We a BaddDDD People, 1970
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, 1973
Love Poems, 1973
I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, 1978
Homegirls and Handgrenades, 1984
Under a Soprano Sky, 1987
Wounded in the House of a Friend, 1995
Does Your House Have Lions?, 1997
Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums: Love Poems, 1998
Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, 1999
The Bronx Is Next, pb. 1968
Sister Son/ji, pb. 1969
Uh, Huh; But How Do It Free Us?, pb. 1974
Malcolm Man/Don’t Live Here No Mo’, pr. 1979
I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t, pr. 1982
Black Cats Back and Uneasy Landings, pr. 1995
Crisis in Culture: Two Speeches by Sonia Sanchez, 1983
Children’s/Young Adult Literature:
It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, 1971
The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head, and Square Head, 1973
A Sound Investment, and Other Stories, 1979
We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans, 1973
Sonia Sanchez (SAHN-chehz) is one of the most influential and enduring writers to come to prominence during the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s; her activism, editing, teaching, and performances have established her as one of the sustaining voices in what many critics regard as a second renaissance in black American letters and culture. She was born Wilsonia Benita Driver to Wilson and Lena (Jones) Driver; she later acquired her surname from a marriage to Puerto Rican immigrant Albert Sanchez and continued to use it after their divorce. Sonia experienced a tumultuous childhood. Her mother and the twins she was carrying died in childbirth when Sonia was a year old, after which she and her sister Pat spent their early years with various members of the extended family. Her beloved grandmother died when Sonia was six, prompting a stutter that would later encourage Sanchez to turn to writing. When she was nine years old, her father moved the family to Harlem, New York, where she came of age both enriched and provoked by the gaps between formal education and the verbal agility of black language in the street community.
In 1955 Sanchez received her undergraduate degree in political science from Hunter College in New York City, and in the next year she studied poetry with Louise Bogan at New York University. Following two more years of postgraduate study, Sanchez pursued an integrationist social ideal by working for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a principal force in the Civil Rights movement. She contributed regularly to the leading black journals of the time, among them the Liberator, Journal of Black Poetry, Negro Digest, and Black Dialogue. In her long teaching career, which began at San Francisco State University, Sanchez has been an active proponent of black studies programs in college curricula, when such programs were contested by the academic establishment. She also became involved with activists such as Amiri Baraka, Ed Bullins, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, and Maulana Ron Karenga.
During the 1960’s Sanchez’s political views on race relations changed from integrationist to black nationalist. As a result of an introduction she wrote to a book published by Assata Shakur–a member of the Black Liberation Army who had been convicted of the murder of a state trooper, sentenced to prison, and then escaped–she came under the scrutiny of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Her experiences are reflected in a poetic militancy that echoed her nationalist stance. She worked to produce poetry that is accessible to the masses, textured by street culture, and faithful to African American history and experience, and she credited Malcolm X with inspiring her approach to language. Affirming the need for black-controlled publications, Sanchez, rather than seeking more lucrative mainstream publishers, offered her first poetry collection, Homecoming, to Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, the most influential black publishing house of the 1960’s and 1970’s.
In her early work Sanchez employed a style that drew heavily on the oral tradition of the African legacy and contemporary militant speech. Her poetic attack on white America’s refusal to cope with personal and institutional racism was woven from a variety of techniques that included sharp, scornful images of violence and suffering and invective often laced with profanity. Homecoming, although consistently mapping personal references and acknowledging African American experience from slavery through Reconstruction to the northern migration of rural blacks from the South, relocated the source of black culture in the urban ghetto and emphasized themes of family life and personal responsibility as well as political resistance to acculturation in mainstream America.
Perhaps as a result of her brief marriage to the black poet Etheridge Knight, who served time in prison on drug charges, Sanchez, while affirming the need for black males in positions of political leadership, refused to compromise her standards of equality in matters of gender as well as race. Having raised children on her own, she identified with the needs of many single black women who are primary caretakers for their children. As is typical of Sanchez’s work, personal experience becomes public concern. She began regarding children as an important part of her audience (she eventually wrote three children’s books) and the black cultural education of children as an important responsibility of black writers.
Sanchez’s poetry finds its best expression in her performance of it. She has made several recordings, which document the extraordinary range of her delivery. Through hundreds of readings at campuses and community centers around the country, her voice became legendary for its use of traditional chants, lingering near-screams, playful but satirical intonations, and musical phrasing. After taking teaching positions in Pittsburgh and New York, Sanchez expanded her interest in performance to include dramatic writing. Her acclaimed plays continued the development of her feminist politics by exposing the contradiction of a revolutionary movement for black power while the leaders of that movement, in too many cases, viewed black women as objects to be subjugated in the interest of black male pride. Refuting the notion that black women were most effective in submissive roles and that they ought to be happy about that status, Sanchez reaped a fair amount of vicious criticism from her fellow (male) writers. The resulting emotional stress in her personal life led to poetic experiments with haiku and tanka forms, published eventually as Love Poems.
In 1972 Sanchez began a three-year teaching post at Amherst College. That same year she joined the Nation of Islam, and in 1973 she published A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, in which she advocated the philosophy of the Nation and, through a long sequence of praise poems, offered a communal celebration of black women in the past, present, and future. Although she left the Nation of Islam in 1976, seeing its stance toward women as repressive, her nationalist ethic and aesthetic continued in subsequent works. In the mid-1970’s she moved to Philadelphia to begin teaching at Temple University. She became the director of the women’s studies program and a popular professor, winning the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching and four honorary degrees, including a 1998 honorary doctor of humane letters from Temple, and recognitions for her teaching from the Black Students of Smith College (1982).
Her poetry collections, as attested in I’ve Been a Woman, have coursed through several stages: revolutionary, personal, Muslim, and feminist. Homegirls and Handgrenades, which received the American Book Award in 1985, testifies to the ravages of alienation and the necessity for hope and activism. In this volume and in her 1987 collection Under a Soprano Sky, Sanchez examines the theme of ecological survival, linking the well-being of blacks to the stability of the planet, and antinuclear activism. A deeply personal collection of poems that describe her brother’s battle with AIDS, Does Your House Have Lions? captures the conflict and ultimate reconciliation among the voices identified in the sections as sister’s voice, brother’s voice, father’s voice, and family voices/ancestors’ voices. The journey unfolds in a rime royal pattern, a unique form of English verse, first used by Geoffrey Chaucer, that links the poem’s multiple voices (the sister’s, the brother’s, and then the father’s) through time and with ancestral voices.
Sanchez’s later work has moved away from the use of vulgarity and toward a more loving, spiritual expression, but it remains strongly political in content and experimental in form, widely recognized by both the literary establishment and the public. After early reviewers dismissed her poetry as too political, Sanchez’s critics came to recognize her as in the vanguard not only of black women writers but of American writers as a whole. Her writing, activism, and community service have garnered numerous honors and awards: a PEN Writing Award (1969), a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1970), a National Endowment for the Arts Award (1978-1979), the Lucretia Mott Award (1984), the American Book Award (1985), the Peace and Freedom Award from Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1988-1989), the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities (1989), the Welcome Award of the Museum of Afro-American History in Boston (1990), the Oni Award from the International Black Women’s Congress (1992), a citation from the Women Pioneers Hall of Fame of the Young Women’s Christian Association (1992), the Roots Award from the Pan-African Studies Community Program (1993), a PEW fellowship (1992-1993), a PEN fellowship (1993-1994), and the Legacy Award from Jomandi Productions (1995). In 1999, after twenty-two years at Temple’s Department of English, Sanchez retired, becoming professor emerita. In 2001, she received the prestigious Robert Frost Medal.