Making Peace with Rainbows: Remembering Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange
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Most people have at least one author whose words at some point changed the trajectory of their lives. Think about it for a second. What book did you read in high school that had you up all night in your feelings? Ever take a women’s studies class and look down at your syllabus to find the words of a woman who looked like you staring back? What about that random trip to the used bookstore when you curled up in a corner with a tattered book of poetry that made you dig out the change in your pocket or purse so that you and those words never had to part?

Ntozake Shange
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This is how I was introduced to Ntozake Shange. I was rummaging through a dusty stack of books and came across a cover that stopped me in my tracks. There was a woman adorned in a headwrap staring back at me. In graffiti font, I read the words “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow was enuf.” I looked around to see if anyone heard it, too? Did they hear that title calling me? Did they hear Ntozake say my name? Who was this woman with my story as the title of her book? Broke, with only the intention to sit and read through a book that I could then put back on the shelf, I dug into my purse and found enough change to purchase the book. One year later, I would go back into the same store and find the book/play on vinyl for $2.

“Somebody almost walked off with all of my stuff and didn’t care enough to send a note home saying “I was late for my solo conversation” or “two sizes too small for my own tacky skirts”.”

Published in 1975, For Colored Girls… is notably Shange’s most popular body of work. The women in her choreopoem are multifaceted, rhythmic and real. The ability to relate in each lady within this book, individually and collectively, transcends generations of women. In 2010, the choreopoem was picked up and turned into a major motion picture by Tyler Perry. While this may not have been the way that Shange’s fans wanted to see her work gain a broader reach, it did. Many of folks who had never read or heard a word from Ntozake now knew her name, saw her face and felt some of the spirit in her tongue.

For me, the dawning of this movie drew me near to other performers in the city. We gathered and practiced the monologues of Shange’s ladies, donning their personas. As fate would have it, I performed with my last love for the first time that opening weekend. I was “lady in green” and she was “lady in blue.” Who would have ever thought that someone else’s words would lead me into the arms of the one who now holds my heart.

Ntozake Shange
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Artwork by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, featured in Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” season 1.

I also drew nearer to other works of Ntozake Shange, whose chosen name in Xhosa translates to Ntozake meaning “she who has her own things” (literally “things that belong to her”) and Shange meaning “he/she who walks/lives with lions” (meaning “the lion’s pride” in Zulu). Shange’s poem My Father is a Retired Magician is gut punching in the way it tackles representation. In my opinion, many of the poems words are key to the phrase “Black Girl Magic” that is so popular today.

all things are possible
but aint no colored magician in her right mind
gonna make you     white
        i mean
                     this is blk magic
you lookin at
                       & i’m fixin you up good/ fixin you up good n colored
& you gonna be colored all yr life
& you gonna love it/ bein colored/ all yr life/ colored & love it
love it/ bein colored/

To say that Ntozake Shange will be missed is like saying that you miss the sun on rainy days. She may no longer dwell on this earth with us, but her words are guiding lights. We have been left with the spirit of a queen who was her own person, who had her own words and most certainly her own things. What a legacy. How selfless of her to share with us her heart and to let us wear it as our own. Ntozake Shange has left us with her Black Girl Magic, her righteous gospel, a satiation of sorries and a rainbow.

Ntozake Shange
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Ntozake Shange, Reid Lecture, Women Issues Luncheon, Women’s Center, November 1978

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