She leaves readers with a loudly quiet sense of rebellion, and an exuberant eagerness to shun conformity. Coming-of-age during the Brown vs. Board of Education fiasco, world-renowned poet, Ntozake Shange developed a stern mindset to speak-up for humanity as well as a pugilistic style of writing that jabs at the soul like one suffering for something he/she loves dearly. After pondering on the painstakingly written prose of Shange, readers walk away with a deeper meaning of life.
ever since i realized there was someone callt
a colored girl an evil woman a bitch or a nag
i been tryin not to be that & leave bitterness
in somebody else’s cup / come to somebody to love me
without deep & nasty smellin scald from lye or bein
left screamin in a street fulla lunatics / whisperin
slut bitch bitch niggah / get out here wit alla that /
i didn’t have any of that for you
The former is a stanza from Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuff. This left a lasting impression on me because bitterness combined with a gut-wrenching idea to fly to far-fetched places that only mind’s eye can see were part of my household, juxtaposed to the JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. pictures that hung on the walls in nearly every black household.
The title, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide, which was adapted into a Tyler Perry film (For Colored Girls), unearthed memories of the first time I concluded that death, not suicide, would be better than living. It was the first night that I was officially adopted. With only a decade worth of experiences under my belt, adoption was the loneliest and most confusing thing that I’d ever experienced thus far. Inside the house of then-strangers, in a dark room with my headphones blasting Tupac – who often spoke of death – I lay in bed asking God to do me a solid by not waking me up the next morning. The Big G had other plans, though.
Fast-forward to 2017, I’m sitting across from the graceful Ms. Shange inside of a small dressing room, which uses a curtain as a partition. When asked whether or not she ever considered writing about suicide from the perspective of a man, the novelist/playwright said she has too much respect for men’s issues to dance with a subject that she’s foreign to.
“I don’t feel comfortable approaching that genre of work,” Shange said in between bites of food. “I leave that to people like Yusef Komunyakaa, and others because they are men, and they know those things. I respect it too much to violate.”
Shange, born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, in 1948, comes from an educated family. She’s the eldest of four siblings, who all attended Ivy League universities. Shange’s father worked as a surgeon. Her mother earned income as a social worker and educator. When Shange was 8 years old, her family relocated to St. Louis, a city that would become the center of her 1985 novel, Betsey Brown. The Williams’s were well-off financially, even having domestic help around the house. However, having money has never been an immunity to prejudice. Despite the family’s solid financial footing, the Shange’s still lived in a segregated St. Louis neighborhood. As one of a handful of black kids at an all-white school, Shange, during the days of Brown vs. Board of Education, was bullied by her classmates and her intellect was discredited by her teachers.
When Shange was thirteen, the family moved back to New Jersey. Writing entered her life during her days at Trenton High School. However, Shange’s writing didn’t sit well with her teachers. They discouraged her from chasing her dreams as a writer. But Shange wasn’t discouraged. The then-young creative, after becoming acquainted with the writing of Malcolm X, would write obituaries for the former Nation of Islam member. Like any artist, Shange put her life into her work. In her autobiographical poem titled, ‘love her fiercely’ she addressed racism:
the family had been . . . quarantined
socially restricted / to bridge & sunday brunch by the pool / . . .
the daughters cd set a formal table
curtsey as if not descendants of slaves & speak English with no accent at all
Back then, the Williams’s were what the world called “race people” (men and women who dedicated their lives assisting in the forward mobility for African Americans). Notable black leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson, and Dizzy Gillespie were frequent guests at the Williams’s home. Conversations overheard in the family’s living room or at the dinner table united with Shange’s experiences and thoughts were instrumental to her content as a scribe.
