“Her commitment to the black community and to all of humanity is unwavering. She gives us hope and reminds us that the power to transform ourselves lies within our minds and souls.

By Brenda Greene
My mentor, colleague and sister-friend, Dr. Sonia Sanchez, a woman warrior, poet, activist, educator and advocate for human rights and peace, a woman whose words have inspired, excited and motivated writers, students, poets, playwrights, scholars and the literary community for decades, is a wordsmith in the tradition of the griot: a storyteller and musician, a transmitter of cultural heritage and history, and a curator of our oral traditions. Although I watched her performances from a distance in the late 60s and 70s, I had not met Dr. Sonia Sanchez during those Black Arts Movement years. Little did I know that she would become my friend and my mentor.

I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Sanchez when I first arrived at Medgar Evers College in 1980. At that time we had programs that allowed black writers and artists to come and give readings, performances and lectures to our students. She often presented literary programs sponsored by the Department of Special Programs, now known as SEEK, where I taught English. Over the years, our friendship and mentoring relationship has grown. She was a frequent participant in the National Black Writers Conference, devised by the late John Oliver Killens in 1986, and we honored her with the John Oliver Killens Lifetime Achievement Award at the Ninth National Black Writers Conference.

During a program called “This Rock and DC Poets Against the War”, held at the Association of Writing Programs annual convention, she was introduced as “a mighty, powerful poet”. His message to this forum, etched in my memory, speaks to his mantra of “teachable moments” with our students. Whenever she speaks with teachers, she emphasizes the importance of reminding students that the survival of their communities, their nation and their future is intimately linked to struggle and resistance. In their role as teachers, they are responsible for equipping students with the strategies and tools they will need to effect change.

As listeners, spectators and witnesses of his readings and performances filled with songs and images that connect us to our ancestral roots and culture, we listened to his voice become an instrument, adding to the richness and dynamism of the layered poetry and prose that feeds our minds and emotions. She creates sensual, female-centered poetry that depicts the raw emotion of love, pain, conflict, challenge, and heartache that women go through. She takes us on a rich historical and cultural journey of poetry and prose centered on critical issues that examine the impact of politics, race, homophobia, war, violence and the struggle of classes on the lives of the people of this nation and our global society. His commitment to the black community and all of humanity is unwavering. Dr. Sonia Sanchez gives us hope and reminds us that the power to transform ourselves lies within our minds and souls.

A leading figure in the black arts movement. Sonia Sanchez was a pioneer in developing the first college-level black arts courses in America in the late 1960s. Below are more highlights from her career.

Poet. Mother. Teacher. National and international speaker on black culture and literature, women’s liberation, peace and racial justice. Sponsor of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Member of the Board of Directors of MADRE. Sonia Sanchez is the author of over 20 books including Homecoming, We a BaddDDD People, Love Poems, I’ve Been a Woman, A Sound Investment and Other Stories, Homegirls and Handgrenades, Under a Soprano Sky, Wounded in the House of to Friend. (Beacon Press 1995), Does Your House Have Lions? (Beacon Press, 1997), Like the Singing Coming off the Drums (Beacon Press, 1998), Shake Loose My Skin (Beacon Press, 1999), Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010) and, more recently, Collected Poems (Beacon Press , 2021).

In addition to contributing editors to Black Scholar and the Journal of African Studies, she edited an anthology, We Be Word Sorcerers: 25 Stories by Black Americans. BMA: The Sonia Sanchez literary magazine is the first African-American magazine that deals with the work of Sonia Sanchez and the Black Arts Movement. Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts, the Lucretia Mott Award for 1984, the Outstanding Arts Award from the Pennsylvania Coalition of 100 Black Women, the Community Service Award from the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, she is the winner of the 1985 American Book Award for Homegirls and Handgrenades, the Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Humanities for 1988, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) Peace and Freedom Award for 1989, a PEW in the Arts Fellowship for 1992-1993, and the recipient of the Langston Hughes Poetry Award for 1999. Does your house have lions? was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a 2001 Robert Frost Medalist from the Poetry Society of America and a Ford Freedom Scholar from the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. His poetry also appeared in the movie Love Jones.

Sonia Sanchez has lectured at over 500 universities and colleges in the United States and has traveled widely, reading her poetry in Africa, Cuba, England, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, Nicaragua, the People’s Republic from China, Norway and Canada. She was the first Presidential Scholar at Temple University and she held the Laura Carnell Professorship in English at Temple University. She is the recipient of the Harper Lee Award, 2004, Alabama Distinguished Writer, and the National Visionary Leadership Award for 2006. She is the recipient of the Leeway Foundation Transformational Award 2005 and the Robert Creeley Award 2009. Currently, Sonia Sanchez is one of 20 women African-American women featured in “Freedom Sisters,” an interactive exhibit created by the Cincinnati Museum Center and the traveling exhibit of the Smithsonian Institution. In December 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter selected Sonia Sanchez as Philadelphia’s first Poet Laureate, calling her “the city’s longtime conscience”.
Part Two — Fern E. Gillespie’s exclusive interview with the writer appears in Our Time Press later this month.
Happy birthday, Sonia Sanchez