Mourning the Loss of Ntozake Shange

“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
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
& handled warmly.”
― Ntozake Shange, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf

The story of the civil rights movement in America is very much the story of Black women in America. Yet their stories are seldom afforded the celebration they deserve. It was into this cultural shadow that Ntozake Shange‘s groundbreaking work, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, flashed like a bolt of lightning in 1976.

The Urban League Movement mourns the loss of the poet and playwright, who passed away this week at the age of 70.

Just 27 years old when for colored girls opened on Broadway, Shange coined the term “choreopoem” to describe the combination of poetry, dance, music, and song. It was only the second play by a Black woman to reach Broadway, after Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun in 1959.

It’s impossible to overstate the impact of Shange’s work on Black girls and young women, many of whom saw their experiences reflected artistically for the first time.

“For those of us who arrived at her words, whether as young girls or fully grown women, we found an altar erected in tribute to our stories, our traumas, and our particular way of being in the world,” recording artist Maiysha Kai wrote in The Root, calling Shange “One of the original conjurers of what we now know as black girl magic.”

Shange was born Paulette Williams to a physician and professor of social work in Trenton, New Jersey. The Zulu name she chose as an adult, Ntozake, means “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange, means “one who walks like a lion,. She grew up in St. Louis and was one of the first black children to integrate the city’s public schools. She was deeply influenced as a teenager in the 1960s by the Black Arts Movement, but felt the voices of women were missing. “Sojourner Truth wasn’t a big enough role model for me,” she told the Village Voice. “I couldn’t go around abolishing slavery.”

She was the author of 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books and three essay collections.

Performing in for colored girls — she said she used the outdated term so her grandmother would understand — has been a right of passage for black actresses for four decades. Nominated for or winning every major theater award, it has been adapted for television and film and performed all over the world. It has been set in beauty shops and prisons, and in different historical periods.

“I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive,” she said. In her honor, let us all remember that we are writing, working, speaking and creating a world for the children yet to borne so there is something here when they arrive.

Marc Morial is President and CEO of the National Urban League.

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