Stutters, Spirituality, and Self: Redefining Southern Womanhood

Southern culture is rife with leaders, both spiritual and political. Walk into a church, the South’s favored place of worship, and you’re likely to find a pastor. Last year, Christianity Today noted that only one in eleven pastors are female. The article also noted that congregations hold women to much higher standards than men, with “perfection” being the desired goal. Facing South asserts that such statistics barely improve within Southern legislature, with Southern states having an average of 18% of positions filled by women. Women receiving full recognition for their achievements is rarified air. To this day, the majority of Southerners believe that there is a place for women, and it isn’t within the realms of offering leadership—political, spiritual, or otherwise. Often, a woman isn’t even trusted to find leadership within herself.

Sonia Sanchez, an Alabaman poet born in 1934, challenges these standards and expectations with her personal history, poetry, and activism. Every fiber of her existence becomes a testament to women’s leadership abilities. Perhaps what makes her existence and words so formidable and relevant is her refusal to be owned or lead by others. Even now, turbulence erupts within modern Southern culture, causing people to search fervently for leadership outside of themselves. Sanchez exemplifies finding leadership from within, thus filtering out nonsensical values or traditions that might otherwise devour equalities for others.

Sanchez grew up a fighter among fighters. During an interview with Temple University, she identifies her grandmother—to whom she affectionately refers as “Mama”-—as the most influential person to shape her childhood. Described as “a grand, old black woman who was the pillar of her church,” Mama served as a deaconess. Sanchez quotes a letter she penned to her grandmother posthumously: “I learned about women fighting men back when they hit them: ‘Don’t never let no mens hit you mo than once girl.’” It’s no wonder, in the roughness surrounding her, that Sanchez described herself as “what they call a tomboy.” Yet, even in the rawness of the local culture, other women still chastised the young Sanchez for her lack of traditional femininity and delicacy. Mama would gently scold back, “She got a right to be different. She gonna stumble on herself one of these days. Just let the child be.”

Though the incentive to be her own leader began as gentle encouragement, it would later manifest in sharper ways. After the death of Mama, Sanchez asserts that she “sat out my childhood with stutters and poems gathered in my head like some winter storm.” Yet what most children would view as a devastating handicap, Sanchez saw as divine intervention from Mama beyond the grave. As her stuttering began promptly after the death of her grandmother, so did Sanchez’s writing. “And the poems erased the stutters and pain. And the words loved me and I loved them in return.” Sanchez’s first love didn’t take the form of a prince charming, but the lovingly cultivated talents that curated her sense of self-worth.

Most importantly, Sanchez led herself. During the 60s and 70s, she became active in the Black Panther Party and dabbled in the Nation of Islam as her work in activism blossomed; however, according to Janice Rochelle Littlejohn’s article for LA Review of Books, Sanchez eventually called out “Panther-founder Eldridge Cleaver for his mistreatment of women,” despite threats from prominent party members. The Nation of Islam also proved a disappointment, as “she could not have a voice in the organization” due to being a woman. In a culture where self-sacrifice is a woman’s status quo, Sanchez’s refusal to remain silent is a nod of encouragement to other women in sticking to their guns.

In “Present,” Sanchez describes a woman “making (is there supposed to be av “a’’ here?) pilgrimage to herself,” lead by her own body and following the directions of her own voice. Like much of her poetry, it describes the journey to self-worth through self-leadership. Her journey begins with introverted silence, takes a pit stop at stuttering, and constantly returns to shedding old skins that no longer fit her existence. So why does Southern society try to contain women within the same worn-out flesh? “Southern belles” are no longer realistic. Expecting perfection of an ever-evolving being is equally impractical. Instead of showcasing flawless pageant girls with porcelain smiles, glittering tiaras, and flawless skin as role models, we ought to embrace messy, strange lionesses who make mistakes while remaining true to their core values. Sonia Sanchez’s life proves this ideal. Women should not only trust and look to one other for guidance, but also to themselves.


Photo credit: Flickr.

Tagged: Black Panther Party, church, Sonia Sanchez, Southern Lit Presents