The Literary Colors of Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange reading poetry in Niger (photo via Niamey Niger US Embassy)
For much of my young life, I found myself hungry to read a certain type of story about Black women. All the stories I read about our lives were so hard. We were forever “waiting to exhale” (that even sounds painful!), enduring abusive relationships, or acting as the strong stoic type with the weight of the world on our shoulders. Although that was certainly part of our story, was that all of it? I realized the element I was searching for in the Black woman’s story was joy. Then, I was introduced to Ntozake Shange.

I came across her novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo on my grandmother’s bookshelf. It was as though I had unlocked the door to a secret garden. The first page opened with these unforgettable words:
“Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits.”
Shange wrote about the strength and power of Black women, but not in terms of how much turmoil and trauma they withstood in their lives. She wrote about a power that was innate, a sacred fire that burned from within.
Ntozake in an early performance of for colored girls (photo via Bettmann/Corbis)
Ntozake Shange is best known for her 1975 choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which was recently made into a feature film directed by the controversial Tyler Perry.

Many of Ntozake’s characters are artists. They are painters, dancers, weavers, singers, and musicians. Shange’s artists are also often vessels for fantastic visions. When fiber artist Sassafrass receives a visit from Billie Holiday and a chorus of brightly costumed dancers in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, Shange's women literally dance to the beat of their own drummers. They endure hardships, and hold onto their art ferociously. Sometimes, it is literally all they have. They create in the face of adversity, and mine the depths of their souls as material for their work.

The author herself is a true testament to creative strength and willpower. After suffering two strokes, Shange had to teach herself how to read, write, and speak all over again. She recovered and completed the critically acclaimed Some Sing, Some Cry, a novel she co-wrote with her sister, author and playwright Ifa Bayeza. The epic novel chronicles several generations of African American women from one family, all of who are musicians. The reader is taken on a journey through the history of American music, from spirituals and work songs to jazz and hip hop -- all carried by the lives of these women.

Ntozake Shange has enriched our literary and cultural landscape. She brings characters to life with dimension and complexity, and helps express the full spectrum of who we are as women.