Ntozake Shange first won recognition for her dazzling choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, which debuted on Broadway in 1974. A choreopoem is an innovative combination of poetry, drama, music, and dance. Her subsequent writings continue to impress critics and readers with their unique imagery, use of language, and tough-but-tender explorations of what it means to be a black woman in the United States.
Shange is best known for her poetry and plays. Of her published novels, Betsey Brown is probably least known to the reading public, yet it is a little gem of a novel. In it, Shange combines her extraordinary gifts for dialogue and image to build a story that sensitively treats family life, growing up, and the impact of the very early days of the Civil Rights movement on an African American family.
A typical young teenager, Betsey Brown is filled with longings. She wants to experience life in all its “thickness” and “heat,” to understand the world, and to find her place in it, claiming the fame and romance she deserves. Betsey is a good girl, and her upbringing has been a protected one in many ways, so her transgressions are minor. Still, her mother deplores her taste in music and dance, her new teacher does not recognize her heroes, and everyone looks askance at her interest in boys. Along with all this she must struggle to keep a secret place for herself amid the ongoing circus of family life. No wonder Betsey feels like she does not fit in.
Betsey’s mother, Jane, also feels besieged. In many ways she and husband Greer balance each other well, as spouses in successful marriages often do. Greer’s unabashed embrace of African American culture—down to the loud conga drums he plays every morning—clashes with her more ladylike sensibilities, even though there is no doubt the two have a strong and sensual bond. Jane feels the frustrations of any multitasking mother, and the lack of any time for herself. The tension-relieving remedies she does use—like solitaire games and nail polish—do not quite help. Ultimately, after her “time-out” from the family, she returns...
(The entire section is 890 words.)