Sonia Sanchez was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1934, as Wilsonia Benita Driver. When Sanchez was one year old, her mother died in childbirth. She and her sister were cared for by her grandmother, a woman whom Sanchez has celebrated in her poetry. This grandmother died when Sanchez was five years old, an event she says traumatized her. For several years she and her sister were passed around among relatives. She has described herself as a shy, introspective child who stuttered.
When she was nine years old, her father remarried and moved the family to New York City, where Sanchez was introduced to the African American heritage of Harlem, a culture that has had a strong influence on her work. She graduated from Hunter College in 1955 with a degree in political science. Although she had read the work of African American poets in school in the South, the encouragement of librarians and a visit to the Schomburg Library, a black culture museum, opened her eyes to the history of slavery and to the works of other African American writers. Sanchez did graduate work in poetry with Louise Bogan at New York University, who she says taught her the craft of poetry.
In the 1960’s she became politically active. During the Civil Rights movement, Sanchez was an integrationist, believing that blacks and whites shared cultural values and could work together for social justice. However, after listening to Malcolm X, she rejected the white world and began writing out of her black identity. Despite criticism from her friends and family, she adopted a natural hairstyle and joined the Nation of Islam, a religious organization she later abandoned after political...
On September 9, 1934, Wilsonia Benita Driver, who later took the name Sonia Sanchez, was born to Wilson Driver, a drummer in a jazz band, and Lena Driver in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother, who was expecting twins, died in childbirth only a year after Sanchez’s birth, resulting in tremendous upheaval for her and her older sister. Often cared for by her paternal grandmother, Sanchez grew attached to “Mama,” the woman whom she credits with teaching her to read at age four and encouraging her great love of language. Describing how she used to fall to the floor laughing at her grandmother’s words, Sanchez states: “I used to take the words and mull them over my tongue and give them back to her.” When her grandmother died, the six-year-old Sanchez started to stutter. Her stuttering left her shy and somewhat isolated, but it also left her alone to write poetry, sometimes hiding it under the family’s old, standing bathtub, which she was responsible for cleaning once a week.
When Sanchez was nine, her father moved the family to New York City. Living with her father and stepmother, she struggled with her shyness and stuttering. Being conscious of the rhythm of the black dialect spoken in the city streets but not permitted in her parents’ home, she absorbed a vernacular that became an important influence on her poetry. Her poetry also gave her an outlet for her dismay at family changes—including three different stepmothers—and an often-distant father.
After earning a B.A. in political science in 1955 from Hunter College in Manhattan, Sanchez studied writing at New York University. After living in New York City for almost three decades, she decided to move to Philadelphia in 1976. She started teaching at Temple University in 1977, becoming the director of the women’s studies program and later the Laura Carnell Chair in English, a position she held until her retirement in 1999. A popular professor, she won acclaim for teaching, including the Lindback Award for distinguished teaching and four honorary degrees, including a 1998 honorary doctor of humane letters from Temple.
Sonia Sanchez’s emergence as a writer and political activist in the 1960’s marked the beginning of the career of a poet, playwright, and cultural worker. Sanchez is noted as a poet and as a black activist committed to the belief that the role of the artist is functional. Sanchez’s political interpretation of the situation of African Americans informs the creative forms she produces. The activist spirit has remained a constant in her work.
Sonia Sanchez’s mother died when Sanchez was one year old. Her father, Wilson Driver, Jr., a jazz musician, moved the family to New York when Sanchez was nine years old; she was thrust into the jazz world of her father. She entered Hunter College and received her bachelor’s degree in political science in 1955. As a graduate student, Sanchez studied with Louise Bogan at New York University. Bogan, a poet and literary critic, wrote restrained, concise, and deeply intellectual poetry, often compared to that of the English metaphysical poets. Bogan’s influence upon Sanchez is most evident in the conciseness of her lyrical poetry; Bogan’s encouragement caused Sanchez to pursue the life of a poet. Sanchez formed a writers’ workshop and soon began reading poetry around New York City.
Sanchez’s early works were published in little magazines; later they were published in black journals. Homecoming, Sanchez’s first anthology of poetry, placed her among poets who espoused a philosophy of functional art. Functional art is characterized by a sense of social purpose, information, instruction, and inspiration.
Sanchez’s improvisational style combines strategies common to black speech. This is particularly evident in her early poetry. Indirection, or signifying, is a key element of this poetic style. Another key element of Sanchez’s style is her oral delivery, reminiscent of improvisation in jazz. Her creative vision is also expressed in her inventive poetic forms. Sanchez’s speechlike, versatile style is evident in all of her poetry.
Born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama, she lost her mother, Lena Jones Driver, at age one and was raised by her grandmother and later her father. In 1943, she and her sister moved to Harlem, New York, to live with her father, Wilson L. Driver, a musician. Through him, she was exposed to jazz artists such as Billy Holiday, Art Tatum, and Count Basie, whose music influenced her poetic style. She studied poetry and political science at Hunter College, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1955. She continued studying poetry under professor Louise Bogan at New York University.
The Black Power movement, particularly Malcolm X, influenced Sanchez, who began publishing her poetry in African American and left-wing periodicals such as Liberator and The Journal of Black Poetry. In addition, her poetry was featured in Hoyt Fuller’s Negro Digest (later renamed Black World), a prominent journal of the period. In 1969, Homecoming, a collection of poems that was her first book, was published by Broadside Press.
Sanchez’s other interests included education. She held numerous positions in the field, starting as a staff member of the New York City Downtown Community School from 1965 to 1967. During this period, she also worked with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and helped establish the first black studies program nationwide at the university level. In the late 1960’s, Sanchez married poet Etheridge Knight, divorcing him soon after. She had two children, Morani and Mungu Neusi.
Sanchez joined the Nation of Islam in 1972, leaving three years later because of their views on women. She wrote thirteen books, including short...
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...