Wanda Evans was born in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where she grew up during the 1950s and 1960s. She is the eldest of four children. Her parents were George and Lewana (Scott) Evans, who were introduced to one another at church by his aunt. In 1931, her father had relocated to Los Angeles from Little Rock, Arkansas, after the lynching of a young man who was hung from a church steeple. He was an ex-boxer and long-time friend and sparring partner of Light Heavyweight Champion Archie Moore. In Los Angeles, he ran a sign shop during the day and worked the graveyard shift as a janitor at RCA Victor Records. Her mother worked as a seamstress and as a housekeeper for Ronald Reagan, among other celebrities.
After graduating from John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles, Wanda Evans enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College in Van Nuys, California. She transferred to California State University at Los Angeles, but did not complete a degree.
Shortly after finishing high school, she married white Southerner Charles Coleman, a troubleshooter for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in the 1960s. Their union produced two children, Luanda and Anthony. She went on to marry two more times. Her third husband was poet Austin Straus, whom she married in 1981.
Coleman received fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the California Arts Council (in fiction and in poetry). She was the first C.O.L.A. Literary Fellow (Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, 2003). Her honors included an Emmy in Daytime Drama writing, the 1999 Lenore Marshall Prize (for Bathwater Wine), and a nomination for the 2001 National Book Awards (for Mercurochrome). She was a finalist for California poet laureate (2005).
While critically acclaimed for her creative writing, Coleman's greatest notoriety came as a result of an unfavorable review she wrote in the April 14, 2002, issue of the Los Angeles Times Book Review of Maya Angelou's book A Song Flung Up to Heaven. Coleman found the book to be "small and inauthentic, without ideas wisdom or vision". Coleman's review provoked positive and negative responses, including the cancellation of events and the rescinding of invitations. Her account of this incident appears in the September 16, 2002, edition of The Nation.
"In our post-9/11 America, where unwarranted suspicions and the fear of terrorism threaten to overwhelm long-coveted individual freedoms, a book review seems rather insignificant--until the twin specters of censorship and oppression are raised. What has made our nation great, despite its tortuous history steeped in slavery, are those who have persisted in honoring those freedoms, starting with the Constitution and its amendments. It is this striving toward making those freedoms available to every citizen, regardless of race, creed, color, gender or origin, that makes the rest of the insanity tolerable. It is what allows me to voice my opinion, be it praise song or dissent, no matter who disagrees.".
- The World Falls Away. University of Pittsburgh Press. 2011. ISBN 9780822961642.
- Jazz and Twelve O'Clock Tales. Godine/Black Sparrow Books. 2008. ISBN 9781574232127.
- My Crowning Glory. Brickbat Revue. 2006.
- The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors. David R. Godine Publisher. 2005. ISBN 9781574232004.
- Wanda Coleman--Greatest Hits: 1966-2003. Pudding House Publications. ISBN 9781930755192.
- Ostinato Vamps Pitt Poetry Series, 2003-2004. ISBN 9780822958338
- Mercurochrome. Black Sparrow. 2001. ISBN 9781574231533. National Book Awards finalist.
- Mambo Hips and Make Believe: A Novel. Black Sparrow. 1999. ISBN 9781574230949.
- Bathwater Wine. Black Sparrow. 1998. ISBN 9781574230642.
- Native In a Strange Land: Trials & Tremors. Black Sparrow. 1996. ISBN 9781574230222.
- American Sonnets Woodland Pattern 1994.
- Hand Dance. Black Sparrow. 1993. ISBN 9780876858967.
- African Sleeping Sickness: Stories & Poems. Black Sparrow. 1990. ISBN 9780876858127.
- A War of Eyes and Other Stories. Black Sparrow. 1988. ISBN 9780876857359.
- Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 Black Sparrow 1987.
- Imagoes Black Sparrow 1983. ISBN 9780876855096
- Mad Dog Black Lady. Black Sparrow. 1979. ISBN 9780876854129.
- Good Dog Black Sparrow 1979.
- "Revising Western Criticism Through Wanda Coleman," essay by Krista Comer; Western American Quarterly Journal of the Western Literature Association, Vol. XXXIII, No. 4., Utah State University, Dept. of English, Logan UT, Winter 1999.
- "Literature and Race in Los Angeles," by Julian Murphet, Cambride University Press, 2001.
- AMERICAN WRITERS: A Collection of Literary Biographies, Jay Parini, Editor, article by Tony Magistrale, 2002.
- "City of Poems: The Lyric Voice in Los Angeles Since 1990," by Laurence Goldstein, from THE MISREAD CITY: New Literary Los Angeles, Dana Gioia and Scott Timberg, Editors, Red Hen Press, 2003.
- "What Saves Us" interview of Coleman by Priscilla Ann Brown, Callaloo Vol. 26, No.3, Dept. of English, Texas A & M University, 2003.
- "Wanda Coleman" biographical essay, A-Z of African American Writers, Philip Bader, Editor, Facts-on-File, NY, 2004.
- "Wanda Coleman," cover and interview by Jeff Jensen, Chiron Review, Issue 79, Summer 2005.
- "Wanda Coleman," featured poet in Quercus Review #6, Sam Pierstorff, Editor, Dept. of English, Modesto Junior College, California, 2006.
- Academy of American Poets
- Wanda Coleman's Book Club
- "LA’s Unofficial Poet Laureate Dies At 67". CBS Los Angeles. 1946-11-13. Retrieved 2013-11-25.
- Coleman, Wanda (2005). The Riot Inside Me: More Trials & Tremors. David R. Godine Publisher. ISBN 9781574232004.
- "Book Reviewing, African-American Style". The Nation. September 16, 2002. Retrieved May 30, 2015.