Sonia Sanchez Biography
Poet, playwright, activist, educator, lecturer
In her poetry, Sonia Sanchez has urged black unity and action against white oppression in addition to writing about violence in the black community, the relationships between black men and women, familial ties, and social problems. She is the foremost poet to use urban black English in written form. She also advocated the inclusion of black studies programs in institutions of higher learning and was the first professor to offer a seminar on literature by black American women while at the University of Pittsburgh. Many of her peers who began the Black Power movement in the 1960s later dropped out when they attained material wealth, but Sanchez continues her commitment to social justice. Now retired from teaching, Sanchez's artistic work remains a vital source of inspiration for generations of Americans.
Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934, to Wilson L. and Lena Driver. Her mother passed away when she was a baby, and she and her sister, Pat, resided with their paternal grandmother until her death, and then various relatives for several years before their father took them to live with him in Harlem. Because they lived in a cramped dwelling Sanchez felt constricted and isolated. Out of this feeling of isolation she began to write. In the city Sanchez went to public schools and later Hunter College, where she received her B.A. in political science in 1955. She also did postgraduate work at New York University and studied poetry with Louise Bogan, who encouraged her to make writing her career.
As a child, Sanchez was appalled by the ways in which lack people were treated in the South and in the North, but did not have the verbal means to express it. In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Sanchez described herself as a "very shy child, a very introspective child, one who stuttered." All that changed when she became a vocal poet-activist in the Black Power and arts movement during the 1960s. With Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, and Don L. Lee, she created the "Broadside Quartet" of radical young poets. She became a leading voice in this group.
Although her first marriage (date unknown) to Puerto Rican immigrant Albert Sanchez did not last, Sonia Sanchez would remain her professional name. In 1968, Sanchez married poet-activist Etheridge Knight and they had three children: Anita, Morani, and Mungu, but later divorced.
During the 1950s and 1960s, she was affiliated with the black arts movement and the civil rights movement in New York City, and she believed at first in integration. Later, when she heard Malcolm X say that blacks would never become part of America's mainstream, she based her identity on her racial heritage. Her poetry focused on the black struggle for liberation from racial and economic oppression and used the language of the streets instead of the language of academe. She became one of the first poets to blend ghetto impressions with lower-case letters, slashes, dashes, hyphenated lines, unconventional spelling, abbreviations, and further untried uses of language and structure to reinterpret what a poem is, does, and for whom it is written. She also has written poems in ballad form, letters, and haikus.
Sanchez's initial volume of poems, Homecoming, published in 1969, addressed racial oppression in angry voices taken from street conversations. Haki Madhubuti noted in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation that she respected the power of urban street talk and was responsible more than any other poet for "legitimizing the use of urban Black English in written form."
William Pitt Root wrote about her early poems in Poetry, "Her poems are raps, good ones, aimed like guns at whatever obstacles she detects standing in the way of Black progress .... Her praises are as generous as her criticisms are severe, both coming from loyalties that are fierce, invulnerable, and knowing. Whether she's addressing her praises to Gwendolyn Brooks or to the late Malcolm X, to her husband or to a stranger's child, always they emerge from and feed back into the shared experience of being Black."
By the early 1970s Sanchez had left the "Broadside Quartet" to write and give poetry readings on her own. How her poems sound when read out loud has always been of importance to Sanchez. She has been sought out for her impassioned, bold readings which often create a spontaneous feeling, like that of a jazz solo. The poet has read in Cuba, China, the West Indies, Europe, and on over five hundred campuses in the United States.
Since the 1970s she has published a steady stream of poetry books, mainly for adults but also one for children, as well as plays which she had been writing since the 1960s. Her poetry books include, Homegirls and Handgrenades, which won the American Book Award in 1985; We a BaddDDD People, Liberation Poems, It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Love Poems, I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Under a Soprano Sky, Shake Down Memory, Continuous Fire, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Does Your House Have Lions? and Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems.
