Our Spring magazine is finally here! Click here to view and read our new articles!

Narrating black womanhood, the legacy of Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange: Ebony Online
Ntozake Shange: Ebony Online

Ntozake Shange, the poet, playwright and novelist who unapologetically gave voice to the experiences of black women, died on Oct. 27, 2018. Shange lived a life of perseverance as she authored a distinguished body of work – surmounting barriers of racism, sexism, mental and physical health challenges. Her legacy lives on through her tremendous influence on American literature and contemporary black artists.

Corresponding with the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, Shange’s work filled a void of representation of black women at the intersection of art and activism. The Civil Rights Movement and the mainstream Women’s Rights Movement, as well as the art it inspired, often focused on the struggles of black men and white women while leaving issues of black womanhood largely overlooked.

As the second black women to have a piece debut on Broadway (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin In The Sun debuted in 1959), Shange’s 1976 play for colored girls that have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf personifies empowerment by narrating the persistence of black women through heart-wrenching circumstances.

Shange addressed issues commonly met with silence such as loss, sexual assault, abandonment, mental health, abortion and harassment. Through her characters of ladies in an assemblage of colours (lady in red, lady in yellow, lady in blue, lady in orange, lady in brown, lady in purple, lady in green), she shed light on the pained existence many have lived through and inspired an entire generation to unabashedly express their truth.

The play also marked a new approach to the English language. Shange reconfigured and reconstructed words to evoke innovative performance; combining poetry with spiritual traditions of Afro-Caribbean music and dance. This new genre of literature was coined a choreopoem by critics.

From the opening poem dark phrases, “for colored girls” portrays how black girls can be prematurely forced into a sense of womanhood after experiencing various societal traumas.

“dark phrases of womanhood
of never havin been a girl
half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
distraught laughter fallin
over a black girl’s shoulder
it’s funny/ it’s hysterical
the melody-less-ness of her dance
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
she’s dancin on beer cans & shingles”

The arc of the play navigates these traumas and creates space for healing through understanding, acceptance and self-love as epitomised in poems like a laying on of hands.

“i found god in myself
& i loved her/i loved her fiercely”

While this is arguably Shange’s most notable work, for over 40 years her art persisted in strengthening the depictions of black women. Her later works include Nappy Edges (1978), Spell No.7 (1979), Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (1982), Betsey Brown (1985), The love space demands (1991), and Ellington was not a street (2004).

What Shange spoke to is continuing to be emphasised in the current black feminist movement through occurrences like the annual award show Black Girls Rock!, which recently honoured Lena Waithe and Tarana Burke for breaking barriers and making history. The social media rallying campaign of #BlackGirlMagic also ignites encouragement that unifies the collective community.

These moments of engagement further Shange’s legacy by not only acknowledging the struggles of being a black woman, but celebrating beauty constituted by unique and varying cultural dynamics.

Ntozake Shange demanded that black women be represented as full-bodied, complex beings. Today her contributions are manifested in the work of actress and playwright Danai Gurira, the poetic undertones and visuals of the LEMONADE album by Beyoncé, the Afro-Caribbean spiritual traditions in Ava DuVernay’s Queen Sugar and countless others.

While this loss is profound, Shange’s powerful canon will continue to reverberate and shape generations.