Sonia Sanchez Sanchez, Sonia (Vol. 116) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sonia Sanchez 1934–

(Born Wilsonia Benit a Driver) American poet, playwright, short story writer, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Sanchez's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 5.

Sonia Sanchez is considered by many to be the leading female voice of the Black Revolution. Her poetry contains a visionary quality and a strong sense of the past. She typically presents positive role models and often harshly realistic situations in an effort to inspire her readers to improve their lives. Regina B. Jennings says. "Creating a protective matriarchal persona, she has through versification, plays, and children's books inscribed the humanity of black people."

Biographical Information

Sanchez was born in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934, to Wilson and Lena Driver. Her mother died when Sanchez was only one year old, and she spent the next eight years with various relatives. At the age of nine she moved with her father and stepmother to New York City. Sanchez began writing poetry as a child to battle the alienation and loneliness she felt as a shy stutterer, which she did not overcome until she was 16. Although not spoken in their home, Sanchez consciously learned the black dialect spoken on the streets. She would later base the rhythm of her poetry on the rhythm of this speech. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hunter College in 1955, then studied with poet Louise Bogan at New York University. Bogan was an important influence on Sanchez's poetry, especially with regard to her use of traditional structures and form. After completing her graduate work at NYU, Sanchez taught at several colleges, including San Francisco State, the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, Manhattan Community College, Amherst College, and Temple University. She co-founded the Black Studies Program at San Francisco State and was the first to develop and teach a course on black women in literature. Sanchez has also travelled extensively, including a trip to China, where she wrote many of the haikus in her collection Love Poems (1973).

Major Works

Sanchez's first collection of poetry, Homecoming (1969), focuses on embracing black identity. The poems in We a BaddDDD People (1970) have a political thrust and show the influence of jazz in Sanchez's work in the improvisation of the rhythm and in the attempt to imitate the sounds of different instruments. While Homecoming and We a BaddDDD People have urban landscapes, however, Sanchez began to use natural landscapes in Love Poems, but not the idyllic presentation usually found in poetry. Her poetry became much more lyrical in this volume and focuses on love, loss, and relationships. A Blues Book for Blue Black Magic Women (1973) relies on history as a liberating device. The poet acts as guide and teacher and urges readers to embrace their blackness and turn away from the falsity of Western values. The poems in this volume are very ritualistic and religious. Sanchez's I've Been a Woman (1978) follows the journey of one woman as she comes into being as a woman and as a human being. The poems in this collection speak to and for women and provide a more personal look at the themes which have consumed her work thus far, including oppression, exploitation, and loss. Homegirls & handgrenades (1984) is an autobiographical collection, in which the poet acts as a character in the work. In this volume, Sanchez employs techniques similar to those used by Jean Toomer in Cane, including the use of narration, dialogue, and poetry to create sketches. In addition to her poetry, Sanchez has also written several plays. Sister Son/ji (1969) presents five periods in the life of a black revolutionary shown through flashbacks. Son/ji moves from a first act of resisting racism, to a sense of betrayal by the male revolutionaries who abandon women, and finally to a maturity arising out of loss and survival.

Critical Reception

Some critics accuse Sanchez of repetition and a lack of originality in her work because many of her themes reappear numerous times. Others praise the continuity this repetition brings to the body of her work. Andrew Salkey says, "Altogether, the iron truthfulness in her work emerges out of her deep need to thwart existential gloom, to support her embattled self-esteem, and to renew her faith in herself in order to keep on keeping on." Some reviewers criticize Sanchez for falling into sixties rhetoric in We a BaddDDD People. Many critics preferred her more personal poems to her politically oriented ones, which they found shrill and harsh. Several critics praise Sanchez for her use of traditional forms and her ability to make them her own. David Williams says, "The haiku in her hands is the ultimate in activist poetry, as abrupt and as final as a fist." Many critics have noted that Sanchez has failed to garner much attention for her accomplishments as a vital member of the Black Revolutionary Movement. Kamili Anderson asserts, "Relative to her merits as both prolific poet … and social activist, widespread critical acknowledgment of Sanchez's talents has been remiss."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Bronx is Next (drama) 1968; published in periodical The Drama Review; also published in Cavalcade: Negro American Writing from 1760 to the Present, 1971
Homecoming (poetry) 1969
Sister Son/ji (drama) 1969; published in New Plays from the Black Theatre, 1969
We a BaddDDD People (poetry) 1970
It's a New Day (poems for young brothas and sistuhs) (poetry) 1971
A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (poetry) 1973
Dirty Hearts (drama) 1973; published in Breakout: In Search of New Theatrical Environments
Love Poems (poetry) 1973
Uh Huh: But How Do It Free Us? (drama) 1974; published in The New Lafayette Theatre Presents: Plays with Aesthetic Comments by Six Black Poets
I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems (poetry) 1978
Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No More (drama) 1982
Crisis in Culture: Two Speeches by Sonia Sanchez (speeches) 1983
homegirls & handgrenades (poetry and prose) 1984
Under a Soprano Sky (poetry) 1987
Black Cats Back and Uneasy Landings (drama) 1995
Wounded in the House of a Friend (poetry) 1995
Does Your House Have Lions (poetry) 1997

