Sonia Sanchez was once described by fellow poet Maya Angelou “as a lion in literature’s forest.” This distinction is no surprise as Sanchez was, and still is, a major figure in the Black Arts Movement and Civil Rights Movement focusing her work on the fight for Black culture, civil rights, and women’s liberation.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama, on Sept. 9, 1934, the poet, mother, and professor grew up in Harlem and received a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Hunter College before attending New York University for graduate school. Sanchez has written over 17 books and collections of poetry that utilize traditional poetic styles, the use of Black vernacular English, and themes that celebrate everyday Blackness. Some of her works include We a BaddDDD People, Love Poems, I’ve Been a Woman, Homegirls and Handgrenades, and Does Your House Have Lions?
The literary figure has also taught courses at eight universities, including Howard University — the Black mecca, and has lectured at more than 500 universities and colleges in the United States. Sanchez’s focus on Black women and Black literature in academia was revolutionary at the time and she advocated for the study’s incorporation into California schools. Her work reverberated over time, and women’s studies and Black literary studies can now be found in most American schools and in some schools abroad.
Furthermore, Sanchez recites her poetry internationally and has recited her poetry in Africa, Cuba, England, the Caribbean, Australia, Europe, Nicaragua, the People’s Republic of China, Norway and Canada. She is a 1985 American Book Award winner, the 1999 Langston Hughes Poetry Award winner, the 2004 Harper Lee Award winner, the Poetry Society of America’s 2001 Robert Frost Medalist winner, and an honorary member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.
A documentary of the activist’s life work was released publicly on June 22, 2016, titled BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez. The 90-minute feature is a multimedia “portrait of the artist” and depicts how Sanchez used her voice and the power of the pen as a means of resistance against the times. Incorporating elemental tones of jazz and blues, Sanchez was the literary lion who roared whenever she recited a poem. She taught W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey and Richard Wright to her students, and used explicit and seductive vocabulary and imagery in her lines, which was looked down upon for a woman at the time. However, she asked listeners to “find the beauty in your blood, [and] the poetry in your blood.” Throughout the documentary, artists and cultural figures like Nikki Giovanni, Amiri Baraka, Ruby Dee, Ursula Rucker, and more recall their experiences with Sanchez and her poetry as it influenced them and American culture as a whole.