In 1966, Shange enrolled at Barnard College, where she majored in American Studies. At 18 years old she married a law student, who was much older than her. But the marriage ended in divorce before Shange graduated college. The divorce took a mental toll on her life. The fearless writer isn’t exempt from human feelings, either. The divorce drove her to attempt suicide on several occasions. Once she purposely hit her head inside of an oven. She swallowed chemicals, cut her wrist, and tried to overdose on Valium, all to no avail. She even drove her car into an ocean. Later she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
With pain mounting inside her soul, Shange threw herself deeper into her craft, creating material that spoke to people of color.
why dont you go on & integrate a
german-american school in st. louis mo./ 1955/ better yet
why dont ya go on & be a red niggah in a blk school in 1954/
i got it/ try & make one friend at camp in the ozarks in 1957/
crawl thru one a jesse james’ caves wit a class of white kids
waitin outside to see the whites of yr eyes/ why dontcha invade
a clique of working-class italians tryin to be protestant in a jewish
community/ & come up a spade/ be a lil too dark/ lips a lil too full/
hair entirely too nappy/ to be beautiful… — “on becoming successful”
Along with garnering several publications such as “Ellington Was Not a Street,” “Coretta Scott,” “If I Can Cook/You Know God Can,” among others, Shange became a voice for her fellow feminists. In addition to working with the Young Lords, a New York City-based Puerto-Rican activist organization, Shange was an outspoken critic of the black bourgeoisie class. Speaking of feminism, when asked about the womanism vs. feminism argument, Shange is quick to shut down any debates.
“I can’t be bothered with all of that. I’m a feminist,” Shange says. “Why give that over to white women? I have never thought of myself as anything but a woman of color. And I’ve never represented myself as anything other than a woman of color in feminist circles. And I speak my mind about issues that are related to us women of color in the movement.”
After longer than a decade without a new publication, Shange has returned to the world of literature with a collection of new and previously written poems titled Wild Beauty.
“I hadn’t published a book of poetry in over a decade because I’ve been very ill. As I got better and started to write, I said: ‘Wow, even as an old woman I could have a selected book of poems.’ I had some new poems that I’d written within the past 18 months that stood out on their own, and I decided to put them in there.”
Of the many poems inside Wild Beauty, ‘toussaint louverture,’ named after Toussaint L’Ouverture, leader of the Haitian Revolution and former slave who rose to become the mastermind of the only successful slave revolt, is one that best describes the energy of her new book of poems. Life, especially black life, is dragged through the mud before growing into freshly plucked roses.
“I realized that when you look at the work overall, there were some really delicate moments, there were brutal and ugly moments,” Shange says. “I was trying to find a title that would be broad enough. If I looked at all of the black people as if we were just ordinary animals in the world, just salient beings, we are wild, we are untenable, we’re ferocious and gorgeous in our proximity. That’s why it was titled Wild Beauty because even in our most desolate moments there is a beauty there. We can make something beautiful out of anything. And so Wild Beauty refers to us as a people.”
“I had to pick ones that were different from everything else as well as the ones that are the most powerful when I read them,” she continues, still slowly plucking pieces of nutrition from her styrofoam plate. “The most sensual. I look for the most sensual. The most angry. The most despairing. The most belligerent. I look for all of those different categories. That’s how I pick the poems.” She then runs off a brief checklist of her personal favorite and important poems from Wild Beauty.
“I think ‘crack annie’ is important, because it looks at a time in our life when we were truly experiencing the ripping apart of the black family in the way we had not known before,” she says. ‘“If I Go All the Way Without You Where Would I Go” is also important. It looks at black love in such a sensual way that I have never heard before. So, I pick those two.“
i caint say how it come to me/ shit
somehow/ it just come over me/ & i
heard the lord sayin how beautiful/ &
pure waz this child of mine/ & when i
looked at her i knew the Lord waz
right/ & she waz innocent/ ya know/
free of sin/ & that’s how come i
gave her up to cadillac lee/ well/ how
else can i explain it
who do ya love i wanna know i wanna know
who do ya love i wanna know i wanna know — “crack annie”
Before I could prepare my last question, in true character, Shange abruptly informs me that that was my last question. I didn’t protest. I answered with a humbled, “Yes, ma’am.” Soon the Nuyorican Poets Cafe will be packed with Ntozake Shange fans as she runs through her gamut of work. It was at this moment that I realized how thorough Ms. Shange really is. The same quiet rebellion that comes out in her writings, exudes from her soul. Her black fearlessness is real. And not to be taken lightly.
“I am a rouge woman,” she says.
You can purchase Wild Beauty over at Amazon.com.