Ntozake Shange at Barnard College in November 1978. From the Barnard College archives, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.
The following three short essays describe Ntozake Shange’s experience with psychoanalysis. After the success of for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, she struggled with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and drug addiction. Her mental health challenges continued for decades, and she was remarkably open about them and diligent in seeking help through psychoanalysis and traditional talk therapy. Characteristically, Shange’s complicated emotional landscape is rendered with tenderness and beauty, which is particularly important given our collective recognition of the importance of mental health care. In this, too, Shange was ahead of her time.
Editor’s note: Except where a change was necessary to avoid errors that altered meaning in the work, Shange’s original handwritten notes and misspellings are how they appear in her archives. The editor aimed to maintain the integrity and urgency of Shange’s writing style, and to publish her work as she left it.
The Dark Room
When “For colored girls …” was at the height of its controversy/popularity, I found myself wearing very dark glasses and large hats so that folks wouldn’t recognize me. I couldn’t ride elevators, up or down. If someone figured out who I was, I calmly stated that I was frequently mistaken for ‘her’. I’d had other occasions in my life, when I was the only African-American in a class or banished to the countryside that my family loved so much, when I’d been known to disassociate, to refer to myself in the third person. Then, I was ‘Paulette’. Now, Ntozake repeating the pattern of the girl I’d gleefully left behind. This was very troubling. I’d just become who I was and was in the frenzied act of ‘disappearing’ me. Now, I confess to discovering many, many roads to oblivion, but I rarely recounted these episodes with warmth or a sense of well-being. So, I did what I thought troubled writers did, I went to my producer, Joseph Papp, to seek counsel. To my alarm, Joe recommended against analysis or other therapies, “because, then, my writers can’t write anymore’. Well, writing I was, living I was, living I was not, even though I wasn’t always a strong supporter of my own perceptions. The ability to write in isolation for hours about anything and enjoy it is a gift, but it is not life. Even, I knew this. I could not hide in a dance studio, either. My presence was unavoidable , yet unbearable.
Off to find a shrink , I went. I was looking for a wizard, some magic, some chant, or breath that might make being me something to look forward to in the morning. I have the capacity to sleep for four days at a time, if I am so inclined. At one point I refused to get up and live my life among the living because my dreamlife was so much more interesting. Wizards I did not find. I did find that finding the right shrink/ analyst is as important a decision as finding a soul-mate. Anyway, to make a long story less long, I’ve been involved with overseven mental health care workers in the last twenty years. The overwhelming period of time spent with three: one psychiatrist, and two analysts. I lost one analyst to the Emergency Room which he saw as a challenge. Four years of quasi-sane mourning passed before I was able to seek out another with whom I have been working for nearly a decade.
The Angriest Patient
With his help and astounding patience, I have lost my title as “the angriest patient ever encountered during all my years of practice” to become the 1991–93 Heavyweight Poetry champion of ‘The World”, as you see, a much healthier management of violent proclivities. In all seriousness I’ve learned to feel what I see. What I’ve been blessed to conjure in words is no longer two steps removed; my body is not a hindrance to my spirit, but a manifestation of it. I am still crazy,but not so afraid with that part of me. I can even tell jokes to my ‘crazy’ person and realize that to be one of my saner moments.
I’ve dressed up as a ‘guinea girl”, the ones who stole all the basketball players at my school just to prove that I could be one. That was a session to remember. I’ve felt what I swear to be electricity in my body. I’ve known the ocean and intense heat. All this actually while on the couch. Talk about terrified. Try being the Atlantic Ocean all by yourself in an eight by twelve room with ancient fertility statues placed like buoys on what I guess I took to be signs of land ahead. I don’t know to this day. I’ve talked in tongues. I’ve only been able to do some sessions inSpanish, or a mixture of French and Portuguese. I don’t know why. I know that is all that would come out. Sometimes, I sleep. Other times, Paulette speaks. Her voice is different from mine as Zaki. Sometimes, I want to knock her out, but since we can only use language as a tool or weapon or doll or whatever I need, I learned at least to talk to her, if I am not wildly gesticulating in some recollection of a dream; legs flying, arms of a flamenco dancer, long Balanchine neck I could never actualize outside my ‘dark room’ where things, me, memories float out of syllables and become benign or empowering, as they must because they are never without meaning.
Joe, my ‘Art-Daddy’ as I called him was wrong about one thing, not many, but one. Psychoanalysis has made me a finer writer, a fuller person and a funnier one to be sure. I’ve found characters I would literally shun to be beauteous. I’ve been able to take on the persona of someone puzzling to me with no need, not a desperate one, to figure her out. I have/ am plumbing the primordial depths of me, not without trepidation, but with a magic I thought I could pick up somewhere in the night. My analyst’s Anthony Molino. He’s a poet. He lives in Italy and like a guardian spirit, with me.
