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

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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.

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 god within themselves for sustenance.

Dancing is another symbol that contributes to the overall meaning of the play. Dancing is a freeing agent, a catharsis, for these “colored girls.” Shange’s female characters also use dancing as a defense mechanism. While whirling around on the stage, lady in yellow says, “we gotta dance to keep from dying.” There is a sense of desperation and outrage in Shange’s tone as she flings these characters across the stage to dance out the pain of their lives. The dancing also suggests exploration. The characters come to know their bodies, and invariably their souls, through dancing. Shange uses dancing in “graduation nite” to suggest the surrendering of virginity. The lady in yellow tells how she danced “nasty ole tricks” frenetically, reminiscent of an African tribal ritual, just before giving up her innocence in the backseat of a Buick on graduation night. Choreographing both their vulnerability and their resiliency, Shange portrays the spirit of survival of these colored girls.

Themes and Meanings

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For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf is a feminist drama that expresses the psychological, emotional, and physical pain of Afro-American women who have been hurt by insensitive black men and an often-hostile environment. Yet the play asserts the ability of these women to survive hostility, pain, and violence through mutual understanding and support, praising their ability to develop self-esteen in spite of abortion, rape, rejection, emotional assault, and repeated humiliating love affairs. The choreopoem, therefore, depicts the black woman’s emotions from youth to maturity and ends with an assertion of selfhood. The point of view and characters are entirely feministic: There is no attempt to look at situations from a male point of view, nor is there evident much empathy for problems that a black male may encounter.

The colors of the various characters’ dresses represent the colors of the rainbow, with the lady wearing the most vibrant color, red, reciting the most forceful and memorable pieces. The other colors represent various degrees of emotions, with the brighter colors representing life and youth and the cooler colors sadness and despair. The character who wears brown, the color that is not a part of the rainbow, is associated with serious matters such as birth and history.

Several poems that demonstrate the brutality and anguish endured by women are spoken by the lady in red. She presents the most violent crimes, rape and the murder of children, that afflict black women.

The ladies in the lively colors of yellow, orange, and green symbolize youth and life. They dance, sing, listen to music, and write poetry. The lady in yellow loses her virginity (not unhappily) after a night of dancing and partying with her friends on graduation night. She becomes more serious, however, in a later piece, saying “. . . but i waz so stupid i waz able to be hurt.” The lady in orange declares that she wants to sing and dance rather than write or talk; later, however, she too becomes more serious: “I cdn’t stand bein sorry & colored at the same time.” The lady in green, the color of living and growing things, is Sechita, who dances throughout her entire recitation. The poem is filled with images of the royal Egyptian past of black women, but Sechita is a dance-hall girl in tawdry shows, and her costumes bear the dust of the delta.

Since purple is made from mixing two colors, red and blue, the lady in purple is given a piece that explains the need for mutual support and understanding among black women: “Pyramid.” Just as a pyramid consists of three supporting sides, so the friendship of three women depends upon one another’s support. This piece illustrates one of the most important themes of the choreopoem, the ability of women to survive and find strength in one another.

The lady in blue is often unhappy: She is trapped in an unwanted pregnancy in “abortion cycle 1” and trapped in a restricted environment in “i used to live in the world.” The characters are all isolated from mainstream society.

Themes

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Identity
"When I die, I will not be guilty," Shange proclaimed in an interview with Claudia Tate in Black Women Writers at Work, "of having left a generation of girls behind thinking that anyone can tend to their emotional health other than themselves." Shange has expressed a desire to make for colored girls..., a play that explores the pain and promise of "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored," available—on library and school bookshelves or given as a gift—to young women coming of age in America. This play is to supplement the widely available information on contraception with "emotional information," the kind of information Shange says she did not get as a child, even though she grew up in an affluent, loving home. This work, like her other pieces, is meant to dispel the myths and lies that little girls hear and to replace them with something they can really use. "I want them to know that they are not alone and that we adult women thought and continue to think about them," Shange told Tate. for colored girls... is an exploration, beginning with the made metaphor of including a lady in brown among those dressed in colors of the rainbow, of the concept of a "colored girl" as "a girl of many colors." Facets of the black woman from gender- and socially-oppressed victim to triumphant spell-weaver and self-actualized person combine to portray a rainbow of possible selves that celebrate the black female identity.

Alienation and Loneliness
Throughout the poems of for colored girls ... runs a persistent pattern of frustrated desire for male companionship and love. The inability to find a man suitable, meaning honorable and attentive, enough to return the love that these women have to offer causes a kind of inner death; the women "have died in a real way'' by no longer knowing how to or what it means to love fully. They try various modes of defense, adopting the equally self-destructive masks of arrogance, revenge, and self-sufficiency. When each of these stances are ultimately debunked, the ladies are left alone with their pain and vulnerability. Reaching this point of self-honesty, the lady in purple announces, "i'm finally bein/real/no longer symmetrical and impervious to pain." After its debut in 1976, the essence of Shange's portrayal of black male-female relationships was promptly and ironically interpreted as other than it was intended by a group of male critics who accused Shange of sexism, even of man-hating. The journal Black Scholar carried a heated debate about the social responsibility of the play, a series of editorials that later came to be called "The Black Sexism Debate," in which Shange's conception of the black female's role in gender conflicts was obscured. The poignant irony of this misunderstanding lies in its pepetuation of a rift between black men and women, exacerbated by some participants' preoccupation with which party is the most oppressed. Thus, the ladies of for colored girls ... more than ever represented the blighted and lonely status of black women in America in the 1970s.

Race and Racism
Throughout for colored girls ... Shange uses the term "colored'' (which she preferred because of its connotation of many-hued, rather than "black" or "African American," which she considers "artificial") as an adjective for women, not men. This is a story of the experience of "colored girls," not black people, black men, or women in general. The lot of colored girls in Shange's play is circumscribed by race, such that a girl who grew up thinking she "lived in the world" discovers her imprisonment in "six blocks" of Harlem. Her plight is further confined by sexism. In fact, sexism is Shange's predominant concern, and the theme of racism in for colored girls ... is subsumed under the context of black male-female relationships. Shange, who grew up during the height of the Civil Rights Movement and of the feminist movement, outlines how in the 1970s black female identity is affected by both social oppression and the domination of black men. The effect of her play was to cause "both [the white feminist and the predominantly male black power] movements to question their exclusion of African-American women, to question their own complicity in racism and sexism," according to Karen Cronacher in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 1: Plays.

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