John D. Williams (review date February 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE; "The Pain of Women, The Joy of Women, The Sadness and Depth of Women," in Callaloo, Vol. 2, No. 5, February, 1979, pp. 147-49.

[In the following review, Williams asserts that the poems in Sanchez's I've Been a Woman speak for and to all women.]

The Black Scholar Press has recently published a new book from Sonia Sanchez, and a powerful book it is indeed. A collection which includes a fine cross-section of Sanchez's earlier work as well as some of her latest poems, I've Been a Woman recounts the journey of one woman from the early stages of herself into the meaningfulness of herself as a woman and as a human being. One hears in the voice of this woman-poet the pain of women, the joy of women, the sadness and depth of women. The voice of this woman is pregnant with the voices of women, and ail readers of the collection are advised to listen closely.

I've Been a Woman is divided into six sections. The first four sections are comprised of poems and passages drawn from Sanchez's earlier volumes. In these four sections, there are many of those poems, as readers familiar with her work will recognize, that have come to safeguard our ears and our steps: from Homecoming: "Poem at Thirty," "Malcolm," and "Personal Letter No. 2"; from We a Baddddd People: "Blk/Rhetoric" and "Indianapolis/Summer/1969/Poem"; from Love Poems: "Poem No. 7" and "Old Words"; and from Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women: those indispensable passages which describe growing up in America and the fundamental transformation which occurs in the necessary reaching back to oneself. However, it is the final two sections of I've Been a Woman that we are concerned with here, because they are the new works of the poet, and, more importantly, because they are the celebration and praise of life that the...

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Andrew Salkey (review date May-June 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Appreciation of Sonia Sanchez," in The Black Scholar, Vol. 10, Nos. 8 and 9, May-June, 1979, pp. 84-5.

[In the following review, Salkey discusses the poems from Sanchez's I've Been a Woman and describes her poetry "as songs of difficult truth and harsh beauty."]

The title of this new collection of poems by Sonia Sanchez reads as if it were the poet's answer to the question, "What have you been doing since the '60s?" And so it may be construed.

Even a cursory reading of the text would yield evidence enough that the poet has been quintessentially herself, all the way throughout the emblematic '60s into the even more...

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David Williams (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Poetry of Sonia Sanchez," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press, 1984, pp. 433-48.

[In the following essay, Williams analyzes the changes that have occurred in Sanchez's poetry from her first collection, Homecoming, to her I've Been a Woman, including a new sense of rootedness.]

The title of Sonia Sanchez's first collection, Homecoming, marks with delicate irony the departure point of a journey whose direction and destination can now be considered. I've Been a Woman, her most recent book, invites such an appraisal, including as it does a retrospective of her earlier work...

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Rosemary K. Curb (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Pre-Feminism in the Black Revolutionary Drama of Sonia Sanchez," in The Many Forms of Drama, edited by Karelisa V. Hartigan, University Press of America, 1985, pp. 19-29.

[In the following essay, Curb discusses Sanchez's revolutionary plays and states that the plays "dramatize the need for active cooperation among black women in political struggle for sexual as well as racial justice."]

In 1960 when the first sparks of Black racial discontent were igniting the roaring conflagration of the Black Revolution, Sonia Sanchez was twenty-five. At twenty she graduated from Hunter College with a Bachelor of Arts and continued graduate study at New York University. She...

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Sonia Sanchez with Herbert Leibowitz (interview date Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Exploding Myths: An Interview with Sonia Sanchez," in Parnassus, Vol. 12, No. 2, and Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring/Summer/Fall/Winter, 1985, pp. 357-68.

[In the following interview, Sanchez discusses her poetry and the development of her career.]

