Top 100 Badass Writers in History
#79: Ntozake Shange
Born in 1948 as Paulette Williams, she adopted the Zulu name Ntozake (meaning “she who comes with her own things”) Shange (meaning “who walks like a lion”) at the age of 23. She felt that her Anglo-Saxon last name was too associated with slavery and that her given first name was a feminized version of the male name Paul. Shange once stated in an interview that she changed her name to disassociate herself from the history of a culture that championed slavery.
Living in the racially segregated city of St. Louis as a child, Shange was bused to a white school where she was forced to endure constant attacks of racism. It was only her family’s strong interest in the Arts and education that encouraged her to persist in school. She attended both Barnard College and UCLA, earning a BA and MA in American Studies. Shange cited her college years as a difficult period, where the relationship and eventual separation from her first husband drove her to attempt suicide several times.
After moving to NYC in 1975, Shange published her most famous play: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Chronicling the lives of black women in the US, it went on to Broadway and earned a number of awards, including the Obie Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and the AUDELCO Award. This unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama was called a “choreopoem” and opened up a new era of theatre. Shange used female dancers to dramatize her poetry and recall encounters with classmates, lovers, rapists, abortionists, and latent killers. These women survive abuse and disappointment to come to recognize in each other the promise of a better future. The piece was adapted into a movie in 2010 (“For Colored Girls” by Tyler Perry).
Shange went on to publish several volumes of poetry that praised her African roots and examined the mistreatment of black women in the US. Her 1978 publication, Nappy Edges, was highly praised for its use of nonstandard spelling and punctuation. Shange once explained her language choices by saying:
“I like the idea that letters dance. … I need some visual stimulation, so that reading becomes not just a passive act and more than an intellectual activity, but demands rigorous participation.”
Shange is still alive today, editing and working in the field of children’s literature.