Ntozake Shange Essay - Shange, Ntozake (Vol. 8)

Shange, Ntozake (Vol. 8)

Shange, Ntozake 1948–

Shange is an American playwright whose drama reflects the plight of black women in America. For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf can well be called staged poetry.

The fuss that is being made over For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf … is both ludicrous and pitiful. This is a sampling from a collection of prose and verse bits by a young black woman, Ntozake Shange….

For a long time, the Negro was, shockingly, the "invisible man" in our society. Now let him produce the slenderest work of quasi-art and the critics will carry on like disheveled maenads, vying to be first to perceive, proclaim and panegyrize the work and its maker. Out of enraptured pens pour white tributes to the supreme visibility of black art that is often no more visible than the Emperor's new clothes. Miss Shange's poetry is better than that of, say, Rod McKuen, and her prose is probably better than her verse. But look at her very title, complete with that simplified spelling; it is, I am afraid, indicative of the sensibility at work here….

What accounts for the production and inordinate praise of too many black plays is not so much black talent as white guilt. And what makes Miss Shange's work so alluring to white guilt feelings is that she is not only black but also a woman, so that a superlative flung at her is like a quarter dropped into the hat of a beggar who is blind, allowing the donor to feel doubly pious…. [Look] at the pathetic nonsense of it: Why should black girls, or anyone else, be saved from suicide by a rainbow, whatever that tired symbol is supposed to stand for? Is there anything more platitudinous than the image of looking into oneself to discover God, even if that God is a she, as has long been the case in a hoary homosexual joke?

Apparently this olio's special appeal is that it presents black suffering inflicted by blacks as well as whites, notably by black men on their women. Still, the sad thing about For Colored Girls is that it is no more theater than it is poetry; indeed, these random snatches of writing were not even intended for the stage. (p. 21)

Even as nontheatrical poetry this is feeble stuff, what used to be called wit-writing a couple of centuries ago…. At most, this is clever; more often it is merely Carl Sandburg and Edgar Lee Masters transposed and slightly updated, as in such outright banalities as "I will tell all of your secrets into your face" or "I was missing something promised"…. Set this beside any decent young poet of today, and it becomes invisible….

Let me make myself clear: Playwrights, black or white, will not be helped by overpraise from critics, white or black. That this has happened, with unfortunate results, to several black authors should by now be obvious to all. (p. 22)

John Simon, "'Enuf' Is Not Enough," in The New Leader (© 1976 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), July 5, 1976, pp. 21-2.

The subject [of "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf"] is "colored girls"—their growing up, their coming of age, their initiation into the horrors of dreams trampled underfoot, thwarted love, abortion, rape, and the verbal sidewalk assault. Men come up only as they are relevant to the black woman's discovery of her own life. I sit back to enjoy the explosion of details considered irrelevant to the main action in black plays from "The Dutchman" to "Ain't Supposed to Die a Natural Death."

Using a patchwork of vignettes, rhythm & blues lyrics, dance steps, and memories, Shange gets at almost every cheap stereotype of black women and tells a more likely story—the seductress who cries herself to sleep, the exotic quadroon of the 19th century who dances in rags, the "evil" black woman who rolls her eyes at every man who speaks to her in the street because she's afraid….

The ending immediately strikes me as abrupt and unsatisfying. Why has she followed such specific ethnic information about black women with a worn-out feminist cliche like, "I found god in myself," to the tune of what sounded like a Lutheran hymn? I feel a little like a marathon runner, moving at a good speed, plenty of wind left and halfway there, who has been grabbed by the well-intentioned driver of a Jaguar XKE and dragged bodily across the finish line at 110 mph. In other words, I got there first, but I didn't win.

I do not want to be misunderstood. There is so much about black women that needs retelling; one has to start somewhere, and Shange's exploration of this aspect of our experience, admittedly the most primitive (but we were all there at some time and, if the truth be told, most of us still are), is as good a place as any. All I'm saying is that Shange's "For Colored Girls" should not be viewed as the definitive statement on black women, but as a very good beginning.

Very few have ever written with such clarity and honesty about the black woman's vulnerability, and no one has ever brought Shange's brand of tough humor and realism to it…. Shange offers the black woman a religious conversion to self-love as a solution to her problems.

But can self-love so rapidly follow rejection? Can a celebration of self really wipe out the powerful forces of a profound self-hatred and a hostile environment?…

As for black people, the frenzied praise of the establishment critics seems to make them nervous. Many black women I know have told me that they loved "Colored Girls" but my friends, mostly feminist, may not reflect the general climate in this case. My suspicion is that some black women are angry because "For Colored Girls" exposes their fear of rejection as well as their anger at being rejected. They don't want to deal with that so they talk about how Shange is persecuting the black man. (p. 108)

Shange does not often write about her middle classness. She writes in the dialect of the black ghetto and of black women in poverty. "I found middle-class life terribly vacuous, incredibly boring. It just doesn't interest me, and I can't write about something that I'm not interested in." The language of her poetry comes from the live-in maids who cared for her as a child….

Middle class signifies ordinary to the general culture. But among blacks, middle class means special, since ordinary for us is dirt poor. Most of our middle-class parents advanced in this world by doing what everybody around them had told them couldn't be done—damn right they were special and their kids were going to be special, too….

Middle-class black women are slow to identify with each other's problems. We're all so special.

Shange is a very message-oriented writer. I've read the script of "Colored Girls" several times, and in every poem there is a pointed feminist message….

Ntozake has managed to conquer the disease of specialness more than many of us, enough to write a "choreopoem" that has more than a little truth about all American black women, middle class, poor, or whatever, even if they do emphatically deny it. But she's not in deep enough yet. (p. 109)

Michele Wallace, "For Colored Girls, the Rainbow Is Not Enough," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), August 16, 1976, pp. 108-09.

Shange's theater-poetry is a vibrant celebration of woman's strength. A gallery of black women (a carnival queen, a waitress, a prostitute) who share tough exteriors and genuine vulnerability are presented in short sketches. The technique is far different from the novelistic Sassafrass…. Shange's poetry, like her characters, is bizarre, comical, and tingling with life. (p. 451)

Booklist (reprinted by permission of the American Library Association; copyright 1976 by the American Library Association), November 15, 1976.