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Sun, 09.09.1934

Sonia Sanchez, Poet, and Professor born

Sonia Sanchez

*Sonia Sanchez was born on this date in 1934.  She is a Black poet, writer, and professor.

Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama, to Wilson L. Driver and Lena Jones Driver. 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.  Her grandmother's death proved to be a trying time in her life. Though only six, Sanchez suffered from losing her loved one, developing a stutter that contributed to her becoming introverted. However, her stutter only caused her to read more and more and pay close attention to language and its sounds.

In 1943, she moved to Harlem to live with her father (the schoolteacher), her sister, and her stepmother, who was her father's third wife. When in Harlem, she learned to manage her stutter and excelled in school, finding her poetic voice, which later emerged during her studies at Hunter College. Sanchez focused on the sound of her poetry, admitting to always reading her poetry aloud, and received praise for using 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.” Sanchez earned a BA in political science in 1955 from Hunter College.  Sanchez pursued post-graduate studies at New York University (NYU), working closely with Louise Bogan. During her time at NYU, she formed a writers’ workshop in Greenwich Village, where the “Broadside Quartet” was born.

The “Broadside Quartet” included other prominent Black Arts Movement artists such as Haki Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight. These young poets were introduced and promoted by Dudley Randall, an established poet and publisher.  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 later married Etheridge Knight and had twin sons named Morani Neusi and Mungu Neusi, but they divorced after two years. Nonetheless, Motherhood heavily influenced the motifs of her poetry in the '70s, with the bonds between mother and child emerging as a key theme. She also has three grandchildren.  Sanchez taught 5th Grade in NYC at the Downtown Community School until 1967.

She has taught as a professor at eight universities and has lectured at more than 500 college campuses across the US, including Howard University. She was also a leader in establishing the discipline of Black Studies at the university level. She introduced Black Studies courses in 1966 while teaching at San Francisco State University. Sanchez was the first to create and teach a course based on Black Women and literature in the United States. The course she offered on African American literature is generally considered the first of its kind taught at a predominately white university.  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 align with the goals of the Black Arts Movement and were a known black feminist.  Sanchez is known for her innovative melding of musical formats—such as the blues—and traditional poetic formats like haiku and tanka. She also uses spelling to celebrate the unique sound of black English, for which she credits poets such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown.  Her first collection of poems, Homecoming (1969), is known for its blues influences in form and content. The collection describes the struggle of defining black identity in the United States and the many causes for celebration Sanchez sees in black culture.

These poems use the urban black vernacular, experimental punctuation, spelling, spacing, and the performative quality of jazz.  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 the world over. Sanchez supports the National Black United Front and was very influential in the American Civil Rights Movement and the Black Arts Movement. In the early 1960s, Sanchez became a CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) member, where she met Malcolm X.

In 1972, Sanchez joined the Nation of Islam, during which time she published A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974), but she left the organization after three years in 1975 because their views on women's rights conflicted. 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.  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, demonstrated her use of experimental poetic forms to discuss the development of Black nationalism and identity.

She continues to advocate for the rights of oppressed women and minority groups.  Among her plays are Sister Son/ji, which was first produced Off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater in 1972; Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free Us?, staged in Chicago at the Northwestern University Theatre in 1975, and Malcolm Man/Don’t Live Here No Mo’, first produced in 1979 at the ASCOM Community Center in Philadelphia.  Sanchez has edited two anthologies of Black literature: We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans (1974) and 360° of Blackness Coming at You (1999). She is committed to various activist causes, including the Brandywine Peace Community, MADRE, and Plowshares.  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 (1985), and Under a Soprano Sky (1987), tend to focus less on separatist themes and more on themes of love, community, and empowerment.

She continues to explore the haiku, tanka, sonku forms, and blues-influenced rhythms. Later works continue her experiments with forms such as the epic in Does Your House Have Lions? (1997), an emotional account of her brother's deadly struggle with AIDS, and the haiku in Morning Haiku (2010).  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.  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. She is currently among 20 Black women participating in "Freedom Sisters," a mobile exhibition initiated by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the Smithsonian Institution.  Sanchez became Philadelphia's first Poet Laureate and served in that position from 2012 to 2014.  In 2013 Sanchez headlined the 17th annual Poetry Ink, where she read her poem "Under a Soprano Sky."  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.

2009 she received the Robert Creeley Award from the Robert Creeley Foundation.  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.  In 2018, she won the Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets for proven mastery of the art of poetry.  At the 84th Annual Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards ceremony on September 26, 2019, Sanchez was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Cleveland Foundation.   She was a leading figure in the Black Arts Movement and has authored over a dozen books of poetry, as well as short stories, critical essays, plays, and children's books. She has been influential to other African American poets, including Krista Franklin.

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