There is something quite redemptive about the 2010 edition of Ntozake Shange’s experimental “choreo-poem,” For colored girls who have considered suicide/When the rainbow is enuf, which is published as a tie-in to Tyler Perry’s underwhelming film adaptation, For Colored Girls. Shange’s words restore the choreopoem’s original libratory message without the gloss and A-list names in Tyler’s bastardised version. Consisting of a series of twenty overlapping poems about rape, post-traumatic stress disorder, abortion, love, and liberation, among other topics, Shange brings to life and colour the unsung voices of Black American women that was once upon a time, in 1974, long overdue. The poems come with stage directions that guide the reader in an imaginary theatre bold with exuberance and pathos, or at least that was something I was persuaded to imagine.
Shange is clear in her preface of the latest edition that For colored girls is a battle hymn for all women of colour, one that was inspired by the pain that reverberated her apartment walls in Harlem, New York, and one that should resonate powerfully with women of colour today and presumably the world over. But as a woman of colour who isn’t black, American, or born into a long heritage of effacement and eventual self-discovery—a heritage that goes back to the brutal history of imperialist expansion and culminates in a present struggle for identity—I sometimes felt distanced from these verses. Despite my desire to connect to the ostensible potency of Shange’s poems, at times they were challenging, unfamiliar, and remote.
But this is not to say that Shange has failed completely in reaching out to all women and girls of colour on her work’s core issues, as For colored girls urges me to read beyond its contextual trajectories and instead traverse the annals of my girlhood and young adulthood to find the common threads of insecurity, racism, and uneasiness in my own skin that binds all women of colour. But with that said, one’s own way of finding the striking chord in Shange’s work should not be so imaginatively contrived or elusive, particularly as each poem is guided in detail how it should be experienced and appreciated. To read out loud with the same joy and pain requires the intertextual quality that lies outside Shange’s poems—out there in Black American communities, tangible and alive—that is absent in my world.
Nonetheless, there are stand-outs in Shange’s work. In her poem on abortion, Shange captures the inner horror and absurdity of undergoing a termination procedure for the first time alone: “eyes crawling up on me/eye rollin in my thighs/metal horses gnawin my womb/dead mice fall from my mouth.” Others are obvious demystification of rape: “a friend is hard press charges against/if you know him/you must have wanted it.” Perhaps the most powerful of all is “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff,” a defiant speech of reclaimed independence from lovers who leave and take with them a woman’s dignity, self-esteem, and faith in love itself.
The simplicity of Shange’s language and the mimicry of colloquialisms invite readers to rethink the highbrow nature of poetry, interpretative dance, and theatre. There are more tears than laughters of joy, and despite the coloured girls who are “movin to the ends of their own rainbows,” rainstorms of anguish are long while rainbows are fleeting and sometimes elusive. In other words, there is still a battle ahead for women of colour and the fruits of the struggle are shared in small moments, often beautiful in verse.