Philadelphia’s own Sonia Sanchez has won the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, one of the country’s most prestigious and generous arts honors.
The poet, educator, and activist was selected for the $250,000 cash award “in recognition of her ongoing achievements in inspiring change through the power of the word,” the Gish Prize Trust announced Thursday.
The late actress Lillian Gish wrote in her will that this honor should be given to people who “made an outstanding contribution to the beauty of the world and to mankind’s enjoyment and understanding of life.”
The 87-year-old Sanchez has contributed through her writing, poetry, mentorship, and activism in the civil and human rights movements. She has written more than 20 books, including Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, Homegirls and Handgrenades, and Collected Poems, published earlier this year.
“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?” Sanchez said in a statement. “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.”
This is one of dozens of distinguished honors that have been bestowed upon Sanchez throughout her life. Among them: the Wallace Stevens Award of the Academy of American Poets, the Robert Frost Medal and the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America, the Langston Hughes Poetry Award, the American Book Award, and the Academy of American Poets’ inaugural Leadership Award.
Born in Birmingham, Ala., she became a leader in the Blacks Art Movement of the 1960s. In 1976, she moved to Philadelphia, settling in Germantown. For more than two decades, she taught at Temple University, where she served as the Laura Carnell Chair in English and was named the university’s first Presidential Fellow.
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Sanchez is set to participate in next week’s virtual 60th anniversary conference of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and to perform in Christian McBride’s The Movement Revisited at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in November.
“Now in her late 80s, Ms. Sanchez actively continues her vital work today,” said Zeyba Rahman, chair of this year’s Gish Prize selection committee and senior program officer of the Building Bridges Program of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art. “She is an innovator on the page, an electric presence in performance, a mind-expanding mentor in the classroom, and a resolute, indefatigable force on the frontlines of change. In all these dimensions, she is the embodiment of the qualities that the Gish Prize celebrates.”