UAB professor and famous poet tell stories of black history

Jacqueline Wood and Sonia Sanchez tour the U.S. to make sure the stories of black Americans are shared year-round.

Black History Month comes to a close today, but a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor is on a mission to make sure the past is shared year-round as part of American history.

Jacqueline Wood, Ph.D., associate professor of African-American literature in UAB's College of Arts and Sciences, has paired with friend and poet Sonia Sanchez to travel the country doing what they both love best, telling stories.

“She is one of the most generous persons in spirit and time,” Wood said of Sanchez, who is chiefly associated with the Black Arts Movement and whose works are charged with commentaries on politics, sexism and race.

In Sanchez’s poem “Summer Words for a Sistuh Addict,” she writes:

the first day i shot dope

was on a sunday.

i had just come

home from church

got mad at my mother

cuz she got mad at me. u dig?

Sanchez is best known for award-winning books of poetry like Homegirls and Handgrenades, We a Baddddd People and Morning Haiku. The Birmingham-born writer was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University and held the Laura Carnell Chair in English. But not much had been known of her prose.

Their friendship started when Wood, preparing for a class, began searching for writings by a female dramatist who could capture the militant voice of the 1960s, 70s and 80s. To her surprise, she came across plays and essays by Sanchez, who she had never met, but admired.

Sanchez had not written much drama because she was disappointed it wasn’t being produced for audiences, Wood said.

Wood wanted to change that. She contacted the poet, interviewed her and wrote a series of articles about her prose. Then Wood compiled and edited a collection of Sanchez’s essays and plays, and together they produced I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t. The collection, released this past fall by Duke University Press, is Sanchez’s first book of prose.

In it, Sanchez talked about the pressure she felt when writing her plays. “The challenge for me, with drama, was realizing that I was going to have to put engaging words in each person’s mouth, words that make for a movement on stage,” she wrote.

Now those words are in the spotlight, Wood said. She regularly gets calls from people who want more information about Sanchez’s plays, including one from a group who plans to produce one.

Sanchez’s works, both poetry and prose, play an important role in telling the stories of black people, Wood said, their tales of pain and power, love and laughter. “I would prefer we reflected on these stories throughout the year,” Wood said. “It would be a wonderful accomplishment. But since we haven’t gotten to that point, February presents an opportunity to learn about African-American literature and culture so that they can learn to love it.”

In her classroom, Wood tells African-American stories year-round, “the unique way blacks came to the United States, the unique way they were forced to immigrate,” she says.

Wood, who hopes her name one day will be among the well-known black writers, is writing her own story that chronicles the chance meeting of her French mother and piano-playing solider dad and the love affair that ensued.

Her parents’ story, like those told by Sanchez and other African-Americans, is an intricate part of our country’s narrative, Wood said. “If you really, truly want to recognize America as a country that welcomes and recognizes all people and races, read to learn the kind of people who live next door to you,” she said. “It is important to know America; in knowing America you know yourself."