Sonia Sanchezby Deborah Arnold
onia Sanchez transformed the vision of the African American woman from a demure, politely spoken domestic presence into a fiery and vocal revolutionary through her poetry, plays, essays and her groundbreaking work as an activist and educator. By the time her first volume of poetry, Homecoming, was published in 1969 by Broadside Press, Sanchez was a recognized force in the Black Arts Movement, a woman whose unflinching and explicit poetry presented a racially turbulent American nation with a dynamic African-American feminist voice that confronted oppression in its multitude of manifestations. Her poetry traces her journey of militant activism from the 1960s to the present, empowered by a constant undercurrent of love and respect for humanity. Through haiku, tanka, and the sonnet as well as free verse, Sanchez invokes the continuum of the craft of writing as informed by the synthesis of African American and Western literary and cultural traditions, using them as vehicles for personal and global empowerment.
A Life of Writing and Activism
Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. The daughter of Wilson L. Driver, a jazz musician, and Lena Jones Driver, Sanchez was one year old when she experienced the loss of her mother, who died in childbirth. Her relationship with her grandmother, an active church deaconess, provided Sanchez with the foundation of maternal strength, faith, and fearless resolve that shaped her voice and identity as an African American woman destined to break the silence of being black and female. Her grandmother, whom she called "Mama," taught Sanchez to read at the age of four and to write by the time she was six, introducing her to haiku. The traumatic death of her grandmother when Sanchez was six was a pivotal event in her life, followed three years later by the family's move from Alabama to Harlem. The upheaval of becoming an urban transplant was insignificant compared to the impact of her grandmother's death, which left Sanchez with a debilitating stutter. Writing poetry was a way for Sanchez, an introspective child, to express herself.
In New York, Sanchez settled into a community where she excelled academically in elementary and junior high schools before graduating from George Washington High School, matriculating at Hunter College and graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in 1955. By sheer will, Sanchez had worked to overcome her stutter while in high school, developing a distinctively articulate voice despite continuing to hear the echo of a stutter in her mind for years, as she chose the path of a craft and career that demanded speech. She forged that career even as she married Albert Sanchez, whom she divorced, and gave birth to a daughter, Anita, in 1957, whom she raised while engaged in graduate work at New York University, where she was selected for a poetry workshop with Louise Bogan. During the workshop, Sanchez asked Bogan if "she thought I had talent" and "if poetry was a worthwhile pursuit," to which Bogan responded "in her very regal voice, 'Yes, yes, yes, yes. You do know how to write; you show some promise here'" (qtd. in Kelly 681). Bogan's emphasis on poetic form and disciplined craft was a catalyst for Sanchez, who began submitting her work for publication in The Transatlantic Review, The Massachusetts Review, and The Paris Review, and Bogan's encouragement influenced her decision to participate in a subsequent workshop organized in Greenwich Village. It was at the Five Spot, a jazz club in Greenwich Village, that Sanchez met poet, publisher and activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), who "named" her by calling out to her, "Sanchez, I hear you're a poet" and encouraged her to send him poems for an anthology he was editing and to participate in poetry readings. Sanchez cites this meeting as the moment when she "began to think of myself as a poet, and began that serious work of writing and sending work out" (qtd. in Keita 280). The meeting also marked her entrance into a circle of black militant poets and playwrights, including Baraka, Larry Neal, and Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee) who, along with Nikki Giovanni and Etheridge Knight, were promoted by publisher and poet Dudley Randall as the foundation of the Black Arts Movement.
The Black Arts Movement, centered in an aesthetic derived from the Black Power political movement, embraced African American cultural traditions and related elements of Third World cultures in the arts, from poetry to drama, fiction, film, dance, and music. In March 1965, immediately following the assassination of Malcolm X, Amiri Baraka mobilized black writers as activists in forging a unified voice as a political, cultural, and literary power. Baraka's Black Arts Repertory Theater/School provided a venue for literary and theatrical performances as well as community organizations. Black publishing presses, such as Randall's Broadside Press, and newspapers, including Black Dialogue, were pivotal in expanding the Black Arts Movement into the realm of political activism by providing community and mass media access to African Americans. The Black Arts Movement challenged the American literary canon to include the diversity of African American literature. Rising from the patriarchal hierarchy even within the Black Arts Movement, the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni and Sonia Sanchez established the presence of African American women in the literary, cultural, and political landscape.
