For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf
THE LITERARY WORK
A choreopoem consisting of monologues joined by dance, poetry, and music set in the United States in the second half of the twentieth century; written 1974-76, first performed in 1974.
Dressed in the colors of the rainbow, seven black women talk about their lives in an effort to educate and hearten young black girls.
Paulette Linda Williams, born October 18, 1948, is now known by the Zulu name she took in 1971: Ntozake Shange (En-toe-ZAK-kay SHONG-gay). As a child, she was exposed to music, literature, and art in a home environment that fostered pride in her African American heritage, and the future seemed full of promise. Later, however, Shange discovered that the jobs she wanted to fill were closed to her. She turned to writing and became an accomplished poet and novelist, but ultimately it was a dramatic piece-for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf—that made her famous. Besides winning the Obie Award and Tony, Emmy, and Grammy award nominations, the work introduced a new theatrical form called the choreopoem.
Any generalization about such a large segment of the population—young women of color—would be understandably difficult. As with most other groups, their experiences vary depending on where and how they live. Nevertheless, Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem tries to address experiences that such young women probably have in common as a result of their racial identity. The term “colored girls” in the title refers to all females of color, though Shange’s focus in the choreopoem is particularly on black girls.
In the only monologue spoken from a child’s point of view, the speaker does not find it easy to be a young black girl in St. Louis in 1955. The character, who has no name, decides to run away from her integrated school, street, and home. Her distaste for integration is a reminder of the harsh treatment received by real black children entering previously all-white schools in the 1950s and 1960s. One Missouri woman remembered how it felt to be a black girl who was transferred suddenly to a predominantly white school in the mid-1950s. She was unhappy “because when you live in a racist society you learn your place.... We didn’t know what to expect and we did not expect acceptance, in fact we expected rejection” (Greene, p. 174).
And in fact, despite orders to desegregate, the authorities of many school districts in Missouri and elsewhere either refused to integrate their schools or else met only the minimum requirements. For example, black children in St. Louis who were bussed to new schools in the early 1960s still studied in separate classrooms and were restricted to separate parts of the playground.
Mixed signals like these made black girls intensely aware of race problems in America at an early age, and at times, some of these girls seemed confused about their racial identity. Around the time that Shange wrote for colored girls, studies were being conducted to learn about the development of racial self-concept in white and black children. Researchers noticed that a surprising number of young black girls were prone to identify themselves with white dolls rather than black ones. This was one finding among many that led researchers to believe that black girls were sometimes inclined to reject their racial identity (Porter, p. 133).
Shange’s childhood seems to have provided ample opportunity for personal development and the reinforcement of a positive racial identity. Famous black Americans like Dizzy Gillespie, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, and W. E. B. Du Bois visited her parents regularly. Shange described the encouragement and cultural background she received as a child and the impact of her family life on her development as an artist. As evident in the description below, this emphasis on personal development affected not only what she said but the mechanics she used to say it.
my mama wd read from dunbar, shakespeare, countee cullen, t.s. eliot. my dad wd play congas & do magic tricks, my two sisters & my brother & i wd do a soft-shoe &r then pick up the instruments for a quartet of some sort: a violin, a cello, flute & saxophone, we all read constantly, anything, anywhere, we also tore the prints outta art books to carry around with us. sounds / images, any explorations of personal visions waz the focus of my world.
(Shange in Dear, p. 411)
Even so, Shange later thought that she grew up “living a lie,” since on the one hand she felt like she could do something with her life, but on the other, it seemed that no one expected her to because she was black and female (Shange in Dear, p. 411). In her case, it appeared that even under relatively favorable circumstances, black girls could not escape the limitations placed on them because of their race and gender.
In the process of constructing a positive racial and gender-based identity, black girls were much more likely to encounter white heroes than black ones in their school books and in the media. In the chore-opoem, the girl who struggles with integration in St. Louis faces this problem. She sneaks into the adult section of the library and finds comfort in reading about Toussaint L’Ouverture, a famous black leader in the fight to liberate the French colony of Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti) from white rule. He becomes her imaginary friend and helps her plan ways to recreate his success in miniature by removing white girls from her hopscotch games. In her long monologue, she calls him “my first blk man,” a phrase that indicates he is probably important to the development of her concept of black manhood (Shange, for colored girls, p. 26). In the view of critics, the portrait of Toussaint was also singled out as a positive example of a black man in the choreopoem—of his abilities and his racial pride.
