Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 18, 1948, the eldest of four children. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was a surgeon, and her mother, Eloise Williams, was a psychiatric social worker and educator. During her childhood, her family moved from Trenton to upstate New York, then to St. Louis, Missouri.
Although many of the characters she writes about in her literary works are rural, poor, or members of the urban underclass, Shange grew up in a privileged, upper-middle-class environment. Her father was a musician and painter as well as a ringside surgeon, and the Williams household was frequently visited by well-known African American musicians, writers, and sports figures. Cultural and artistic achievement was emphasized within the family environment; the members of the Williams family would entertain one another on Sundays with readings, music, and dance.
Despite this protective environment, Shange was spared neither the experience of racial discrimination nor that of sexual discrimination. As a young teenager in St. Louis, she was bused, as part of a desegregation program, to a mostly white school, where she felt out of place and was mistreated by her fellow students. She was also told that her career goals (she wanted to be a war correspondent or a jazz musician) were not appropriate for a woman. Experiences of these kinds are the roots of the interest in feminism and African American issues that informs Shange’s literary work.
Shange attended Barnard College in New York City, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in American studies, emphasizing African American poetry and music, in 1970. She married a lawyer; depression over his leaving her prompted several suicide attempts. (A later marriage, to jazz musician David Murray, would also dissolve.) She became active in political and social movements, concluding later, however, that they were not receptive to women. She went on to graduate study in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, where she earned a master’s degree in American studies in 1973. She changed her name in 1971 as part of her effort to establish her African American identity. The name Ntozake means “she who comes with her own things,” while Shange means “who walks like a lion.” The new name clearly represents the strength and independence that Shange, like many of the characters in her writings, was seeking....
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