Outraged by the heightened violence of white society against blacks that reached a crescendo during the Civil Rights movement, black poets, who had "absorbed the techniques of the masters" in order to emulate the writing of white poets, rejected those values and instead "turned to poetry of the folk, of the streets, to jazz musicians, to the language of black people for their models," giving "new meanings and connotation to words" and "blackening the language" (Randall xxv-xxvi). Urban black language emphasized the unity of identity and experience through a conscious rejection of white English by "renaming things and events (its recasting of experience into its own terms)" (Gibson 11). Black poetry was written to be spoken, giving public expression to private attitudes and emotions, and poets' readings celebrated black oral tradition in the cadence of natural speech patterns, particularly religious ritual and slave and folk songs that emphasized the poet's relationship with the audience.
During the early 1960s, Sanchez was involved with the New York CORE (Congress of Racial Equality), which supported an integrationist philosophy, until she met Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, whose separatist views in the Civil Rights movement encouraged a focus on black heritage and empowerment. Yet Malcolm X imparted an indelible sense of self-worth that shaped Sanchez as an activist and a poet with his emphasis on using direct language to confront racial issues publicly and the rich history of black tradition as a foundation for African Americans. From Malcolm X, Sanchez learned to employ humor as an often ironic element in her poetry, as well as how to engage with an audience by becoming expansive in working a poem, becoming "the exhorter, the interpreter of things, the namer and definer" (Gibson 12). Though she would later join the Nation of Islam, Sanchez ultimately rejected its repression of women and left after three years.
After teaching at the Downtown School in New York, Sanchez left to teach at what is now San Francisco State University from 1965 to 1968, where she pioneered the development of a Black Studies curriculum, consciously shifting from teaching literature thematically to teaching "the sociology of the literature, the economics of the literature, the culture of the literature" (Davis 1057). In 1969 at the University of Pittsburgh, she taught the first seminar on African American women's literature before her return to New York and subsequent teaching positions at Rutgers University, Amherst College, and University of Pennsylvania before arriving at Temple University in 1976.
Her return to New York in 1969 coincided with the publication of Homecoming, Sanchez's first book of poetry, with an introduction by Don L. Lee, who described her as "a good solid blk/writer (solid: having had to sit on garbage cans instead of park benches; understanding early that u are whi-te; being loved properly, even if it's once; watching people u love die/too often. Her ABC's were learned in alleys & corner bars; she knows what motivates her blk/sisters & she understands the hurt of the blackman" (6). Sanchez had learned her ABC's in more intimately personal ways as well, through her 1968 marriage to activist and poet Etheridge Knight, and as indicated in her poetic dedication of Homecoming, raising three children, including twin sons born in 1968:
morani and mungu
ain't no prince charmings
u & I know
this is a fairy
With this dedication, Sanchez establishes her experimentation with poetic form and stylistic use of emphatic spelling and the lower case letter that marks her verse, and introduces the urban black vernacular language that she wields in the disciplined lines she crafts. Sanchez describes her poetic voice as shaped by "the South and from urban cities… I have memories that inform my work a great deal: memories of my grandmother, memories that form me as a human being" (Wood and Sanchez 124). The poems in Homecoming forge a spatial use of the page with typography that "clearly registers intensity, shifts in emphasis, rhythmical beats and breaks" (Melhem 83). The typographical containment of narrow columns of poems in the center of the page in "short poem" and "black magic" expands to grouped blocks of carefully aligned text positioned rhythmically across the page as in "on seeing pharoah sanders blowing," and finally encompasses the full vertical and horizontal scope of the page in "to CHucK," a humorous and sexually provocative poem, to "write me / a poem like / e. e. / cum / mings to / day. a / bout you / mov / ing iNsidE / me" (20). While letters, words, and lines invite the eye to move lightly upon the page, Sanchez's language rivets the reader to the content. Her experience in writing haiku since childhood, as well as Bogan's emphasis on the strong line, is revealed in the form and concise emotive expression in each poem in Homecoming, as reflected in "poem at thirty":
it is midnight
no magical bewitching
hour for me
i know only that
i am here waiting
once as a child
I walked two
miles in my sleep.
