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An Appreciation

With ‘for colored girls,’ Ntozake Shange gave generations of black women a way to see God in themselves

Saying goodbye to a black feminist who always walked like a lion

Every time I hear the chorus to the Mary Mary gospel song “The God in Me,” I can’t help but think of Ntozake Shange.

Shange, who died in her sleep Oct. 27 at 70, wrote in her 1975 seminal work:

through my tears

i found god in myself

& i loved her

i loved her fiercely

In that way, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf functioned as a work of liberation theology, published decades before Oprah Winfrey declared that she was more spiritual than religious. It divorced God and spirituality from organized religion, with its dictats coming from black male preachers.

For colored girls, the Obie-winning choreopoem, as she called it (a word later recognized by the dictionary because Shange had created it) became a sensation after its 1976-77 Broadway run. It felt fresh and inventive and spoke directly to the experiences of black American women in a way that the women’s liberation movement often did not. Folding poetry, dance, song and acting into one work, Shange told the truth about the lives of American black women, about abortion, rape, sex, joy and grief, and she did so without shame or apology, and without the onerous burden that she might go to hell for it.

Shange spoke in colors: brown, yellow, purple, red, green, blue and orange. Each color was a woman from a different American city. She first presented the work in 1974 at a women’s bar called Bacchanal outside Berkeley, California, with dancers Paula Moss and Elvia Marta, guitarist Nashira Ntosha, poet Jessica Hagedorn, and publisher and Bacchanal co-founder Joanna Griffin. “We were a little raw, self-conscious, & eager,” Shange wrote in an introduction to a 1997 edition of for colored girls about herself and her Bay Area friends. “Whatever we were discovering in ourselves that nite had been in process among us for almost two years.”

Shange had crafted a woman for what seemed like every stage of life. A more amusing poem came from the lady in red, informing a good-for-nothing man of his eviction from her heart:

with no further assistance & no guidance from you

i am endin this affair

this note is attached to a plant

i’ve been watering since the day i met you

you may water it

yr damn self

Shange’s work was funky, playful and fearless. She toyed with the English language as though she owned it, abbreviating words as it suited her and changing the spelling of “was” to “waz” and “night” to “nite” to fit her own needs. She was cool and she was clearly right — why wouldn’t anyone want to get on board?

Recently, the Hurston/Wright Foundation honored Shange at its annual awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. Her sister, Ifa Bayeza, accepted the award for Shange’s body of work in her stead. Although Shange survived a series of strokes in 2004, Bayeza assured the audience that her sister, who was living in an assisted-living facility in Bowie, Maryland, was just over-scheduled, thanks to an uptick in demand for her presence and words.

Indeed, Shange had been planning to promote her latest and last book, Wild Beauty, which comes out Nov. 14. It’s a collection of 60 new and previously published poems in English and Spanish. Her website still shows an event planned for Nov. 16 to celebrate her first new book of poetry in 10 years.

Born Paulette Linda Williams, Shange adopted her name in 1971. She explained her reasoning in a 1994 interview with The New York Times: “As a feminist I thought it was ridiculous to be named after a boy.” Her chosen name is Zulu; Ntozake means “she who comes with her own things” and Shange means “who walks like a lion.”

Often we refer to dying as going to meet one’s maker. Whether she was prepared for her death or not, Shange had long ago met hers, simply by looking in the mirror. Shange made herself and named herself and, through subsequent novels, plays and poetry, invited generations of black women to do the same by finding God in themselves, and loving her fiercely.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.