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...