did i know
then where i
i want to tell
you about me
about nights on a
brown couch when
i wrapped my
bones in lint and
refused to move.
no one touches
father do not
send me out
you you black man
the mold from your body.
here is my hand.
i am not afraid
of the night.
The poems reflect Sanchez's development of an African American aesthetic that ranges from irreverent to militant, much like Sanchez herself, in creating a black female voice in contemporary American literature, one driven by brutal yet tender directness, as in "black magic":
my body into
magic is your
The inclusion of poems by Sanchez in Randall's 1971 anthology The Black Poets placed her work among the literary traditions and poets who influenced her writing, extending from slave songs and folk poetry to the poetry of Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Lucille Clifton, and Margaret Walker. Writing from the historical tradition of black literature occupied primarily by male writers, Sanchez contests the boundaries of the personal and political as well as gender and race in their most intimate details. Her writing, whether poetry, prose, or drama, addresses the searing themes of racial, sexual, and social equality and justice on the broadest personal and political scale of survival. From the improvisational jazz influences of the poems in We a BaddDDD People, with its slash marks intended as vocal stops, to her use of the conventional forms of haiku, tanka, and the sonnet in I've Been a Woman, Sanchez developed a black feminist aesthetic anchored in African rhythms and heritage. Her use of explicit language is intended to shatter complacency and neutralize the power of racism, often through the triumph of a woman's embrace of the beauty of her black heritage and the authenticity of her self-image and worth, as in her poem "nigger" from Homecoming:
ain't shit to me
don't u know
where u at when
u call me nigger?
my man. i'll
say it slow for you.
that word don't turn
me on man.
i know i am
nigger. u say.
you way behind the set
Sanchez endeavors to empower African American women, insisting on "a feminist trajectory toward visibility of the African American woman—her rights, her value, and her influence on the development of African American political, cultural, and social awareness on a broader American culture" (Wood and Sanchez 130).
In her 2007 Homegirls and Handgrenades, Sanchez creates a collage of poems, short fiction, letters, and sketches that invokes the literary tradition of black writers, particularly Jean Toomer's Cane in terms of its structural technique, yet achieves a distinctively black feminist rendering of characters that explores the deterioration in the relationships between black men and women in the context of blacks in American society. Sanchez redefines what it means to be militant, reaching beyond the black-on-white hate mentality expected of and embraced by black revolutionists in the 1960s and 1970s, to reject oppression in its multitude of forms, including the misogynistic postures pervasive among male black militants, who ultimately aspired to enter the patriarchal society of racist whites. Her unabashed and courageous expression of anguish is evident as Sanchez raises her distinctly black female voice in the cauldron of male militant discourse—black and white alike—to vocalize the oppression of black women toward championing women's rights as a humanitarian issue.
Yet for Sanchez, it is love that is the subtext of even her most militant expressions, not simply the love of a relationship, but "the love for our people, the love for our children, the love in a vast sense for humanity—the love that goes just beyond one's private self, but to that public self" (qtd. in McEwan). Love is revealed as not a luxury but a power, and it is in the lyric that Sanchez finds its purest expression. Sanchez's work establishes her as a master of the lyric poem, from its expression of the intimately personal to the sociopolitical collective cultural experience and reveals her strength in achieving the confluence of the traditions of both African and Western poetic traditions. Her lyric poems bridge the spoken word and song, often evocative of the African-American call-and-response tradition Sanchez experienced through attending church with her grandmother.
