Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez
Sonia Sanchez, 2013
Born (1934-09-09) September 9, 1934
Birmingham, Alabama
United States
Occupation poet, educator, columnist, dramatist, essayist
Nationality American
Education Hunter College;
New York University,
Notable awards Robert Frost Medal (2001)

Sonia Sanchez (born Wilsonia Benita Driver; September 9, 1934) is an African-American poet most often associated with the Black Arts Movement. She has authored over a dozen books of poetry, as well as short stories, critical essays, plays, and children's books. She was a recipient of 1993 Pew Fellowships in the Arts. In 2001, Sanchez was the recipient[1] of the Robert Frost Medal for her poetry (one of the highest honors awarded to a nationally recognized poet) and has been influential to other African-American female poets, including Krista Franklin.

Early life

Sanchez was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934. Her mother died when Sanchez was only one year old, so she spent several years being shuttled back and forth among relatives. One of those was her grandmother, who died when Sanchez was six.[2] In 1943, she moved to Harlem to live with her father, her sister, and her stepmother, who was her father's third wife. In 1955, Sanchez received a B.A. in Political Science from Hunter College, where she had taken several creative writing courses and was initiated in the Lambda Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority.[3] Later, she completed postgraduate work at New York University, where she studied poetry with Louise Bogan.

The death of her grandmother proved to be a trying time in her life. Though only six, Sanchez suffered from losing her loved one, developing a terrible stutter that caused her to become introverted. However, her stutter only caused her to read more and more and pay close attention to language and its sounds. When in Harlem, she overcame her stutter and excelled in school, finding her poetic voice which later emerged during her studies at Hunter College. Sanchez focuses on the sound of her poetry, admitting to always reading her poetry aloud, receiving praise for her use of the full range of African and African American vocal resources. She is known for her sonic range and dynamic public readings. She now terms herself an "ordained stutterer".[2]

Although her first marriage to Albert Sanchez did not last, Sonia Sanchez would retain her professional name. She and Albert had one daughter named Anita. She and Etheridge Knight, her second husband, had twin sons named Moran Neuse and Mungu Neuse. Motherhood heavily influenced the motifs of her poetry in the '70s, the bond between mother and child emerging as a key theme.[2] Sanchez and Knight later divorced. She also has three grandchildren.[4][5]



She taught 5th Grade in NYC at the Downtown Community School, until 1967. Sanchez has taught as a professor at eight universities and has lectured at over 500 college campuses across the US, including Howard University. Sanchez was also a leader in the effort to establish the discipline of Black Studies at the university level. In 1966, while teaching at San Francisco State University she introduced Black Studies courses. Sanchez was the first to create and teach a course based on Black Women and literature in the United States and the course she offered on African American literature is generally considered the first of its kind taught at a predominately white university.[6] She viewed the discipline of Black Studies as both a new platform for the study of race and a challenge to the institutional biases of American universities. These efforts are clearly in line with the goals of the Black Arts Movement. Sanchez was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University, where she began working in 1977. There, she held the Laura Carnell chair until her retirement in 1999. She is currently a poet-in-residence at Temple University. She has read her poetry in Africa, the Caribbean, China, Australia, Europe, Nicaragua, Canada, and Cuba.


Sanchez supports the National Black United Front. Sanchez was a very influential part of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement. In the early 1960s, Sanchez became a member of CORE (Congress for Racial Equality), where she met Malcolm X. Though she was originally an integrationist in her thinking, after hearing Malcolm X speak Sanchez became more separatist in her thinking and focused more on her black heritage and identity.[7]

In 1972, Sanchez joined the Nation of Islam, during which time she published A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), but left the organization after three years in 1975 because their views on women's rights conflicted. She continues to advocate for the rights of oppressed women and minority groups.[6] She wrote many plays and books that had to do with the struggles and lives of Black America. Sanchez has edited two anthologies on Black literature, We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans and 360° of Blackness Coming at You. She is also committed to a variety of activist causes, including the Brandywine Peace Community, MADRE, and Plowshares.

