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Deferred Dreams : The Voice of African American Women's Poetry since the 1970s American Studies Today Online
by Manohar Samuel

Can poetry be political, didactic and art?

Sonia Sanchez

Nikki Giovanni


Sonia Sanchez Links

Further reading

African-American women writers are now regarded as among the best of modern American poets. Their poetry is as very often celebratory of a life that, despite its hardships and injustice, was often happy. In this article, Dr Manohar Samuel of St Augustine’s University quotes from writers like Sonia Sanchez and Nikki Giovanni in support of his thesis that their poetry not only expresses criticism of discrimination and injustice but also expresses a culture to celebrate.



The field of communication for a long time has been dominated by the white male Anglo-Saxon Protestant voice. The voices of African, Asian, Latino, Jewish Americans have too long been marginalized. Increasingly, there is nowadays an interest in the cultural insights of experts from other traditions and culture. An attempt is made at reconciling a wide range of cultures and communities in a democratic set-up. This article seeks a refreshing insight into the vision and position of African American Women's Poetry since the 1970s as they reach out to a dream yet unfulfilled. The need for highlighting minority voices (here those of African American Women poets) is more compelling than ever before because their speech communication had been silenced far too long. Efforts to build bridges and opportunities have not borne the desired results. Necessarily, these voices will present a perspective different from the majority perspective.

Gonzalez, Houston and Chen (1997) hold the theoretical view that race, culture, gender, class, and ethnicity are not "external variables but rather inherent features in an ongoing process of constructing how we understand and participate in the larger social, cultural, and political discourse" (Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication, p.x). America in the 1990s has seen debate on immigration policies, inter-racial conflicts, anxiety over influx of new immigrants, and the greater visibility of minority groups. The year 1997 saw President Clinton initiating a series of debates on race relations but the disparate voices have not to date come out with anything tangible and workable, in fact, there is a hardening of stances. America seems to be more of a mosaic than a melting pot, more colourful and polyphonic with rich cultural diversity and pluralism. It is in this light that we see African American Women's voices. There is now more than ever before a felt need for more space for diverse cultural voices and perspectives, and a stress on the value of diversity.

It must be understood, however, that minority/ethnic voices not only express criticism of discrimination and injustice but also express a culture to celebrate. It is a culture richly soaked in tradition, maybe not expressed boldly before but now revived with an awareness of its intrinsic qualities, for instance, the notion that Black is beautiful and unique. What they are creating is an awareness of the ills of the society and an environment of tolerance for diversity so that people could work together to achieve a common goal. It is also a legitimate claim for dignity and equal opportunities. The cultural significance of these expressions changes from time to time within the changing social and political contexts. But artists with their imaginative power transform and bring home these strengths. It is important to realise that the direction of definitions of race, culture, and ethnicity is ever shifting. Also, my point of view about another ethnic group's expression might be different from the mainstream Anglo-Saxon tradition.

It is possible to get lost in the maze of implications concerning culture, ethnicity, and race. Shuter (1990) notes that "most inter-cultural research is essentially directed toward "theory validation" and fails to describe how people actually live and interact "....The challenge for inter-cultural communication in the 1990s ... is to develop a research direction and teaching agenda that returns culture to pre-eminence..."(The Centrality of Culture, p. 238). Christian(1988), another cultural expert, observes that "People of colour have always theorised - but in forms quite different from the Western form of abstract logic....[O]ur theorising... is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddle and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking" (The Race for Theory, p. 68). Some theoretical question raised by cultural experts are: Why does one ethnic group seek to dominate another group? What are the structures, psychologies, and languages of domination? How do women, especially Black women, fight these forces of domination? How do we reach out to a better future, realising the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.? By reading and interpreting the rich voices in poetry, stories, and experiences told by African American Women Writers, I believe, we can have a better understanding of their position and their cultural practices. My approach is more a complement to the theory-oriented approaches to literary study.

Can poetry be political, didactic and art?

Can poetry be political, didactic and art? This is the question that has to be addressed in the context of post 1960s African American Women's Poetry, since it was viewed as merely social and political. The answer, of course, is that it is possible and is more effectively proved in the poetry of Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, Sonia Sanchez, Rita Dove and others. Clarence Major cites the more recent poetry of African American women poets as being good example of how it is possible to reconcile both the political, the didactic, and art.

