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Sanchez, Sonia

Sonia Sanchez

1934

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.

At a Glance...

Born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Wilson L. and Lena (Jones) Driver; married Albert Sanchez (divorced); married Etheridge Knight (divorced); children (second marriage): Anita, Morani, Mungu. Education : Attended public schools in New York City; Hunter College, BA, 1955; postgraduate work at New York University.

Career: Downtown School, New York, instructor, 1965-1967; San Francisco State College, instructor, 1966-68; University of Pittsburgh, assistant professor, 1969-70; Rutgers University, assistant professor, 1970-71; Manhattan Community College, assistant professor of black literature and creative writing teacher of writing, 1971-73; Amherst College, associate professor,1972-73; Muhammad Speaks, columnist, 1970s(?); Spelman College, poet-in-residence, 1988-89; Temple University, Laura H. Carnell Professor of English, 1977-99.

Memberships : Poetry Society of America, American Studies Association, Academy of American Poets, PEN, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Selected awards : PEN Writing Award and the American Academy of Art and Letters' $1,000 award to continue writing; honorary Ph.D. in fine arts, Wilberforce University, 1973; National Education Association Award, 1977-78; Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, 1982; Tribute to Black Womanhood Award by black students at Smith College; 1985 American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades ; Pew Fellowship in the Arts, 1992-93.

Addresses : Home Philadelphia, PA.

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."

Selected works

Poetry

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.

Plays

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.

Recordings

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.

Sources

Books

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.

Periodicals

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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Sanchez, Sonia 1934–

Sonia Sanchez 1934

Poet, playwright, activist, educator, lecturer

Became a Black Power Poet-Activist

Legitimized Written Black English

Wrote About Liberation of Black Women

Sources

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 Amherst College. Many of her peers who began the Black Power movement in the 1960s later dropped out when they attained material wealth but Sanchez has managed to reach the 1990s without giving up her commitment to social justice. Most recently, her work has focused on AIDS.

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 and 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.

Became a Black Power Poet-Activist

As a child, Sanchez was appalled by the ways in which black 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.

In 1968, Sanchez married poet-activist Etheridge Knight and they had three children: Anita, Morani, and Mungu, but later divorced. She also married Albert Sanchez

At a Glance

Born Wilsonia Driver, September 9, 1934, in Bir mingham, AL; daughter of Wilson L. and Lena I (Jones) Driver; married Etheridge Knight (divorced); children:Anita, Morani, Mungu; married Albert Sanchez (divorced). Education: Attended public schools in NYC; Hunter Coll., B.A., 1955; postgraduate work at NYU.

Career: Poet, playwright, activist, educator, lecturer. Active in revolutionary movements in 1960s; wrote books of poems (Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People) and (Homegirls and Handgrenades and Blue Book for Blue Black Magical Women); Plays including Sister Sonji, Malcolm/Man Dont Live Here No Mo, and Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us?; editor of two anthologies; recorded her poems; wrote and edited childrens books; contributed to journals and anthologies as a poet, essayist, and editor; taught and lectured at institutions across the country; instructor at SF State Coll., 1966-67; instructor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, 1968-69; asst. prof, of black literature and creative writing at Manhattan Comm. Coll., 1971-73; teacher of writing at City Coll.of CUNY,1972; assoc.prof. at Amherst Coll., 1972-73; poet-in-residence at Spelman Coll., 1988-89; prof.of English at Temple Univ., present); serves on the literature panel of the PACouncil on the Arts; sponsor of the Womens Intl.League for Peace and Freedom.

Selected awards: PEN Writing Award and the Amer.Acad. of Art and Letters $1,000 award to continue writing; Honorary Ph.D. in fine arts, Wilberforce Univ., 1973; Natl. Educ. Assn. Award, 1977-78; named Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, 1982; given the Tribute to Black Womanhood Award, black students at Smith Coll.; Patricia Lucretia Mott Award, Womens Way and NEA, 1984; Outstanding Arts Award, PA Coalition of 100 Black Women and the Community Service Award from the Natl. Black Caucus of State Legislatures; won the 1985 Amer. Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades; awarded a Pew Fellowship in the Arts, 1992-93; an honorary Ph.D. from Baruch College, 1993, and a PEN fellowship in the arts, 1993-94.

Member: Poetry Society of Amer., American Studies Assn., Academy of Amer.Poets, PEN, and the NAACP.

Addresses: Office -Professor, English/Womens Studies, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA 19122-2585.

(date unknown), an immigrant from Puerto Rico, whose surname she has used when writing.

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 Americas 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.

