I always catch up with Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on Mondays when I know every segment is available online. (No cable life.) However, I do see livetweets from my Twitter timeline every Saturday and Sunday morning during the show’s live run. This week I saw that the incomparable Ntozake Shange was making an appearance on the show. Even with the anticipation of her appearance, I still waited until this morning to catch up with the show.
But I was unprepared. I didn’t realize just how unprepared I was to see a woman who is a living legend to me. I’d forgotten that Shange has recently been plagued with health problems and she was clearly living with ailments during her appearance. I had to hold back tears as I watched her. Seeing her looking frail on my screen gave me the awful reminder that one of my sheroes is a mortal human. It was similar to the reminder I got twice within the past year when both my grandparents passed within nine months of each other. The people I love and feel I need near me to survive may someday not be here.
I forced myself to forget about those feelings, of having to look at Shange as someone who’s susceptible to the same inevitables of sickness and mortality as the rest of us. I went ahead with my work day and got that image out of my mind. I let myself think about how obviously sharp her mind still is and that her voice is still one of the most influential in my black female/womanist conscious.
I was still in college when I first bought a copy of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” from a black bookstore in New Orleans. I had no idea what a choreopoem was or why it was something I’d heard about seemingly all my life as an essential part of black women’s literature. I also didn’t know why I often heard Shange’s name in the same breath as Alice Walker and Michelle Wallace as black women sometimes reviled for daring to write about negative relations between black men and black women. But I do know I went back to that book every once in a while just to feel those words and the affirmation they brought to my existence even if I couldn’t quite picture how it must have looked on stage.
I also know how much I loved the rhythm and language of the book. At a time when I was finally getting into Toni Morrison’s ethereal use of language, I found that Shange subverted “Standard English” not just with the use of slang. She wrote words how they sounded coming out of the mouths of black women. She wrote us as we were and turned it into poetry.
Of course, I read some of her other works including Nappy Edges, A Daughter’s Geography and the beautiful photography book The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family. I also read the book she co-authored with her sister Ifa Bayeza entitled Some Sing, Some Cry, a book that single-handedly restored my interest in incorporating music into my writing because it is truly makes the soundtrack of our lives. Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo also helped to keep me excited about writing, especially writing about black women and the meaning of family.
But everything always goes back to “For Colored Girls.” It’s one of the only things I will sit down and read with the intention of finishing the entire work before I put it down. When I first read it, I had no idea this work would become such an essential part of my life. I would never think that something with the word “suicide” in the title would ever be relevant to me and to my experience. I also would not have considered the irony of the fact that this book is one of the things that has had a hand at keeping me alive when I feel I’m dying spiritually. This one line by itself practically changed my whole perception of myself when I read it:
“i found god in myself
and i loved her
i loved her fiercely”
I don’t know if I had ever found something so self-affirming from a black woman before then, but Shange was saying more than we have lives worth saving: we have lives worth living.
It is very difficult for me to tell anyone that she has had an impact on me. Not people I consider friends and definitely not the sheroes of whom I sit at the feet. It’s difficult for me to cut myself open because I don’t know if they’ll apply the tourniquet and help me stop the bleeding. Sometimes I just have to take the risk.
Writers and women like Shange are the reason I can sometimes take that risk and know that I can heal myself before I bleed out. And that at times there may be another to help clean the blood and salve the wounds. I may not completely let go of my fears in life, but I can overcome them at times to keep moving forward whether I’m writing or taking other chances.
So for now I hope that Shange is getting the care she needs and that she wants for nothing for the rest of her days here. For 40 years, she has helped colored girls like me find a voice. She helped us become women. She is part of the reason I am still here with some hope that this life holds something better for me. She is that affirmation I need that I can survive no matter how bad it feels at the time. I hope she knows that her work has left an indelible mark on little colored girls everywhere. We are her descendants and will carry on her name and her work. For that, I want to say thank you, Ntozake Shange. The little colored girl inside me has found you and loves you fiercely.