[Leibowitz:] Do you think there is a feminine sensibility which differs conspicuously from that of the male?

[Sanchez:] Yes. Women are quite different from men in what they feel and think and how they view the world. I use feminine imagery which is drawn from ancient cultures. I use words like Olokun—she is the goddess of the sea—so that people understand when we're talking about the sea that...

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Sonia Sanchez with D. H. Melhem (interview date Fall 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sonia Sanchez: Will and Spirit," in MELUS, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 73-98.

[In the following interview, Melhem provides an introduction to Sanchez's career, which is followed by an interview in which Sanchez discusses the influences, themes, and forms of her work.]

Dynamic: the word immediately describes Sonia Sanchez and her art. Petite, attractive, her diminutive size, like that of actress Vinie Burrows, seems to acquire physical volume on stage. Born to Wilson L. and the late Lena (Jones) Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama, Sanchez was named Wilsonia after her father who had wanted a boy. She has an older sister, Patricia. Her...

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James Robert Saunders (essay date Spring 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sonia Sanchez's Homegirls and Handgrenades: Recalling Toomer's Cane," in MELUS, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1988, pp. 73-82.

[In the following essay, Saunders analyzes the techniques Sanchez employed in Homegirls and Handgrenades which are reminiscent of those Jean Toomer used in Cane.]

It is appropriate when analyzing a work such as Homegirls and Handgrenades to wonder about what might have been the motivation for its subject matter and form. It might be declared by some that this is just another in a long line of Sonia Sanchez's books of poems. Her very first volume, Homecoming, was an impressive display of staggered-lined...

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Kamili Anderson (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Giving Our Souls Ears," in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 2, Winter, 1989, p. 14.

[In the following review, Anderson asserts that "the poems in [Sanchez's Under a Soprano Sky] are tempered and configured to scorching extremes, they are, simultaneously, her most introspective and intricate."]

The name Sonia Sanchez may be the most undeservedly underspoken of contemporary women poets in America. Relative to her merits as both prolific poet (she has authored thirteen books) and social activist, widespread critical acknowledgment of Sanchez's talents has been remiss. No doubt this is a result of the boldly rhetorical nature of her work and her involvement with...

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Joanne Veal Gabbin (essay date 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Southern Imagination of Sonia Sanchez," in Southern Women Writers: The New Generation, edited by Tonette Bond Inge, The University of Alabama Press, 1990, pp. 180-202.

[In the following essay, Garbin discusses the themes of Sanchez's works in terms of what she calls "Sanchez's strong Southern imagination, one that was born in the impressionable times of her youth in Alabama, where the tensions of struggle were fed with mama's milk."]

Death is a five o'clock door forever changing time. And wars end. Sometimes too late. I am here. Still in Mississippi. Near the graves of my past. We are at peace … I have my sweet/astringent memories...

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Frenzella Elaine De Lancey (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Refusing to be Boxed In: Sonia Sanchez's Transformation of the Haiku Form," in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 21-36.

[In the following essay, De Lancey asserts that "As [Sanchez] textualizes the form, forging her Afrocentric vision and Afrocentric structure within the discipline of the haiku form, she moves closer to a unique structure that carries her own signature."]

One of the few titled haiku written by Sonia Sanchez, "Walking in the rain in Guyana" is an excellent example of both the poet's artistic vision and artistry:


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Regina B. Jennings (essay date 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Blue/Black Poetics of Sonia Sanchez," in Language and Literature in the African American Imagination, edited by Carol Aisha Blackshire-Belay, Greenwood Press, 1992, pp. 119-32.

[In the following essay, Jennings describes Sanchez's aesthetics and asserts that her work has "inscribed the humanity of black people."]

As a poet, Sonia Sanchez has evolved since her first book Homecoming published in 1969 during the heart of the Black Power Movement. Back then her poetics included a strident tropology that displayed a matriarchal protection of black people. Today, after publishing twelve books of poetry, including the acclaimed Homegirls and...

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Further Readings

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Clark, Sebastian. "Sonia Sanchez and Her Work." Black World 20, No. 8 (June 1971): 41-8, 96-8.

Discusses the main themes found in Sanchez's poetry and asserts that "her very life-style is perpetually proposed as a link to the ideals and realizations of Blackness which so profoundly pervades her work."

Root, William Pitt. "Anything But Over." Poetry 123, No. 1 (October 1973): 34-56.

Provides an overview of Sanchez and her poetry.

(The entire section is 141 words.)