Sonia Sanchez Awarded the Gish Prize for Lifetime Achievement

Legendary poet, educator, and activist Sonia Sanchez is this year’s winner of the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the New York Times reports.

Established in 1994 through the estate of Lillian Gish and her sister actor Dorothy Gish, the honor is bestowed upon “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.” The prize comes with a cash award of about $250,000.

“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 Thursday.

“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,” she added.

The 87-year-old Sanchez is the author of more than 20 books including Shake Loose My Skin: New and Selected Poems, Homegirls and Handgrenades, and her latest Collected Poems, which was published earlier this year. She came to prominence as was one of the central figures of the Black Arts Movement that emerged during the 1960s. 

In 1976,Sanchez had relocated to Philadelphia where she taught at Temple University for Temple University. She served as the Laura Carnell Chair in English and was named the university’s first Presidential Fellow.

Her work encompasses Black feminism, Black liberation, and peace.

In an interview, Sanchez explained that the pandemic helped her to find a new purpose in her work.

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“When we come out of the pandemic, it’s so important that we don’t insist that we go back to the way things were,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got to strive for beauty, which is something I’ve tried to do in my work.”

Zeyba Rahman who led the five-member selection committee chose Sanchez unanimously out of 50 finalists. In a statement, he said that the award recognizes Sanchez’s “extraordinary literary gift and her lifelong commitment to speaking up for social justice.”

“Now in her late 80s, Ms. Sanchez actively continues her vital work today,” said Rahman, 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.”

On Nov. 11, Sanchez will reprise her role in Christian McBride’sThe Movement Revisited,” reciting the words of Rosa Parks, at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

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