The historical Toussaint L’Ouverture was a brilliant strategist who deserves much of the credit for leading Saint-Domingue to independence and its slaves to freedom. He reputedly had an impressive capacity for work and fairness. He was perceived as a humanitarian by some, in part because of his willingness to grant amnesty to even his worst enemies. He had the foresight to include all three castes—black, mulatto, and white—in his plans for Saint-Domingue, but infrequently his vengeful side prompted him to attack the mulattos, whom he distrusted because of their reluctance to help free the blacks (Ott, p. 128).
The girl in the choreopoem asserts that Tou-ssaint “held the citadel gainst the french,” but this point of view requires some explanation (for colored girls, p. 27). He was a lieutenant governor in the French army in the 1790s, but his alliance with France was a duplicitous one, intended to increase his military power and help free the slaves. By the turn of the century, he was in control of the whole island, and he guided the drafting of the Constitution of 1801. Among other things the Constitution abolished slavery and appointed Toussaint governor-general for life. In Europe, Napoleon was finally aware that the black leader had duped him by pretending allegiance to France while really preparing the island for independence. Toussaint was arrested and shipped secretly to France, where he soon died, only months before the French were forced to grant Saint-Domingue its freedom.
In the 1960s and 1970s, efforts to honor women by studying their accomplishments and making them well-known role models intensified. Shange’s for colored girls was also born out of the need to establish a more accurate legacy of women’s experiences. Like the scholars who were formally discussing women’s issues at the time, Shange tried to have an effect on later generations by talking about past and present examples set by adult women.
The activism of female students in the 1960s led to the creation of women’s studies programs at many colleges and universities. Students and faculty in the new programs reconsidered the traditional ways in which mythological women and heroines in fiction had been perceived. They also researched the lives of real women, whether famous or ordinary, for the purpose of obtaining a more complete picture of women’s struggles and contributions to society. Shange had taken such courses and would later go on to teach in women’s studies programs herself.
The choreopoem addresses many of the issues that are central to the field of women’s studies because they are of common concern to almost all women. These issues include pregnancy, sexuality, abortion, dependency, rape, and emotional abuse. But black women inside the movement made it clear that their experiences as females were often markedly different from the experiences of white women in various respects. Government statistics, for example, corroborated the black women’s claims that they were more likely to become victims of rape than any other group, and that half of their households were headed by single females.
The majority of scholars attracted to women’s studies programs were feminists themselves, and demanded equal rights for women in society and academics. Here again, black women strove to distinguish their experiences from those of white women, who sometimes tried to build support for the cause of women’s liberation by speaking of the “common oppression” suffered by blacks in general and white women; one black feminist scholar refuted the comparison by writing in 1970:
[L]et us state unequivocally that, with few exceptions, the American white woman has had a better opportunity to live a free and fulfilling life, both mentally and physically, than any other group in the United States, with the exception of her white husband. Thus, any attempt to analogize black oppression with the plight of the American white woman has the validity of comparing the neck of a hanging man with the hands of an amateur mountain climber with rope burns.
(Linda La Rue in Guy-Sheftall, p. 164)
As white and black feminists fought for equality on campus and in society, they advocated alternatives to traditional work roles like home-maker, secretary, and nurse. They argued that women should rely on themselves and put their own needs ahead of men’s needs for a change. Shange dramatically asserted herself as a black woman by rejecting her given name of Paulette Williams, which she felt was too reminiscent of her father’s name (Paul T. Williams), as well as of Anglo-Saxon culture and the heritage of slavery. Instead, she let friends from the Xhosa tribe in South Africa give her the Zulu names Ntozake, meaning “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange, meaning “who walks like a lion” (Lester, p. 10). This personal renewal announced that Shange, for one, would gladly overturn traditions that made her feel oppressed as a woman.
