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."
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).
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.
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."