A Photograph Essay - Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Ntozake Shange

Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

Drawing directly on stylistic concerns of an African American heritage, A Photograph: Lovers in Motion has been praised for its insights into romantic relationships, for its portrayal of the African American middle class, and for its critical look at the sources of artistic expression. Although the play depicts uniquely American characters and themes, Shange herself has suggested that her influences reach beyond the American experience. Her poems, plays, novels, and essays build upon poetry, jazz, and traditional oral traditions from Latin American, African, and African American sources. Scholar and critic Paul Carter Harrison includes Shange among black writers from many countries who use a common “iconography.” Harrison suggests that building upon traditional forms and rhythms exposes a communal memory that can help produce “the critical insights required to deal with profound feelings of alienation.” Learning to deal with the self-hatred produced by alienation from the dominant white culture is a central theme in this play and in other key works by female African American writers from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker.

Editor and essayist Cheryl Wall argues that Shange and other black female writers have established a new literary tradition that cannot be evaluated without taking into account gender, race, and women’s sexuality. The themes reflected in Shange’s poetry, plays, and novels reveal these multiple contexts at work.

Distinguished editor Mary Helen Washington sees Shange as a pioneer in demystifying female sexuality. Along with other feminist critics, Washington suggests that by placing women as strong solitary figures, artists can undermine culturally ingrained roles for women in romantic plots. When characters such as Michael reject “male-dominated forms,” they can then begin the work of re-creating the future.

Because Shange consistently depicts contemporary themes and portrays African American culture as complex and diverse, her work often has been controversial. Some critics argue that Shange harshly portrays the black male experience and devalues traditional heterosexual relationships. Because, as Mary Helen Washington suggests, Shange often “locates much of women’s oppression in the sexual arena,” this controversy will follow her work.