Sanchez, Sonia 1934–
Sanchez, Sonia 1934–
PERSONAL: Original name Wilsonia Benita Driver; born September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, AL; daughter of Wilson L. (a schoolteacher) and Lena (Jones) Driver; married Albert Sanchez (divorced); children: Anita, Morani Neusi, Mungu Neusi. Education: Hunter College (now Hunter College of the City University of New York), B.A., 1955; New York University, post graduate study; Wilberforce University, Ph.D., 1972. Politics: "Peace, freedom, and justice."
ADDRESSES: Home—407 W. Chelten Ave., Philadelphia, PA 19144. Office—Department of English/Women's Studies, Temple University, 10th Floor Anderson Hall, 1114 W. Berks St., Philadelphia, PA 19122.
CAREER: Staff member, Downtown Community School, San Francisco, CA, 1965–67, and Mission Rebels in Action, 1968–69; San Francisco State College (now University), San Francisco, CA, instructor, 1966–68; University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, PA, assistant professor, 1969–70; Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, assistant professor, 1970–71; Manhattan Community College of the City University of New York, New York, NY, assistant professor of literature and creative writing, 1971–73; City College of the City University of New York, teacher of creative writing, 1972; Amherst College, Amherst, MA, associate professor, 1972–75; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, 1976–77; Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, associate professor, 1977, professor, 1979–, faculty fellow in provost's office, 1986–87, presidential fellow, 1987–88. Distinguished Minority Fellow, University of Delaware; Distinguished Poet-in-Residence, Spelman College; and Zale Writer-in-Residence at Sophie New-comb College, Tulane University.
MEMBER: Literature Panel of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.
AWARDS, HONORS: PEN writing award, 1969; National Institute of Arts and Letters grant, 1970; National Endowment for the Arts award, 1978–79; Honorary Citizen of Atlanta, 1982; Tribute to Black Women Award, Black Students of Smith College, 1982; Lucretia Mott Award, 1984; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1985, for homegirls and handgrenades; Pennsylvania Governor's Award in the humanities, 1989, for bringing great distinction to herself and her discipline through remarkable accomplishment; Welcome Award, Museum of Afro-American History (Boston, MA), 1990; Oni Award, International Black Women's Congress, 1992; Women Pioneers Hall of Fame Citation, Young Women's Christian Association, 1992; Roots Award, Pan-African Studies Community Program, 1993; PEN fellowship in the arts, 1993–94; Legacy Award, Jomandi Productions, 1995; American Book Award, 1995; honorary Doctor of Human Letters from Temple University, 1998; Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching, 1999; Robert Frost medal in poetry, 2001; honorary degree from Haverford College, 2004.
Homecoming (poetry), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1969.
We a BaddDDD People (poetry), with foreword by Dudley Randall, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.
(Editor) Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin' at You (poetry), 5X Publishing Co., 1971.
Ima Talken Bout the Nation of Islam, TruthDel, 1972.
Love Poems, Third Press (New York, NY), 1973.
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (poetry), Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
(Editor and contributor) We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans, Bantam (New York, NY), 1973.
I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Black Scholar Press (Sausalito, CA), 1978.
Crisis in Culture—Two Speeches by Sonia Sanchez, Black Liberation Press, 1983.
homegirls and handgrenades (poetry), Thunder's Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1984.
(Contributor) Mari Evans, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, introduced by Stephen Henderson, Doubleday-Anchor (Garden City, NY), 1984.
Under a Soprano Sky, Africa World (Trenton, NJ), 1987.
(Compiler and author of introduction) Allison Funk, Living at the Epicenter: The 1995 Morse Poetry Prize, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
Wounded in the House of a Friend (poems), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
Does Your House Have Lions? (poems), Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1997.
Like the Singing Coming off the Drums: Love Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1998.
Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1999.
It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead, illustrated by Taiwo DuVall, Third Press (New York, NY), 1973.
A Sound Investment and Other Stories, Third World Press, 1979.
