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Sonia Sanchez

Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham, Alabama, on September 9, 1934, to Wilson L. and Lena Driver. Her mother passed away when she was a baby, and she and her sister, Pat, resided with their paternal grandmother until her death, and then various relatives for several years before their father took them to live with him in Harlem. Because they lived in a cramped dwelling Sanchez felt constricted and isolated. Out of this feeling of isolation she began to write. In the city Sanchez went to public schools and later Hunter College, where she received her B.A. in political science in 1955. She also did postgraduate work at New York University and studied poetry with Louise Bogan, who encouraged her to make writing her career. As a child, Sanchez was appalled by the ways in which lack people were treated in the South and in the North, but did not have the verbal means to express it. In Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Sanchez described herself as a "very shy child, a very introspective child, one who stuttered." All that changed when she became a vocal poet-activist in the Black Power and arts movement during the 1960s. With Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight, and Don L. Lee, she created the "Broadside Quartet" of radical young poets. She became a leading voice in this group. Although her first marriage (date unknown) to Puerto Rican immigrant Albert Sanchez did not last, Sonia Sanchez would remain her professional name. In 1968, Sanchez married poet-activist Etheridge Knight and they had three children: Anita, Morani, and Mungu, but later divorced. During the 1950s and 1960s, she was affiliated with the black arts movement and the civil rights movement in New York City, and she believed at first in integration. Later, when she heard Malcolm X say that blacks would never become part of America's mainstream, she based her identity on her racial heritage. Her poetry focused on the black struggle for liberation from racial and economic oppression and used the language of the streets instead of the language of academe. She became one of the first poets to blend ghetto impressions with lower-case letters, slashes, dashes, hyphenated lines, unconventional spelling, abbreviations, and further untried uses of language and structure to reinterpret what a poem is, does, and for whom it is written. She also has written poems in ballad form, letters, and haikus. Sanchez's initial volume of poems, Homecoming, published in 1969, addressed racial oppression in angry voices taken from street conversations. Haki Madhubuti noted in Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation that she respected the power of urban street talk and was responsible more than any other poet for "legitimizing the use of urban Black English in written form."

William Pitt Root wrote about her early poems in Poetry, "Her poems are raps, good ones, aimed like guns at whatever obstacles she detects standing in the way of Black progress .... Her praises are as generous as her criticisms are severe, both coming from loyalties that are fierce, invulnerable, and knowing. Whether she's addressing her praises to Gwendolyn Brooks or to the late Malcolm X, to her husband or to a stranger's child, always they emerge from and feed back into the shared experience of being Black." By the early 1970s Sanchez had left the "Broadside Quartet" to write and give poetry readings on her own. How her poems sound when read out loud has always been of importance to Sanchez. She has been sought out for her impassioned, bold readings which often create a spontaneous feeling, like that of a jazz solo. The poet has read in Cuba, China, the West Indies, Europe, and on over five hundred campuses in the United States. Since the 1970s she has published a steady stream of poetry books, mainly for adults but also one for children, as well as plays which she had been writing since the 1960s. Her poetry books include, Homegirls and Handgrenades, which won the American Book Award in 1985; We a BaddDDD People, Liberation Poems, It's a New Day: Poems for Young Brothas and Sistuhs, A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women, Love Poems, I've Been a Woman: New and Selected Poems, Under a Soprano Sky, Shake Down Memory, Continuous Fire, Wounded in the House of a Friend, Does Your House Have Lions? and Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems. Sanchez began writing plays while in San Francisco in the 1960s. Her first, The Bronx Is Next, was about the forces destroying community and individuals in Harlem. Sanchez recalled in African American Review that "Dr. Arthur P. Davis, that grand old man of letters down at Howard University, called it one of the great plays of the 1960s. I forever am grateful to him for putting that play into perspective for me." Among Sanchez's other plays are Sister Sonji, Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us?, and Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No Mo'. Sister Sonji was first produced in conjunction with other plays Off-Broadway at the New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theatre in 1972. Uh, Huh: But How Do it Free us? was initially staged in Chicago at the Northwestern University Theatre in 1975. Malcolm Man/Don't Live Here No Mo' was first produced in Philadelphia at the ASCOM Community Center in 1979.