Legitimized Written Black English

Sanchezs 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 shes addressing her praises to Gwendolyn Brooks or to the late Malcolm X, to her husband or to a strangers 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, Its a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Love Poems, Ive Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Under a Soprano Sky, Shake Down Memory, Continuous Fire, Wounded in the House of a Friend, and Does your house have lions?

Among Sanchezs plays are Sister Sonji, Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us?, and Malcolm Man/Dont 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/Dont 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.

Wrote About Liberation of Black Women

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?

Sanchezs latest 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 womans detailed account of her attack, a woman trading her seven-year-old daughter for crack (he held the stuff out/to me and I cdnt remember/her birthdate I cdnt remember/my daughters 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 brothers experience and that of her other family members.

New books by Sanchez are scheduled for publication. The first, Dancing, a compilation of love poems, is slated to appear in 1998. Sanchez is also working on her memoirs in prose, to be published in 1999.

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, and a PEN fellowship in the arts in 1993-1994.

Sanchez has taught and lectured at institutions across the country. She began teaching in 1965 at New Yorks 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 Womens Studies at Temple University.

Selected writings

Poetry

Homecoming Poems, Broadside Press, 1969.

We a BaddDDD People, Broadside Press, 1970.

Liberation Poems, Broadside Press, 1971.

Its 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.

Ive 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.

Plays

The Bronx is Next, Tulane Drama Review, 1968.

Sister Sonji, New Plays from Black Theatre, 1970.

Malcolm/Man Dont Live Here No Mo, Black Theatre, 1972.

Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free Us? 1975.

Im Black When Im Singing, Im Blue When I Aint, OIC Theatre, 1982.

Recordings

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.

Sources

Books

African American Almanac, Gale, Seventh Edition, 1997, pp. 698, 723.

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.

Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History, Macmillan Library Reference, Vol. 5, 1996, pp. 2383-2384.

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.

Whos Who among African Americans, Gale, 1998-99, p. 1314.

World Authors, 1985-1990, pp. 766-769.

Periodicals

American Visions, August-September, 1996, p. 36.

Bay State Banner, October 23, 1997, pp. 22, 24.

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.

Alison Carb Sussman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
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"Sanchez, Sonia 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 27 Jun. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Sanchez, Sonia 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 27, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sanchez-sonia-1934

"Sanchez, Sonia 1934–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved June 27, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/sanchez-sonia-1934

Sanchez, Sonia

Sonia Sanchez

American poet Sonia Sanchez (born 1934) helped define the mid-twentieth century Black Arts Movement, using the language of the streets to write about the frustrations of Northern urban blacks. As an educator, she pioneered a black studies program at San Francisco State College (later became University).

Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama to Wilson L. and Lena (Jones) Driver. When Sanchez was one year old her mother died trying to deliver twins; the twins perished as well. Sanchez and her sister Pat were raised by their paternal grandmother and relatives until Sanchez was six.

Shaped By Birmingham

[sw-3]Birmingham was a large southern industrial city in the later 1930s and ran under the rules of segregation. When she was a young child, Sanchez experienced an eye-opening incidence of discrimination involving her aunt Pauline. She was riding the bus with her aunt who was on her way to work. At each stop the bus became more crowded with white people who wanted to ride it, the bus driver eventually stopped the bus and told the blacks to get off. Her aunt refused. When the bus driver threatened to throw her off, she spat on him. Her aunt was arrested and taken downtown. The family decided she would have to leave town that evening in order for the rest of them to be able to stay and not be harassed.

Sanchez suffered a huge loss at age six when her grandmother died. It also proved to be a significant turning point in her life. "I began writing when I was a little girl," Sanchez explained to Susan Kelly of the African American Review, "and I began stuttering and being tongue-tied. The loss of Mama, my grandmother, made me begin that whole process of writing things down." In 1943, Sanchez and her sister moved to Harlem to live with their father and his third wife. Sanchez began writing poems. "I think writers are born, like mathematicians and scientists," she told David Reich of UU World (the magazine of the Unitarian Universalist Association). "What stuttering made me do is write earlier." Sanchez frequented the library and credited one librarian as a significant influence. When Sanchez was 11 or 12 the librarian "gave me an anthology of what at that time was called Negro poetry.… I'll never forget this black woman," she told Reich.