The Bronx Is Next, first produced in New York, NY, at Theatre Black, October 3, 1970 (included in Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present, edited by Arthur Davis and Saunders Redding, Houghton [Boston, MA], 1971).
Sister Son/ji, first produced with Cop and Blow and Players Inn by Neil Harris and Gettin' It Together by Richard Wesley as Black Visions, Off-Broadway at New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre, 1972 (included in New Plays From the Black Theatre, edited by Ed Bullins, Bantam [New York, NY], 1969).
Uh Huh; But How Do It Free Us?, first produced in Chicago, IL, at Northwestern University Theater, 1975 (included in The New Lafayette Theatre Presents: Plays with Aesthetic Comments by Six Black Playwrights, Ed Bullins, J.E. Gaines, Clay Gross, Oyamo, Sonia Sanchez, Richard Wesley, edited by Bullins, Anchor Press [Garden City, NY], 1974).
Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No More, first produced in Philadelphia, PA, at ASCOM Community Center, 1979.
I'm Black When I'm Singing, I'm Blue When I Ain't, first produced in Atlanta, GA, at OIC Theatre, April 23, 1982.
Also author of Dirty Hearts, 1972.
CONTRIBUTOR TO ANTHOLOGIES
Robert Giammanco, editor, Poetro Negro (title means "Black Power"), Giu, Laterza & Figli, 1968.
Le Roi Jones and Ray Neal, editors, Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, Morrow (New York, NY), 1968.
Walter Lowenfels, editor, The Writing on the Wall: One Hundred Eight American Poems of Protest, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1969.
Arnold Adoff, editor, Black Out Loud: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Black Americans, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1970.
Walter Lowenfels, editor, In a Time of Revolution: Poems from Our Third World, Random House (New York, NY), 1970.
June M. Jordan, editor, Soulscript, Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1970.
Gwendolyn Brooks, editor, A Broadside Treasury, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
Dudley Randall, editor, Black Poets, Bantam (New York, NY), 1971.
Orde Coombs, editor, We Speak as Liberators: Young Black Poets, Dodd (New York, NY), 1971.
Bernard W. Bell, editor, Modern and Contemporary Afro-American Poetry, Allyn & Bacon (Boston, MA), 1972.
Arnold Adoff, editor, The Poetry of Black America: An Anthology of the 20th Century, Harper (New York, NY), 1973.
JoAn and William M. Chace, Making It New, Canfield Press (San Francisco, CA), 1973.
Donald B. Gibson, editor, Modern Black Poets, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1973.
Stephen Henderson, editor, Understanding the New Black Poetry: Black Speech and Black Music as Poetic References, Morrow (New York, NY), 1973.
J. Paul Hunter, editor, Norton Introduction to Literature: Poetry, Norton (New York, NY), 1973.
James Schevill, editor, Breakout: In Search of New Theatrical Environments, Swallow Press, 1973.
Lucille Iverson and Kathryn Ruby, editors, We Become New: Poems by Contemporary Women, Bantam (New York, NY), 1975.
Quincy Troupe and Rainer Schulte, editors, Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings, Random House (New York, NY), 1975.
Henry B. Chapin, editor, Sports in Literature, McKay (New York, NY), 1976.
Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, editors, Understanding Poetry, Holt (New York, NY), 1976.
Ann Reit, editor, Alone amid All the Noise, Four Winds/Scholastic (New York, NY), 1976.
Erlene Stetson, editor, Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746–1980, Indiana University Press (Bloomington, IN), 1981.
Amiri Baraka and Amina Baraka, editors, Confirmation: An Anthology of African-American Women, Morrow (New York, NY), 1983.
Burney Hollis, editor, Swords upon This Hill, Morgan State University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1984.
Jerome Rothenberg, editor, Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1985.
Marge Piercy, editor, Early Ripening: American Women's Poetry Now, Pandora (New York, NY), 1987.
Poems also included in Night Comes Softly, Black Arts, To Gwen with Love, New Black Voices, Blackspirits, The New Black Poetry, A Rock against the Wind, America: A Prophecy, Nommo, Black Culture, and Natural Process.
