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HomeINSPIRATIONOn the Shoulders of Giants: Sonia Sanchez

On the Shoulders of Giants: Sonia Sanchez

On September 9, 1934, Wilsonia Benita Driver was born in Birmingham, Alabama to parents Wilson and Lena Driver. Lena Driver died when Sanchez was a year old; as a result, Sanchez and her sister were raised by their paternal grandmother until she passed away. From then on the sisters would live with various relatives before moving to Harlem, New York with their father in 1943. Sanchez would begin to write after moving to Harlem; it is said that she began writing to help cope with the feeling of isolation. Writing would help her graduate from Hunter College in 1955 with a Bachelors of Arts. She would continue her postgraduate studies at New York University with a concentration in poetry.

Sanchez was able to create a writer’s workshop in the Greenwich Village area of New York. The workshop attracted such writers as Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni and Etheridge Knight. She was also able to form the “Broadside Quartet” a guild of ambitious talented writers with something to say. Sanchez would meet and marry Albert Sanchez a Puerto Rican immigrant, and the two remained together for a short time before divorcing. In 1968, she married fellow poet and activist Ethridge Knight; the couple would have three children. It is stated that Sanchez’s poetry in the 1970’s was heavily influenced by her experience as a mother.

During the 1960’s Sanchez believed in and supported the idea of integration for black Americans. She would be a mighty supporter of integration until she heard Malcom X speak about black economic self-sufficiency. She began to speak and write more about African culture, African heritage and black liberation around the world. She was quickly labeled as a separatist and someone who supported a black hate group; she ignored her critics and continued to use her writings to uplift her people. She is credited as one of the first writers to incorporate “ghetto impressions” or Africa-American linguistic expressions into her writings. In 1969, she published a book of poems titled Homecoming, which addressed the continuous racial issues of the day.

Early in Sanchez’s career she taught 5th graders at the Downtown Community School in New York City until 1967. She also became a University Professor teaching at eight Universities across the country. While working as a professor at the University of Pittsburg she was instrumental in implementing a course on the study of black American women. This course was very controversial and groundbreaking for the University; it did not have a course on the study of women in general.  Sanchez would leave the “Broadside Quartet” during the 1970’s pursuing a career as a solo poet. Her style of poetry was becoming very popular and sought after. It led to her traveling to Cuba, China, the West Indies, and Europe to recite her poems. She would also become very popular on college campuses across the nation, reading her poetry to students across more than 500 college campuses. She would publish a number of poetry books including her book Homegirls and Handgrenades, which won the American Book award in 1985.

Sanchez would write a number of plays which included The Bronx Is Next, Sister Sonji, Uh, Huh: But How Do It Free Us?, and Malcolm Man/Don’t Live Here No Mo’. She has received many honors and awards over her career such as the Robert Creeley Award, the Frost Medal, the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the Lucretia Mott Award, the Outstanding Arts Award from the Pennsylvania Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Peace and Freedom Award from the Women International League for Peace and Freedom, the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities, a National Endowment for the Arts Award, and a Pew Fellowship in the Arts. She was appointed Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate by Mayor Michael Nutter, serving from 2012 to 2014. Ms. Sonia Sanchez, we stand on your shoulders.

J.A. Ward.

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