When African American writer Ntozake Shange's (born 1948) for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem appeared on the theater scene in New York City in 1975, it achieved immense popularity. Ten years later, it was still being produced in various theaters throughout the United States. With this "choreo poem"—a performance piece made up of a combination of poems and dance—Shange introduced various themes and concerns that continue to characterize her writings and performances. Her works are often angry diatribes against social forces that contribute to the oppression of black women in the United States combined with a celebration of women's self-fulfillment and spiritual survival.
Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams, the oldest of Paul and Eloise Owens Williams's four children, on October 18, 1948, in Trenton, New Jersey. Shange experienced what Sandra L. Richards described in African American Writers as a "childhood blessed with material security and loving parents who traveled widely, maintained an international set of friends, and transmitted a pride in African and African American cultures." Shange explained her parents' influence to Claudia Tate: "My parents have always been especially involved in all kinds of Third World culture. We used to go to hear Latin music, jazz and symphonies, to see ballets… . I was always aware that there were different kinds of black people all over the world… . So I knew I wasn't on this planet by myself. I had some connections with other people."
The family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1953 when Shange was five years old, and she was one of the first children to integrate the public school system. However, the young Shange rebelled at an early age against her parents' middle-class complacency, identifying with the live-in domestic help who took care of her when she was a child. In 1961 the Williams family moved to Lawrenceville, New Jersey. At Morristown High School, Shange wrote poetry centered on black themes and subjects. Although she was published in the school magazine, her choice of subject matter was criticized, and she began to realize her need for black women role models. As she told Michele Wallace in the Village Voice, "There was nothing to aspire to, no one to honor. [Nineteenth-century civil rights advocate] Sojourner Truth wasn't a big enough role model for me. I couldn't go around abolishing slavery."
In 1966 Shange enrolled at Barnard College and separated from her husband, a law student. She attempted suicide several times, frustrated by what Richards termed "a society that penalized intelligent, purposeful women." Nonetheless, she graduated with honors in American Studies in 1970 and entered the University of Southern California at Los Angeles, where she earned a master's degree in American Studies in 1973.
In 1971 Shange adopted her Zulu name: Ntozake means "she who comes with her own things," and Shange translates as "one who walks with lions." She explained to Allan Wallach in Newsday that the name change was due, in part, to her belief that she was "living a lie:" "[I was] living in a world that defied reality as most black people, or most white people, understood it—in other words, feeling that there was something that I could do, and then realizing that nobody was expecting me to do anything because I was colored and I was also female, which was not very easy to deal with."
Moving to California put Shange in touch with a feminist perspective. She related to Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work that she didn't "start out to write feminist tracts." She continued, "I was writing what I had to write, and the people who wanted to hear what I was writing were women." She soon joined a Third World Women's Cooperative, which she explained to Tate was "supportive and instrumental" in her development: "I didn't really do anything about integrating feminism and black consciousness. We met together in groups by ourselves: black, white, Asian, and Native-American women. We did our work for our own people, and all of my work just grew from there."
While living in California and teaching humanities and women's studies courses at Mills College in Oakland, the University of California Extension, and Sonoma State College, Shange began to associate with poets, teachers, performers, and black and white feminist writers who nurtured her talents. Lesbian poet Judy Grahn's 1973 The Common Woman provided the model for Shange's work for colored girls. Shange also discovered other women poets who were exploring the "implications of liberation movements as they affected the lives of women of color" and "rejecting the claims of patriarchy," observed Richards in African American Writers. Shange and her friends began to perform their poetry, music, and dance in bars and coffeehouses in the San Francisco area, and feminist presses like Shameless Hussy and the Oakland Women's Press Collective began to publish women's writings.
Shange's first experience with women's theater also occurred while she was in California. Because of her exposure to New World African religions, choreographer Halifu Osumare cast Shange as a priestess in The Evolution of Black Dance, a dance-drama performed in Oakland and Berkeley public schools in 1973 and 1974. Richards remarked that Shange "became imbued with Osumare's confidence in the legitimacy of their own women-centered/ African-centered vision." When she left the company, Shange began to collaborate on poems, dance, and music that would form the basis of for colored girls.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf is a mixture of genres—poems, narratives, dialogues, dance—dramatized through the voices of and interaction among the seven women characters who represent the black woman "[who has] been dead so long/ closed in silence so long/she doesn't know the sound/of her own voice/her infinite beauty." "The collage of danced poems," a choreopoem, according to Richards, "is a gift or a song calculated to restore [the black woman] to life… . Because the women play multiple unnamed characters, what emerges is not an individual protagonist but an essential Everywoman." As one of the characters says, we want to "sing a black girl's song… . Sing a song of life, she's been dead so long."