Shange’s willingness to defy convention is evident the moment one sees forcolored girls in print or on the stage. The new form that Shange calls “choreopoem” is a clear departure from traditional play act divisions and linear plot structure. It consists of occasional music, dance, and song accompanying a series of poems that eventually fuse into one statement or voice. In keeping with these elements is Shange’s background as a poet and a dancer, which prompted her to point out that she was not a playwright and that for colored girls was not a play.
This innovative theatrical form drew on African-style storytelling, in which the performer passes along cultural information and images in a dynamic way. In this sense, for colored girls had something in common with much black poetry of the 1960s and early 1970s, since many of the black poets performed their pieces at large public gatherings. Shange tried also to preserve this dynamic connection between artist and listener in the text by avoiding capital letters, spelling things phonetically, leaving out letters, and using obliques (/) to manipulate the flow of the lines. She wanted to energize the appearance of the words on the page as well as “attack deform n maim the language that i was taught to hate myself in” (Shange in Dear, p. 414).
The poetry is shared among seven women who are each associated with a color and a city: the lady in brown (Chicago), yellow (Detroit), purple (Houston), red (Baltimore), green (San Francisco), blue (Manhattan), and orange (St. Louis). Historically, each of these cities has attracted a large number of black residents, and the fact that Shange has selected locales spread evenly throughout the United States makes the stories seem representative of black women’s experiences in America. This impression is reinforced by the fact that the same actor can appear in different cities and that often the stories have no specific setting.
The women rush onstage and freeze. The lady in brown appeals for someone to “sing a black girl’s song” as a way of voicing what black girls have long been unable to say (for colored girls, p. 4). The other characters join in, identifying themselves and invoking childhood through rhymes and a game of tag. Swiftly, the mood changes, and the lady in yellow delivers a monologue about the wonderful experiences of cruising, dancing, and losing her virginity on graduation night. The other women comment on her story until the lady in blue recalls a time when she, too, was the center of attention on the dance floor. Her talent and the “hints of Spanish” in her heritage had prompted her to travel to the South Bronx for a Puerto Rican dance contest (for colored girls, p. 11). The Spanish she speaks at the end of her story translates to “Listen, black (man), I love you more than....”
The lady in red follows with a monologue about loving a man too much, lavishing care on him, and deciding to end the affair because she feels unwanted. All of the characters dance, after the lady in orange proposes the idea. The lighting changes, the women list off rationalizations for rape, and the conversation turns to the difficulty of pressing charges against a rapist who was a friend instead of a stranger. The lady in blue then delivers an anguished monologue about undergoing an abortion when “once i waz pregnant & shamed of myself (for colored girls, p. 23).
Next the lady in purple tells the story of Se-chita, an exotic dancer in a redneck bar in Natchez, Mississippi. Sechita’s life is juxtaposed with that of an innocent young black girl in St. Louis. The lady in brown describes the girl’s discovery of Toussaint L’Ouverture in books and the admiration she feels for him. In southwest Los Angeles, a woman portrayed by the lady in red flaunts her sexuality, hurting as many men as possible but crying herself to sleep too. On the other coast, the lady in blue talks about feeling vulnerable and demoralized in Harlem.
The story of three friends who desire the same man—and are ultimately disappointed by him—is told by the lady in purple and finishes with a dance. The lady in orange recalls wanting to avoid the stereotype of being a nagging black woman, but by always keeping up a good front, she has “died in a real way” (for colored girls, p. 43). The lady in purple also talks about having shut out her feelings and come to an impasse, telling her lover, “lemme love you just like i am / a colored girl / i’m finally bein real / no longer symmetrical & impervious to pain” (for colored girls, p. 44). A possible solution would be to make life dry and abstract, the way white people do, suggests the lady in blue.
The women’s need for love is reiterated by the lady in yellow, who initiates a sequence in which all of the characters dance and assert that their love is worth more than the response it gets from their men. The lady in green complains that she almost let a lover walk off with the things that make her special but caught herself in time, saying “ntozake ’her own things’ / that’s my name / now give me my stuff (for coloredgirls, p. 50). The women trade with one another men’s excuses, which they are tired of hearing, and the lady in blue suggests that her ex-lover admit he is good-for-nothing and be happy with himself instead of apologizing for his behavior all the time.
