Who Are Sonia Sanchez and Margaret Walker? Birmingham Natives, Of Course
By A.J. Wright
A number of black women born in Alabama have achieved great success or
sometimes great controversy in their lives and careers. Coretta Scott King from
Marion is one who comes immediately to mind. Lesser known in this state is
Marva Collins who was born in Monroeville but who went on to great
achievement as an educator in Chicago. She has published several books based on
her experiences in the Windy City and was the subject of a 1981 made-for-tv
movie in which she was played by Cicely Tyson.
Birmingham has its share of individuals in this group: Condolezza Rice
(academic, National Security Advisor, Secretary of State), Angela Davis (political
activist, academic), Vonetta Flowers (Olympic gold medalist), Odetta (singer) and
Nell Carter (actress and singer). Two well-known American writers who are
Birmingham natives are Margaret Walker and Sonia Sanchez.
Margaret Abigail Walker was born on July 7, 1915, the daughter of a
Methodist minister, Sigismund Walker, and his music teacher wife Marion. Raised
in Mississippi and New Orleans, she graduated from Northwestern University in
Chicago in 1935. The following year she began work with the Federal Writers’
Project, a federal program designed to help authors during the Great Depression.
She earned a creative writing master’s degree from the University of Iowa in
1940. Her thesis, a collection of poems, was published as For My People and won
the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award.
In 1943 she married Firnist James Alexander, an interior designer; by 1949
the family had settled in Mississippi, where Walker had accepted a faculty
position at Jackson State College. In 1968 she founded what is now the Margaret
Walker Center, an archive and museum devoted to the study of African-American
history and culture. She retired in 1979 and died 1998.
Margaret Walker published other collections of poetry as well as nonfiction, but her best known work is probably her only novel, Jubilee. Published in
1966, the novel grew from stories about her great-grandmother, Margaret
Brown. Set in Greenville, Alabama, the novel follows the story of a slave woman
Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver in Birmingham on
September 9, 1934, and attended Tuggle Elementary School. In 1943 she went to
live with her father, sister and stepmother in Harlem. She graduated from New
York City’s Hunter College in 1955. She later studied poetry under Louise Bogan at
New York University. Sanchez has retained the name of her first husband
although that marriage did not last. A second marriage to poet Etheridge Knight
also ended in divorce.
Over the course of her still-active career Sanchez has published a number
of poetry books as well as plays and children’s books. She taught at eight different
universities before her retirement from Temple University in Philadelphia in 1999.
She has read her work and lectured at more than 500 colleges in the U.S. and
other countries. In addition to other awards, she received the Harper Lee Award
for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year in 2004. You can learn more about
her life and work at soniasanchez.net