Black Arts Movement

The aim of the Black Arts Movement was a renewal of black will, insight, energy, and awareness. Sanchez published poetry and essays in numerous periodicals in the 1960s, including The Liberator, Negro Digest, and Black Dialogue. Her writing established her importance as a political thinker to the "black aesthetic" program.[8] Sanchez gained a reputation as an important voice in the Black Arts movement after publishing the book of poems Home Coming in 1969. This collection and her second in 1970, titled We a BaddDDD People established her place in the Black Arts Movement as a poet who used experimental poetic forms to discuss the development of black nationalism and identity.[9] Along with other prominent writers from the Black Arts Movement, Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight, Sanchez formed the influential "Broadside Quartet". At the time, Broadside Press was a small black publishing venture started by Dudley Randall that became a vehicle for many new voices of the Black Arts era. Her poem "blk/rhetoric" (1969) directly addresses fellow members of the "Broadside Quartet," calling for action and demonstrating her influence in the group.[7]

Style and themes

Sanchez is known for her innovative melding of musical formats—such as the blues—and traditional poetic formats like haiku and tanka. She also tends to use incorrect spelling to celebrate the unique sound of black English, for which she gives credit to poets such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown.[7]

Her first collection of poems, Home Coming (1969), is known for its blues influences in both form and content. The collection describes both the struggle of defining black identity in the United States as well as the many causes for celebration Sanchez sees in black culture.[10] Her second book, We a BaddDDD People (1970), solidifies her contribution to the Black Arts Movement aesthetic by focusing on the everyday lives of black men and women. These poems make use of urban black vernacular, experimental punctuation, spelling, and spacing, and the performative quality of jazz.[10]

Though still emphasizing what she sees as the need for revolutionary cultural change, Sanchez's later works, such as I've Been a Woman (1978), Homegirls and Handgrenades (1984), and Under a Soprano Sky (1987), tend to focus less on separatist themes (like those of Malcolm X), and more on themes of love, community, and empowerment. She continues to explores the haiku, tanka, and sonku forms, as well as blues-influenced rhythms. Later works continue her experiments with forms such as the epic in Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) and the haiku in Morning Haiku (2010).[9]

In addition to her poetry, Sanchez's contributions to the Black Arts Movement included drama and prose. She began writing plays while in San Francisco in the 1960s. Several of her plays challenge the masculinist spirit of the movement, focusing on strong female protagonists. Sanchez has been recognized as a pioneering champion of black feminism.[11]

Contemporary works

Her more recent contemporary endeavors include a spoken-word interlude on "Hope is an Open Window", a song co-written by Diana Ross from her 1998 album Every Day is a New Day. The song is featured as the sound bed for a tribute video to 9/11 that can be viewed on YouTube. Sanchez is currently among 20 African-American women to be a part of "Freedom Sisters", a mobile exhibition initiated by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Smithsonian Institution.[12]

Sanchez became Philadelphia's first Poet Laureate, after being appointed by Mayor Michael Nutter. She served in that position from 2012 to 2014.[13]

In 2013 Sanchez headlined the 17th annual Poetry Ink at which she read her poem "Under a Soprano Sky".[14]

BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez, a documentary film by Barbara Attie, Janet Goldwater and Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, spotlighting Sanchez's work, career, influence and life story, was released in 2015[15][16] when it showed at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival[17] The film premiered in the UK on June 22, 2016, at Rivington Place.[18]


In 1969, Sanchez was awarded the P.E.N. Writing Award. She was awarded the National Education Association Award 1977–1988. She won the National Academy and Arts Award and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship Award in 1978–79. In 1985, she received the American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades. She has also been awarded the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Lucretia Mott Award, the Governor's Award for Excellence in the Humanities, and the Peace and Freedom Award from the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as the 1999 Langston Hughes Poetry Award, the 2004 Harper Lee Award, and the 2006 National Visionary Leadership Award.[12] In 2009, she received the Robert Creeley Award, from the Robert Creeley Foundation.[19]

In 2017 Sanchez was honored at the 16th Annual Dr. Betty Shabazz Awards in a ceremony held on June 29 at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Harlem.[20]

In 2018, she won the Wallace Stephens Award.[21][22]



