Sing a black girl’s song: Ntozake Shange’s genius

The late playwright, poet and essayist will always be a guide for coming-to-being and for those seeking their own voices.

For those who are lovers of novels, of poems, of theatre, of scholarship, of an activism that both feeds us and makes us weary and tired at times, for those who are lovers of a gqom that snaps our bodies in half mid vosho – in the middle of God knows where, who are lovers of bubblegum music and garbage TV, and a feminism that castrates patriarchy on social media, for those of us who are lovers of  joy and complexities, and this thing we would come to know as a “choreopoem”, a genre popularised by Ntozake Shange, a genre that lets us know that we can be multiple conventions woven in one body, that we can be made of poetry and rhythm and silence. For those of us who are half-notes scattered/without rhythm/ no tune, those of us who dunk ourselves in the righteous gospel of Kuzwayo, Morrison, Hansberry, Simone, Tlali, Hurston, Walker, Gqola, Brooks, Lori-Parks, Ditsie, Nottage, Head, Clifton, Crenshaw, Giovanni, Sanchez, Hill, Davis, Madikizela, Shange and every other voice that has sung and continues to sing our song this is for you:

We are born
We are born
We are Born.

she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born

– Ntozake Shange

It took me four years to give birth to myself using the notes and voices of other Black women. One of the first people to give me a note during my undergrad years was Ntozake Shange. I don’t know what I was looking for in the library that day, I only know that I was on a quest, the same mission I had been on since the day I set foot in the drama department at the University of Cape Town.

I was looking for a text by a black girl for black girls – never once buying into the narrative that there weren’t any, or too few, or that we were lacking and ghost-like, waiting for someone else to sing our song for us, archive it for us, tell it on our behalf, pit it against a canon that asked our tongues to backflip to white men’s’ karaoke.

The library shelves favoured by my supervisors and contemporaries offer me shepard, mamet, pinter, wilde, ntshona, beckett, stoppard, ionesco, heaney, brecht, fugard, kani, and and, I march past each offer with a kind of boredom and non-resonance, then, finally, I find Liliane: Resurrection of The Daughter, a novel by Ntozake Shange.

The novel tells the coming-of-age story of a young black woman, Liliane Parnell, through the numerous voices of childhood friends, family, lovers, acquaintances, conversations between Liliane and her psychoanalyst, and Liliane herself. The novel is a combination of prose, poems, diary entries, and a playscript. At first glance you would not know that there is a script in the novel.

Shange could do that to you. She does that you, asks you to move past the assumption, the first glance, what you think you know about her and her stories, she asks of you to sit with her narratives and their complexities until they reveal themselves completely. She invites different forms on one page and asks of you to salsa in a tango.

The audience walks in.

A dimly lit stage, a lightbulb hanging in the centre, two couches placed opposite each other. Beat. The light flickers on and off into a definite on. Beat. Liliane lights a cigarette – beat. The Psychoanalyst and Lilian stare at each other. Beat. Beat. Lilian speaks.

The lightbulb is not part of Shange’s stage direction, but it felt conceptually apt as a metaphor for how Shange’s text could flip a switch in you, make you see something anew, make you see something you never thought was there. Her words could make your shadows dance in full view of the light. When I first presented the text to my supervisor and classmates, the first remark was “we didn’t know this text of Ntozake Shange existed” and this too was my continuous experience of Shange, I was always discovering her in a different context, in a new form, in a moment in my life where I needed somebody to sing me something I could recognise, something my body could slip into without my skin crawling or catching an allergic reaction, without vomiting in my mouth from the stench of a narrative forcefully fed so I could pass the term or impress the examiner. Someone introduced me to Shange and Shange led me to someone else and that somebody else to another somebody else. The magic of black girls: we have the ability to make other black girls visible through our work.

somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty

Shange was/is mostly known for her 1975 theatre piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Written for seven actors, For Colored Girls is a group of 20 poems on the power of black women to survive in the face of despair and pain. But Shange was more than for colored girls (the popular nickname for the play). Born Pauletta Linda Williams in New Jersey in the US, she gave herself a new name, Ntozake Shange. She gave us names too, gave us plays, poems, essays that made us navigate race and gender and the mundane day to day. She gave us A Photograph: A study of Cruelty, Boogie Woogie Landscapes, Spell No. 7, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, Betsey Brown, The Sweet Breath of Life: A poetic Narrative of the African-American family, See No Evil: Prefaces, Essays, and Accounts, If I can Cook You Know God Can, and Black and White Two Dimensional Planes among others.

She articulated what it meant to inhabit a body that could love and be loved and violated, could grieve and access joy and how we as black girls could be tender and enraged all at once. In Shange’s work we are wholesome and complex, we move through different genres. She illustrates what it means to employ prose, and poetry and recipes and songs and movement and diary entries and magic spells, anything and everything to demonstrate how vast and multidimensional our voices are.

The plight of black girls looking for mirrors in the curriculum is a bizarre phenomenon that is still a sore and tiresome exercise. And while we do the work of insisting that the curriculum must look like us, Shange’s body of work and existence taught me that as a black girl you must act as your own catalyst in curating yourself/selves, in seeking the ones who can sing your song, influence the ways in which you arrange and deconstruct and reconstruct the way you sound, move, breathe, and give birth to yourself inside and outside of institutions of learning, inside and outside of the gaze, inside and outside of your continuous becoming, because no one can sing the song of a black girl like a black girl.

Ntozake Shange, born 18 October 1948, died 27 October 2018.

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