I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and Other Plays
It has always been Sonia Sanchez the poet I’ve known and loved, with strong works like Wounded in the House of a Friend, Does Your House Have Lions?, and Like The Singing Coming Off the Drums. Sonia the poet, a towering figure in my mind when I think of the powerful black woman poets that still get me through this life and inspire me to write. But there is Sonia Sanchez the playwright too, and I’m so glad to meet her in this critical new collection I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and Other Plays. This collection finally brings together all of Sanchez’s dramatic works, previously published and unpublished, spanning from 1969 to 2009.
As one of the major writers of the Black Arts movement, Sonia’s bold and creative voice demanded to be heard among an intimidating arena of popular black male writers, many of whom nurtured chauvinistic ideals. We are all now aware of the rampant misogyny that permeated this period during the sixties and seventies, when sadly too many black men saw the possibility of liberation through the destructive lens of patriarchy and inflated notions of manhood. Sanchez unflinchingly addressed such issues in her drama, which can best be described as poetic fire infused with hope for a better reality for black people in what she would term “this place called America.”
1974’s Uh, Uh; But How Do It Free Us? is a play that only a woman with a deep love for her people and a real desire to save them could write. It painfully shines a light on the damaging effects of addiction and the open degradation of women in the militant black community. The play is broken into three groups of characters, each with different stories that reflect the problematic behavior prevalent at the time yet often hiding behind “revolutionary” rhetoric. In “Group II” we meet five men riding white rocking horses who revel in physically and verbally abusing two women, “White Whore” and “Black Whore.” Although the men proclaim to espouse revolution and progress, they are abusers as well as slaves to their drug addictions and sexual appetites.
Sanchez’s love for the women who suffered during this period is honored in the 1969 play Sister Son/Ji. Son/Ji is eventually left alone to deal with the consequences of her commitment to a movement that, as Sanchez says “cannot catch her when she falls down in midnight solitude.” There were women who lost their minds as a result of choosing such a life, she says. Women like Son/Ji who threw themselves into the cause even while losing their children to war. In one of the book’s two essays, “Poetry Run Loose,” Sanchez lifts up Son/Ji as one who survived many years of death and sacrifice and chooses to speak in spite of her scars.
Placing these plays within their historical context is important, but they also hold up today as dramas that uplift and motivate their audiences and readers, dramas with messages that are still valuable. As this collection reminds us, there is Sonia Sanchez the activist too.