Sanchez began writing plays while in San Francisco in the 1960s. Her first, The Bronx Is Next, was about the forces destroying community and individuals in Harlem. Sanchez recalled in African American Review that "Dr. Arthur P. Davis, that grand old man of letters down at Howard University, called it one of the great plays of the 1960s. I forever am grateful to him for putting that play into perspective for me." Among Sanchez's other plays are Sister Sonji, Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us?, and Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No Mo'. Sister Sonji was first produced in conjunction with other plays Off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre in 1972. Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us? was initially staged in Chicago at the Northwestern University Theatre in 1975. Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No Mo' was first produced in Philadelphia at the ASCOM Community Center in 1979.
Sanchez also has contributed to journals and anthologies as a poet, essayist, and editor. She has edited anthologies, including Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin at You, An Anthology of the Sonia Sanchez Writers Workshop at Countee Cullen Library in Harlem; and We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans. Also, she has written and edited stories for young readers, such as the compilation A Sound Investment, and the tale, The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead. In addition, Sanchez has contributed to a book on Egyptian Queens and written for the publications Black Scholar and Journal of African Studies. She also has recorded her poetry.
In her 1973 book of poems, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Sanchez explores being a woman in a society that "does not prepare young black women, or women period, to be women," as she told Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work. She also writes about politics and ethnic pride and uses parts of her life to illustrate a general condition. Although she still advocates revolutionary change she also focuses on individuals battling to survive and find love and joy in their lives. Her work has been called both autobiographical and universal. Critics have observed that while her early books address social oppression, her 1970s plays are about her personal struggles. In Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us? a black woman participating in the movement against white oppression refuses to be mistreated by her husband. As Sanchez said to Claudia Tate, "If you cannot remove yourself from the oppression of a man, how in the hell are you going to remove yourself from the oppression of a country?"
Sanchez's books of verse include Wounded in the House of a Friend and Does Your House Have Lions? The first book, published in 1995, is a blend of poetry and prose in which she pays tribute to Essence magazine and presents memorial pieces for Malcolm X and James Baldwin. According to Publishers Weekly, "Sanchez is at her best...when she places her speaker in the furious center of criminal action: a raped woman's detailed account of her attack, a woman trading her seven-year-old daughter for crack ('he held the stuff out/to me and I cdn't remember/her birthdate I cdn't remember/my daughter's face'). A brilliant narrative is offered in the voice of a Harlem woman struggling with (and eventually hammered to death by) her junkie granddaughter."
In Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) Sanchez concerns herself with AIDS and familial estrangements and reconciliations. In the book she writes of her brother who left the South angry at his absentee father. He hurls himself into the gay world in New York City, "and the days rummaging his eyes/and the nights flickering through a slit/of narrow bars. hips. thighs./and his thoughts labeling him misfit/as he prowled, pranced in the starlit/city," wrote Sanchez. But AIDS pursues him and the family is only brought together again because of his illness and hospitalization. As he dies, he hears the spiritual voices of his ancestors, who also are present. Kay Bourne stated in the Bay State Banner, "Stylistically, the 70-page heartfelt lyrical poem is a wonder. It is a triumph of skill with its consistent rhyming pattern (ababbcc) that propels the reader forward. It is brilliant in its choice of words, which, while never sending the reader scurrying to the dictionary, is touchingly apt in plumbing the depths of her brother's experience and that of her other family members."
The author has won numerous awards for her work and activities, including the PEN Writing Award and the American Academy of Arts and Letters' $1,000 award to continue writing. She was given an honorary Ph.D. in fine arts by Wilberforce University in 1973 and received a National Education Association Award in 1977-78. She was named Honorary Citizen of Atlanta in 1982, and received an NEA award in 1984. More recent awards include a Pew Fellowship in the Arts in 1992-93, an honorary Ph.D. from Baruch College in 1993, a PEN fellowship in the arts in 1993-1994, and a Legacy Award from Jomandi Productions in 1995.
Throughout her distinguished teaching career, Sanchez taught and lectured at institutions across the country. As a teacher her legacy is as one of the pioneers of African-American Studies. She was the first professor to offer a course on the literature of African-American women (at the University of Pittsburgh in 1969). She began teaching in 1965 at New York's Downtown Community School. After teaching at several universities, including San Francisco State College (now University), the University of Pittsburgh, City College of the City of New York, Amherst, Spelman College, and the University of Pennsylvania, she became a professor of English and Women's Studies at Temple University where she remained until her retirement in 1999.
