Ntozake Shange

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Ntozake Shange
Ntozake Shange, Reid Lecture, Women Issues Luncheon, Women's Center, November 1978 Crisco edit.jpg
Shange in 1978
Paulette Linda Williams

(1948-10-18)October 18, 1948
DiedOctober 27, 2018(2018-10-27) (aged 70)
Education Columbia University (BA)
University of Southern California (MA)
  • Playwright
  • author
  • poet
Known for for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1975)
Relatives Savannah Shange (daughter)
Ifa Bayeza (sister)
Bisa Williams (sister)
Paul T. Williams, Jr. (brother)
Website officialntozakeshange.com

Ntozake Shange ( /ˌɛntˈzɑːkiˈʃɑːŋɡ/ EN-toh-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-gay; [1] October 18, 1948 – October 27, 2018) was an American playwright and poet. [2] As a Black feminist, she addressed issues relating to race and Black power in much of her work. She is best known for her Obie Award-winning play, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1975). She also penned novels including Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), Liliane (1994), and Betsey Brown (1985), about an African-American girl run away from home. Among Shange's honors and awards were fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund, a Shelley Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, and a Pushcart Prize. In April 2016, Barnard College announced that it had acquired Shange's archive. [3] She lived in Brooklyn, New York. [4] Shange had one daughter, Savannah Shange. Shange was married twice: to the saxophonist David Murray and the painter McArthur Binion, Savannah's father, with both marriages ending in divorce. [5]


Early life

Shange was born Paulette Linda Williams in Trenton, New Jersey, [5] to an upper-middle-class family. Her father, Paul T. Williams, was a surgeon, and her mother, Eloise Williams, was an educator and a psychiatric social worker. When she was aged eight, Shange's family moved to the racially segregated city of St. Louis. As a result of the Brown v. Board of Education court decision, Shange was bused to a white school where she endured racism and racist attacks.

Shange's family had a strong interest in the arts and encouraged her artistic education. Among the guests at their home were Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, Paul Robeson, and W. E. B. Du Bois. [6] [7] From an early age, Shange took an interest in poetry. [8] While growing up with her family in Trenton, Shange attended poetry readings with her younger sister Wanda (now known as the playwright Ifa Bayeza). [9] These poetry readings fostered an early interest for Shange in the South in particular, and the loss it represented to young Black children who migrated to the North with their parents. [8] In 1956, Shange's family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, where Shange was sent several miles away from home to a non-segregated school that allowed her to receive "gifted" education. While attending this non-segregated school, Shange faced overt racism and harassment. These experiences would later go on to heavily influence her work. [7]

When Shange was 13, she returned to Lawrence Township, Mercer County, New Jersey, [10] where she graduated in 1966 from Trenton Central High School. [11] In 1966, Shange enrolled at Barnard College (class of 1970) at Columbia University in New York City. During her time at Barnard, Shange met fellow Barnard student and would-be poet Thulani Davis. [12] The two poets would later go on to collaborate on various works. [12] Shange graduated cum laude in American Studies, then earned a master's degree in the same field from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. However, her college years were not all pleasant. She married during her first year in college, but the marriage did not last long. Depressed over her separation and with a strong sense of bitterness and alienation, she attempted suicide. [13] In 1970 in San Francisco, having come to terms with her depression and alienation, Shange rejected "Williams" as a slave name and "Paulette" (after her father Paul) as patriarchal, and asked South African musicians Ndikho and Nomusa Xaba (also spelled Ndikko and Zaba) [14] to bestow an African name. [15] In 1971 Ndikho duly chose Ntozake and Shange, [15] which Shange respectively glossed as Xhosa "She who comes with her own things" and Zulu "She who walks like a lion". [15] [16]


