Ntozake Shange wrote to live.
as in not die/to breathe/to thrive.
That I understood even at nineteen. Shange and I were different though. She grew up upper middle-class. I did not. Not in the least. I came to meet her because, back in high school by way of SYEP, I worked for a box office, my community’s Henry Street Settlement Louis Abron’s Arts Center in the Lower East Side. Yes, all that full in the mouth. Come to find out that is the first place for colored girls who considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf lived as a play in 1975. I was only one then. The title alone made my teen-self feel known when I discovered it. Before that, Shange performed it in her own voice in various bars including one on Avenue D in my hood.
any writer/any poet/any artist
can appreciate those small intimate moments to develop one’s work.
I cleaned the backstage area of the theater. That was my first job there. Cleaning the dirt and grime. I didn’t care. Walking away from the box office and its busy phone to catch glimpses of dance productions, plays. That’s what I cared about. The New Federal Theatre was delivering a rendition of for colored girls at the Arts Center when I was in college. Its twentieth anniversary. Shange’s ability to combine my love of dance and poetry sang to my heart. I danced for 10 years and for those years dance saved me.
let me breathe/let me be free.
Then there was writing. Dance I shared with the world. Writing was my secret. When going to see the production I reminisced about writing a Hate poem in that very box office, in my teen angst.
hating people/hating my thighs/hating the feeling of hate.
Writing exaggerated letters sometimes ripping the paper as if it were flesh. I was relieved by the process having the hate gone and often would crumble these sheets of paper not realizing how precious they were until I began understanding the power of words like Shange’s own that came alive on stage…
“we gotta dance to keep from cryin
we gotta dance to keep from dyin”
The rawness of it. She wrote the words of the people in my streets. Those streets inhabiting and invading my life from birth. She wrote about a certain class of people. About my women I grew up with who surrounded me.
“ever since i realized there waz 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 lunatica / whisperin slut bitch bitch niggah / get outta here wit alla that”
Not the ones I suspect she grew up with. Born of an Air Force surgeon and a psychiatric social worker. I don’t know how I feel about that. There is privilege there in class. But what I do know is…
she was before texting/before African-American Vernacular/she was Ebonics.
I do know she knew pain. She wrote from that place attempting suicide after her marriage ended. Somebody Almost Walked Off Wid All My Stuff I gather was inspired from the ending of that union. In her words the title came from overhearing women speaking after a dance class but pain that pain. The loss of one’s self that is hers that she chose to share with me at nineteen, and I suspect with my mother before me. It was and still is my favorite poem from for colored girls. But the dance oh the dance the physicality the words becoming dance. It influenced me more than I realized.
Ntozake Shange would be both admired and criticized for the work she created in for colored girls, which makes me admire her more. She spoke the truth as she knew it. I would not understand much of the play I first saw until I grew into my own womanhood and better understood the place and time I grew up. I do believe there is this inherent expectation that one would be educated in the surrounding complexities resulting in the power struggle, love, and abuse between the Black man and Black woman in for colored girls. I often consider that white people may not fully comprehend these relationships that exist in spite of chattel slavery, loss of identity, loss of culture, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, war both real and otherwise — the war to keep these two from each other. Pawns in a bigger chess game.
Ntozake Shange would become a renowned award-winning poet, playwright, director, novelist and educator even before her recent passing. But for this then budding woman who didn’t even realize that Shange was present for the 20th anniversary production of for colored girls…
i found god in myself & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely
Natasha Herring, a genre bending writer, weaves words into soul creation from the serious to the magical. Recent publications include, “Dirt,” in Oye Drum and “Moon Rising,” in The Lit Guide to the Galaxy. She has taught writing at CCNY and Laguardia. She resides in Harlem with her sons.