Only In America
Many years before For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf appeared at San Diego’s Fox Theatre, a little black girl named Paulette Williams lived in Trenton, New Jersey. Her father was a surgeon, her mother was psychiatric social worker, she grew up in an integrated upper-middle-class neighborhood, went to Barnard college where she graduated with honors, and subsequently took an M.A. in American Studies at USC. After this deprived childhood and repressive education, truth was revealed to young Paulette by the Women’s Studies Program at Sonoma State College, where she worked for three years with J.J. Wilson, Joanna Griffin, and Wopo Holup. Through such courses as “Woman As Artist,” “Woman As Poet,” “Androgynous Myths in Literature,” “Women’s Biography I,” “Women’s Biography II,” and “Third-World Women Writers,” Miss Williams freed herself from those false notions of academic objectivity, intellectual disinterestedness, and worship of factual evidence, which traditionally dominate academia outside of the new special interest programs. She learned that there is no difference between teaching and propaganda, between knowledge and politics. In particular, she accepted what appear to be the Three Laws of Women’s Studies; 1. Women have suffered horribly at the hands of men; 2. Women are innately superior to men; and 3. Expressing rage earns bucks. She also came to revere the great women of history, whose contributions to world civilization have been consistently ignored by male historians; Isis, Marie Laurencin, Zora Neale Hurtson, Kathe Kollwitz, Anna May Wong, and Calamity Jane.
At the same time, Miss Williams made a great leap forward in her poetry, an art she had been practicing from an early age. The traditional categories for judging poetry are language, learning, and wisdom; originality, precision, economy, and expressiveness of language; breadth of literary, historical, and mythological learning and understanding of human life. The socio-politico-cultural movements of the 1960s had created and additional category, however; the literature of anger, written by women or by members of minority groups, was to be judged only by how loud and furious its sentiments were, and all the other standards could be ignored. Critics of poetry and theater—themselves mainly white, male, liberal, and guilt-ridden—were now praising “minority” literary works on the basis of how intensely the authors declared that whites, males, and liberals were garbage. The old standards—accuracy in the use of words, for example, or truth to reality—were not only ignored, they were felt to be inimical to the sincerity and the power of these cries from the social depths.
The result was that, under the combined influence of her Women’s Studies courses and the new literary barbarism, Paulette Williams decided to identify herself with poor, uneducated, victimized black women; she took to writing poems in a foul-mouthed, illiterate, totally undisciplined style; she started dressing like an African peasant-girl; she changed her name to Ntozake Shange and the next thing she knew, her poems had been made into a hit Broadway show. Only in America, the land of opportunity, could a coddled, Ivy-League-trained, rich girl from suburban New Jersey achieve success by turning herself into a uneducated lower-class Zulu.
Woman Invents Stunning New Orthographical System — World Thrilled
The style of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf defies characterization; all one can do is quote it. “…hey man/where are you going wid alla my stuff/ this is a woman’s trip & I need my stuff/ to ohh & ahh abt/ daddy/ i gotta mainline number from my own shit/ now wontchu put me back/ & let me play this duet/ wit this silver ring in my nose/ honest to god/ somebody almost run off wit all my stuff/ & I didn’t bring anything but the kick & sway of it the perfect ass for my man & none of it is theirs this is mine/ ntozake “her own things” / that’s my name / now give me my stuff/ I see ya hidin my laugh/ & how I sit wif my legs open sometimes/ to give my crotch some sunlight/ & there goes my love my toes my chewed up finger nails/ niggah/ wif the curls in yr hair/ mr. louisiana hot link/ I want my stuff back/ my rhythms & my voice/ open my mouth/ & let me talk ya outta/ throwin my shit in the sewar/ this is some delicate leg & whimsical kiss/ I gotta have to give to my choice/ without you running off with alla my shit . . . .”