Participated in Black Arts Movement

In 1955, Sanchez graduated from Hunter College with a B.A. in political science. She did postgraduate work at New York University in 1958, studying poetry with Louise Bogan. Along with other poets from what became known as the Black Arts Movement, Sanchez formed a writer's workshop in Greenwich Village. Other members included Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) and Askia Muhammad Touré. She performed her first poetry reading in a local bar with this group of poets, because they wanted to reach people that didn't normally hear poetry. Baraka recalled an early impression of Sanchez in his autobiography (as quoted in The Columbia History of American Poetry), "[she was] a wide-eyed young woman, quiet and self-deprecating, was herself coming out of a bad marriage and she came to our programs announcing very quietly and timidly that she was a poet." Married and divorced from Puerto Rican immigrant Albert Sanchez, she kept his last name when writing. It was during this workshop that she published her first poem.

By the early 1960s she had joined with Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight, to form the "Broadside Quartet," a group of militant poets. Sanchez published her poetry through the Broadside Press, a newly established black press. "We thought it would be very important to begin our own institution and support our own institution," she told Kelly. "So that's what we did. Many of us turned our royalties back in to that company so they could then continue to publish and survive, and also publish younger writers." Later, she married and divorced Knight. They had three children together—Anita, Morani Neusi, and Mungu Neusi.

The writings of the Black Arts Movement were directly related to the changing environment in which black Americans were living. The civil rights movement was unfolding and Sanchez's personal beliefs were taking shape. She was an integrationist in the early 1960s and supported the philosophy of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), but later she embraced the views of Malcolm X and took a separatist point of view, focusing more on her black heritage. "Malcolm articulated all that we thought … he gave us his voice," Sanchez told Reich. "That's why many of our poems became so angry at that time-because we picked up on his voice. We said in our poetry what he was saying from stages." Sanchez's poetry created a language of its own. Interestingly, because her father was a schoolteacher, Sanchez grew up speaking standard English rather than a Southern or black dialect, but she captured the voices around her. "Her poetry rejected the language of academia and took on the language of the streets," wrote Beth Schneider in African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, "using lowercase letters, abbreviations, phonetic spellings, and hyphens."

Developed Early Black Studies Program

In 1965, Sanchez began her career as an educator in San Francisco, sharing her words of revolution which expressed her anger about racial and economic oppression. While at San Francisco State College (now University) she played an integral role in developing some of the first black studies courses in the nation, including a class in black English. She went on to teach at the University of Pittsburgh and became an assistant professor at Rutgers University from 1970-1971. Around this time, Sanchez separated from the "Broadside Quartet" and became a poet on her own. She began focusing more on black women in her writing, while her career in academia continued at Manhattan Community College and City College of the City University of New York, and as an associate professor of English at Amherst College in 1972.

It was always clear to Sanchez that her politics had an impact on her career. While at San Francisco State College the FBI pressured her landlord to put her out because she was a radical. After being arrested during a strike at Manhattan Community College in New York City, she felt she was kept from getting other teaching jobs in New York. Yet Sanchez enjoyed a long and distinguished career in academia. She later taught at the University of Pennsylvania and began teaching at Temple University in 1977. By 2003, she had lectured at over 500 universities and colleges in the United States.

Writing Took Off

Sanchez published her first book of poetry, Homecoming, in 1969. William Cook wrote in The Columbia History of American Poetry, "her first book of poems reflects thematically and stylistically the Black Arts aesthetic and its focus on the theme of cultural and consciousness development." Cook continued, "Sanchez knows the power of humor and of tenderness, qualities not often associated with Black Arts poetry." She followed with We a BaddDDD People in 1970, a book that experimented with the use of the black dialect as a poetic medium. Although Sanchez readily acknowledges there was an earlier tradition of using black English by poets such as Sterling Brown who wrote about poor Southern black men and women, she also realized she had broken new ground. "I took the whole idea of using black English and dealing with it in an urban setting," she explained to Kelly, "incorporating the hipness that was in that black urban setting."

Sanchez was also writing plays, such as The Bronx Is Next, produced in New York in 1970. Sanchez told Kelly, "[The play's] point was to talk about how destructive Harlem was. Harlem had had its moments, but the kind of Harlem I was beginning to see … the change was coming through drugs and decimation." The University of Michigan Black Arts Movement Website stated that her plays deal "with characterization of women in [their] work, that make clear the stereotypes that Black women faced in the 1960s and 1970s."

Sanchez's writing was prolific at this time. In the 1970s she published six more books of poetry and had four more plays produced. She also published three books for children, including her first book of poetry for children, It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs. In 1972, she received a $1,000 award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and a PEN Writing Award. In 1977-78, she received the National Education Association Award. The monetary gift that accompanied it allowed her to continue her creative work. She published I've Been a Woman in 1978.