In 1975, Shange moved back to New York City, after earning her master's degree in American Studies in 1973 [17] from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. She is acknowledged as having been a founding poet of the Nuyorican Poets Café. [18] In that year her first and most well-known play was produced — for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf . First produced Off-Broadway, the play soon moved on to Broadway at the Booth Theater and won several awards, including the Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the AUDELCO Award. This play, her most famous work, was a 20-part choreopoem — a term Shange coined to describe her groundbreaking dramatic form, combining of poetry, dance, music, and song [19] — that chronicled the lives of women of color in the United States. The poem was eventually made into the stage play, was then published in book form in 1977. In 2010, the choreopoem was adapted into a film ( For Colored Girls , directed by Tyler Perry). Shange subsequently wrote other successful plays, including Spell No. 7 , a 1979 choreopoem that explores the Black experience, [20] and an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children (1980), which won an Obie Award. [21]

In 1978, Shange became an associate of the Women's Institute for Freedom of the Press (WIFP). [22] WIFP is an American nonprofit publishing organization. The organization works to increase communication between women and connect the public with forms of women-based media. Shange taught in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Houston from 1984 to 1986. While there she wrote the ekphrastic poetry collection Ridin the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings and served as thesis advisor for poet and playwright Annie Finch. In 2003, Shange wrote and oversaw the production of Lavender Lizards and Lilac Landmines: Layla's Dream while serving as a visiting artist at the University of Florida, Gainesville. [23]

Shange's individual poems, essays, and short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including The Black Scholar , Yardbird, Ms. , Essence Magazine , The Chicago Tribune , VIBE , Daughters of Africa , and Third-World Women. [8]

Relationship to the Black Arts Movement

The Black Arts Movement—also known as BAM—has been described as the "aesthetic and spiritual sister of the Black Power concept." [24] The Black Arts Movement is a subset of the Black Power Movement. Larry Neal described the Black Arts Movement as a "radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic." Key concepts of BAM were focused on a "separate symbolism, mythology, critique, and iconology" as well as the African American's desire for "self-determination and nationhood." [24] BAM consisted of actors, actresses, choreographers, musicians, novelists, poets, photographers, and artists. While male artists such as Amiri Baraka heavily dominated the Black Arts Movement, some notable women writers of the movement were Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Rosa Guy, Lorraine Hansberry, Lucille Clifton, and Sonia Sanchez, among others. Although Shange is described as a "post-Black artist", her work was decidedly feminist, whereas BAM has been criticized as misogynistic and "sexism had been widely and hotly debated within movement publications and organizations." [24] Corresponding with the idea that art from BAM was a "radical reordering of the western cultural aesthetic," Shange herself described her atypical writing style. In regards to her plays, she stated: "A play has a form that has to be finished. A performance piece has an organic form, but it can even flow. And there doesn't have to be some ultimate climax in it. And there does not have to be a denouement." [25]

Though Shange's work did have a "radical reordering of western cultural aesthetics" with its spelling, structure, and style, Baraka—one of the leading male figures of the movement—denied her as a post-Black artist. [24] With regard to Shange as a part of the black aesthetic and as a post-Black artist, he claimed "that several women writers, among them Michelle Wallace [sic] and Ntozake Shange, like [Ishmael] Reed, had their own 'Hollywood' aesthetic, one of 'capitulation' and 'garbage.'" [24]

In terms of a black aesthetic, Shange described different styles of writing for different parts of the country, stating: "There's not a California style, but there are certain feelings and a certain freeness that set those writers off from those in the Chicago-St. Louis-Detroit tripod group...so that the chauvinism that you might find that's exclusionary, in that triangle, you don't find too much in California." [8] Shange set her writing apart from the Black aesthetic of the Black arts movement by creating a "special aesthetic" for black women "to an extent." She claimed, "the same rhetoric that is used to establish the Black Aesthetic, we must use to establish a women's aesthetic, which is to say that those parts of reality that are ours, those things about our bodies, the cycles of our lives that have been ignored for centuries in all castes and classes of our people, are to be dealt with now." [8]


Shange died in her sleep on October 27, 2018, aged 70, in an assisted-living facility in Bowie, Maryland. [5] She had been ill, having suffered a series of strokes in 2004, [26] but she "had been on the mend lately, creating new work, giving readings and being feted for her work." [27] Her sister Ifa Bayeza (with whom she co-wrote the 2010 novel Some Sing, Some Cry) [28] said: "It's a huge loss for the world. I don't think there's a day on the planet when there's not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister." [27]







Children's books

Essays and non-fiction

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Further reading