Author of column for American Poetry Review, 1977–78, and for Philadelphia Daily News, 1982–83. Contributor of poems to Minnesota Review, Black World, and other periodicals. Contributor of plays to Scripts, Black Theatre, Drama Review, and other theater journals. Contributor of articles to several journals, including Journal of African Civilizations.
Co-author with Bruce Graham and Michael Holliger of "Philiadephia Diary: AnInteractive Script," a companion to a PBS film that documents 24 hours in three different Philadelphia neighborhoods.
SIDELIGHTS: In addition to being an important activist, poet, playwright, professor, and a leader of the black studies movement, Sonia Sanchez has also written books for children. She introduced young people to the poetry of black English in her 1971 work It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, created a moral fable for younger children in 1973's The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead, and produced a collection of short tales for children in 1979's A Sound Investment and Other Stories. As William Pitt Root noted in Poetry magazine: "One concern [Sanchez] always comes back to is the real education of Black children."
Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died when she was very young, and she was raised by her grandmother until she too died when the author was six years old. Her father was a schoolteacher, and as a result she and her siblings spoke standard English instead of a southern or black dialect. It was not until she and her brother rejoined her father in Harlem, New York, when she was nine years old, that Sanchez learned the speech of the streets that would become so important to her poetry. Sanchez also stuttered as a child; this led her to writing, which she has done since she was very young.
Sanchez also learned about racism at a very young age. She recalled in an interview with Claudia Tate for Tate's Black Women Writers at Work: "I also remember an aunt who spat in a bus driver's face—that was the subject of one of my first poems—because he wanted her to get off as the bus was filling up with white people…. Well, my aunt would not get off the bus, so she spat, and was arrested. That was the first visual instance I can remember of encountering racism." She did not leave racism behind when her family moved north, however. She told Tate that "coming north to Harlem for 'freedom' when I was nine presented me with a whole new racial landscape." Sanchez continued, "Here was the realization of the cornerstore, where I watched white men pinch black women on their behinds. And I made a vow that nobody would ever do that to me unless I wanted him to. I continued to live in the neighborhood, went to that store as a nine-year-old child, and continued to go there as a student at Hunter College. When I was sixteen to eighteen they attempted to pinch my behind. I turned around and said, 'Oh no you don't.' They knew I was serious." She has been fighting racism and sexism ever since.
After graduating from Hunter College in 1955, Sanchez did postgraduate study at New York University. During the early 1960s she was an integrationist, supporting the ideas of the Congress of Racial Equality. But after listening to the ideas of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who believed blacks would never be truly accepted by whites in the United States, she focused more on her black heritage as something separate from white Americans. She began teaching in the San Francisco area in 1965, first on the staff of the Downtown Community School and later at San Francisco State College (now University). There she was a pioneer in developing black studies courses, including a class in black English.
In 1969, Sanchez published her first book of poetry for adults, Homecoming. She followed that up with 1970's We a BaddDDD People, which especially focused on black dialect as a poetic medium. At about the same time her first plays, Sister Son/ji and The Bronx Is Next, were being produced or published. In 1971, she published her first work for children, It's A New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs. Shortly afterwards, she joined the Nation of Islam, also referred to as the Black Muslims. Sanchez enjoyed the spirituality and discipline of the religion, but she always had problems with its repression of women. She explained to Tate: "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." Sanchez stated: "One dude said to me once that the solution for Sonia Sanchez was for her to have some babies…. I already had two children…. I fought against the stereotype of me as a black woman in the movement relegated to three steps behind. It especially was important for the women in the Nation to see that. I told them that in order to pull this 'mother' out from what it's under we gonna need men, women, children, but most important, we need minds." She added: "I had to fight. 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. I left the Nation during the 1975–76 academic year."
While she was a Black Muslim, however, Sanchez produced her second children's book, The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead. A moral fable about a pilgrimage to Mecca, the tale began as a story for her own children. In an interview with African American Review contributor Susan Kelly, Sanchez remembered, "my children had asked me to make up a story one night in New York City before we moved to Amherst. They would always say, 'Read, read, read!' So I would read to them. And one night, they said, 'Don't read; make up a story.'" The resulting tale became The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead.
