In Valerie Stivers’s Eat Your Words series, she cooks up recipes drawn from the works of various writers.
Ntozake Shange (1948–2018) is one of those writers who just don’t want to stay on the page. The book that made her famous was not a book, really, but a “choreopoem”: the now legendary For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which was first performed at a women’s bar outside Berkeley, California, in 1974, before it traveled to New York City and eventually ran at the Public Theater and on Broadway. Shange wrote poetry, most of which was refined in the presence of a band, and novels, including Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo, which bursts with idiosyncratic spelling and punctuation, healing rituals, recipes, and gemstone lore. In its overall effect, her work feels less like something to be read than something to be experienced.
This was a deliberate strategy of black American resistance, Shange tells us in her 2011 book of essays, Lost in Language and Sound. As a child of the seventies, Shange was, in her own words, an Afrocentrist, who adopted a Pan-African identity to the extent that she uses “we” in essays on places as disparate as Cuba, Haiti, and Brazil. “My house, my neighborhood, my soul,” she writes, “was immersed as far as I can recall in the accents of Togo, Liberia, Trinidad, Costa Rica, Chicago, Lagos, New Orleans, Bombay, and Cape Town, not to minimize in any way drawls of the Mississippi, clipped consonants from Arkansas, or soprano-like chisme (gossip) of Kansas City.” Due to the cross-cultural riches of the diaspora and because “most black people have some music and movement in our lives,” Shange posited an “independently created afro-American aesthetic” that was essentially multidisciplinary. She refused limitations, hated plays that were just dialogue without music and dance, and rejected English as the speech of the slavers and “the language I waz taught to hate myself in.” After all, For Colored Girls more than just a work of art, it was a spell or a ritual or a promise of aid to those on the brink of despair. Read More