Her lyricism infuses Sanchez's elegiac poetry—as in Does Your House Have Lions?, her book-length elegy to her brother who died of AIDS—which uses modified terza rima rhyme as formal structure for shaping anguish and anger, while merging African folk rhythms with the cadence of urban black language. The lyricism of the elegy is also demonstrated eloquently in "Elegy: For MOVE and Philadelphia." MOVE was a Philadelphia-based black liberation group whose residence was bombed by the police in 1985, igniting a fire that killed 11 people, including five children, and destroyed an entire city block of Osage Avenue. Sanchez's elegy was written in response to the tragedy, noting that although the politically radical MOVE members were "people who offended their neighbors,"
these are people
these are people
these are people
Sanchez intended the poem to confront the questions, "are you saying to me that we at war with each other in this country? Is the message to be given to people that if we speak out and become nonconformists that certainly we can be killed? Or are you saying that in a black neighborhood anything goes?" (qtd. in Vitale). Yet she waited three years to present and read the poem in Philadelphia in order to allow the city time to heal, recognizing that even through poetry, "it's not easy to challenge this country—and the world," yet maintaining that "effecting change is how you humanize people" (qtd. in Vitale). Sanchez's reading of the work captured the mournful cadence of a jazz instrument merging with the repetition and call-and-response of a sermon and the rising tension of a redemptive gospel song.
The discipline of breath, word choice, the strong line, and the formulation of a concise focus connected Sanchez to syllabic verse from her early childhood. Her use of synaesthesia to defamiliarize words is powerful at shifting context to achieve emotional power, as in her poem "Under a Soprano Sky," where the sense of sound denoted by "soprano" is used to describe the sense of sight denoted by "sky." The confluence of contradictions marks Sanchez's poetic form as well, as evident in her prominent use of Japanese haiku, using the tercet of seventeen syllables in lines of five, seven, and five syllables and reinventing the form to craft lyric poems in language that merges jazz, blues, and African cultural traditions, as in her poem "blues haiku" from her collection Like the Singing Coming Off the Drums:
let me be yo wil
derness let me be yo wind
blowing you all day. (39)
Her adaptation of the Japanese senryu form, which Sanchez renamed "songku" to reflect its attention to rhythm and which poet Lucille Clifton subsequently renamed "sonku" to honor Sonia Sanchez's masterful translation of the lyric possibilities of form, mirrors her elevation of the haiku and tanka forms into the realm of lyric. As she recalls in her introduction to her collection Morning Haiku, "From the moment i found a flowered book high up on a shelf at the 8th Street Bookshop in New York City, a book that announced Japanese haiku; from the moment i opened that book, and read the first haiku, i slid down onto the floor and cried and was changed. i had found me" (xiii). Haiku "slows us down, makes us stay alive and breathe with that one breath that it takes to recite a haiku," a "tough form disguised in beauty and insight" which, like the blues, offers "no solutions, only a pronouncement, a formal declaration—an acceptance of pain, humor, beauty and non-beauty, death and rebirth, surprise and life" (xiv). The form captures both the ordinary and the extraordinary in syllables of dignity in a "breath inhaled and held" (xiv). The poems in Morning Haiku, exhale on the page and range from single haiku to haiku sequences evocative of the sonnet crown in "7 haiku" (for St. Augustine) and rédoublet in "15 haiku" (for Toni Morrison), as elegiac yet lyric verse that honors and celebrates African American musicians, writers, artists, and activists.
More than 50 years since her recognition as one of the pillars of the Black Arts Movement, Sonia Sanchez continues to exude the same vibrant energy as a writer, activist, and educator. She is the author of over 16 books of poetry as well as plays and children's books. Sanchez is the recipient of numerous fellowships and awards, and has lectured nationally and internationally on black literature and culture interwoven with women's issues, racial justice, and peace, and is one of 20 African American women featured in "Freedom Sisters," an interactive exhibition created by the Cincinnati Museum Center and Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. She was the first Presidential Fellow at Temple University in Philadelphia, where she held the Laura Carnell Chair in English until her retirement in 1999.
