Whether or not you participated in this #BarnardReads, have you read, seen, or wondered about this choreopoem written by Barnard alumna Ntozake Shange (BC '70)?
Are you curious how Barnard students and faculty have related to this work and author, and to the college experience?
See this guest blog post from Professor Kim F. Hall, the Lucyle Hook Chair of English and a Professor of Africana Studies:
for colored girls: a recipe for success
You may have heard that the play for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf turned forty this week. On September 15th, it premiered on Broadway and catapulted Barnard alumna Ntozake Shange (BC ‘70)--six years out of college--into fame. People flocked to see this new form, the phenomenal choreopoem, which was unlike anything on the commercial stage at the time. Women of all colors were transformed by the experience of seeing a stage made into a woman’s space where women loved, mourned, raged and healed together. The artwork for the performance in subway stations and ads made Shange the most visible writer --and most visible black feminist--in the city. Zake (as her friends call her) and the play brought to light some long simmering antagonisms over gender politics in the Black Arts Movement and black communities. A newspaper writer reported overhearing a black man on 125th & 7th telling his friends "I heard the CIA was behind that girl's play.”
Poet and longtime woke bae E. Ethelbert Miller captured the era in this stanza of his poem, "For Ntozake Shange":
I have listened to their voices
in groups of threes & fours
I have overheard their hatred
for your plays & poems
I have watched them try to spell your name
failing like europeans deciphering hieroglyphics
When the play toured, people called local theaters in protest.
For the past three years, I have been caretaker of the Digital Shange Project and have taught incredible Barnard students (the Zakettes) in The Worlds of Ntozake Shange courses. In class, we didn’t just learn about Shange’s work and historical context, we left with a heightened awareness of how Shange and other feminists made the tools they needed for survival and our capacity to do the same.
|Ntozake Shange Papers, Barnard Archives and Special |
Collections, scanned by Amanda Perry BC ‘16.
Zake (then going by her original name Paulette Williams) struggled with health issues (suicide is not just a metaphor), with being made to feel an outsider, and with a curriculum that did not offer the tools she needed for success as she defined it. But she did what many Barnard students do: she worked with others to create what bell hooks calls ‘beloved community’ and created the things she felt were absent from her life. For example, the Ntozake Shange Collection in Barnard Archives and Special Collections has a copy of the literary collection, Phat Mama, which Zake, Thulani Davis (BC '70) and other Barnard students made to showcase their own work. At lunch with the 2014 Zakettes, Zake and Thulani told us how important that collaboration was to their future lives as writers and feminists. They literally made the book, finding someone who could teach them how to stitch each copy. During the making, they dreamed of a future that saw them in their fullness.
I almost called this post “A blueprint for survival” because the idea of a blueprint as a model which, if you follow it precisely, will create something wonderful. However, Zake came to Barnard with very specific experiences as a middle-class black women in the 70s; thus, it is more appropriate to think of for colored girls and Zake’s Barnard experience as a recipe -- directions to which you can add your style and season to taste. I’ll finish with directions drawn from my class’s experience of living the legacy of for colored girls. But first, a recommendation specifically for your class: don’t let your college experience be defined by buildings (or their absence): seek out the Barnard librarians. They know TONS and can offer many ways to find and make sense of the massive amounts of information you will be expected to turn into knowledge. But most important they are models for doing deceptively difficult jobs with joy, purpose and social awareness. They embody beloved community.
Learning the Zakette way:
Remember: classrooms are not the only space for learning
collaboration is a powerful antidote to isolation and competition
listen while reading. . . music, poetry, nature/
cook with others when you can
experience the city; learn its history
Reach out. ask for help when you need it