Honouring Black Female Icons: Ntokozake Shange

1 Feb


Ntozake Shange is a self-proclaimed black feminist. Shange wrote and performed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which has inspired and emboldened generations of women.She addresses issues relating to race and feminism in much of her work.

Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams into an upper middle-class African-American family. Her father was an Air Force surgeon and her mother a psychiatric social worker.

From an early age, Shange took an interest in poetry. While growing up with her family in Trenton, Shange attended poetry readings with her younger sister Wanda (now known as the playwright Ifa Bayeza). These poetry readings fostered an early interest for Shange in the South in particular, and the loss it represented to young Black children who migrated to the North with their parents. In 1956, Shange’s family moved to St. Louis, Missouri where Shange was sent several miles away from home to a non-segregated school that allowed her to receive “gifted” education. While attending this non-segregated school, Shange faced overt racism and harassment. These experiences would later go on to heavily influence her work.

In 1966 Shange enrolled at Barnard College in New York City. During her time at Barnard, Shange met fellow Barnard student and would-be poet Thulani Davis. The two poets would later go on to collaborate on various works. Shange graduated cum laude in American Studies, then earned a master’s degree in the same field from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, her college years were not all pleasant. She married during her first year in college, but the marriage did not last long. Depressed over her separation and with a strong sense of bitterness and alienation, she attempted suicide. In 1971, having come to terms with her depression and alienation, Shange changed her name. In Xhosa, Ntozake means “she who has her own things” (literally “things that belong to her”) and Shange means “he/she who walks/lives with lions” (meaning “the lion’s pride” in Zulu).

In 1978, Shange became an associate of the Women’s Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organisation. The organisation works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media.

In 2003, Shange wrote and oversaw the production of Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla’s Dream while serving as a visiting artist at the University of Florida, Gainesville.

Her individual poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Black Scholar, Yardbird, Ms., Essence Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, VIBE, and Third-World Women. Since then she has sustained a triple career as an educator, a performer/director, and a writer whose work draws heavily on her experiences of being a black female in America.


For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf:

Written in 1975, the play is a unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama that took the theatre world by storm.
It included seven women on the stage dramatising poetry. The play used female dancers to dramatise poems that recall encounters with their classmates, lovers, rapists, abortionists, and latent killers. The women survive abuse and disappointment and come to recognise in each other the promise of a better future. The play received both enthusiastic reviews and criticism for its portrayal of African-American men.

Shange’s other productions.
A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (1977)
Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1977)
Spell No. 7 (1979)
Black and White Two Dimensional Planes (1979)

Her novels:
Shange plays with conventions in her novels as well. Her first full-length novel, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo (1982), is an admixture of narrative, recipes, letters, poetry and magic spells. Shange’s other novels include Betsey Brown (1985) and Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter (1995). Liliane finds the author exploring the issues of race and gender in contemporary America in innovative prose.

In The Love Space Demands, a choreopoem published in 1991, Shange returned to the blend of music, dance, poetry and drama that characterised For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide. “


A few of her famous quotes:

“but bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical
dilemma/ i havent conquered yet/ do you see the point
my spirit is too ancient to understand the separation of soul & gender/ my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face

my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face

my love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face

my love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face

my love is too magic to have thrown back on my face

my love is too saturday nite to have thrown back on my face

my love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face

my love is too music to have thrown back on my face”
― Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf


“we need a god who bleeds now
a god whose wounds are not
some small male vengeance
some pitiful concession to humility
a desert swept with dryin marrow in honor of the lord

we need a god who bleeds
spreads her lunar vulva & showers us in shades of scarlet
thick & warm like the breath of her
our mothers tearing to let us in
this place breaks open
like our mothers bleeding
the planet is heaving mourning our ignorance
the moon tugs the seas
to hold her/to hold her
embrace swelling hills/i am
not wounded i am bleeding to life

we need a god who bleeds now
whose wounds are not the end of anything”
― Ntozake Shange


“somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.”
― Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf

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