Poetry

Sonia Sanchez: “This is Not a Small Voice”

 

This Is Not a Small Voice

[View poem on poets.org]

 

From Wounded in the House of a Friend. Copyright © 1995 by Sonia Sanchez. Used with the permission of Beacon Press.

 

Sonia Sanchez—poet, activist, scholar—was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University and held the Laura Carnell Chair of English and Women’s Studies. Her long list of awards and recognitions includes the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry and the Langston Hughes Poetry Award. One of the most important writers of the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez is the author of sixteen books including Homecoming, We a BaddDDD People, Love Poems, I’ve Been a Woman, A Sound Investment and Other Stories, Homegirls and Handgrenades, Under a Soprano Sky, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Does Your House Have Lions?Like the Singing Coming off the DrumsShake Loose My Skin, and most recently, Morning Haiku (Beacon 2010), available for order here. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Scholar and The Journal of African Studies, Sanchez has edited an anthology, We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans.

In addition to numerous other awards, Sanchez is a Ford Freedom Scholar from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and her poetry appears in the movie Love Jones and the TV drama Lovecraft Country (episode 9, “Catch the Fire,” adapted by Laura Karpman). She has lectured at more than five hundred universities and colleges in the United States and has traveled extensively, reading her poetry in Africa, Cuba, England, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, Nicaragua, the People’s Republic of China, Norway, and Canada. Author  photo credit: Marion Ettlinger

 

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Poetry Sunday’s first feature this month, “Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks, celebrated a political voice that was both “adult” and “large,” and today’s poem about the collective voice of Black Americans speaks out powerfully in both registers. Exhibiting ring construction, the poem opens and closes with the declaration, “This is not a small voice / you hear,” and in twenty-seven lines of free verse, elaborates on its nuances. The primary poetic device at work is repetition, specifically ring construction and also anaphora, or repetition of the same word or words at the beginnings of lines. Here, the words “this is not a” (sometimes reframed as “this is a”) repeat and ring out through the poem.

Repetition has deep roots in religion, rhetoric, and music and is a powerful, almost instinctual conveyor of human emotion. Anaphora is a well-known rhetorical device that frequently occurs in the Bible, especially in Psalms. Orators have long used it to capture their audiences’ attention, and one need go no further than the speeches by JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama to appreciate its power. Here, it creates a drumbeat or throb, an insistent rhythm in a poem that—as free verse—otherwise doesn’t follow any established metrical pattern.

Anaphora is the engine of the poem’s momentum, so let’s look more closely to see how it modulates and evolves in today’s poem. Its first instance, “This is not a small voice,” becomes “this is a large voice / coming out of these cities” before drilling down with more specificity in “This is the voice of LaTanya” in line 4.

Most of us are becoming more aware of the long and horrific catalogs of names of people of color injured and killed by U. S. law enforcement, but this is a different kind of list. These names designate Black Americans who have achieved high distinction in their respective fields. “LaTanyna” could refer to LaTanyna Richardson, who starred in Fried Green TomatoesMalcolm XSleepless in Seattle, and many other films. Or, to LaTanya Garrett, a Democrat congresswomen in the Michigan, or LaTanya Sheffield, a US Olympic hurdler in Seoul. “Antoine” is the given name of legendary musician Fats Domino and the first name of several renowned athletes. “Darryl” has many possible referents, but one is Darryl L. McKinney, a rising brokerage clerk at Cantor Fitzgerald who died in the 9/11 attack; another is Darryl Strawberry, “one of the most feared sluggers in the sport” during his seventeen seasons playing Major League Baseball. Shaquille Rashaun “Shaq” O’Neal is, of course, one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

Reading through and researching that list, I was struck by the canniness of the poet in choosing to use only first names, thereby expanding their referents beyond a singular example of a highly successful life. Multitudes of Black Americans live worthwhile lives, the poem says, so many that their mouths make a “river” overflowing its banks. This list stands in dramatic counterpoise to the list of BIPOC martyrs to our country’s law enforcement policies and practices. In contrast, it is celebratory and a positive assertion of Black Genius and Power.

Another thing that impresses me is the way this poem asks—but does not demand—its readers to research a historical record that tends to omit references to powerful and successful Black Americans. (I say “does not demand” because the inclusion of Shaquille’s name at the end of the list helps to understand what those names have in common without doing outside research.) But if you do, it’s likely you’ll learn some Black American history omitted from your school textbooks. So, part of this poem’s activism is the way it encourages readers to dig a little deeper to learn and correct the historical record.

The second stanza resumes the anaphora (“This is not a small”) but then replaces the word “voice” with “love.” Anaphora continues with “this is a large / love” in lines 14-15, “This is a love that crowns the feet with hands” in line 17, and “This is a love colored with iron and lace” in lines 24-25. In these images, the voice and the love are being celebrated for their strength, power, and beauty. The poem closes by restating its first sentence verbatim, as if to remind us of the voice’s power and, in Gwendolyn Brooks’ word from “Paul Robeson,” its “magnitude.” Sanchez’s choice to break that last sentence out into its own stanza highlights it and allows it to reverberate long after the page has been turned.

In the calculus of this poem, then, the large “voice” equals a large “love.” If a reader felt any sense of menace up to this point this line dispels it, but does so without diminishing the power of the voice of BIPOC Americans. It’s something to be reckoned with, less threat than unshakable conviction and stalwart promise. Now with new President Elect Joe Biden about to assume this country’s helm, I have more hope than I’ve had for a long time that we might pay it some heed.

 

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