Mourning Ntozake Shange

Sometime yesterday between apple picking and used book buying, I started seeing Ntozake Shange’s name popping up in my social media, and I got that sinking feeling in my stomach that you get when a writer you love and admire is popping up in the news. Shange had passed away (in my home state of Maryland, actually) at the age of 70. Too early, too young. My discovery of Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo was really the inspiration for starting this blog. It wasn’t the first journey that Shange had started me on in my life, and I doubt it’ll be the last.

Like most people, my first exposure to her was her brilliant choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf. I read it in college, in my Minority Women Playwrights class with Susan Forbes. For Colored Girls was the centerpiece of the class; if I remember correctly, it was the only text “big” enough to be printed as its own book. I still have it. I remember some of the other playwrights, but not necessarily the plays that we read, except for Fefu and Her Friends by Maria Irene Fornes (that one is quite unforgettable!).

The first time I read it, I remember being so seduced by the poetry of her words that I really paid less attention to what Shange was saying than I should have. While I won’t bother to quote it here, I remember, almost word for word, full class conversations that we had about the text, including what it meant to “consider suicide” (and Susan asking us who hadn’t thought about “jerking the steering wheel on Rte. 90 on the way home at least once?” – her point being that this was not what Shange was referring to).

The second time, and perhaps third time, that I read it, I heard her more, and better. I am reading it again now and picking up on things I had forgotten, or never noticed before. Brilliant writing is always multifaceted this way.

In fact, the words, as I reread them, came back so vividly that I wondered – had I seen this performed live? I will have to look through my ticket stubs. I can see it in my mind’s eye, but I’m not sure if that’s because I saw a version of it long ago, or because I’ve read it so many times and because her stage directions are so vivid that you feel as though you’re there.

When I finish rereading again, I will probably start her novel Betsey Brown that I own but have not read. It has been sitting on the shelf, waiting for its time. Now is as good as any. I continue to work my way through Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (pacing myself – I am loving it, although a tremendous amount happens and I usually love books where very little happens!). And I am closing in on the end of Mildred Walker’s Fireweed.

While almost all of my reading lately has been from the library, I took a meandering walk into the 21st century and into nonfiction recently and read Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. I am a longtime admirer of Cooper’s writing, and Eloquent Rage was terrific – readable, wise, thoughtful, funny. It gave me a readjustment to my own feminism that I really needed, and I expect I will return to Cooper’s writing sooner rather than later.

But now, a quote from Shange:

“i am gonna write poems til i die and when i have gotten outta this body i am gonna hang round in the wind and knock over everybody who got their feet on the ground.”

Look out, y’all. That wind you feel this week is Shange.

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