Sonia Sanchez was born Wilsonia Benita Driver on September 9, 1934, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her mother died a year later, and Sanchez lived with her paternal grandmother and other relatives for several years. In 1943 she moved to Harlem with her sister to live with their father and his third wife. She earned a B.A. in political science from Hunter College in 1955. She also did postgraduate work at New York University and studied poetry with Louise Bogan.

Sanchez formed a writers' workshop in Greenwich Village, attended by such poets as Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), Haki R. Madhubuti (Don L. Lee), and Larry Neal. Along with Madhubuti, Nikki Giovanni, and Etheridge Knight, she formed the "Broadside Quartet" of young poets, introduced and promoted by Dudley Randall. She married and divorced Albert Sanchez, a Puerto Rican immigrant whose surname she has used when writing, and the poet Etheridge Knight, with whom she had three children.

During the early 1960s she was an integrationist, supporting the philosophy of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). But after considering the ideas of Black Muslim leader Malcolm X, who believed blacks would never be truly accepted by whites in the United States, she focused more on her black heritage from a separatist point of view. Sanchez began teaching in the San Francisco area in 1965 and was a pioneer in developing black studies courses at what is now San Francisco State University, where she was an instructor from 1968 to 1969. In 1971 she joined the Nation of Islam, but by 1976 she had left the Nation, largely because of its repression of women.
Sonia Sanchez