Though retired from teaching, Sanchez did not quit writing. She kept to her discipline that she started as a youngster. She attributes her desire to keep writing to her "love of language," as she told African American Review. "It is that love of language that has propelled me, that love of language that came from listening to my grandmother speak black English. I would repeat what she said and fall out of the bed and fall down on the floor and laugh, and she knew that I was enjoying her language, because she knew that I didn't speak black English. But I did speak hers, you know. It is that love of language that, when you have written a poem that you know works, then you stand up and you dance around, or you open your door and go out on the porch and let out a loud laugh, you know."
With the 2004 publication of the spoken-word album, Full Moon of Sonia, Sanchez is continuing her legacy as the poet who brought black English to the world. As put by Black Issues Book Review: "It is refreshing to see a legend, a respected artist, come forward and show all of us how to do it right. Full Moon of Sonia does more than give us good poetry set to music; it galavants through an amazing formal and stylistic range that reminds us all how Sonia Sanchez finally got to this place."
Homecoming Poems, Broadside Press, 1969.
We a BaddDDD People, Broadside Press, 1970.
Liberation Poems, Broadside Press, 1971.
It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, (Juvenile) Broadside Press, 1971.
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Broadside Press, 1973.
Love Poems, Third Press, 1973.
I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Black Scholar Press, 1981.
Homegirls and Handgrenades: Poems, Third World, 1985.
Under a Soprano Sky: Poems, Africa World Press, 1987.
Shake Down Memory and Continuous Fire, Africa World Press, 1991.
Wounded in the House of a Friend, Beacon Press, 1995.
Does Your House Have Lions?, Beacon Press, 1997.
Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press, 1999.
The Bronx is Next, Tulane Drama Review, 1968.
Sister Sonji, New Plays from Black Theatre, 1970.
Malcolm/Man Don't Live Here No Mo', Black Theatre, 1972.
Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us? 1975.
I'm Black When I'm Singing, I'm Blue When I Ain't, OIC Theatre, 1982.
Black Cats Back and Uneasy Landings, 1995.
Sonia Sanchez, Pacifica Tape Library, 1968.
Homecoming, Broadside, 1969.
We a BaddDDD People, Broadside, 1979.
A Sun Lady for All Seasons Reads Her Poetry, Folkways, 1971.
Sonia Sanchez and Robert Bly, Blackbox, 1971.
Sonia Sanchez: Selected Poems, Watershed Intermedia, 1975.
IDKT: Capturing Facts about the Heritage of Black Americans, Ujima, 1982.
Full Moon of Sonia, 2004.
Black Women Writers at Work, ed. by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1983, pp. 132-148.
Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, 1984.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, Vol. 49, New Revision Series, pp. 349-355; Vols. 33-36, First Revision, 1973, p. 691.
Contemporary Black American Poets and Dramatists, ed. by Harold Bloom, Chelsea House Publishers, 1995, pp. 171-172.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale, Vol. 5, 1976, pp. 382-383.
Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African Poetic Tradition, Third World Press, 1996.
Notable Black American Women, Gale, 1992, pp. 976-977.
Sanchez, Sonia, Does Your House Have Lions? Beacon Press, 1997 p. 9.
Sanchez, Sonia, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Beacon Press, 1995.
African American Review, Winter 2000.
American Visions, August-September, 1996, p. 36.
Bay State Banner, October 23, 1997, pp. 22, 24.
Black Issues Book Review, March-April 2005.
Booklist, February 15, 1997.
Chicago Sun-Times, April 18, 1997.
Nation, April 17, 1972, p. 508.
New Yorker, April 8, 1972, pp. 97-99.
Poetry, 1973, pp. 45-46.
Publishers Weekly, July 15, 1974, p. 77; February 27, 1995, p. 97; February 24, 1997.
Time, May 1, 1972, p. 53.
Vibe, August 1997, p. 136.
World, May/June 1999.
—Alison Carb Sussman and Sara Pendergast
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