A Sanchez book of interest to a teenaged audience is Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems. Featuring verse from her older publications, as well as four new entries, Shake Loose My Skin offers a sampling of Sanchez's work spanning over thirty years. In her poems, she tackles topics ranging from bigotry to poverty to drug abuse. "This collection should draw wide attention to the consistency of Sanchez's achievement," believed a Publishers Weekly contributor. Library Journalcritic Ann K. van Buren found that this book "leaves one in awe of the stretches of language Sanchez has helped to legitimize."
Because of the political nature of most of her writings and her involvement in black power causes, Sanchez feels that her academic career has suffered from persecution by government authorities. She told Tate: "While I helped to organize the black studies program at San Francisco State, the FBI came to my landlord and said put her out. She's one of those radicals." Sanchez continued: "Then I taught at Manhattan Community College in New York City, and I stayed there until my record was picked up. You know how you have your record on file, and you can go down and look at it. Well, I went down to look at it, because we had had a strike there, and I had been arrested with my students. I went to the dean to ask for my record, and he told me that I could not have my record because it was sent downtown." Sanchez said: "That's when I began to realize just how much the government was involved with teachers in the university. I then tried to get another job in New York City—no job. I had been white-balled. The word was out, I was too political…. That's how I ended up at Amherst College, because I couldn't get a job in my home state. That's what they do to you. If they can't control what you write, they make alternatives for you and send you to places where you have no constituency."
After leaving Amherst, Sanchez eventually became a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she has since taught for many years. Temple has recognized Sanchez as a distinguished teacher and awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1998. Sanchez has also edited several books, and contributed poetry and articles on black culture to anthologies and periodicals. Summing up the importance of Sanchez's work, Kalamu ya Salaam concluded in Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Sanchez is one of the few creative artists who have significantly influenced the course of black American literature and culture."
In her interview with Kelly, Sanchez concluded, "It is that love of language that has propelled me, that love of language that came from listening to my grandmother speak black English…. It is that love of language that says, simply, to the ancestors who have done this before you, 'I am keeping the love of life alive, the love of language alive. I am keeping words that are spinning on my tongue and getting them transferred on paper. I'm keeping this great tradition of American poetry alive.'"
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Children's Literature Review, Volume 18, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985, pp. 295-306.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Documentary Series, Volume 8, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
Joyce, Joyce A. Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African poetic tradition, Third World Press (Chicago, IL), 1996.
Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983, pp. 132-148.
African American Review, spring, 2000, Yoshinobu Hakutani, review of Like the Singing Coming off the Drums, p. 180; winter, 2000, Susan Kelly, "Discipline and Craft: An Interview with Sonia Sanchez," p. 679.
American Visions, October, 1999, Denolyn Carroll, review of Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, p. 35.
Black Issues Book Review, July-August, 2004, TaRessa Stovall, "Black Arts to the Tenth Power: Living Legend Sonia Sanchez Is the Literary Headliner in the 10th Season of the 10-day National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta," pp. 24-25.
Booklist, February 15, 1999, Donna Seaman, review of Shake Loose My Skin, p. 1028.
Library Journal, February 1, 1999, Ann K. van Buren, review of Shake Loose My Skin, p. 93.
Poetry, October, 1973, William Pitt Root, pp. 44-48.
Publishers Weekly, December 21, 1998, review of Shake Loose My Skin, p. 63.
African-American Literature Book Club, http://www.authors.aalbc.com/ (August 9, 2004), biography of Sonia Sanchez.
PBS Web sitehttp://www.pbs.org/ (August 9, 2004), biography of Sonia Sanchez.
Rutgers University Web site, http://www.scils.rutgers.edu (August 9, 2004), biography of Sonia Sanchez.
Sonia Sanchez—The Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/ (December 15, 2001).
Temple Univerisity Web site, http://www.temple.edu/ (August 9, 2004), biography of Sonia Sanchez.