Essays

What Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls Means in the Age of #MeToo

If you are surprised or stunned by recent revelations concerning sexual assault and harassment, it is because you have been, like most of American culture, ignoring Black women. Shange’s choreopoem, now running as a revival at the Public Theater, reminds us to pay attention.

A Barnard student holds a poster from the Broadway run of for colored girls in the College’s archive (photo by Kim Hall)

What does it mean to read Ronan Farrow’s engrossing Catch and Kill the week after you have seen Leah Gardner’s vibrant Public Theatre production of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have committed suicide when the rainbow is enuf? For one thing, it is, as young people say, depressing AF. Farrow illustrates the ways in which corporate culture takes in talented, ambitious women and makes trauma, abuse, and gaslighting conditions of their employment. Silence and complicity become conditions for all others. 

If you are surprised or stunned at the revelations in Farrow’s book or in Jodi Kantor’s and Megan Twohey’s She Said,  it is because you have been, like most of American culture, ignoring Black women. As she indicates the choreopoem Spell #7, Shange knew “the fight to maintain sanity and personal integrity in a world where the rules have been dictated rather than chosen.” Having taught for colored girls fairly continuously for the past two decades, it is clear that its impact then and its enduring relevance now are due to the space it gave Black women to name the most hidden, yet ubiquitous aspects of our experiences. 

It is also irritating AF to see tabloid style headlines about  “stunning revelations” and still hear commentators ignore Tarana Burke as founder of the #MeToo movement. We all remember our own indoctrination into the sexualized culture of work. In my case, it was my very first “real” job — one with an printed pay check — at age 15, when an adult coworker pressured me every day for sex. I fended him off and kept quiet until I got chastised for being slow at my job.

Last year, my class read for colored girls while Professor Christine Blasey Ford testified to her experience of sexual assault at the hands of now confirmed US Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh when both were high school students. Students immediately went to the “latent rapist” poem, drawing connections between the poem’s lament that “women relinquish all personal rights / in the presence of a man / who apparently cd be considered a rapist and Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony, and the events of that week. One student proclaimed, “for colored girls is the #MeToo movement and the #MeToo movement is for colored girls.” 

An altar for Ntozake Shange at the Barnard College archives, following her death in 2018 (photo by Miriam Neptune)

While the play famously asks us to “sing a black girl’s song,” Ntozake Shange’s work — like most of that explosion of black women’s literature of the 1970s — shows that delving into our most personal, embodied experiences can get at emotional truths that speak across culture, time, and race.  

However, America protects itself from its own shortcomings by framing problems in Black culture as pathological or unique to Black people. In Race After Technology, Princeton Professor Ruha Benjamin notes, “in many ways Black people already live in the future. The plight of Black people has consistently been a harbinger of wider processes.” Yesterday’s crack was a black epidemic with alarming headlines about Black cultural deficit; in contrast, opioid addiction is an American crisis that demands accountability and healing.  But as Black people, our voices are always on the edge of American forgetting. 

With its corrupt origins, how can we be surprised that corporate culture sees women in the workplace as objects for exercising what Toni Cade Bambara called the “perversions” of power and as generally extraneous to its future? The history of Black American enslavement teaches that the hunger of power and sexual thrill are voracious and interconnected. Romantic pitches for wedding venues aside, plantations were early corporations built on stolen land and organized around labor extraction, sexual assault, and labor reproduction. Having assumed absolute power, white men exalted white femininity while protecting and enthralling each other with their access to Black bodies, often selling off their own children to solve economic woes. 

for colored girls, and now Vagina Monologues, are the two most continually performed works of feminist theater on college campuses. How many white women flock to The Vagina Monologues, but skip for colored girls because they think it doesn’t speak to them? Or skip them both because they don’t want to be seen as feminist, activist, or troublesome: choosing to read Lean In instead?

For colored girls told us over forty years ago that the problem is not Black culture, but the cultures we inhabit. Who was listening then?

Of course, white women supported Shange’s early work and many came to see that original production. A Kentucky company has put on an all-white Appalachian version. But how many white viewers watched with the comfortable distance of race? With an unconscious sureness that they were watching the pathologies of Black women and Black culture rather than seeing Black women at the eye of a storm engulfing us all?

And for colored girls is so much more than a litany of Black women’s suffering. It is an insistence that public naming and seeing ourselves in each other can lead to collective purpose. It reminds that that traumas once named, need redress and healing. That we need art — and the spaces to create and enjoy art together — when the pain is enuf.

Ntozake Shange at Barnard College’s front gates (photo by Yemisi Olorunwunmi)

for colored girls who have considered suicide when/when the rainbow is enuf continues at the Public Theater through December 15, 2019. The revival of Ntozake Shange’s play is directed by Leah C. Gardiner with choreography by Camille A. Brown. 

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