Poet, playwright, professor, activist and one of the foremost leaders of the Black Studies movement, Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died when she was very young and Sanchez was raised by her grandmother, until she too died when the author was six years old. Sanchez eventually moved to Harlem with her father, a schoolteacher, in 1943. She earned a BA from Hunter College in 1955 and attended graduate school at New York University, where she studied with the poet Louise Bogan. Sanchez also attended workshops in Greenwich Village, where she met poets such as Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Etheridge Knight, whom she later married. During the early 1960s Sanchez was an integrationist, supporting the ideas of the Congress of Racial Equality. But after listening to the ideas of Malcolm X, her work and ideas took on a separationist slant. She began teaching in 1965, first on the staff of the Downtown Community School in New York and later at San Francisco State College (now University). There she was a pioneer in developing Black Studies courses, including a class in African American women’s literature.
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 African American vernacular 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. Sanchez’s other work for children include The Adventures of Fathead, Smallhead, and Squarehead (1973) and Sound Investment: Short Stories for Young Readers (1980). As William Pitt Root noted in Poetry magazine: “One concern [Sanchez] always comes back to is the real education of Black children.” Sanchez’s work for adults is similarly committed to radical politics as well as visionary imagery. The author of over sixteen books of poetry, Sanchez has also edited several books, and contributed poetry and articles on black culture to anthologies and periodicals. She is one of 20 African American women featured in the interactive exhibit “Freedom Sisters,” at the Cincinnati Museum Center.
An important and influential scholar and teacher, Sanchez taught at Manhattan Community College, Amherst College, and Temple University, where she was the first Presidential Fellow. Her many honors and awards include the PEN Writing Award, the American Book Award for Poetry, the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the National Education Association Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pew Arts Foundation. She has received the Peace and Freedom Award from the Women International League for Peace and Freedom, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, the Langston Hughes Poetry Award, the Robert Frost Medal, the Robert Creeley Award, the Harper Lee Award, and the National Visionary Leadership Award, among many others.
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 an interview with Susan Kelly for African American Review, 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.’”
Staff member, Downtown Community School, New York, NY, 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 Newcomb College, Tulane University.
- Homecoming, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1969.
- We a BaddDDD People, with foreword by Dudley Randall, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1970.
- 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, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1973.
- I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Black Scholar Press (Sausalito, CA), 1978.
- homegirls and handgrenades, Thunder’s Mouth Press (New York, NY), 1984.
- Under a Soprano Sky, Africa World (Trenton, NJ), 1987.
- Continuous fire: A Collection of Poetry, Inkbook, 1994.
- Autumn Blues: New Poems, XX, 1994.
- Wounded in the House of a Friend, Beacon Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
- Does Your House Have Lions?, 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.
- Homegirls and Handgrenades, White Pine Press, 2007.
- Morning Haiku, Beacon Press, 2010.
- It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 1971.
- The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head, and Square Head, 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.
- I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and Other Plays, Duke University Press, 2010.
- (Editor) Three Hundred and Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin’ at You (poetry), 5X Publishing Co., 1971.
- (Editor and contributor) We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans, Bantam (New York, NY), 1973.
- (Compiler and author of introduction) Allison Funk, Living at the Epicenter: The 1995 Morse Poetry Prize, Northeastern University Press (Boston, MA), 1995.
- Crisis in Culture—Two Speeches by Sonia Sanchez, Black Liberation Press, 1983.
- Conversations with Sonia Sanchez, University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
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.
- Dudley Randall and Margaret G. Burroughs, editors, For Malcolm: Poems on the Life and Death of Malcolm X, Broadside Press (Detroit, MI), 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.
- (Contributor) Mari Evans, editor, Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, introduced by Stephen Henderson, Doubleday-Anchor (Garden City, NY), 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.
- Children's Literature Review, Volume 18, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1989.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets since 1955, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985, pp. 295-306.
- Dictionary of Literary Biography, Documentary Series, Volume 8, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sonia Sanchez—The Academy of American Poets, http://www.poets.org/ (December 15, 2001).