The lady in red tells the story of a woman named Crystal and her partner of nine years, a returned Vietnam veteran who ultimately takes his problems out on her and their children. After this particularly disturbing portrayal of a woman who has been brutalized, the characters identify the spiritual void that has left all of them aching. The lady in red tells about wanting to “jump up outta my bones & be done wit myself,” only to be embraced by nature until she found god in herself, and loved her (for colored girls, p. 63). The refrain “i found god in myself & i loved her” becomes a song of joy for all of the characters (for colored girls, p. 63). The lady in brown finishes the piece by repeating a version of the title: “this is for colored girls who have considered suicide / but are movin to the ends of their own rainbows” (for colored girls, p. 64).
The choreopoem’s long title—-for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf—is rich in meaning, offering clues about the work, its author’s views, and the intended audience. In particular, the title alerts the audience to Shange’s perception—developed over the years in 1950s to 1970s America—of the relationship between skin color and the development of a healthy self-image. “Colored” was no longer the standard word used in reference to black Americans when the choreopoem was written. The term called to mind the “For Colored Only” signs prevalent in public places in the era of segregation, for example; when used by whites, its implications were often derogatory. At the same time, it could be a term of endearment and cultural solidarity when used by blacks. Shange was struck by the fact that her grandmother had called her a precious “little colored girl” (Lester, p. 25). Consequently, Shange believed that the phrase “colored girl” in the title would have resonated with her grandmother, whom she would not have wanted to alienate with a more modern phrase. Shange was writing not only “for colored girls” but for anyone who had been a girl of color or was raising one.
Furthermore, the word “colored” draws attention to Shange’s interest in the problems of all women of color, not just black women. The title proceeds to the image of the rainbow, in which many colors coexist in nature. This emphasis on a variety of hues is a reminder that there are many shades of skin tone and a great diversity of experience among people of color— facts that society often tends to overlook. Shange includes the color brown in her rainbow of colors worn by the characters in her choreopoem. The inclusion is worth noting because it reinforces the idea that brown skin tones belong to and beautify the world. This celebration of brownness and blackness would have called to mind the cultural “Black Is Beautiful” movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which intended, among other purposes, to strengthen racial pride in blacks.
COLORED, NEGRO, BLACK, AFRICAN AMERICAN
In 1974 the title for colored girls called to mind the various names that most blacks have embraced and rejected in the twentieth century. Early in the century, the fact that blacks preferred the term “colored” was reflected in the name of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), which was organized in 1909. “Colored” fell out of favor during the 1920s, but many older blacks continued to use it. From about 1930 to the 1960s, “Negro” often replaced “colored” and “black” among the middle class, intellectuals, and whites, since it was supposedly insulting to refer to the color of a black person’s skin. The 1960s and 1970s saw the revival of “black” in slogans like “Black Power” and “Black is Beautiful,” expressions that helped turn “Negro” into a negative term applied by blacks to blacks who shied away from the identity asserted by the slogans. There was also by the early 1970s already a precedent for using the term “African American.” which would become interchangeable with “black” and widely adopted after 1988.
As used in the title, “rainbow” also refers to the variety, depth, and richness to be found within each “colored girl,” whatever troubling circumstances might affect her. Shange believed that when a girl found these colors inside herself, she would have recognized her own beauty and found the tools to survive her pain. A real rainbow had inspired the image when Shange saw it at the end of a depressing day and remembered that every rainbow is, after all, the product of a storm.
With this significance of the rainbow in mind, the title makes the most sense if the first and second halves are thought of as separate ideas instead of as two ideas joined in time by the word “when.” In other words, the choreopoem is intended “for colored girls who have considered suicide,” and it also hints at the emotional and spiritual health that are achieved “when [one recognizes that] the rainbow is enuf.”
Sources and writing
The poems in for colored girls are based in part on Shange’s own experiences. She had tried to commit suicide four times, including episodes after an abortion and an attempted rape. The suicide attempts—drinking Drano, taking alcohol and Valium, driving her Volvo into the Pacific Ocean—were intended as acts of taking control, although Shange also found them “ridiculous and humorous even at the time” (Shange in Lester, p. 29).
