Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Poet and novelist Sonia Sanchez taught for over twenty years at Temple University.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934, Sonia Sanchez is best known as a poet and playwright. In the 1960s, Sanchez gained recognition for her controversial poetry, which expressed her feelings on the treatment of African Americans in the United States. She has taught at various universities, retiring from Temple University in 1999, where she held the Laura H. Carnell Chair in English. Best known for her poetry collections, including Homegirls & Handgrenades (1984), Sanchez has received numerous awards over her career and inspired many with her genuine love of teaching and writing. At the time of this writing, she lives in Philadelphia.
Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama, to Wilson and Lena Driver. When Sanchez was only one, her mother died, and she and her sister spent their childhoods living with different relatives until they finally moved to Harlem with their father in 1943. While in New York, Sanchez attended public school and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in 1955. She then began graduate studies at New York University, where she studied poetry with Louise Bogan. While at NYU, Sanchez participated in a writers workshop held in Greenwich Village and attended by poets Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, and Larry Neal. She married and divorced Albert Sanchez, whose surname she uses when writing. In 1968, Sanchez married poet and activist, Etheridge Knight. Although this union also ended in divorce, Sanchez and Knight had three children: Anita, Morani Neusi, and Mungu Neusi.
The 1960s marked the height of the Civil Rights Movement and the emergence of Sanchez as an influential poet, writer, and political activist. Initially, Sanchez supported the philosophy of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) by approaching Civil Rights from an integrationist stance. However, after encountering the work of Malcolm X and other radical activists in the black community, her work reflected a separationist standpoint. It is that militant black voice she presents in her earliest poetry collections, Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People. Sanchez used her controversial poetry to express her contempt for the American Anglo-centric school system, while also offering suggestions on ways to improve education and to advocate Black Studies as a discipline. Sanchez produced many other poetry collections, including Love Poems, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Homegirls and Handgrenades, Under a Soprano Sky, Wounded in the House of a Friend, and Does Your House Have Lions? Sanchez’s poetry incorporates African American Vernacular English as well as dialect and profanity. Her later work projects feminist themes and celebrates womanhood and personal growth.
Although she is best known for her poetry, Sanchez has also written children’s books, including: It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head and Square Head, and A Sound Investment and Other Stories. Sanchez established herself as a playwright as well and has written several plays, including: Black Cats Back and Uneasy Landings, I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t, Malcolm Man/Don’t Live Here No Mo’, Dirty Hearts ‘72, The Bronx is Next, Sister Son/ji, and Uh Huh: But How Do It Free Us?, which calls upon Sanchez’s personal experiences in her marriage to explore the conflicts between African American men and women. In addition to having her own work published in numerous anthologies over the years, Sanchez has edited two anthologies: We Be Word Sorcerers: Twenty-five Stories by Black Americans and Three Hundred Sixty Degrees of Blackness Comin’ at You.
Sanchez’s academic career proves equally impressive and significant, as does the legacy she has left in literature. She began her teaching career in 1965 at the Downtown Community School in New York. She later went on to receive tenure at San Francisco State College, and subsequently taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, Manhattan Community College, Amherst College, and the University of Pennsylvania. Sanchez was the first professor to develop a seminar on African American women’s literature. Her genuine concern for young people and her students has earned her praise as a creative and caring professor who constantly inspires others by her life and work.
Sanchez has received many awards and honors, including the PEN Writing Award in 1969 (a prestigious award for poets, playwrights, essayists, editors, and novelists), the National Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship from 1978 to 1979, and the National Education Association Award from 1977 to 1988. For Homegirls and Handgrenades, she won an American Book Award for Poetry in 1985. In addition, Sanchez is the recipient of the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Lucretia Mott Award, the Outstanding Arts Award from the Pennsylvania Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Peace and Freedom Award from Women International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts.
In 1977, Sanchez began teaching at Philadelphia’s Temple University, where she was the first Presidential Fellow and held the Laura H. Carnell Chair in English until her retirement in 1999. She also taught in the Women’s Studies Department. Sanchez has lectured at more than five hundred universities and colleges in the United States and abroad. She has read her poetry in Africa, Cuba, England, the Caribbean, Australia, Nicaragua, The People’s Republic of China, Norway, and Canada.
Sanchez truly values the written word and explains in an interview that her love of language influences her as an author, poet, and writer. Sanchez says, 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.’” (Contemporary Authors Online).
According to Sanchez’s official website, she is currently one of 20 African American women honored and featured in an interactive exhibition entitled “Freedom Sisters.” “Freedom Sisters” was formed by the Cincinnati Museum Center and Smithsonian Institution. This exhibition is entitled “Freedom Sisters.” Additionally, in 2009, Sanchez recieved the Robert Creely Award, which honors poets.
Sonia Sanchez currently resides in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Homecoming. Detroit: Broadside, 1969.
We a BaddDDD People. Detroit: Broadside, 1970.
Love Poems. New York: Third Press, 1973.
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women. Detroit: Broadside, 1973.
I’ve Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems. Sausalito, CA: Black Scholar Press, 1978.
Homegirls & Handgrenades. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1984.
Under a Soprano Sky. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1987.
Wounded in the House of a Friend. Boston: Beacon, 1995.
Does your house have lions? Boston: Beacon, 1997.
Like the Singing Coming Off of Drums. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Morning Haiku. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
Uh Huh: But How Do It Free Us? Chicago: Northwestern University Theatre, 1974.
I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t and Other Plays. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
It’s a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs. Detroit: Broadside, 1971.
The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head, and Square Head. New York: Third Press, 1973.
Kelly, Susan. “Discipline and craft: An Interview with Sonia Sanchez.” African American Review. 34(4): 679-687, 2000.
McCoy, Lezlie B. “Sonia Sanchez: World Renowned Poet/Playwright.” Philadelphia Tribune. 118(31): 3D, 2002.
“Sonia Sanchez.” The Gale Literary Database: Contemporary Authors Online. 9 April 2011. 27 Sept. 2011. New citation.
“Sonia Sanchez.” The Gale Literary Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography. 2003.