Joined Nation of Islam

Between the years of 1972 and 1976, Sanchez belonged to the Nation of Islam. She has given various reasons for why she left the Nation. In Black Women Writers at Work, Sanchez was quoted as saying: "It was not easy being in the Nation. I was/am a writer. I was also speaking on campuses. In the Nation at that time women were supposed to be in the background. My contribution to the Nation has been that I refused to let them tell me where my place was. I would be reading my poetry some place, and men would get up to leave, and I'd say, 'Look, my words are equally important.' So I got into trouble." She added, "I had to fight a lot of people in and outside of the Nation due to so-called sexism. I spoke up. I think it was important that there were women there to do that." However in her interview with Kelly in 2000, she stated: "I had gone into the Nation because I was raising my children by myself, and the public school situation was really pathetic. The Nation was one of the places to receive a good education at the time.… But I was not greeted well in the Nation, because they said I was … a revolutionary Pan Africanist and socialist. That was told to me point-blank. So I understood, truly, that my days in the Nation were numbered." Sanchez denied to Kelly that she had left the Nation because of feminist issues.

Became Highly-Regarded Poet

Homegirls and Handgrenades won an American Book Award in 1985. Sanchez followed with Under a Soprano Sky (1987), then Wounded in the House of a Friend (1995). Throughout her writing career, Sanchez tackled the most difficult of subjects, including violence, bigotry, drug abuse, gender issues, and poverty. Her 1997 book Does Your House Have Lions? was about her stepbrother who had died of AIDS. It was nominated for both the NAACP Image and the National Book Critics Circle Award. She followed with Like the Singing Coming off the Drums: Love Poems (1998). The subject matter of Sanchez's writings was always real life and never shied away from the political. The form of her writing drew equal attention. One notable experiment was her combination of black English and the haiku, as displayed in Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems (1999). Of the last book, which offered a selection drawn from over 30 years of Sanchez's poetry, Library Journal's Ann K. van Buren wrote that it "leaves one in awe of the stretches of language Sanchez has helped to legitimize." Publisher's Weekly wrote: "This collection should draw wide attention to the consistency of Sanchez's achievement, and to the success of her formal adaptations."

Made Additional Inroads

In addition to her writing career, Sanchez made occasional recordings of her work as well, including her early books of poetry Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People. Later came creations such as her 1971 recording Sonia Sanchez and Robert Bly, her 1982 recording IDKT: Captivating Facts about the Heritage of Black Americans, and Sacred Ground, with Sweet Honey and the Rock (1995). She was sought out for her poetry readings, which were impassioned and full of spontaneity. She traveled extensively to such far reaches as Cuba, Africa, the People's Republic of China, Australia, and Norway to read her work.

A contributing editor to Black Scholar and The Journal of African Studies, Sanchez has also edited two anthologies: We be Word Sorcerers, 25 Stories by Black Americans and 360 degrees of Blackness Coming at You.

Sanchez retired in 1999 from Temple University after they awarded her the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching. She began teaching at Temple in 1977 and was their first Presidential Fellow and later became the Laura Carnell professor of English and women's studies. In May 2004 she was awarded an honorary degree from Haverford College.

Sanchez continued to make her home in Philadelphia, writing and taking speaking engagements. She remained committed to social change. "All poets, all writers are political," Sanchez told Reich. "They either maintain the status quo, or they say, 'Something's wrong, let's change it for the better.' That's what my life has really been about." As for her inspiration, she told Kelly: "It is that love of language that has propelled me, that love of language that came from listening to my grandmother speak black English."

Books

African American Women: A Biographical Dictionary, edited by Dorothy C. Salem, Garland Publishing, 1993.

Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1983.

The Columbia History of American Poetry, edited by Jay Parini, Columbia University Press, 1993.

"Sonia Sanchez," Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 17, Gale Research, 1998.

"Sonia Sanchez," Contemporary Poets, 7th ed., St. James Press, 2001.

"Sonia Sanchez," Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols., Gale Group, 2002.

Periodicals

African American Review, Winter 2000.

Library Journal, February 1, 1999.

PR Newswire, May 11, 2004.

Publishers Weekly, February 27, 1995; December 21, 1998.

UU World, May/June 1999.

Online

"Lindback Award Winner Sonia Sanchez," Temple University website,http://www.temple.edu (January 2, 2004).

"Sonia Sanchez," Black Arts Movement class at University of Michigan,http://www.umich.edu (December 16, 2003).

"Sonia Sanchez," Howard University website,http://www.founders.howard.edu/reference/sonia_sanchez.htm (December 16,2003).

"Sonia Sanchez," The Academy of American Poets website,http://www.poets.org (December 16, 2003).

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