for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf: An Unforgettable Choreopoem

Instead of waking up at 2 am, driving in a dazed state of aware drowsiness, and rushing to the nearest mall in order to fight and shove through crowds of people all wanting to get the best deals on the same items as I do, I decided to sleep in today and skip out on all the chaos. I woke up at 11:37 this morning, still full off of stuffing, candied yams, and sweet potato pie from last night, and lounged around for a while – watching some TV, refusing to play cars with my little brother, and eventually taking out my copy of for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, ready to explore this choreopoem by Ntozake Shange.

WOW. Talk about unforgettable.

Once I started reading, I could hardly put the book down (although I had to at one point in order to empty and refill the dishwasher). I quickly finished the forward and the lady in brown beckoned me to continue on and enter the play with its eloquent language and vivid imagery.

“sing a black girl’s song

bring her out

to know herself

to know you

let her be born

& handled warmly”

Yes, I would bring her out. I would read, absorb, and turn each page; witness her dance, feel her rhythm, “sing her song of life.” Because that’s what the book is – her life; her pain, struggles, hardships, moments of loss, and moments of gain. Her life – for me to observe, to experience, and to share; she is me and I am her, we are both colored girls, treated unfairly because we are colored and because we are women.

She is also a bit of Ntozake Shange. Shange was born in 1948 as Paulette L. Williams, to an upper-middle class family. Throughout her childhood, she was forced to endure many racist attacks by the white students in the St. Louis schools to which she was bussed for integration. During her first year of college, Shange got married but it didn’t last long and she was quickly separated. Her separation and lingering feelings of bitterness and alienation led to her depression and Shange soon attempted suicide. However, in 1971, Shange came to a full recovery and began work on for colored girls by taking courses about women’s lives and dynamics and studying dance. She also changed her name from Paulette Williams to Ntozake Shange, meaning ‘she who has her own things’ and ‘she who walks/lives with lions,’ in an effort to reclaim herself both body and soul. In many ways, her life is reminiscent of that of the seven women in her play, battling with pain and hardships and eventually finding herself,  her voice, and her power.

Likewise, many parts of the poems lead back into Shange’s passion about words – poetry – and movement, her life, and her strength, because that is how she discovered herself as a woman of color. “We gotta dance to keep from cryin,” the women in the choreopoem say; “we gotta dance to keep from dyin .  . . i’m a poet who writes in english come to share the worlds witchu.” These women have all had unique experiences and ‘worlds,’ both similar and different to that of Ntozake Shange, but their stories intertwine and relate, as the battle is all the same. In fact, this method of storytelling that Shange used in for colored girls was modeled off of Judy Grahn’s The Common Woman, a book of poetry about seven women’s lives. One poem, “Ella, in a square apron, along highway 80,” reads:

She’s a copperheaded waitress,

tired and sharp-worded, she hides

her bad brown tooth behind a wicked

smile, and flicks her ass

out of habit, to fend off the pass

that passes for affection.

She keeps her mind the way men

keep a knife—keen to strip the game

down to her size. She has a thin spine,

swallows her eggs cold, and tells lies.

She slaps a wet rag at the truck drivers

if they should complain. She understands

the necessity for pain, turns away

the smaller tips, out of pride, and

keeps a flask under the counter. Once,

she shot a lover who misused her child.

Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced

and given the child away. Like some isolated lake,

her flat blue eyes take care of their own stark

bottoms. Her hands are nervous, curled, ready

to scrape.

The common woman is as common

as a rattlesnake.

All of Grahn’s poetry speaks of strong women who are anything but common, a theme which can also be seen in Shange’s work. The difference, however, is that Shange’s women are not simply unique, as they celebrate their individuality after years of oppressing their true selves. The first portion of the book tells the stories of several women:  a woman who entices men, sleeps with them, and kicks them out at dawn (the same thing that men do to women) in order to feel some sort of power and fulfillment but instead is left with misery and emptiness;  three women who get involved with the same cheating man just because they feel that they need a man in their life; girls who’ve changed themselves for someone else’s love and affection, as they’ve been used and wronged and misunderstood. It exposes different women who try, in various ways, to be someone they’re not  and allows the reader to witness when these same women come to a very powerful realization…

“I am really colored

& really sad sometimes

here is what I have/

poems/

big thighs/

lil tits/

& so much love

lemme love just like I am/

a colored girl/

finally bein real”

The women realize that they are too delicate, too beautiful, too sanctified, and too magic to suffer and be unhappy, to be ill-treated and misused. These seven women “are movin to the ends of their own rainbows;” they’ve lived the life of the woman in purple, brown, blue, green, red, orange, and yellow and they’re just about ready to give up, which is evident in the title of the choreopoem, but instead they come to a self-awakening. They take back control of themselves, their “chewed up fingernails” and “arm wit the hot iron scar,” as they are colored and they are women; they speak, shout, and soothe their souls, love their bodies and love themselves.

Overall, this was an amazing play. Although I have never encountered domestic violence or had an abortion, the language and the movement in the play allowed it to come alive to me and put me right there with the women, making me a part of their story. Also, as a woman of color, I can sympathize with these women because I too understand what it’s like to be treated unequally because of one’s complexion and gender. So, now that I’ve eaten some leftovers, watched Yo Gabba Gabba with my brother, and surfed the internet for a bit, I’m going to lay across my bed and read for colored girls… again, uncovering new meaning and finding other messages behind each stanza, within each color.

2 thoughts on “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf: An Unforgettable Choreopoem

  1. Cameron, I can only say that it was truly interesting to see how you connected the women of the play with Ntozake Shange. I hadn’t previously thought of the connection between them even though it does seem quite obvious and evident now. I say that because although it would seem that one saw pieces of Shange everywhere in the text, it was not as evident to me as it was to you. Shange too had reached the end of her rainbow when she took her life “by the horns” and changed her “slave” name to one of power and meaning. Her name, her play, her life, is an example of living through poetry, expressing one’s self, and finding one’s voice, and the power that exists in both.

    We must remember that we cannot look at this play through an eye of the present day. It was a different time when the play came out and Shange was providing some pretty radical ideals in the themes of the book for the time in which it came out. Yes, feminism was an aspect at the time, however voicing such radical themes was not. If one were to say, and this is not necessarily my point of view, that the roles of men portrayed men as horrible creatures one would not be far from off topic. Yet we must look at the piece of art as a whole and see the radical format and depictions as a stepping stone, a building block criticizing the very structure for the first time. That is why I respect how radical that criticism was and how true she remained while staying on a powerful subject.

    Lastly, like you, I am also an advocate of reading this book and then re-reading it because each time I do so I find some new meaning here or there.

  2. Cameron, I really like your post. I can tell you enjoyed the play, from the connection you speak of. I agree with you, in that although I have never personally experienced domestic violence, abortion or rape in my life, Shange writes in a way that allows you to enter their lives, and somewhat understand what they have been through.
    How you describe your other connections with Shange, such as you are “[you] are both colored girls, treated unfairly because [you] are colored and because [you] are women,” helped me really understand your position on the book, as you can understand one of the core issues within the poems.

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