Though long before I’d come to know myself as ‘Ntozake’ or, a writer, I had wanted to be a psychiatrist. This no doubt had something to do with my parents’ involvement with hospitals, sick people, poor black people, and me, following along to wards, living rooms, boarding houses, examination rooms, and dark rooms where X-rays were read or where violently mentally disturbed folks were sequestered. My father as a surgeon, excised with delicacy what was malignant, diseased, out of tune with the body, while my mother, as I understood it, assisted individuals or families to get in tune with society as a whole, to make ‘living’ work for them as opposed to against them without necessarily challenging anything about the world as we know it. Both these approaches left me wanting. What if what was wrong couldn’t be seen or couldn’t be excised? What if life as some soul knew it wasn’t worth living without some violent catharsis? I credited Toussaint L’Ouverture and Dessalines, Tubman and Anthony with what ever legitimacy I had, and they were not the sort who ‘fit’ in. I’d seen “Snakepit”, in all its simplified black and white depiction of living in our world with a pained contorted mind and spirit. I was caught somewhere in between the institution and slavery and the loose cells of The Bastille. Surely, there is some where more peaceful than The ER or the Settlement house. My ultimate answer was the analyst’s couch, but before that I had tolearn to live with myself madly for a while longer.
I saw things. I was not delusional or schizophrenic, I apparently could reach areas of my unconscious as a child that never left me which turned out to be as much a burden as a blessing. I had visions. I wasn’t playing. I was laying on the grass or upside a great tree, listening and seeing historical figures, artists, people I didn’t know dancing with me, taking me to salons in Paris or roadhouse in Alabama. I was daydreaming, I imagine, but I never diminished those episodes to anything less than my ‘real life.’ That’s why journalists have such a hard time fact-checking stories on or about me. I will tell them an anecdote which is impossible to chart in any methodology. They ask me did something happen and I’ll probably say ‘yes’ because I remember my dreams, both night and day, as authentically as I experience my daily life. Before I started menstruating, this issue of truth was very much alive. What I believed or felt I could not prove to anybody in a reasoned fashion. That’s why I knew instinctively that I should not argue or debate because at, a certain point I, knew my ‘truth’ was simply mine and not a collectively recognized reality. Yet it could not be a lie because I thought/felt it. The only place I know where anybody else believes this is the psychoanalyst’s office. There, it is enough to paraphrase Marie Cardenal to find ‘the words to say it’.
That’s why I dance. I can’t always find the ‘words’ to say it. I’ve come to believe there are words as we know themfor some things; that the body has a grammar for these constructs which are not beyond articulation, but of another terrain. I’m becoming trans-lingual so that I may speak myself. Maybe I was a passionate gopi girl at Krishna’s feet, I don’t know, I do know that my body extorts from me what hangs silent in the air. That’s why psychopharmocology can only take me so far. I need my body to talk to me. My analyst watches all these gestures of mind and body, listens as closely to my muscle burns or prone attitude turns as my dreams.
Most of my characters have visions and dreams with which some of you are acquainted. Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday visit Sassafrass. Indigo speaks with the spirits of the moon and the Ancestors. Everybody, even, The Magician, in “Spell#7” opens their interior world to the whole of the audience, thought no one else in the scene itself is aware of Allega brushing her hair or Maxine collecting gold chains that bound her in resistations of The Middle Passage. Liliane, actually, has an analyst. No. He’s not my analyst, he is Lili’s. Sean, the debonair photographer in “A Photograph: Lovers-in-Motion” needed an analyst.I didn’t give him one. I let him suffer. He didn’t have visions, couldn’t talk to spirits, shoot the breeze with his own myths, memory weighed too heavily. An example is simply that my father hadda monkey/ he liked better than me”, from the mouth of a grown man who is still that little boy. Did that ‘happen’ to me? Not in the material world/. But, living with my being i know now that if I ‘know’ about it, it happened to me, belongs to me now. I was not here during The French Revolution, but I can describe Marat’s bath and exude Charlotte Corday’s 1 rage and naivete. Just as I named Crack Annie’s daughter, Berneatha in honor of Hansberry’s Beneatha. There is no doubt in my mind that Walter Lee woulda smoked everything in that house away and pledged the money to Beneatha’s African boyfriend to get himself in on some wild Dallas-Chicago-Lagos drug deal. Was I conscious of this? No. Can I discuss all this eccentric personal peculiarity now? Yes. Without heart palpitations? Yes. Without clammy palms? Yes. Without blinking an eye? No. All of this is very precious. I must keep my eye on my self/s. I’ve learned this on a yearly, hour byhour disciplined manner. It was not easy. I was not happy. I was not always careful. It costs a lot. What do I get in the end? Do I get better? How will I know when I get there? I could get coy. Answer, Beckett knew what detained Godot, but we don’t know that. I know I don’t know that. Anyway, I have a hard time explicating “le texte’. The characters never die. The stories never end for me. That’s why like Rapunzel I go unravel my loose ends with my psychoanalyst. Nothing is wrong. No one else knows. A pin could drop, but usually what’s falling away is not so piercing, not so singular, only the shreds of living I must make space for somewhere in myself/s who is not only the writer and, therefore cannot continue to find herself whole solely on blank pages.
One of Simon Bolivar’s houses was hexagonal, seated on a cliff in such a way that from any point, he could feel/ see land and peoples who would be free. When I lie nestled on the couch in the room of no color and all colors, I am in that house. I am on that cliff. I am one of those people.
These essays will appear in Sing a Black Girl’s Song: The Unpublished Work of Ntozake Shange, to be published next week. Courtesy of the Ntozake Shange Revocable Trust and reprinted by permission of Grand Central Publishing, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Ntozake Shange (1948–2018) was an American playwright and poet, best known for her Obie Award-winning play, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.
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