Sanchez, Philadelphia's first poet laureate and a long-time resident of the city, has worked with the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and First Person Arts in creating a mural entitled "Peace Is a Haiku Song." The mural is a collaboration of Philadelphia students and well-known musicians and writers, includingToni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Bernice Reagon and Common, whose goal is "to explore the haiku as a vehicle for peace and urban transformation" (qtd. McEwen). As a poet, activist, and human presence, Sonia Sanchez continues to raise her eloquent voice for peace and love on the personal and global scale. Described as irreverent, feisty, and indominable, she is driven by a passion for truth and her continuing courage to criticize injustice. No longer on the margins, Sonia Sanchez continues to reshape American history and the literary canon as she confronts oppression with a poetic vision that challenges individuals to actively engage in changing not only their own lives, but to embrace a life of activism directed toward generating change that forwards the efforts for peace, equality, and justice for humanity.
1984, Lucretia Mott Award
- 1985, Outstanding Arts Award from the Pennsylvania Coalition of 100 Black Women
- 1985, Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators
- 1985, American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades
- 1988, Governor's Award for Excellence in the Humanities
- 1989, Peace and Freedom Award from Women International League for Peace and Freedom
- 1992–1993, PEW Fellowship in the Arts
- 1999, Recipient of Langston Hughes Poetry Award
Poetry by Sonia Sanchez
Homecoming. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1969.
We a BaddDDD People. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1970.
Love Poems. New Rochelle, NY: the Third Press, 1973.
A Blues Book for a Blue Black Magic Woman. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1973.
I've Been A Woman. Chicago: New Rochelle, NY: The Third Press ,1978.
Under a Soprano Sky. Trenton: Africa World Press, 1987.
Naked in the Streets. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.
Autumn Blues: New Poems [no longer in print] 1994
Continuous Fire [no longer in print] 1994.
Wounded in the House of a Friend. Boston: Beacon Press, 1995.
Does Your House Have Lions? Boston: Beacon Press, 1997.
Like the Singing Coming off the Drums: Love Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
Shake Loose My Skin. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
Homegirls and Handgrenades. Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2007.
Morning Haiku. Boston: Beacon Press, 2010.
Prose by Sonia Sanchez
I'm Black When I'm Singing, I'm Blue when I Ain't and Other Plays. Ed. and Introduction by Jacqueline Wood. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010.
Joyce, Joyce A., Ed. Conversations with Sonia Sanchez. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
Sound Investment: Short Stories for Young Readers. Chicago: Third World Press, 1980.
The Adventures of Fat Head, Small Head, and Square Head. New Rochelle: The Third Press, 1973.
It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1971.
Discography by Sonia Sanchez
A Sun Lady for All Seasons Reads Her Poetry. Folkways Records, 1971.
Every Tone A Testimony. Smithsonian Folkways, 2001.
Full Moon of Sonia. VIA International Artists, Inc., 2004.
Davis, Elisa, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez. "Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez: A Conversation." Callaloo 25:4 (Autumn 2002), 1038-1074. Print.
Keita, Michelle Nzadi. "Sonia Sanchez: 'Fearless about the World'." Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s. Ed. Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York University Press, 2005, 279-291. Print.
McEwen, Lauren. "The Root DC Live:A Q&A with Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez." The Washington Post Blog, October 24, 2012.
Melhem, D. H. Sonia Sanchez: Will and Spirit. MELUS 12:3 (Autumn 1985), 73 – 98. Print.
Palmer, R. Roderick. "The Poetry of Three Revolutionists: Don L. Lee, Sonia Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni." Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Gibson, Donald B. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1973, 135-146. Print.
Randall, Dudley. The Black Poets. New York: Bantam, 1971. Print.
Sanchez, Sonia and Susan Kelly. "Discipline and Craft: In Interview with Sonia Sanchez." African American Review 34:4 (Winter 2000), 679-687. Print.
Vitale, Tom, and Sonia Sanchez. "Wear the Day Well." A Moveable Feast: Profiles of Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5. New York: Atlas Video, 1990. Video.
Wood, Jacqueline, and Sonia Sanchez. "'This Thing Called Playwrighting': An Interview with Sonia Sanchez on the Art of Her Drama." African American Review 39:1/2 (Spring-Summer 2005), 119-132. Print.