Ntozake Shange: She Who Walks Like a Lion
There is a video in which Ntozake Shange—wearing a fuchsia floral print with pink lipstick to match—tells the story of how she wrote her first poem in seven years.1 The story begins with Shange walking around her home—“cuz I could walk”—when words rush to her head. She is unable to steady the stream of language and recognizes the words are, in fact, a poem.
Determined to transcribe the poem, Shange runs through her options. Dragon, the voice recognition software that translates speech into text, is of no use to her. It cannot interpret the slang she is known to include in her work, or her diction, which is slightly slurred following a series of strokes. Shange attempts to write the poem by hand—an ability she has been relearning with an occupational therapist—but her fingers start to ache. Her last choice is a computer.
“I only had the computer left but I hadn’t had the strength in my fingers or the control over my fingers to … make the key go down,” Shange recounts. Limited dexterity proves to be no match for her resolve. Shange triumphs. “I was so happy I could write again,” she says before the video ends.
What struck me the most about Shange’s testimony was how she aligned her physical needs to her process. In 2011, Shange experienced her first episode of chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy (CIDP). CIDP—a rare disorder of the nerves and nerve roots—causes numbness, tingling sensations, weakening of the arms and legs, and, in some cases, loss of motor skills. The condition came to Ntozake Shange when she was sixty-three years old, thirty-five years after for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (1976) cemented her place as a griot of black women’s interiority.
The “choreopoem,” as Shange christened it, illuminated the emotional and spiritual landscapes of her communities. I am moved each and every time lady in purple admits, “I am really colored & really sad sometimes & you hurt me.”2 In a society where misogynoirist stereotypes persist, bearing witness to such vulnerability can be startling.
Shange understood the body as a site of experience and, in turn, alchemized poetry, dance, and music into a language sophisticated enough to convey what it knows and remembers.
The stage directions are as affective as the poetry in for colored girls. lady in brown “comes to life,”3 and all the ladies dance until they “fall out tired, but full of life and togetherness.”4 Shange understood the body as a site of experience and, in turn, alchemized poetry, dance, and music into a language sophisticated enough to convey what it knows and remembers. That Shange lost control of her limbs impacted her work substantially.
The poem “a word is a miracle,” one of the newer works in Shange’s last book, Wild Beauty (2017), evokes the obstacles she faced as she became acquainted with the changes in her body: “a word is a miracle / just letters that somehow wind up / clumsy fingers / with meaning / my life was inarticulate / no one knew what I meant / I cd capture no beauty or wistful memory.”5 Reading Shange, I empathize with her angst over losing the ability to write—of fingers once nimble, now “clumsy,” of a life once expressive, now “inarticulate.” Albeit frustrated, Shange showed courage and self-compassion, she writes, “a word on a blank page, though / that is triumphant.”
Shange also found meaning in moments of impaired mobility. In a 2017 interview with Jamara Wakefield, Shange spoke on the “10 years [she] was in bed” as a time when she had the opportunity to reflect on her remarkable life.6 This line of gratitude and appreciation for her life appears in another poem from Wild Beauty, “these blessings.” Shange elaborates on her one-of-a-kind encounters with cultural icons: dancing with Nicolás Guillén in Cuba, sharing a meal with Romare Bearden, and placing her daughter on the lap of Sun Ra. Toward the end of the poem, one can feel her smiling, as if to herself while lying in bed:
I live in music with me,
1. 3-Minute Storyteller, “NTOZAKE SHANGE, poet, playwright, performer, and novelist,” YouTube, February 9, 2018. https://youtu.be/isft8yxZgWk
2. Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, (New York: Scribner, 1997), 44.
3. Shange, for colored girls, 17.
4. Shange, for colored girls, 49.
5. Ntozake Shange, Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems (New York: Atria / 37 INK, 2017), 235.
6. Jamara Wakefield, “Ntozake Shange on Writing Her Own Words in Her Own Way,” Shondaland, December 4, 2017. https://www.shondaland.com/live/a13999488/ntozake-shange-interview/
7. Shange, Wild Beauty, 233.