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The Gish Prize Honors Sonia Sanchez for Inspiring Change Through the Power of the Word

By Christian Coleman

Sonia Sanchez
Author photo: Jim Alexander

You know who ranks supreme on our list of national treasures? Poet, educator, and activist Sonia Sanchez! Know this if you haven’t known it already.

Ms. Sanchez won another lifetime achievement award, the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize. Two years ago, she won the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Award. The Gish Prize is given each year to “a highly accomplished artist from any discipline who has pushed the boundaries of an art form, contributed to social change, and paved the way for the next generation.” This has Ms. Sanchez written all over it. A founder of the Black Arts movement and, as Maya Angelou dubbed her, “a lion in literature’s forest,” she has been dedicated to the causes of Black liberation, social equality, and women’s rights. She has more than earned it. The prize comes with a $250,000 cash award.

In response, Ms. Sanchez said, “What an honor it is to receive this award, most especially since we as a country are attempting to answer the most important question facing us: what does it mean to be human? I promise, as other artists do, that I will continue to write and talk about the importance of answering this question—the importance of celebrating the beauty of the world and its people.”

We had the honor of Ms. Sanchez inviting our director, Helene Atwan, and our publicist, Perpetua Charles, to the award dinner in New York City last month. Helene shared a moment of the wonderful event on Twitter.

For the past three and a half years, Perpetua has worked as Ms. Sanchez’s publicist and finally met the luminous and revolutionary poet for the first time in person at the dinner. On Instagram, she wrote that Ms. Sanchez “is an extraordinary person, and I am lucky to have this connection with her and our culture’s history.” We will never forget this night!

The full scope of her achievements in poetry across the decades shines in her latest book, Collected Poems. Beginning with her earliest work, including poems from her first volume, Homecoming (1969), through to 2019, Ms. Sanchez has collected her favorite work in all forms of verse, from Haiku to excerpts from book-length narratives, as well as poems written especially for youth and young adults.

This moment in our history sees young people especially passionate about social change. Young people like poet Amanda Gorman. To this day, we’re still thinking about Ms. Gorman delivering her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. That’s what you call fire! Ms. Sanchez’s writing encourages current and future generations of artists, activists, leaders, and advocates for justice to stand up for what they believe in. Collected Poems will inspire love and community engagement among her many fans and introduce new lovers of poetry to one of the greatest American poets in history.

Now Ms. Sanchez isn’t one to rest on her laurels. Poetry is as essential to her as is breathing. She still has verses upon verses to compose. As she had told Philadelphia Magazine, she isn’t done with us yet: “I’m an 86-years-of-age woman whose work continues, and it will continue to my last breath. This is how I have moved on this Earth. I have tried to move on this Earth in a righteous way.”

Let’s give it up for Ms. Sanchez! We join our applause with these awesome people:

“This world is a better place because of Sonia Sanchez: more livable, more laughable, more manageable. I wish millions of people knew that some of the joy in their lives comes from the fact that Sonia Sanchez is writing poetry.”
—Maya Angelou

“Her songs of destruction and loss scrape the heart; her praise songs thunder and revitalize. We need these songs for our journey together into the next century.”
—Joy Harjo

“The poetry of Sonia Sanchez is full of power and yet always clean and uncluttered. It makes you wish you had thought those thoughts, felt those emotions, and, above all, expressed them so effortlessly and so well.”
—Chinua Achebe, Nobel Prize laureate

“Sonia Sanchez remains one of the most read, respected, and visible figures of the Black Arts Movement.”
—Amiri Baraka

“No one can read your work, Sonia, and not realize that you have always had us on your mind, in your heart, and in those small tensile fingers of your writing hand; in your voice crafted and designed for more than the ear: for the aorta, the spine, and the soles of our feet. You have spoken for us . . . Written for us . . . Sung to us . . . How much in your debt we are.”
—Toni Morrison 


About the Author 

Christian Coleman is the digital marketing manager at Beacon Press and editor of Beacon Broadside. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @coleman_II.