Among recent African-American poets, Audre Lorde, I think, proved that it can. Sonia Sanchez, with her haiku-like style, in her exploration of self in exchange and conflict with community, in her probing of the personal self's relation to the public self, in her search for the higher public self, in her search for the higher public good in that public self, in her constant redefining of those selves, especially as female body and spirit, proves that it is possible....Joyne Cortez, with her improvisational free form, in her struggle to define the black female in the context of family, class, body, spirit, and moral self, proves that it's possible to focus on these social issues - as well as drug addiction, persecution, rape, war, sexism, racism - and create poems that stand on their own as works of solid art. (The Garden Thrives : Twentieth-Century African-American Poetry, 1996, p.xxviii-xxix).

African American women since the 1970s have proved that black poets can write works of art with pure creative energy.

For several reasons I have taken for study the post 1970s African American Women's Poetry. The 1960s poetry marks the change in attitude and takes a militant posture with the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement and the Black Arts Movement that brought in cultural nationalism. For many it seemed that poetry written during this period was purely political and social. The poetry written by African American women that followed in the 1970s and thereafter (influenced by the Feminist Movement) proved that Black poetry could be both didactic and political, and art as well. It is inevitable, to a certain degree, that it will be political and social, until the playing field of opportunities is level. The post 1970s poetry is remarkably rich in variety of expression drawing on different styles and cultural traditions. These women writers may well affect society through their message that it alters perceptions and minds. They are not pure propaganda as it has been sometimes made out for reasons other than merely literary. Many of these poems are original, organic, vibrant and pregnant with a message at the same time. It is now diverse and most often brilliant poetry. It is musical, the voice of the people expressing in what they are good at, a race of people gifted and artistic. Maya Angelou states, "We are a tongued folk. A race of singers. Our lips shape words and rhythms which elevate our spirits and quicken our blood...I have spent over fifty years listening to my people."(Mari Evans, ed., 1984, p. 3). Sonia Sanchez confesses "I had to wash my ego in the needs/aspirations of my people." (Mari Evans, ed., 1984, p. 415). The autobiographical statement is central to African American women's poetry expressing their sufferings, pain, and their deferred dreams. It is a means of getting at the truth behind their experience. Selwyn R. Cudjoe (1984) notes that "The practice of the autobiographical statement until the contemporary era, remains the quintessential literary genre for capturing the cadence of the Afro-American being, revealing its deepest aspirations and tracing the evolution of the Afro-American psyche under the impact of slavery and modern U.S. imperialism." (Mari Evans, ed., p.6).

In 1977 Barbara Smith in "Towards a Black Feminist Criticism" called on Black women to create a body of literature that "embodies the realisation that the politics of sex as well as the politics of race and class are interlocking factors." (Gloria Hull et al. ed., 1982,). There came a shift in African American women’s writing which raised critical issues about the nature of sexism in America. Thus, they focused on themselves as women and as Blacks. Since the 1970s African American women have explored a variety of themes and expressed their genius in different forms. Doors that had been traditionally closed in the academy (dominated by white and male) began to open with the proliferation and quality of writing by women writers. From the 1970s through the mid-nineties African American poetry, and women's poetry in particular, continued to gain in richness, universality of theme, and technical maturity.

Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934) is a prolific writer, serious, and original. Her poems depict the struggles between black people and white people, between men and women, and between cultures. She is innovative in her use of language and structure, sometimes using Black speech in her poetry. She too has a brilliant sense of history, and a vision of her people being truly free. "right on: white america" is one of her best poems. America, she writes, was once 'a pio/neer land', but it had systematically eliminated through intolerance all those that it saw different. Thus, "there ain't ./no mo/ indians', 'no mo real/white allamerican/bad/guys. The only ones left now are the black people and they had better 'check out', for the guns and shells are falling to decimate them and a bleak future awaits them unless they do something about it. This poem serves as a wake up call.

right on: white america

this country might have

been a pio

neer land


but. there ain't

no mo

indians blowing

custer's mind

with a different

image of america.

this country

might have

needed shoot/



but. there ain't

no mo real/ white allamerican



. u & me

blk/ and un/ armed.

this country might have

been a pio

neer land, once.

and it still is.

check out

the falling

guns/ shells on our blk/tomorrows.

