American Literature Sonia Sanchez
Jennifer Ryan-Bryant
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0134


Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934–), was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died when she was one year old, after which she lived with her grandmother; she moved to New York City at age nine with her father, sister, and stepmother. There she wrote poetry and fiction, concealing her work because of a stutter, and learned about the history of black literature at Harlem’s Schomburg Library. She received a bachelor of arts degree in political science from Hunter College in 1955 and studied creative writing with poet Louise Bogan at New York University. After publishing her first collection of poetry, Home Coming, in 1969, she quickly gained a reputation as one of the most important voices of the Black Arts Movement. This book and We a BaddDDD People (1970) established her commitment to black nationalism; her interest in the urban settings, defiant tone, and political critiques common to the jazz elegy; and her innovative formal traits. With her first husband, Albert Sanchez, whom Sanchez married in the 1950s, she had a daughter, Anita. She married her second husband, fellow Black Arts poet Etheridge Knight, in 1968; they had twin sons, Morani and Mungu. As a member of the Nation of Islam from 1972 until 1974, Sanchez published A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1974) in celebration of the spiritual support she found there, but she left over ideological differences. The mid-1970s witnessed a shift in her poetry’s rhetoric and style. Eschewing the sometimes militant politics characteristic of her earlier work, books like I’ve Been a Woman (1978), Homegirls and Handgrenades (1984), and Under a Soprano Sky (1987) focus instead on themes of love, community, self-empowerment, and recognition for public leaders. She explores the haiku, tanka, and sonku forms and promotes blues sensibilities as a central component of African American cultural identity. Later works continue her experiments with forms, such as the epic in Does Your House Have Lions? (1997) and the haiku in Morning Haiku (2010). Sanchez joined the Temple University Department of English in 1977, where she held the Laura Carnell Chair until her retirement in 1999; she still serves as their poet-in-residence. In addition to her work as a poet, she has published seven plays and a number of essays, and she has edited two anthologies of black literature. A dynamic and performative speaker, she gives lectures and readings across the United States and in other countries, and she has fostered close connections with rap and hip-hop artists. Her life and work are the subjects of the 2015 documentary BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez. She is also committed to a variety of activist causes, including the Brandywine Peace Community, MADRE, and Plowshares. Her many awards include a PEN Writing Award, an American Book Award, the Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime service to American poetry, the Langston Hughes Poetry Award, the Academy of American Poets’ Wallace Stevens Award, the Cleveland Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2021 Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, and the 2022 MacDowell Medal. She served as Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate from 2012 until 2014 and remains one of the most widely celebrated and critically acknowledged American poets of all time.

General Overviews

General studies of Sanchez’s work tend to focus on the childhood inception of her work, her Black Arts period, her political commitments, and her work’s musical influences. Joyce 1983 and Joyce 1996 offer the most useful analyses of her compositional techniques, while Madhubuti 1984 looks closely at the links she draws between language use and cultural identity. De Lancey 1995 and De Lancey 1996 attempt to position her in relation to specific cultural and critical moments. Williams 1984, ya Salaam 1997, and Conner 2006 provide background information on Sanchez’s dominant influences and recurring themes.

  • Conner, Lauri. “Sonia Sanchez: A Retrospective Movement and the Writer’s Life: An Interview.” In Page to Page: Retrospectives of Writers from The Seattle Review. Edited by Colleen J. McElroy, 35–45. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

    Contains rare photographs of Sanchez as a child and with her own children and friends. Conner explores her concerns with truth, resistance to categorization, mentorship of younger generations, and approaches to writing within formal constraints.

  • De Lancey, Frenzella E. “This Is Not a Small Voice: Sonia Sanchez . . . Riddle for the Critics?” BMa: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review 1.1 (1995): 30–51.

    This article, from the inaugural issue of BMa, evaluates several of the representative critical reactions to Sanchez’s work, including pieces by Helen Vendler, Haki Madhubuti, Joyce A. Joyce, Kalamu ya Salaam, and George Kent. De Lancey also notes her absence from some prominent anthologies and the difficulty of categorizing her work and its historical context.

  • De Lancey, Frenzella E. “Scientist and Poet: The Ausetian Paradigm.” BMa: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review 1.2 (1996): 14–40.

    Assesses “the interdisciplinary nature of the African American intellectual tradition” through Sanchez’s poetry and the work of psychiatrist Francis Cress Welsing (p. 17), arguing that Sanchez attempts to articulate the social functions of black poetry. De Lancey focuses on Sanchez’s success at decoding political contradictions and reenergizing African heritage through symbols.

  • Joyce, Joyce A. “The Development of Sonia Sanchez: A Continuing Journey.” Indian Journal of American Studies 13 (1983): 37–71.

    Offers an early corrective to the dearth of scholarship on Sanchez’s work and on women Black Arts poets in general. By examining prominent themes and forms in her first six collections of poetry, Joyce assesses her evolving “artistic consciousness” and provides a useful analysis of her compositional strategies.

  • Joyce, Joyce A. Ijala: Sonia Sanchez and the African Poetic Tradition. Chicago: Third World, 1996.

    Argues that Sanchez’s work helped to create the Black Arts aesthetic. Highlights of the critique include African origins of the poetry’s stylistic features; links to oral performance techniques; themes of cultural identity, community, and heritage; and connections among language, politics, music, and religion in the poetry. This is the only book-length study that focuses exclusively on Sanchez’s writing.

  • Madhubuti, Haki. “Sonia Sanchez: The Bringer of Memories.” In Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Mari Evans, 419–432. New York: Anchor, 1984.

    Emphasizes themes of community, black political struggle, and love. Along with an analysis of experimental linguistic elements derived from black speech patterns, Madhubuti provides readings of poems from her first four books and notes her position as a role model for younger poets.

  • Williams, David. “The Poetry of Sonia Sanchez.” In Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. Edited by Mari Evans, 433–448. New York: Anchor, 1984.

    Considers the evolution of dominant themes in Sanchez’s poetry across multiple books and her responses to Black Arts calls for activist poetry and black rhetoric. Williams reads almost twenty different Sanchez poems.

  • ya Salaam, Kalamu. “Love and Liberation: Sonia Sanchez’s Literary Uses of the Personal.” BMa: The Sonia Sanchez Literary Review 3.1 (1997): 57–120.

    Studies themes of personal pain and African-influenced worldviews in Sanchez’s poetry. The piece also includes biographical information, ties her work to the politics of Frantz Fanon, and notes her rejection of integrationist perspectives in favor of working-class values. Ya Salaam analyzes her work’s recurring blues tropes and traditional poetic forms through extensive quotes from relevant poems.

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