goes on. Throughout the book, Sanchez uses chant-like repetition to produce emotions of threat, suspense, and, eventually, a sense of finality and/or permanence, as in the following stanza:
come closer. ah little Black girl
i see you.
i can see you coming
towards me little girl
running from seven to thirty-five
in one day.
i can see you coming
girl made of black braids
i can see you coming
in the arena of youth
girl shaking your butt to double dutch days
i can see you coming
girl racing dawns
i can see you coming
girl made of black rain
i can see you coming.
Of course, what Sanchez also accomplishes by repeating “i can see you coming” is making the lines in between this phrase’s repetitions stand out in even starker relief than they would if they were sandwiched by equally novel lines.
3. It Has Something To Say: Sanchez’s raw tone of delivery builds excitement, fear, enjoyment, and—perhaps its most intentional emotional evocation—awareness. In the first section of the book, “Introduction: Queens of the Universe,” Sanchez lays the groundwork. She directs herself towards fellow African-American women, laying their community’s problems out and calling for solutions.
Sanchez asks her audience to “discard” the roles that have been bestowed upon them, roles such as “foxes, matriarchs, whores,” for the sake of their collective “survival” and “sanity.” She asks African-American women to purge themselves of the “whiteness” which has had negative impact on “our men, children, naturrrals, long dresses, morals and our humanity.” She promises the reward of “seeing our warrior sons and beautiful young sisters moving in human/nationalistic/revolutionary ways toward each other.” She wants changes in what African-Americans put in their bodies—from unhealthy food to drugs and alcohol—and how they treat one another. She talks about the necessity of divorcing African-Americans from their “slave mentalities.” The role of women as “fighters for our children’s minds.”
The end goal is freedom, and the way to attain it is through “loving each other,” “WORK, CONSTANT, TCBING/the kind of movement that is in/the NATION OF ISLAM.” This is a woman who has a message and an agenda and insists not only that you hear it, but that you act upon it. Such directness, I must say, is a welcome change from the trap of over-subtlety (or should I say, lack-of-point and/or lack-of-politics) that contemporary American poetry often falls into.
4. A Blend Of The Personal and Public Rhetorical Speech: Sanchez addresses the African-American woman’s coming-of-age struggle simultaneously on an ideological level and as a personalized, sensory experience. For instance, she writes:
Coming out from alabama
into smells i could not smell
into nites that corner lights
i walked into young
womanhood. Could not hear
my footsteps in the streets
could not hear the rhythm of
young Black womanhood.
The speaker here could be an African-American everywoman trying to figure out what it means to be who she is at this historical juncture—or she could be one particular woman, just moved from Alabama to New York City, trying to gain her footing. The often diaphanous boundary between these two “personas,” and the sense of a “real” person beneath the heavy political rhetoric of this book, are what makes it truly great and prove Sanchez as a mistress of her craft.
4. A Strong Historical Sense: An integral part of this poem’s development is an enraged examination of African Americans’ cruel history:
and i vomited up the past…
…and i vomited up the stench
of the good ship Jesus
sailing to the new world
with Black gold
i vomited up the cries of
newborn babies thrown
Sanchez often uses the body in ABBFBMW to express her reactions and desires—her truth. The stanzas above are no different, with the speaker using the physical experience of vomiting to exhibit her urge to simultaneously acknowledge and exorcise the past.
6. Consider Yourself Warned, It’s Not PC: As the best art tends not to be. In ABBFBBMW, there’s none of MLK Jr.’s let’s-all-walk-hand-in-hand-towards-peace. The enemy is the white man, and only by strengthening bonds within the black community and building a generation of “warriors” will the desired new world order be attained—what Sanchez describes as a “return to blackness.” Furthermore, Sanchez describes women as powerful beings, but ultimately advises that they channel this power into serving their men, who know best. Sanchez is not a proponent of diversity (she derisively refers to the days when she hung out with white people as becoming “a proper painted/european Black faced american”); instead, she suggests replacing whites as the dominators.
7. She’s Conflicted:As the best art tends to be. Sanchez gives the power and the praise (and the heft of responsibility when it comes to world- and community-changing) to black women in this poem:
are the first teachers.
nurses, givers of life, teachers of all
…while also underlining their rightful subservience to black men:
the job of Black/woomen is to deal with this
under the direction of Black men.
How can Sanchez reconcile these two beliefs? Perhaps she couldn’t, and perhaps that is why she stepped away from the Nation of Islam, but it’s a good thing this tension existed within her in 1974, because that is what makes A Blues Book For Blue Black Magical Women sing.