Nikki Giovanni

Nikki Giovanni (b. 1943) is an internationally acclaimed and forceful writer. From an early age she experienced the sense of displacement when her grandmother was moved by urban renewal. Her involvement with the Civil Rights Movement of the sixties and seventies brought out militant poetry in poems like "The True Import of Present Dialogue, Black vs Negro". The poetry written after the seventies focuses more on personal relationships and relationships within the black community. One of her most anthologised, powerful and very poignant poem is "Nikki-Rosa". The poem highlights the lack of understanding of the deep roots of love and bonding in black families. It is not possible for white people to comprehend it, maybe they never will. The true wealth and strength of black people lies in these ties of love regardless of poverty and other deprivations.


childhood remembrances are always a drag

if you're Black

you always remember things like living in Woodlawn

with no inside toilet

and if you become famous or something

they never talk about how happy you were to have your mother

all to yourself

and how good the water felt when you got your bath from one of those

big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in

and somehow when you talk about home

it never gets across how much you

understand their feelings

as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale

and even though you remember

your biographers never understand

your father's pain as he sells his stock

and another dream goes

and though you're poor it isn't poverty that

concerns you

and though they fought a lot

it isn't your father's drinking that makes any difference

but only that everybody is together and you

and your sister have happy birthdays and very good christmasses

and I really hope no white person ever has cause to write about me

because they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they'll

probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy

Much has been gained but yet much more has to be done. The fire of racial and gender discrimination still smolders and needs to be put out completely. African American women poets through their powerful verse have touched the lives of black people and have attempted to make Martin Luther King Jr's dream a reality. A remarkable aspect of African American Women's Poetry is that it has risen above mere black themes to broader themes to be acknowledged today as one of the best in American poetry. Many of the well known anthologies of American literature, such as The Norton Anthology and The Heath Anthology, have included African American women as the finest poets of our time. Undoubtedly, they have made invaluable and distinctive contribution to American poetry and to World literature. Let me end with a quote from Johnson (1988) : " As social options increase for Black women, their fictional worlds will expand, developing a repertoire of subjects, themes, forms and genres as seemingly boundless as their gifts for poetry and song." (Being and Race, p. 118). This is the vision that African American women poets have caught and have realised in their works. In the words of the old Negro Spiritual "Let Freedom Ring, Let Freedom Ring" and a new dawn begin.



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Davies, Carole. (1994). Black Women, Writing and Identity : Migrations of the Subject. London and New York : Routledge.
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Sonia Sanchez

Wounded in the House of a Friend (Hardcover - 11 April, 1995) (Paperback - 18 April, 1997)
Does Your House Have Lions (Hardcover April 1997) (Paperback - February 1998)

Nikki Giovanni

Those Who Ride the Night Winds (Paperback - March 1984)

Sonia Sanchez Links

Read a biography of Sonia Sanchez at The Academy of American Poets
Poet Links: The Academy of American Poets also has a large set of links
The African American Literature Book Club also has a page on Sonia Sanchez

Further reading

White Yet Non-White: Miscegenation in Natasha Trethewey's Native Guard (2007) You might be interested in reading this article, by Sofia Politidou of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, which examines the changes in the concept of miscegenation, from the slavery years to the 1960s and the 2000s, as recorded in Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize poetry collection Native Guard (2007). Through a close reading of the poems "Pastoral," "Miscegenation," "Blond," "Southern Gothic" and "South" from the third mainly autobiographical section of the collection, it shall be argued that, while in the past, miscegenation was strictly a matter of race for African-Americans, nowadays, it is also a matter of identity and self identification. Trethewey narrates how she experienced discrimination for being a mixed-race person in the early years of her life. She also describes how being a mixed-race person led her to a quest for selfhood. Trethewey believes that American anti-miscegenation laws enhanced her feeling of being different and caused her to doubt her identity as black, white or a person of mixed race.


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