There have been very clear moments when the loss of a famous person felt personal. This year, the deaths of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Hugh Masekela and Aretha Franklin, elders I have never known life without, left me feeling bereft.
I remember thinking that they were meant to be people who lived forever, like my grandfather who died a few years ago.
Prince, Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston were also just always there, holding some part of the universe together. Aside from the musicians who raised me, what has been hard has been the loss of women without whom I don’t think I would ever have begun to write.
As a writer, I have always felt there were mothers whose writing made my writing possible; bell hooks, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde all had a hand in shaping the writer I am today. I decided that part of my life’s work would involve writing, because I saw and heard the work of black women who articulated so much of what it felt like to be young, female and black.
Playwright, poet and feminist Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was one of those literary mothers, and her 1975 seminal work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf shook my little wanna-be-writer world when I stumbled upon her as an undergraduate student. The play was at once both beautiful and devastating, yet also complex and able to carry so many kinds of black femininities.
When I read For Colored Girls, I found something that my 12 years of Shakespeare, Dickens and Scott F Fitzgerald had failed to give me. It gave me a vision of myself and all the many black girls and women who made up and carried my world. Reflecting on Shange’s work, poet Ishmael Reed wrote: “No contemporary writer has Ms Shange’s uncanny gift for immersing herself within the situations and points of view of so many different types of women.”
It was in my early 20s, when my journalism career began, that I learned about the great cost with which Shange’s work had come. Like many black feminists, she was punished by the patriarchy for daring to articulate that black women, in all their different forms and circumstance, mattered.
In the same way that Walker had been punished for The Color Purple, the Broadway success of For Colored Girls came with heavy social penalties. After Shange’s death, writer and producer Dream Hampton recently recalled what happened to her when the show became a Tony-nominated hit — “the NYC [New York City] social death of Ntozake Shange”.
Shange’s longtime friend and collaborator, poet and playwright Thulani Davis, also explained this by recalling that “there was also this backlash from men. Men would come to Q&A sessions on tour and accuse her of defaming black men. So there was this resentment that women were airing the dirty laundry inside black communities in this broader public platform. There was this feeling that women should put race first, and women second.”
Shange’s experience four decades ago remains as relevant today for many young writers. As beautiful tributes poured in, I wondered what toll that attack on Shange’s work had on her, and whether we spend enough time considering the costs that seminally important works such as For Colored Girls have forwomen such as Shange. Thinking about the costs of doing important work is not intended to deter other voices, but rather to see black women as being fully human, complex people, who make immense contributions to society, even when it comes at great personal cost.
In the same way, it is important that Shange was able to articulate the many different ways in which black girls and women could exist, that we do the same for her and for all the women who through their work, make our work and our existence possible. Since her still shocking death, many shared her famous words: “Can somebody — anybody — sing a black girl’s song?”
Shange could sing all of the songs — and taught us how to sing too.