21 pages 42 minutes read

Sonia Sanchez

Depression

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1978

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Sonia Sanchez is a world-renowned poet, playwright, activist, educator, and speaker. A leading member of the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez made history with poetry exploring African American culture and experiences through the Civil Rights Movement and into the new millennium. Sanchez was among the first widely celebrated poets who used African American Vernacular English in her work. This is now an understood, acceptable craft choice in the poetry establishment, thanks in large part to her trailblazing.

In “Depression,” Sanchez captures the experience of a woman suffering from a clinical condition, exploring themes of isolation and despair. She carefully crafts this free verse poem to follow the speaker’s mental journey, using impressionistic imagery to communicate her emotional state. Although deeply personal in content, this poem is part of Sanchez’s greater project to bring underrepresented experiences to light.

This guide references the poem as it appears in her 2021 poetry collection, Collected Poems (Beacon Press, 2022).

Poet Biography

Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver) was born on September 9, 1934, to Lena Jones Driver and Wilson L. Driver, a former schoolteacher and jazz musician, in Birmingham, Alabama. Sanchez’s mother died in childbirth one year later, so Sanchez and her sister lived with their grandmother for the next five years. Eavesdropping on her grandmother’s conversations with friends inspired Sanchez’s lifelong love for African American Vernacular English. Her grandmother died when Sanchez was six years old. This loss affected her deeply; she developed a stutter and became more introverted. She spent more of her time reading and began writing to process the loss of her loved ones.

In 1943, Sanchez and her sister moved to Harlem to live with their father and stepmother. She excelled in school, visited her local library daily and participated in her school literary club. She continued to write poetry in private. Sanchez attended Hunter College and stopped writing for a period of time after a negative experience in a creative writing class. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 1955. She was briefly married to Albert Sanchez during the 1950s, and she kept her husband’s surname after the divorce. The couple had one daughter, Anita.

Sanchez credits Jean Hudson, then Chief of the Schomburg Library's Center for Research in Black Culture, for providing her first meaningful encounter with African American Literature. Her literary influences include Countée Cullen, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, among others. Sanchez took graduate courses in creative writing at New York University, working closely with poet and critic Louise Bogan. Sanchez published her first poems during her graduate studies. She co-founded the “Broadside Quartet” poetry workshop in Greenwich Village with fellow Black Arts Movement poets Etheridge Knight, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Nikki Giovanni. Sanchez and Knight married in 1968 and divorced two years later. The couple had twin sons, Morani and Mungu.

Sanchez taught at San Francisco State University in the late 1960s, where she became the first college faculty member in the United States to offer a course on Black women and literature. She wrote her first play, The Bronx is Next (1968), during this time. Her debut book of poetry, Home Coming (1969, Broadside Press), established her as a central voice in the Black Arts Movement. Sanchez became known for experimenting with spacing and spelling to represent African American Vernacular English on the page. Her poems at the time were boldly political: They decried white violence, lauded such Civil Rights leaders as Malcom X, and explored Black identity in an unabashedly passionate voice. Her second book, We a BadDDD People (1970, Broadside Press), continues these trends.

Sanchez’s third book, Love Poems (1973, Third Press), marks a slight shift in her focus. This book is more personal than previous books, focusing more on the themes of community love and motherhood. While all of her work is characterized by themes of liberation, from this point forward, Sanchez’s work became less confrontational. This third book also includes several haiku, marking the beginning of Sanchez’s fascination with Japanese poetic forms. Her poem “Depression” appears in Love Poems. Sanchez also began writing children’s books in the 1970s, such as It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs (1971, Broadside Press) and The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head, and Square Head (1973, The Third Press).

Sanchez’s politics continued to evolve. She was a member of the Nation of Islam, a Black nationalist organization, from 1972 to 1975. Her fourth book, A Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974, Broadside Press), reflects on the social and spiritual support she received before leaving the group over ideological differences. Sanchez taught at several colleges and universities on the East Coast throughout the 1970s. She started teaching at Temple University in 1977 and served as the Department of English’s Laura Carnell Chair until she retired in 1999.

Sanchez has published nearly 20 books of poetry to date. Her more recent work has centered on deeply personal themes as well as female empowerment. Her 1975 play Uh Huh, But How Do It Free Us? critiques sexism in African American communities and liberation movements. Her 1997 epic poem Does Your House Have Lions? (Beacon Press), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, tells the story of her half-brother’s deadly battle with AIDS. Her most recent book of poetry is Collected Poems (Beacon Press, 2021). She has been extensively honored for her activism, teaching excellence, and poetic prowess. Some of her many honors include the PEN Writing Award, the National Education Association Award, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University and Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate.

Poem Text

Sanchez, Sonia. “Depression.” 2023. Best Poems.

Summary

“Depression” is a poem in two parts. Section 1 begins with the first-person narrator describing their current state. She has withdrawn from the world and “gone into [her] eyes” (Line 1). Inside is a world of its own. The speaker bumps “against sockets that sing” (Line 2). She smells “the evening from under the sun” (Line 3), a place characterized by “waterless bones” (Line 4) going into rivers as incense. She spots a “a piece of light” (Line 6) crawling around this place, then turning a corner.

The speaker describes herself as having “settled in wheelbarrows / grotesque with wounds” (Lines 11-12). She compares this to a bed of sweaty sheets, surrounded by “drunken air” and “continuing dreams” (Lines 8, 10). She wonders if she is “a voice delighting in the sand” (Line 14) and notices how “masks rock” (Line 15) around her in the wind. She takes off her clothes and concludes Section 1 with another question: is she “a seed consumed by breasts” (Line 18)?

Section 2 begins with the speaker recounting her night. She spent the whole night crying, “tears pouring out” (Line 22). Her tears come from her soul, one that runs “in silence to my birth” (Line 25). She cries out and poses a third question: “Ayyyy! am I born?” (Line 26). The speaker hears the moon “daring / to dance” in her room (Lines 27-28). Seeing this, she longs to “become a star” (Line 29). She envies how stars “seek their own mercy” (Line 30). She compares them to gods who “sigh the quiet” (Line 31).

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By Sonia Sanchez