Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Veronica M. Watson, Ph.D.

Second Advisor

Mike Sell, Ph.D.

Third Advisor

Kenneth Sherwood, Ph.D.


U.S. black women live at the intersection of racism and sexism, with heterosexism and class bias further complicating their experience of multiple oppressions. These oppressions also create a consciousness, forged in the feminist and Black Arts movements, of a selfhood denied during enslavement and subsequently misrepresented by racial mythology. This study concerns how Sonia Sanchez and Lucille Clifton‘s poems counter such denials of black women‘s selfhood. Chapter One contextualizes Sanchez and Clifton as activist poets who uphold the Black Arts Movement aim of self-determination. Using black feminist and Black cultural studies theory, I claim that Sanchez and Clifton, in Chapters Two and Three respectively, validate black women‘s complex identities. Sampling poems across a broad time period, I examine subject matter, orality, and form in citing Sanchez and Clifton as situated knowers whose naming of black women‘s bodies, voices, and emotions writes a missing herstory. Chapter Four extends this claim, acknowledging Elizabeth Alexander, Nikki Finney and Patricia Smith as younger poets who contribute their own dimensions to black women‘s herstory. The political and social liberation their naming enacts renames black women as self-possessed subjects. My dissertation locates agency in Clifton, Sanchez, Alexander, Finney and Smith on several levels. By unveiling these herstories, they dismantle ongoing misrepresentation of black women as objects, supplanting those with images, voices, and forms that express black female interiority. They align the counternarrative nature of herstory with black female subjectivity and embed those herstories in poetic forms. Thus, they connect the politics of black women‘s creative and corporeal lives. Sanchez and Clifton also demonstrate a tradition of cultural praxis by women poets linked to the Black Arts Movement (BAM); Alexander, Finney, and Smith prove that its precedent of self- determination continues to inform socially-conscious poets. Together, their poetry affirms the larger impact of the BAM as a catalyst to black feminism and insists on a place within interdisciplinary scholarship.