Shange paid the price for her hon­esty

Mail & Guardian - - Friday - Gugulethu Mh­lungu

There have been very clear mo­ments when the loss of a fa­mous per­son felt per­sonal. This year, the deaths of Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela, Hugh Masekela and Aretha Franklin, el­ders I have never known life with­out, left me feel­ing bereft.

I re­mem­ber think­ing that they were meant to be peo­ple who lived for­ever, like my grand­fa­ther who died a few years ago.

Prince, Luther Van­dross and Whit­ney Hous­ton were also just al­ways there, hold­ing some part of the uni­verse to­gether. Aside from the mu­si­cians who raised me, what has been hard has been the loss of women with­out whom I don’t think I would ever have be­gun to write.

As a writer, I have al­ways felt there were moth­ers whose writ­ing made my writ­ing pos­si­ble; bell hooks, Tsitsi Dan­garem­bga, Alice Walker, Toni Mor­ri­son and Au­dre Lorde all had a hand in shap­ing the writer I am to­day. I de­cided that part of my life’s work would in­volve writ­ing, be­cause I saw and heard the work of black women who ar­tic­u­lated so much of what it felt like to be young, fe­male and black.

Play­wright, poet and fem­i­nist Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was one of those lit­er­ary moth­ers, and her 1975 sem­i­nal work For Col­ored Girls Who Have Con­sid­ered Sui­cide / When the Rain­bow is Enuf shook my lit­tle wanna-be-writer world when I stum­bled upon her as an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent. The play was at once both beau­ti­ful and dev­as­tat­ing, yet also com­plex and able to carry so many kinds of black fem­i­nini­ties.

When I read For Col­ored Girls, I found some­thing that my 12 years of Shake­speare, Dick­ens and Scott F Fitzger­ald had failed to give me. It gave me a vi­sion of my­self and all the many black girls and women who made up and car­ried my world. Re­flect­ing on Shange’s work, poet Ish­mael Reed wrote: “No con­tem­po­rary writer has Ms Shange’s un­canny gift for im­mers­ing her­self within the sit­u­a­tions and points of view of so many dif­fer­ent types of women.”

It was in my early 20s, when my jour­nal­ism ca­reer be­gan, that I learned about the great cost with which Shange’s work had come. Like many black fem­i­nists, she was pun­ished by the pa­tri­archy for dar­ing to ar­tic­u­late that black women, in all their dif­fer­ent forms and cir­cum­stance, mat­tered.

In the same way that Walker had been pun­ished for The Color Pur­ple, the Broad­way suc­cess of For Col­ored Girls came with heavy so­cial penal­ties. Af­ter Shange’s death, writer and pro­ducer Dream Hamp­ton re­cently re­called what hap­pened to her when the show be­came a Tonynom­i­nated hit — “the NYC [New York City] so­cial death of Ntozake Shange”.

Shange’s long­time friend and col­lab­o­ra­tor, poet and play­wright Thu­lani Davis, also ex­plained this by re­call­ing that “there was also this back­lash from men. Men would come to Q&A ses­sions on tour and ac­cuse her of de­fam­ing black men. So there was this re­sent­ment that women were air­ing the dirty laun­dry in­side black com­mu­ni­ties in this broader pub­lic plat­form. There was this feel­ing that women should put race first, and women sec­ond.”

Shange’s ex­pe­ri­ence four decades ago re­mains as rel­e­vant to­day for many young writ­ers. As beau­ti­ful trib­utes poured in, I won­dered what toll that at­tack on Shange’s work had on her, and whether we spend enough time con­sid­er­ing the costs that sem­i­nally im­por­tant works such as For Col­ored Girls have for­women such as Shange. Think­ing about the costs of do­ing im­por­tant work is not in­tended to de­ter other voices, but rather to see black women as be­ing fully hu­man, com­plex peo­ple, who make im­mense con­tri­bu­tions to so­ci­ety, even when it comes at great per­sonal cost.

In the same way, it is im­por­tant that Shange was able to ar­tic­u­late the many dif­fer­ent ways in which black girls and women could ex­ist, that we do the same for her and for all the women who through their work, make our work and our ex­is­tence pos­si­ble. Since her still shock­ing death, many shared her fa­mous words: “Can some­body — any­body — sing a black girl’s song?”

Shange could sing all of the songs — and taught us how to sing too.

As a writer, I have al­ways felt there were moth­ers whose writ­ing made my writ­ing pos­si­ble

Photo: Rob Kim/Getty Im­ages/AFP

Men­tor: Author Ntozake Shange speaks at the 40th an­niver­sary ofFor Col­ored Girls.

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