It was a day already soaked with rain and the spilled blood of eleven Jewish worshippers gunned down by an anti-Semite in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh—culminating a week that began with another hate-crime murder of two African Americans in Kentucky, pipe-bomb threats against former presidents, former first ladies, Black congress members and ugly rhetoric transforming asylum-seekers south of the border into dehumanized migrant “hordes.”
Amidst this climate of hate, I heard the sad news that a griot of love had died: the celebrated Black feminist poet, playwright and novelist Ntozake Shange.
There is an awe-inspiring photograph, now hanging at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, of a Black women’s writing group from the 1970s, featuring such heavy-hitters as Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, June Jordan and Shange. I think of this photo now because she represents that generation of Black feminist writers who pulled back the curtain and ripped open the “culture of dissemblance” that historian Darlene Clark Hine once described as a politics of silence enshrouding the interior lives of African American women.
In that special era in which Black liberation and women’s liberation thrived, a few Black feminists, many of them writers, came together, forced the intersection of these two movements and gave voice to black girl pain, pleasure, joy, sorrow and magic. I think of this photo as a reminder that our greatest writers wrote, not in a vacuum, but in community. Each of these writers impacted my own sense of Black womanhood in some way; Shange, specifically, gave me permission to break out of the mold.
The powerful words of Shange reflect across numerous works. There is the genre-bending novel Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo, which interweaves rootworkers’ charms and spells with grandmothers’ recipes, celebrates a young girl’s menses and honors the complexities of grown women’s sexualities. The recipe-cum-cookbook model appears again in her sensual ode to food, If I Can Cook, You Know God Can. Her way of writing was always poetic, and her poetry was unapologetically Black and feminist. Before the words “acquaintance rape” entered into the culture’s lexicon, Shange already exposed its hideous wounds in her poems “latent rapists” and “with no immediate cause.”
Shange also broke the silence on Black women’s mental health, which of course is invoked in the title of her most celebrated play—For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, or what Shange called her “choreopoem,” mixing poetry and dance. Performed in San Francisco before it made its Broadway debut in 1976, it would become her signature work.
I first read this phenomenal choreopoem as a high school student with a passion for book-reading and hanging out in libraries in search of fascinating new worlds—and stories about girls like me. Black women’s writings did not yet enter my high-school curriculum; all my readings of Morrison, Walker and Shange were self-exploratory. Shange’s unconventional writing style, with her lower-case letters and new approaches to spelling and grammar, took some getting used to, but the words on the page excited me in ways I could not explain, her descriptions of love and pain not yet grasped with any real understanding at that age.
Of course, time and experience changed the impact of those words, which did not really come alive for me until I was a college junior watching a performance of For colored girls for the first time, performed by our Black student theatrical ensemble. It wasn’t just the written word. It was movement, dance, visual costuming and endless speech-signifying of Black-girl ways of knowing.
I have been privileged to watch performances of the work in the years since as a doctoral student, as a college professor and, most recently, as a speaker—introducing the playwright and her choreopoem to a local audience for an event that included a reception, an art expo and general camaraderie. This was the weekend of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, and this series of poems in which women laid bare their painful experiences, including with sexual assault, proved overwhelming. My tears were unstoppable that evening. In this era of #MeToo, Shange had become a prophet.
Shange sang “a Black girl’s song” to “bring her out to know herself” and to know the God within. She extended that divinity in another poem from A Daughter’s Geography: “we need a god who bleeds / spreads her lunar vulva & showers us in shades of scarlet / thick & warm like the breath of her.” In this world, where far too many of us are bleeding, it is ever more urgent to believe in a God who bleeds with us.
Shange intervened both poetically and spiritually to heal us. She urged us not only to reimagine our bodies but to reimagine our souls and the entities we choose to worship. This message was lost in Tyler Perry’s 2010 film adaptation of For colored girls, which interjected a Black-Church patriarchal God whose judgment jarred against the choreopoem’s Black Goddess “endlessly weaving garments for the moon.” But that is just one interpretation out of countless performances, staged readings and tributes.
Shange’s potent words remain eternal. Her legacy can be felt in every truth-telling spoken word poetry on open-mic nights, in the passionate performances of Staceyann Chin; in the joint climate-change poetry of Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner and Aka Niviâna, invoking indigenous goddesses and connecting their bodies with land and communities; in the signifying of Erykah Badu’s “Bag Lady” music video; in Janelle Monae’s “Pynk” Black-woman-loving imagery; throughout Beyoncé’s Lemonade, from the Black girl standing on the ledge “considering suicide” to the same woman finding “God in herself” and loving her fiercely, and especially in the poetic words of that screenplay penned by Warsan Shire, an obvious literary descendant.
May her spirit, which she once described as “too ancient to understand the separation of soul and gender,” rest in peace and power. May the artistic tools she left behind for so many of us continue to cement her legacy and “move us to the ends of our own rainbows.”