It was so intriguing to hear Maya Angelou talk about how, once she became mute after the trauma of childhood sexual abuse and the subsequent death of her abuser, she would hide under her grandmother’s house and read the poetry of Shakespeare. She accredits his poetry as part of the sequence of experiences that lured her back to audible, vocal, self expression. He offered her something and, as unlikely as it may originally seem, reading his words caused her young mind to think that Shakespeare must have been a Black girl, from the south, who had been molested. His words in Sonnet 29 so moved to her heart, whispering familiarity that reassured her that she was understood in how she was feeling and, in so doing, comforted her, informing her that she was not alone. An ancient white man did that for her with is words. And an elder lioness of a woman did that for me with hers.
The first time I sat inside of the pages of Ntozake Shange’s work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, I felt a rushing flood of so many emotions and I simply could not contain, I could not stand, my own self. I couldn’t believe that this piece of work was real, legitimate even. How could someone else get all the things so right and then say them aloud, and print them in a book for everyone to read over and over again? Talk about giving voice to power!
sing a black girl’s song bring her out
to know herself
to know you
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
This choreopoem is layered and loaded with themes, words, sounds, songs, movements and colors that, together, are Shange’s curation of some of the experiences of black girlhood and black womanhood. When it debuted in bars in California in the early 1970’s with just herself and a partner, to its opening on Broadway in September of 1976 and even still now, today in 2017, it resonates with Black women who encounter it; Shange’s masterpiece arrests, affirms, and activates us powerfully.
Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey in 1948. Her mother was an educator and psychiatric social worker, her dad, a surgeon. She and her three siblings were born into the black elite of that time, having access to the likes of W.E.B Dubois, Dizzie Gillespie and Paul Robeson and, later, attending Ivy League schools. It was later, as a young adult that she took a Zulu name, given to her by two South African exiles, Ntozake (she who comes with her own things) Shange (she who walks like a lion). How appropriate for a woman who told our stories so fiercely and fearlessly.
Much of her writing derived from the experiences of her life. While for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is her best known work, it is by far not the only work in Shange’s canon. Other works bearing her mark include Betsey Brown, Some Sing, Some Cry, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Liliane and even some children’s books including one on Coretta Scott King. We cheat ourselves by stopping at just one of her works. We miss out on the whole experience of how she sees the world and what she thinks we should do with it. She’s spent her career writing black women and girls, and other women of color, onto pages and stages creatively and thoughtfully. We can be seen and heard and felt through her pen. One might say that she was one among the originators of what Ava DuVernay has spoken of as “black subjectivity” where black people are the subject, the center of the work. She has written about our pain, joy, conflict, struggle and survival. She has told our stories loud and true and the world has had no choice but to open up and make room for her, make room for all of us.
Photo Credit: Sylvia Plachy, found on The New Yorker