  • Homecoming, Broadside Press, 1969
  • We a Baddddd People (1970), Broadside Press, 1973
  • Love Poems, Third Press, 1973
  • A Blues Book for a Blue Black Magic Woman, Broadside Press, 1974
  • Autumn Blues
  • Continuous Fire: A Collection of Poetry
  • Shake Down Memory: A Collection of Political Essays and Speeches
  • It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs (1971)
  • Homegirls and Handgrenades (1985) (reprint White Pine Press, 2007, ISBN 978-1-893996-80-9)
  • Under a Soprano Sky, Africa World Press, 1987, ISBN 978-0-86543-052-5
  • I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Third World Press, 1985, ISBN 978-0-88378-112-8
  • Wounded in the House of a Friend, Beacon Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0-8070-6826-7
  • Does Your House have Lions, Beacon Press, 1997, ISBN 978-0-8070-6830-4
  • Like the Singing Coming Off of Drums, Beacon Press, 1998
  • Shake Loose My Skin. Beacon Press. 2000. ISBN 978-0-8070-6853-3. 
  • Ash (2001)
  • Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (2001)
  • Morning Haiku. Beacon Press. 2010. ISBN 978-0-8070-6910-3. 


Short-story collections

  • A Sound Investment and Other Stories

Children's books

  • It's a New Day (1971)
  • A Sound Investment
  • The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head, and Square Head, The Third Press, 1973, ISBN 978-0-89388-094-1




See also


  1. "Sonia Sanchez, Poet and Sister", African American Registry, September 9, 1934.
  2. 1 2 3 Gates, Jr., Henry Louis, and Valerie A. Smith, eds. (2014). The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: Norton. pp. 708–10. ISBN 978-0-393-92370-4.
  4. Emmanuel Sampath Nelson, ed. (2004). African American Dramatists: an A-to-Z guide. Greenwood Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-313-32233-4.
  5. Bloch, Avital H., and Lauri Umansky, eds. (2005). Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960's. NYU Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-9910-9.
  6. 1 2 Irons, Stasia Mehschel. "Sanchez, Sonia (1934- )". The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Retrieved November 7, 2016.
  7. 1 2 3 "Library System - Howard University". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  8. Gates, Henry Louis, and Valerie Smith. The Norton Anthology of African American literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
  9. 1 2 "Sonia Sanchez - American Literature - Oxford Bibliographies - obo". Retrieved 2016-11-07.
  10. 1 2 "We a BaddDDD People". Oxford Reference. doi:10.1093/oi/authority.20110803121509417.
  11. Gates, Henry Louis, and Valerie Smith. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. W.W. Norton & Company, 2014.
  12. 1 2 "Praise and Awards". Sonia Sanchez. Retrieved October 23, 2015.
  13. Jazmyn Burton, "Philadelphia names Sonia Sanchez first poet laureate", Temple News Center, January 28, 2012. Retrieved on November 21, 2014.
  14. Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, "Philadelphia's Poetry Ink brings together diverse voices",, April 9, 2013.
  15. "BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez", Attie & Goldwater Productions.
  16. Hillel Italie (AP), "Poet-activist Sonia Sanchez subject of new documentary", Yahoo! TV, March 7, 2016.
  17. Tambay A. Obenson, "Docs on Sonia Sanchez, Senegal’s 2011 Presidential Elections, Mavis Staples, Althea Gibson Are Full Frame 2015 Selections", Indywire, March 11, 2015.
  18. "Black Atlantic Cinema Club — BADDDDD: SONIA SANCHEZ, Autograph ABP, June 2016.
  19. "Robert Creeley Foundation » Award – Robert Creeley Award". Retrieved 2018-03-23.
  20. Lisa Pacino, "The 16th Annual Dr. Betty Shabazz Awards Honoring Poet Sonia Sanchez 2017", Under The Duvet Productions.
  21. "Poet Sonia Sanchez Wins $100,000 Prize". Retrieved 2018-08-29.
  22. aapone (1979-12-31). "Wallace Stevens Award". Wallace Stevens Award. Retrieved 2018-08-29.
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