Remaining in New York until 1982, Shange produced several plays, including Spell # 7: A Geechee Quick Magic Trance Manual, which received some positive reviews. In this production, Shange returns to the choreopoem structure, building the play on a series of poetry and dance vignettes that contemplate what it is like to be black in the United States. The main icon of the play is a black minstrel mask that dominates the set, providing what Richards referred to in African American Writers as "a specific historical context and a temporally undifferentiated psychic terrain … a hideous representation of blacks in the American popular imagination." At the turning point of the play, the characters begin to rip off their masks and to journey to a land behind the masks where, Richards observed, "blacks are free to create identities unfettered by white assumptions." In this "exorcised space," Richards continued, "the actors explore a complexity seldom accorded black characters."
Began Writing Fiction
During her New York years, Shange also began writing fiction. Sassafras: A Novella was published in 1977 and was expanded into her first novel, Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, in 1982. Her second novel, Betsey Brown, was published three years later. In Betsey Brown, the writer shifts her focus to more autobiographical settings and themes. Betsey, the thirteen-year-old heroine, is a black girl growing up in St. Louis in 1959. Like Shange herself, Betsey is involved in the integration of public schools and is forced to ride three different buses "to learn the same things with white children that she'd been learning with colored children." Betsey asks, "Why didn't the white children come to her school?" Like many other young black heroines in coming-of-age stories, Betsey must ultimately learn to reconcile her cultural heritage with the white environment she becomes a part of through integration.
Just as in her theater pieces and novels, Shange's collections of poetry, such as Nappy Edges (1978), A Daughter's Geography (1983), and Riding the Moon in Texas (1987), push the limits of generic conventions. She uses nonstandard spelling, punctuation, and line breaks to convey her concerns with what she has called the "slow erosion of our humanity" and to capture the rhythms and sounds of vernacular black speech patterns. Shange told Tate in Black Women Writers at Work that she "really [resents] having to meet somebody else's standards or needs, or having to justify their reasons for living."
Shange cites LeRoi Jones (Imamu Baraka) and Ismael Reed among her models for her use of "lower-case letters, slashes, and spelling" in her poetry and explained to Tate that she is interested in the way poetry looks on the page. The writer further offered that she likes letters and words that "dance" on the page because they stimulate visually and encourage the readers to become "rigorous" participants. Her irregular spellings, she told Tate, "reflect the language as I hear it."
Shange has many awards to her credit. for colored girls won the 1977 Obie, Outer Critics Circle, Audelco, and Mademoiselle awards and received Tony, Grammy, and Emmy nominations. In 1981 she won an Obie for her adaptation of Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children and earned a Guggenheim fellowship. Shange is a member of the New York State Council of the Arts and is an artist-in-residence at Houston's Equinox Theater.
In 1977 Shange married musician David Murray— whom she later divorced—and their daughter, Savannah Thulani Eloisa, was born in 1981. She left New York two years later to become a Mellon Distinguished Professor of Literature at Rice University in Houston for the spring semester and an associate professor of drama in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston. Shange returned East in 1989 to be closer to the New York arts scene, an environment that African American Writers' Richards suspected "allows for greater artistic experimentation."
In 1993 Shange directed Ina Cesaire's Fire's Daughters for the Ubu Repertory Theater. Fire's Daughters takes place on the eve of the 1870 rebellion by former slaves against French colonialism on the island of Martinique. A mother and two daughters conceal a wounded rebel in their home, a man in whom their neighbor, Sister Smoke, is interested.
In 1994 Shange's third novel, Liliane: The Resurrection of the Daughter, was published. Liliane is set in Mississippi during the last days of legal segregation and in the Bronx, New York, in the midst of conflict within the African American community. Many voices are interwoven into the novel: the main character's childhood friends and current lovers, her own artistic visions, and her dialogue with her analyst. By coming to terms with her past experiences, Liliane pieces together a "landscape of her future."
Subsequent writings include a children's book and a collection of essays. Whitewash (1997) is the story of a young African American girl who is traumatized when a gang attacks her and her brother on their way home from school and spray-paints her face white. If I Can Cook You Know God Can (1998) is a series of conversational essays about the culinary habits of African Americans, Nicaraguans, Londoners, Barbadoans, Brazilians, and Africans. Recipes range from the traditional, like collard greens, to the exotic, like turtle eggs and feijoada. As Booklist notes, the recipes are interwoven with a "fervent, richly impassioned chronicle of African American experience" that examines political turmoil and relates "how connections are made beyond issues of class or skin color."
In 2002, Shange's works Float Like a Butterfly and Daddy Says were published. Float Like a Butterfly, a biography of Muhammad Ali, is a picture book piece that explores the forces that shaped Ali in his ascent to the top of the sports world, including his childhood in the segregated South and the influence of his parents' support on his future success. The African American rodeo scene is the backdrop of Shange's young adult novel Daddy Says. Shange weaves a tale around adolescent sisters Lucie-Marie and Annie Sharon and their father, Cowboy "Tie-Down," as they work through the death of their mother, Tie-Down's wife.
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