Sonia Sanchez, 81, born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the era of strict racial segregation, has lived in Germantown for nearly 40 years and has become Philadelphia’s poet laureate. (Photo by Jim Alexander)

Sonia Sanchez, 81, born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the era of strict racial segregation, has lived in Germantown for nearly 40 years and has become Philadelphia’s poet laureate. (Photo by Jim Alexander)

by Constance Garcia-Barrio

The numbers defy all that might have silenced Sonia Sanchez: author of 16 books of poetry; lecturer at 500 colleges and universities; recipient of bushels of honors, including the American Book Award, the Robert Frost Medal and first Poet Laureate of Philadelphia.

One wouldn’t have foreseen such a life for Sanchez, 81, born in Birmingham, Alabama, in the Jim Crow era. She was one year old when her mother died in childbirth. Her paternal grandmother took Sanchez and her sister Patty to live with her. “Momma loved us to death,” said Sanchez, who has lived in Germantown for nearly 40 years.

From early on, Sanchez was drawn to the printed page. “I would always be sticking a book in someone’s face, so momma said to my aunt, ‘Why don’t you teach that child to read?'” By age 4, Sanchez could read. By 6, she could write.

Other activities also shaped Sanchez’s days. “My aunt would say, ‘Go wake momma!’ I would hop on momma’s bed, jump up and down several times and then hop off,” Sanchez said. “By that time momma would be awake.” One day when Sanchez, still a little girl, jumped up and down on the bed, momma didn’t move. She had died.

Sanchez and Patty lived with a succession of relatives. Sanchez began to stutter. That difficulty deepened her shyness, but in time she found her way around it. “In high school, I had someone read my poetry for me,” she said.

In a writing class at Hunter College in New York City, where Sanchez lived with her father and step-mother, a different obstacle loomed. The first assignment was to write about something that had happened that was different or odd.

“I wrote about how my father came home angry one day,” Sanchez said. “He slammed the door, something he had never done, and said, ‘Damn that man!’ He had never cursed in front of his children before.”

It turned out that a white man had spoken to Sanchez’s father on an elevator, and at the end of the conversation the man had patted him on the head. “My father was furious, but he had grown up in the South where it was worth a black man’s life to express his anger.”

The teacher couldn’t see why Sanchez’ father was mad, and he left the composition swimming in red ink. A second honest essay about fear because of race brought the same reaction from the teacher. “For the rest of the semester, I wrote fantasies, stories about ghosts and faces emerging from the mirror,” Sanchez said. “I got A’s, but I was just writing for the grades.” Sanchez tried several poetry courses but dropped out when her largely male fellow students responded to her work with silence.

She persevered. At New York University where she did postgraduate work, Sanchez found a mentor in Louise Bogan, poetry editor of the New Yorker for nearly 40 years. “She had us write sonnets, villanelles and other forms, a poem a week,” Sanchez said. “I sold a poem to a prestigious magazine while I was in Louise’s class. I brought in wine to celebrate because I knew she liked to drink.”

As Sanchez became widely published, certain critics wanted her to muzzle her sometimes-raw language. “You write ‘mother  f—ers’ in some poems,” one critic said.

“That’s because of what you’re doing to my people,” Sanchez replied. One of Sanchez’s poems deals with the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham that killed four little girls in Birmingham.

Sanchez, who has twin sons and a daughter, wrestled with the dilemma of mothering, teaching and continuing to write. “I had to write from 1 to 3 a.m. or 3:30, then get up at 6, make breakfast and get the children off to school,” said Sanchez, who has three grandchildren.

Family life informed Sanchez’s writing in another way. After her gay younger brother died of AIDS, Sanchez wrote “Does Your House Have Lions?” a volume of poems nominated for the 1998 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry. The poems, presented in four voices — brother, father, sister and ancestors —reflect the young man’s suffering but also how family relationships healed as he became more ill.

Family stands at the heart of many of Sanchez’s poems, but her works range from poems of protest to plays and children’s books. There’s still a topic that cries out for poets to address, she feels. “The world needs more love poems, love of husbands, wives, children, the earth. What are we without love?”

Professor Sonia Sanchez gave a reading and did a book signing Saturday, June 20, at Green Street Friends Meeting, 35 W. School House Lane. This event helped to provide scholarships for the annual International Black Liberation and Community Development Workshop, which helps to prepare black leaders in these critical times.

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