i want alla my self

By Samantha Josey-Borden

“did you know somebody almost walked away wif me/ […] my stuff is the anonymous ripped-off treasure of this year.” [1] Ntozake Shange writes this quote in the last poem of the Shameless Hussy Press published version of for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. for colored girls developed as a piece of subversive art that reveals an intimate narrative of blackness at the climax of the Black Arts Movement, as imagery of the pleasure of the black girl and her body is lost in black artistry. Shange demonstrates absence physically in the quote above, as the black female body, with all its “stuff,” is taken, abused, and displaced without remorse by an unidentified black man – “a niggah” as she states. The poetry constructs a vision where blackness and gender intersect. Shange elucidates the power of the black female, enabling the female body and feminine consciousness to wade out of the waters of marginality and positing power into its crevasses. Therefore, she projected a vision of for colored girls as a reflective body of work influenced by the narratives and themes of feminist projects and initiatives in order to disrupt the masculine centered vision of the Black Arts Movement.[2]

During the middle of the 20th century, a “new black nationalist patriarchy” manipulated the politics of black communities. [3] Cheryl L. Clarke, a lesbian poet and essayist, argues, “there is no space for black women to be identified as nonconcentric to or separate from black men.” [4] The Black Arts Movement posited the black man as the center of the communities’ narratives. This renders the black female within the margins, where she must adopt the (perceived) comfort of inhabiting a supplementary and assistive role to the prowess of the black male. A passage by Larry Neal, a scholar on African American theatre, on the purpose of the Black Arts Movement illuminates the proscribed language that bound blackness to male consciousness:

“The Black artist takes this to mean that his primary duty is to speak to the spiritual and cultural needs of Black people. Therefore, the main thrust of this new breed of contemporary writers to confront the contradictions arising out of the Black man’s experience in the racist West.” [5]

In addition to melding the prowess of black innovation and creativity with the essence of the black male, Neal’s specific inclusion of the verb “thrust” alludes to the penetrative power of the black male to control the meanings of “blackness.” The Black Arts Movement posits the black male as the victim of racism, and the physical violence of racism then is synonymous to a castration that effeminized the race. Liberation rests on reclaiming bodily integrity, which is strategically integrated with black masculine body and its dominance. In contrast, Shange states in her autobiography lost in language & sound, “we are going abt this process backwards/ by isolating the art forms & assuming a very narrow perspective vis – à – vis our own history.”[6] She emphasizes that black pieces of art, cinematic or theatrical, manipulate the flood of bodily integrity through gender – the black girl/woman is in a state of alienation and vulnerability. The movement’s explicit alienation of the black female as a vigorous producer and character of black art would empower subversive pieces to challenge dominant subjectivities.

for colored girls, then, uses the composition and allure of the female body to deconstruct black men’s central and afflictive subjectivity in the Black Arts Movement. The growth of feminist energy throughout the West Coast informs the centrality of black girls’ subjectivities within Shange’s art. As Shange explains, “San Francisco waz inundated with women poets, women’s readings, & a multi-lingual woman presence, new to all of us & desperately appreciated.” [7] “Women” are positioned within this space not only as a legitimate and fruitful producer of literature, but in addition, they are legitimate subjects of narratives. The narratives of for colored girls seek to restore the black girl’s sense of dignity. As Shange affirms,

“With the acceptance of my ethnicity of my thighs & backside came a clearer understanding […]. The freedom to move in space, to demand of my own sweat a perfection that could continually be approached, though never known, waz a poem to me, my body & mind ellipsing, possibly for the first time in my life.” [8]

This passage reveals the intimacy between the body and freedom. The inclusion of “thighs,” “backside,” and “sweat” highlight how the crevasses (or the elements) of the body demand a possessiveness of autonomy that is deeply connected to the movement and indulgence of the body and it’s experiences. This informs the spectator of why Shange places girls explicitly in the title of the play and empowers their subjectivity. The rhetoric of girls alludes to the affirmation of growth and maturity – allowing the black female to inhabit the space of definition and determination, and challenge the proscribed expectations and behaviors attributed to her body and her psyche by others. The self-validation of the black girl’s body is a physical, explicit form of discovery, comfort, and affirmation.

According to Shange, black culture is an “interdisciplinary culture” that uses more than verbal communication – moving away from what is esoteric and into what is colloquial and everyday.[9] How can there be sympathy and empathy for the experience and essence of the black girl and woman if there has been a stagnant socialization ignoring the piece she composes of blackness? The makeup of Black “culture” demands value of the regular and the multifaceted image of the race. A “black girl” and the “colored girls” situated in the title reveal energy and beauty in the multiplicity of narratives with different rhythms, different shades, and different movements. Narratives that declare the need to make a relic of their body and the stories it holds rather than cast them to the shadows. for colored girls serves to modify and inscribe the experience of the black girl away from the space of an invisible, a deviant, an “other.” It disrupts the normative semantics of what it means to be black and illustrates the dignified blackness that encapsulates the female body.

[1] Ntozake Shange, “my name means my own & this is for me” for colored girls who have considered suicide, when the rainbow is enuf (San Lorenzo, California: Shameless Hussy Press, 1975). Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

[2] Cheryl Clarke, After Mecca”: Women Poets and the Black Arts Movement (New Brunswick, N.J. : Rutgers University Press, 2005), 95.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Larry Neal, “The Black Arts Movement” The Drama Review, no. 12 (Summer 1968), 29–39.

[6] Ntosake Shange, lost in language & sound, Or, How I Found My Way to the Arts : Essays 1st ed. (New York : St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011), 14.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Ibid, 16.

[9] Ibid, 18.