Courses in the women’s studies program at Sonoma State College in California also nurtured her views as a feminist. She studied women and female archetypes from antiquity to the present day, finding inspiration and information which enhanced for colored girls. For example, Shange mentions female archetypes represented in the character Sechita, who is “perceived as deity, as slut, as innocent & knowing” (Shange in the front matter to for colored girls, p. x). Then, in the summer of 1974, Shange began writing a series of seven poems modeled on the poet Judy Grahn’s book, The Common Woman, and these later provided the foundation for the choreopoem. The poems were revised constantly over the next two years, until Shange was satisfied that the final production at the Booth Theater on Broadway was “as close to distilled as any of us in all our art forms can make it” (Shange in for colored girls, p. xv).
Although for colored girls was written primarily with girls and young women of color in mind, Shange recognized that adults were more likely to attend the performances than girls. Still, she hoped that the choreopoem would eventually find its way onto school and public library shelves and into the hands of those who needed to read it most.
Production and reviews
“We just did it,” said Shange about the first performance of for colored girls (Shange in for colored girls, p. ix). In December of 1974, she and five other women had presented it at the Bacchanal, a women’s bar outside Berkeley, California. About twenty patrons were on hand to witness the dance, music, and poetry that night. “We were a little raw, self-conscious, & eager,” recalls Shange (Shange in for colored girls, p. ix). In the months that followed, the cast incorporated more dance and varied the selection of poems to suit their mood or the audience. They worked on the show in cafés, bars, poetry centers, and women’s studies departments before taking it to Minnie’s Can-Do Club in San Francisco. There they played to standing-room-only crowds of poets, dancers, and members of the women’s community, and they were called a must-see act. Finally, they felt ready to take for colored girls to New York.
In New York, they had to start all over again: only a few friends and family came to the first performance, and the actors quickly realized that the show would have to become more sophisticated if it was to attract New York audiences. They worked with any poets and dancers they could; some new performers joined the cast, while others left it.
Finally, in September 1976, for colored girls opened at the Booth Theater on Broadway, and it quickly provoked sharp disagreement among the critics. Both female and male reviewers lavished praise on the poetry and the images of sisterhood presented in the choreopoem. Some found it a wonderfully complete statement of the issues faced by women, and especially by women of color. But black feminist writer Michele Wallace cautioned against the feeling that the discussion of these issues was complete:
There is so much about black women that needs retelling.... Shange’s For Colored Girls should not be viewed as the definitive statement on black women, but as a very good beginning.
(Wallace in Dear, pp. 412-13)
Although many critics felt the structure was rough and the style unrefined, most of them found something to praise warmly. Others could not, and one reviewer was so turned off by the show’s unconventionality that cultural sensitivity fell by the wayside:
Is this poetry? Drama? Or simply tripe? Can you imagine this being published in a serious poetry journal? Would it have been staged if written by a white?
(Simon in Lester, p. 14)
In addition to crimes against style, Shange was accused of tarnishing the image of black men. Wallace suggested that some black women focused on the issue of male-bashing as a front for the real source of their anger: resentment that for colored girls had exposed black women’s fear of rejection and anger at being rejected. But Shange made no apologies for the choreopoem. After all, her first priority was to break what she called a conspiracy of silence and give young black women “information that 1 did not have. I wanted them to know what it was truthfully like to be a grown woman” (Shange in Dear, p. 413).
Churgin, Jonah R. The New Woman and the Old Academe: Sexism and Higher Education. New York: Libra, 1978.
Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. New York: Routledge, Chapman &Hall, 1991.
Dear, Pamela S., ed. Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol. 48. Detroit: Gale Research, 1995.
Greene, Lorenzo J., Gary R. Kremer, and Antonio F. Holland. Missouri’s Black Heritage. Rev. ed. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1993.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, ed. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought. New York: New Press, 1995.
Lester, Neal A. Ntozake Shange: A Critical Study of the Plays. Critical Studies in Black Life and Culture. Vol. 21. New York: Garland, 1995.
Ott, Thomas O. The Haitian Revolution: 1 789-1804. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press,1973.
Porter, Judith D. R. Black Child, White Child: The Development of Racial Attitudes. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
Shange, Ntozake. for colored girls who have considered suicide I when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem. 1977. Reprint. New York: Collier Books, 1989.