Women’s History Profiles
By Brianna Rae
Best known for her award-winning play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange is a Black feminist playwright, poet, and novelist.
Born Paulette L. Williams on October 18, 1948, Shange was born in Trenton, New Jersey into a family that had a deep interest in the arts. Her family’s home was host to such famous figures as Dizzy Gillespie, W.E.B. DuBois, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry. Shange grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where she was bused to a white school and endured racial harassment.
She enrolled in Barnard College in New York City in 1966 and graduated cum laude with a degree in American Studies and went on to earn her master’s degree in the same subject from University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Despite excelling in her field of study, Shange dealt with a divorce and deep depression in college, which led her to attempt suicide. By 1971, she had changed her name to Ntozake (Xhosa for ‘she who has her own things’) and Shange (a Zulu word meaning ‘the lion’s pride’).
Her most famous work, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, was produced in 1975 after she moved back to New York City. Originally a 20-part choreopoem of dance, poetry, music and drama that explores the experiences of women of color in the United States, the play became an instant hit and went on to Broadway and garnered several awards. It was later developed into a stage play, and in 1977, a book. In 2010, Tyler Perry adapted it to a film called For Colored Girls.
Throughout the years, Shange has produced several more award-winning poems, plays and novels. Famous plays include Spell No. 7 (1979) and Mother Courage and Her Children (1980); her works of poetry include Nappy Edges (1978), A Daughter’s Geography (1983), and From Okra to Greens (1984). Her beloved 1982 novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo detailed the lives of three Black sisters from South Carolina, and was creatively interspersed with recipes, letters, dreams stories and journal entries, showcasing Shange’s unique and powerful voice.
Although she came up in the time of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), Shange distanced herself from the movement, and was in turn dismissed by the movement’s unofficial leader, Amiri Baraka. Viewing the BAM as centering the male perspective, Shange’s writing to centered the female experience and perspective and created a space for specifically Black female artistic and cultural aesthetic. She currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.
Toni Cade Bambara
Author, filmmaker, activist, and professor, Toni Cade Bambara was born Miltona Mirkin Cade on March 25, 1939. Growing up in Harlem, New York City, Bambara credits her writing and the power of her word to the Harlem community she grew up in, and said that the musicians of the 1940s and 50s influenced her voice, pitch and pace. Her mother, she said, was her greatest influence and inspiration, because she had “great respect for the life of the mind.”
In 1959, Bambara graduated with a degree in Theatre Arts & English from Queen’s College. She received an award for her first published fiction, briefly studied mime and dance in France, and went on to receive her master’s degree in American Studies from City College in New York. While she was teaching at City College from 1965-69, she was socially and politically active, and was a key figure in the emergence of Black Feminism. Bambara edited and published for the anthology The Black Woman (1970), which was the first collection of feminist writings to focus on Black women, and the first anthology to feature work by Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and many other now-famous writers who were sick of the lack of representation and space for Black female voices and stories.
Bambara taught at and was affiliated with many universities throughout the 1970s and beyond, including Rutgers, Emory, Atlanta University, Stephen’s College and Spelman College. During this time, she edited her second anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971), and in 1972 published her first novel, Gorilla, My Love, a collection of 15 short stories.
She developed an interest in film, and three of her short stories became adapted to film. Bambara openly criticized Hollywood’s treatment of Blacks in the film industry, and went on to create her first documentary film project, The Bombin of Osage Avenue (1986), which explored the bombing of the emerging Black radical organization called MOVE in Philadelphia and for which she won a Best Documentary Academy Award.
Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993, and despite her determination to beat it, she succumbed to it on December 9, 1995 at the age of 56 during what seemed to be the height of her career. Her contributions to Black and Feminist cultural production are numerous and expansive, and in 2013 she was posthumously inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.