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  • AIDS, Race, and the Invasion of the Body in Sonia Sanchez's Does Your House Have Lions?
  • Brandi Stanton (bio)

Although she still writes today, Sonia Sanchez remains forever pegged as a Black Arts poet. Her later work, such as 1997's Does Your House Have Lions?, offers us the chance to analyze and describe the post-Black Arts Movement era of American literature—and the same period in Sanchez's career.1 As Joyce A. Joyce emphasizes in her introduction to an anthology of interviews with Sanchez, the poet now "reaches out to a more diversified audience than she did in the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s" (xiv). Joyce continues, "while [Sanchez's] earlier poems and interviews challenged the multifaceted injustices that stifled Black lives, her later interviews have begun to highlight the need for planetary, humanistic harmony" (xiv). Yet Sanchez's efforts in Does Your House Have Lions? to negotiate between the self, the family, and the larger community bring the poetry back to a central issue during the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and reveal a continuing and essentially conservative philosophy of black identity and the family.

The Black Arts context foregrounds three thematic considerations—the body, the family, and the nation—that provide the implicit organization of the fifty-nine poems in Sanchez's little-known text. All three terms were interdependent and, at times, conflated during the Black Arts period, and this slipperiness of terminology challenged the political unity of the group while providing more than enough fodder for Black Arts poets like Sanchez. The poet's representation in Does Your House Have Lions? of a black family struggling with a son's diagnosis and death from AIDS allows her to demonstrate how the freedom to choose identity categories, as well as the notion of multiple and simultaneous identifications inherent to intersectional notions of identity, undermine racial solidarity and the strength of one African American family's kinship bonds.

The second epigraph to the text explains its cryptic title. Sanchez refers to a conversation with producer Joel Dorn included on the Rahsaan Roland Kirk Anthology, a compilation of Kirk's avant-garde jazz saxophone recordings. Dorn explains the origin of the title:

One day in the late sixties, I was on the phone with Rahsaan and mentioned to him that just that day I had bought a house. He responded by asking, "Does your house have lions?" I said, "What?" He said, "Lions. You know, like in front of a museum or the post office. You know, concrete lions. My house has lions. Get a house with lions."

(Sanchez iii) [End Page 90]

The epigraph reveals the porous boundaries between the private—the family home—and the public—the nation's civic houses, its museums and post offices. All, it is suggested, require guards to safeguard their borders. Rahsaan repeats the word "lions" five times, underscoring the necessity, the urgency behind his desire for protection. Moreover, he attempts to make his friend participate in his only partially facetious paranoia: "You know . . . You know . . . Get a house with lions" (iii).

The passage illuminates Sanchez's major concerns in the poems that follow: the public in the private and vice versa, the untenable security of the home and its national counterparts, and the simultaneously quotidian and essential animal longing to defend one's boundaries, be they bodily, familial, or communal. In her fascinating study African Americans and the Culture of Pain (2008), Debra Walker King connects these same concerns within images of "black pain." She argues, "black pain defines those whose U.S. citizenship and power within the white nation are legitimate and those for whom this is not the case" (63). Images of black bodies in pain in literature and film "revea[l] the value of black pain as a metaphor of exclusion and a container of non-American identities" (King 10-11). In other words, King recognizes that the excess of meaning heaped upon the broken African American body marks it as Other, as not American. The black body becomes a nexus for debates about the social, the individual, policing the nation's boundaries, and breaching the body's. For Sanchez, Brother...