“Remember when poetry used to give you chills, make you tremble?” asks critic Marilyn Stasio in Cue. “Ntozake Shange writes that kind of rousing poetry. It has the power to move a body to tears, to rage, and to an ultimate rush of love.” While you are experiencing that ultimate rush of love, I would like to point out something that the audience at the Fox cannot have been aware of, since it is only in the printed script of For Colored Girls that Miss Shange’s genius is fully evident. She has created a revolution in spelling which will do more for the women’s movement and for the cause of progress in general than anything since the invention of nondairy creamer. The verb “was,” for example, might have been mispronounced by her readers, but she has brilliantly obviated that problem by spelling it “waz,” in both her poetry and prose. It is not clear whether this means that “is” and “as,” which retain their ordinary spelling, are supposed to be pronounced “iss” and “ass”—but one cannot expect perfect consistency in an artist of this statue. Even more stunning in their implications for English prosody are such words as “abt,” “blk,” and “cdnt” — so deeply expressive in their condensed power, like notes on a laundry list; or “wid,” “wit,” and “witchu,” which demonstrate more convincingly than anything else in her verse Miss Shange’s deep sense of solidarity with her people. Most radical of all are her intentional misspellings; “sewar” (see above), “napolean,” “requiuum.” Isn’t it true, after all, that the authors of English dictionaries have been white men, and that they have tyrannically imposed their spellings on generations of the poor, the oppressed, the colored, and the beskirted? Freedom now!
We Can Do Without Them — Bananas Are Better, Feminist Leader Declares
There are two battalions in the women’s movement. One of them, under the banner of Tom Paine, John Stuart Mill, Susan B. Anthony, and a host of other democrats, demands equal rights for women — equal pay for equal work, equal protection under the law, equality in education and employment. The other, under the banner of various hysterical Amazons, seems to want the elimination of half the human race. Ntozake Shange belongs to the second battalion, and For Colored Girls is a weapon in the fight. According to Miss Shange, all men are essentially rapists; their only relationship with women is to beat them, deceive them, exploit them, kick them around, break their hearts, and make sure of their bodies; the typical male, in For Colored Girls, is someone who drops little children out the window. In the world of this theatrical “choreopoem,” there is not a single man who is decent, responsible, gallant, kindly, tender, or caring. These qualities are to be found only in women — and apparently in all women (or is it only black women?).
- lady in yellow: my love is too delicate to have thrown back in my face
- lady in brown: my love is too beautiful to have thrown back in my face
- lady in purple: my love is too sanctified to have thrown back in my face
- lady in blue: my love is too magic to have thrown back in my face
- lady in orange: my love is too saturday nite to have thrown back in my face
- lady in red: my love is too complicated to have thrown back in my face
- lady in green: my love is too music to have thrown back in my face
- everyone: music
- lady in green: yank dankka dank dank
And here is what Miss Shange thinks of men: “there waz no air/ the sheets made ripples under his body like crumpled paper napkins in a summer park/ & lil specks of somethin from tween his toes or the biscuits from the day before ran in the sweat that tucked the sheet into his limbs like he waz an ol frozen bundle of chicken ….”
Now, imagine (if you please) a play in which all the possible vices would be stridently attributed to women and the possible virtues reserved to men, in which men’s only fault would be asserted to be their capacity for loving too much, and in which the chief image of woman would be an ol frozen bundle of chicken with crumbs between its toes. think of the outcries of indignation, the charges of “sexual politics” and “male chauvinism.” But if a woman expresses what is a virtually psychotic hatred of men, and gives us a picture of the relationship between the sexes which is completely unreal, one-sided, and self-serving, then the critics speak of “a glorious salute to American black women” (Edith Oliver, The New Yorker) and laud Ntozake Shange for being “fiercely honest and personal” (Martin Gottfried, New York Post). Why not add some praise for her contribution to our understanding of racial characteristics? “We deal wit emotion too much so why don’t we go on ahead & be white then/ & make everything dry & abstract wit no rhythm & no reeling for sheer sensual pleasure/ yes let’s go on & be white….” So whites are intellectual and concerned with abstractions, while blacks are emotional and sensual and have rhythm! Miss Shange seems to have drawn her wisdom on this subject from George Wallace.
Public Votes With Its Feet
The talented ladies who dance, sing, and relentlessly scream their lungs out in For Colored Girls are not enuf to redeem this piece of fraudulent and immoral junk. On opening night, the Fox was half empty. It is an emptiness that deserves to be encouraged. You would be wise to make your own contribution to it.