for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf

by Ntozake Shange
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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 773

Although the play delineates the brutal treatment accorded to black women by black men, it also addresses the universal battery of women by men that women experience worldwide. The story of Beau Willie Brown, a crazed Vietnam War veteran who brutalizes his girlfriend with knives and beatings, embodies the violence and the physical abuse that African American women suffer at the hands of black men. The contributing factors to Beau’s cruelty—his maladjustment as a Vietnam War veteran, his victimization by racism in school, his frequent harassment by police officers, and his job as a gypsy cabdriver—must be mentioned in order to resist viewing him as the instrument through which Shange castigates all black men. Rather than depicting Beau and his ethnic counterparts as stereotypical brutes, the playwright seemingly suggests that violent black men like Beau are the products of racial and economic oppression. Frustration, rather than will, prompts these offenders to vent their anxieties upon women. Therefore, to an extent, society is responsible for the violence that African American men and all other victimized men commit against women. From this perspective, this play can be seen as addressing the abuse that all women have experienced at the hands of thwarted and embittered males.

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Shange’s play underscores women’s need to rise above this bondage of maltreatment. It is an exhortation for bruised women to fight back after they have been injured and to construct an improved life-style. The characters’ response to the Beau Willie Brown tragedy reflects their internalization of this lesson. The ladies, after hearing about the abuse of a woman and the murder of her children, discover that the black woman must learn to trust herself and to believe in her own elemental value despite all the cruelties that are waged against her.

Dramatist and scholar Elizabeth Brown-Guillory finds additional significance in the play’s symbols. The colors that the actresses wear suggest the diversity of women and an infinity of possibilities. The rainbow myth, which maintains that a pot of gold can be found at the end of a rainbow, illustrates that these colored women are progressing toward something good, liberating, and dynamic. Moreover, the elusiveness and ephemeral nature of the rainbow demonstrates the mystery of life, particularly of the lives of the women who have been damaged by both strangers and acquaintances. There is a certain amount of hope expressed by these women, who do not always comprehend the reasons for their victimization. Their lack of names and the lack of capital letters in the printed poems suggest self-effacement, invisibility, and a lack of self-confidence. These women battle the storm before they can enjoy the quiet of the rainbow.

Another important symbol is the tagging that occurs at the beginning of the play. Six characters, those with skirts of the rainbow colors, stand motionless until lady in brown tags each one. This touching invigorates each woman. They come alive to share experiences with the world. The tagging also suggests a spiritual and a cultural communion among women.

The concluding gesture in the play is more powerful than the tagging. The seven women experience a laying on of hands, chanting that they have God within themselves and that they love her fiercely. This locking of hands represents a cementing of spirits and sensibilities. These women celebrate their wholeness. They form an impenetrable circle that stands for the shield they wear to buffer their pain and to empower themselves with the courage to begin again. This closure represents freedom to move beyond anguish and pain. Shange emphasizes that women must nurture and protect one another and that women must turn to the...

(The entire section contains 2004 words.)

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