Sonia Sanchez is an African-American writer of poetry, children’s books, plays and critical essays. She also spent many years as a school teacher and university professor of English. During her 30s and 40s, she was heavily involved in the significant cultural revolution called the Black Arts Movement that swept the country, showcasing and encouraging black artists and writers. Now an octogenarian, she has won numerous awards for her work including the prestigious Robert Frost Medal in 2001.
She was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on the 9th September 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama. At the age of two she lost her mother and was cared for by a variety of relatives until, in 1943, her father invited her to live in Harlem, New York with him and his new wife, plus her sister. She struggled in school at first, obviously affected by her disrupted family life and the loss of her mother and grandmother. She overcame a troublesome stutter to go on to gain a BA in Political Science from the city’s Hunter College. She had also developed a passion for writing by this time and went to New York University to study poetry. One of her contemporaries there was the poet Louise Bogan.
That time suffering with a speech defect encouraged her to read more and she became acutely aware of the sound of poetry as she forced herself to read poems out loud. In later life she would become a powerful and respected public speaker. When she married a man named Albert Sanchez she decided to call herself Sonia Sanchez in her professional life, keeping this name even after the marriage ended. A second marriage produced two sons and a daughter and these events influenced her writing considerably during the 1970s with many of her poems focusing on the age-old mother-child bond.
Sanchez dedicated a poem to her daughter Anita, simply calling it To Anita. This was crafted in her typical style of incorrectly spelled “black English” words, following the lead of others such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. The poem is a clear message that her girl should stand tall against those who attack her simply for the colour of her skin, and it is reproduced here:
She used her time as a teacher to good effect, promoting the rights and aspirations of black women in particular. At San Francisco State University she was an innovator, with the country’s first Black Studies courses being taught there despite this being a predominantly “white” university. She sought to bring the work of black writers to the fore, giving African-American literature a louder voice. Her work got her speaking assignments all over the world, as far afield as Europe, China and Australia.
At one time she had the integration of race and culture on her mind but, having met and been influenced by Malcom X in the early 1960s, her attitude changed. In 1969 she published a collection of poems called Home Coming and found herself associating with fellow Black Arts Movement writers such as Etheridge Knight, Nikki Giovanni and Madhubuti (real name Don L. Lee). Sanchez and these three formed a group that became known as the “Broadside Quartet”. During the late 1970s she joined the National Black United Front and followed a separatist path from then on, writing about her black heritage and encouraging others to celebrate their culture and identity in the same way.
Sanchez is still working into her eighties and served as Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate between the years 2012-14. This was the latest of an impressive list of honours and awards that have come her way in a long writing and speaking career that shows no sign of coming to an end.