An Open, Posthumous, Letter to Ntozake Shange
Dear Ms. Shange,
As we end 2018, I find myself at an interesting intersection. I’m not referring to the traditional intersection of the passing away of the old year with the ushering in of the new one; rather, I find myself poised at the unique intersection of mourning your death and celebrating your life. I find myself at a crossroad, and I thank you for it.
Thank you, Ms. Shange, for bringing the world to a cross-road when, in 1974, you wrote the choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. I mean, really, what is a choreopoem, anyway? As its name suggests, a choreopem is a choreographed poem; it is, in its most basic sense, words in motion. In for colored girls, you present a series of vignettes in which a group of seven un-named women – identified only as the lady in red, the lady in yellow, the lady in orange, the lady in green, the lady in blue, the lady in purple, and the lady in brown – dance and speak their experiences of rape, abortion, infidelity, and other kinds of physical, mental, and emotional abuse. Rather than bemoan their suffering, they celebrate their survival.
Moreover, one need but look at the title of your work, and your consistent use of the lower-case “i” instead of the capital “I” when referring to the first-person pronoun, to recognize the way your poetic license brings us to a cross-road between formal and informal language. This stylistic feature also subverts the rules of standard English grammar for the sake of elevating oral culture in order to communicate beyond the barriers of a written language. In effect, Ms. Shange, you bring us to a crossroad between written and spoken language, too.
Finally, Ms. Shange, I thank you for bringing us to a cross-road of women from all walks of life. Somehow, in your brilliance, you knew that the color brown really does result when all of the colors of the rainbow – red, yellow, orange, green, blue, and purple – come together. As a result of their collective stories, the lady in brown represents the vast array of experiences of all women. Somehow, in your foresight, you knew that the stories you present in your choreopoem would echo throughout the cosmos and allow the stars to align in such way that you would live to see these stories as a backdrop for modern-day civil rights #METOO movement.
As my scholarly muse, Joanne Gabbin salutes Gwendolyn Brooks at the furious flower whose poetic seeds have blossomed in the words of generations of poets who have succeeded her, I salute you, Ms. Shange, as the muse who helped me – and so many other women – realize, long before Tyler Perry brought your choreopoem to life on the big screen, that while my experiences do make me unique, they also make-up part of a larger narrative of women bound together by shared experiences and moving, together, toward a common goal of survival. For this Ms. Shange, I thank you, and I’ll see you at the cross-road.
Ondra Krouse Dismukes, Ph.D.