Ntozake Shange Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Shange’s effort to give expression to the African American experience, particularly the experience of African American women, has led her to innovation at every level of her writing, from her choices of subject matter to the unconventional forms of her plays and novels to her distinctive diction and orthography. Her interests in African American culture, both urban and rural, and in music, dance, and the visual arts are evident throughout her literary output. The dominant trend in her work has been toward a more personal kind of writing. In her earlier works, she embodies her concerns in those of archetypal characters; subsequently, she has acknowledged the basis of her work in her own experience and biography more directly.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Ntozake Shange (pronounced “En-to-zaki Shong-gay”) was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, on October 18, 1948, daughter of a surgeon and a psychiatric social worker and educator. She grew up surrounded by music, literature, art, and her parents’ prominent friends, among them Dizzy Gillespie, Chuck Berry, and W. E. B. Du Bois, as well as Third World writers and musicians. Her ties with her family were strong; she also was close to her family’s live-in black maids. She was graduated from Barnard College with honors in 1970, then received a graduate degree at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. While in California, she began studying dance, writing poetry, and participating in improvisational works (consisting of poems, music, dance, and mime) at bars, cabarets, and schools. These gradually grew into for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, which she carried across the country to perform in workshops in New York, then at the Public Theatre, and eventually on Broadway. The contrasts between her privileged home and education and the realities of the lives of black women led her, in 1971, to change her name legally from what she called the “slave name” of Paulette Williams to Ntozake Shange, meaning “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion” in Xhosa (Zulu). Her two failed marriages, her suicide attempts, and her contact with city violence resulted in an...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Ntozake Shange, born Paulette Williams, was raised in an African American middle-class family in Trenton, New Jersey. Her mother was a social worker, and her father was a surgeon—the same occupations held by the parents in Shange’s novel Betsey Brown. Also like Betsey, young Paulette was encouraged to get an education and was introduced to leading figures of African American music and literature. Unlike Betsey, however, the writer remembers herself as always obedient and “nice.”

Not until she was in her thirties did she allow herself to express the anger always lurking beneath her polite surface. Depressed over a failed marriage, and frustrated over the roadblocks of racism and sexism she encountered as she attempted to establish a career, she began to explore anew her own identity as an African American woman. She took the African name Ntozake Shange, which means “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion.”

Her first major piece of writing remains her most important. The play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf won international acclaim for its innovative combining of poetry, drama, and dance to tell the stories of seven women. Still performed, the play was one of the earliest writings in any genre to deal with the anger of black women.

The success of the play gave Shange the financial freedom to explore less financially profitable outlets of expression. She began writing and publishing poetry, and collaborating with musicians and choreographers on improvisational pieces performed in bars and small theaters. She also has taught creative writing and women’s studies courses at various colleges across the United States, and has occasionally turned her pen to writing prose fiction, especially for and about adolescent girls.

Shange has often spoken of the responsibilities that inform her writing. As an adolescent she could not find fiction about people like her. As a young woman she did not know how to understand her own pain. She writes many of her works to pass on to younger black women the insights she has gained through her experiences.