Sonia Sanchez
National Visionary

Born September 9, 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama

Poet, playwright, activist and educator, Sonia Sanchez is best known as one of the architects of the Black Arts Movement, one of the most prolific periods of African American cultural production in the United States.

During the 1960s, Sonia Sanchez emerged as one of the strongest and most respected voices of the Black Arts Movement. The poet, playwright, activist and educator is also credited with having started the nation’s first Black Studies department.

Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934 in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother Lena (Jones) Driver died a year after Sanchez was born, leaving her and her sister to be raised by their father, Wilson L. Driver, and her paternal grandmother. Sanchez’s family later moved to Harlem, where she grew up. The death of her grandmother, the only mother she had ever known, motivated Sanchez to write her first poem at age six.

Sanchez as a young woman
She graduated from Hunter College in New York in 1955, with a bachelor’s degree in political science. Sanchez became involved with the Civil Rights Movement and then joined the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). She met both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, but it was the latter who greatly influenced her work. After hearing Malcolm X speak, Sanchez, who had been an integrationist, focused more on her black heritage and wrote from a nationalist point of view.

Sanchez began graduate study at New York University, but withdrew after a year. While there, she studied with American poet Louise Bogan, who helped Sanchez get her first published poem in the New England Review. Sanchez went on to become a prolific writer. She is the author of 16 books that range from poetry to children’s writing. Her first two collections, Homecoming (1969) and We a BaddDDD People (1970), are reflective of her radicalism and affiliation with the Black Arts Movement.

Through the Black Arts Movement, she became associated with writers, such as LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) and Larry Neal. Although Sanchez’s work had been published previously in various literary journals, she did not consider herself a poet. It was only after Baraka published her poems in a French journal that she began defining herself as a poet.

In 1967, Sanchez began teaching at San Francisco State College (now University), where she helped start the first Black Studies Department. Although the university’s president later shut down the program, it became a prototype for other universities to launch their own programs.

Between 1969 and 1977, Sanchez taught at several universities, including the University of Pittsburgh, Rutgers University, Manhattan Community College, City College of the City University of New York and Amherst College.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
Sanchez began teaching at Temple University in 1977, and remained there for two decades before retiring in 1999. While at Temple, she published the autobiographical Homegirls & Handgrenades (1984), which won her the 1985 American Book Award.

She is also the recipient of the 1999 Langston Hughes Poetry Award, and is the 2001 Poetry Society of America’s Robert Frost Medalist.

Sanchez, who has also written seven plays, has lectured at more than 500 universities and colleges in the United States, and has read her work in various parts of the world, including Africa, Cuba and China. Her recent poetry collections include Like Singing Coming off the Drums (1998) and Shake Loose My Skin (1999).

She has not only been a strong voice for social justice, but has also helped others to find their own voice.

Ms. Sanchez has three children, Morani, Mungu and Anita Sanchez.


Sonia Sanchez's Wikipedia Page

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/sanchezsonia