Arts & Culture / Convergence / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

There She Was

Arthur Jafa, Ms Hill_Lagos

Arthur Jafa, Ms Hill_Lagos, C-print, printed 2018 (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Gavin Brown’s enterprise, New York/Rome

“one new york critic had accused me of being too self-conscious of being a writer / … yes / being an afro-american writer is something to be self-conscious abt” — Ntozake Shange, “my pen is a machete”

I don’t remember when I first encountered Ntozake Shange’s work because it was almost as if she was always there. There she was playing up the lonely feel of racist patriarchy in 1978’s nappy edges. There she was, with her unvarnished choreopoetics in the adaption of the 1976 play, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. There she was in 1985’s quasi-autobiographical black bildungsroman, Betsey Brown. There she was in the 2011 collection, lost in language & sound: or how I found my way to the arts, kickstarting—no, kicking—the personal essay.

There she was.

Shange was born Paulette Linda Williams although I never knew her like that. After a lousy time in college, the end of a marriage, and a suicide attempt, she changed her name to Ntozake, which means “she who has her own things” in Xhosa. She is part of a generation of black folks who changed their name to honor some African past, mark some present blackness, or make space for some afrofuture. Or perhaps, to put it plainly, to provoke the integrationist respectability of their parents.

Of course, it was more than a change in name. Harryette Mullen has called Shange’s vibe in the 1970s “black bohemian feminist,” and that’s always stuck with me. I say vibe because Shange always gave us something deeper than a politics, even as she unambiguously indexed a space between the racism of the liberal feminism du jour and the sexism of black nationalism. Perhaps she lived as Paulette Williams under erasure.

She was a rule-breaker—fucking with, fucking up the word. The world. Breaking the rules meant refusing the rules of the state, the street, the home. And the rules of the classroom. September 2015, I walked into my first day as teaching assistant of “Worlds of Shange and Digital Storytelling,” taught by the formidable Professor Kim Hall, and it was like encountering the writer, poet, and dancer Ntozake Shange over and over and over again. I don’t mean to say that these Barnard students were her children. That would run the risk of being far too linear, far too stuck in maternal delineation, and biological metaphors of reproduction. Shange’s work and life do not suggest seeds but flowers—big and blooming, thorny, bushy, overwhelming flowers, like bougainvillea. The class, which worked across the archive, the arts, and the digital, bloomed like that. It was my first time in a classroom as anything other than a student. It felt funky—off but alluring.

And then there was Ntozake Shange, fiery fairy figure of language who came to visit us. Her metallic presence wild in the classroom, asking anew what it means to read. Reading was always physical for her. Movement for Shange was a life-force, a project inextricable from intellectual thought, even and perhaps especially so when she used a wheelchair. I feel like you have to ready the body for language. As a teacher, Shange would sometimes begin her own classes with a meditation or drop swings à la Dianne McIntyre. When asked why, she said it had everything to do with breathlessness, the joy and adrenaline you get from running a sprint. We followed suit: in our own class we would take dance breaks, stretching breaks, breathing breaks. How embarrassing for me, a young teacher trying to shore up what it means to be a teacher, now moving and sweating and living and being amongst my students. I wanted to throw up; I was back in my body.

Shange morphed black womanhood—that sometimes constricting and heartbreaking but beautiful thing—into a poetics. In the poem, “who am i thinking of,” published in Nappy Edges, she begins “when I write I think of my friends / the people of my visions / but how cd I presume to think of men / who leave so little behind.” She knew deeply that men take everything with them wherever they go, and with that knowledge, embodied, she left so much behind. I will resist museumizing her, and keep thinking about her when I breathe, and especially when I don’t.

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