With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Tyler Perry’s rendition of Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, I fear that somehow Shange, and her struggles as a result of producing the choreopoem in the late seventies, has been buried alive. While today we (possibly) accept and even applaud Shange’s work, we would be remiss in not remembering her almost black-listing due to her choice to tell these fictitious, but somehow honest and authentic, stories of Black women’s lives. I had no idea, actually, of Shange’s associated hardships before choosing to study her writing and biography in one of my graduate literature courses. It turns out that Shange’s production was seen by the Black Conscious Community of the day as angry, anti-(Black) man, and dis-unifying. I’m sure that even today such sentiments exist regarding her work, and bring to mind the idea of the “angry Black feminist” who is intent on dismantling our families and communities by demonizing and excluding Black men.
Alice Walker may say that she created the term womanism to illustrate a perspective of feminism that includes our desire, or more so, our need to serve ourselves but also those we love—including our men. Like Shange, we have struggled, as women who desire to have our voices heard and our stories told, to find balance in being honest concerning our experiences and being allegiant to our greater cause of nation building. Shange, I’m sure, grew weary of being told to wait, to be silent, to be complicit in the strangling of the Black female voice. She rebelled. For Colored Girls . . . is the answer to that weariness, and there certainly was a price to pay for lending Black women that voice. I mean, anyone who has ever read any of Shange’s works or has seen a good production of FCG knows, without doubt, that she is an intentionally powerful and phenomenal wordsmith. How then did she, and her fantastic choreopoem, become so obscure and meritless? Dr. Robert Staples and Vernon Jarret (to name a few) come to mind while pondering these points.
Jarret, a writer and reviewer at the Chicago Defender, likened FCG to the film “Birth of a Nation,” calling the film “a degrading treatment of the black male” and “a mockery of the black family.” Imagine that. Dr. Staples, in his infamous article printed in the Black Scholar, commented that Shange (and consequently feminist writer Michelle Wallace) was out for Black male blood and was being used by White feminist to further attack and destroy Black manhood. It was Alice Walker who defended both women in a memo to the Black Scholar (which the publication chose not to print), asserting that, and as our sister Audre Lorde often commented, being pro-woman does not equal being anti-man—even if said woman (choosing to be pro-woman) is Black. According to Walker, “The element of truth is that, because of sexism (as much as racism, generally, and capitalism, yes) black women and men (who despite all “isms” own their own souls, I hope) are at a crisis in their relationship with each other. There is hatred, dislike, distrust between us. Should this continue we can say good-bye to the black peoplehood our myths and legends, struggles and triumphs have promised.”
Despite fellow feminists/womanists like Walker coming to her aid, Ntozake still faced quite a bit of backlash, and even ostracism. Many fail(ed) to see her vision, which was, and remains: that there is power and strength in giving voice to the pain that many Black women face. As my Twitter friend, and recording artist, Mystic (@thatgirlmystic) tweeted after viewing Perry’s version of FCG, “I found myself thinking, we go through so much as women. I imagine very few of us as young girls have any idea of what we will survive.” We will survive, as Ntozake Shange has. I could not sleep soundly without ensuring that all of us are aware of the price paid so that we could enjoy (maybe laugh, maybe cry) the film being shown in our local theater.