[Documents menu] Documents menu

Ntozake Shange

By Rebecca Dingo (student paper for EDP 380.D, Miami University), 18 December 1995

The focus of Howard Gardner's book, Creating Minds has been on Euro-centric men, accept for the one token white woman, Martha Graham. Although I agree that the seven people whom Gardener explored can be considered "creative geniuses", I feel that he has, for the most part limited himself to the exploration of the White male. I feel that his rejection of varying ethnic back-grounds has greatly limited his perspective. Further, because he only recognized one woman as a "creative genius", Gardner is simply supporting the existing sexist psychology that rampantly runs through today's patriarchal society.

After spending a semester looking at Gardner's limited selection of people, I became frustrated at his blatant message that White male creativity is the only one to exist. With his obtrusive message in mind, I felt the need to challenge Gardner and his model to become less Euro-centrally male driven. In order to confront him, I have chosen a person who is neither, White nor male. Instead, she is a Black American woman who I can consider to be, in many aspects, a creative genius.

Although I find it incredibly hypocritical to try to fit Ntozake Shange into Gardner's creativity model, for all intensive purposes for the class I will first point out how she does meet his model. Next, in accordance with Black feminists, I will examine why she does not fit into Gardner's creativity model and frankly, why it does not matter that she is not shaped into the model. Further, I will confront the issue that marginal people are rejected society's cannon (i.e. the white male cannon), and how Gardner, in the position of a writer he could have broken down some of these barriers.

Ntozake Shange does fit into five of the seven intelligences in Howard Gardner's model. As a performance artist, poet, musician, writer, and politician, Shange's intelligences span the interpersonal, spatial, kinesthetic, musical, and verbal talents.

She blends music, drama, and poetry to characterize the Black experience in America, particularly the Black female experience. Her works empower women to take responsibility for their lives by learning to love themselves and challenge their oppressors. Shange's life and works give clarification and direction to the current feminist movement (Black Women in America).

Furthermore, her supportive back-ground fits her into Gardner's theory that, "the roles of family and teachers during the formative years, as well as the roles of crucial supportive individuals during the times in which a creative breakthrough seems imminent" through the lives of creative people (8).

Paulette Williams was born to Eloise and Paul Williams on October 18th, 1948. Later in life, Paulette Williams changed her "slave name" to an African name, Ntozake Shange. Ntozake means "she who comes with her own things" and Shange means "who walks like a lion" (Current Biography 1978). However, in her earlier life, Shange lived a seemingly comfortable life. Her mother was a psychiatrist/social worker and her father was a surgeon. Despite their Blackness in a times of segregation, Shange was given violin and dancing lessons while exposed to other artistic activities as well. Furthermore, the William's home was frequently visited by famous Black men such as W.E.B DuBois, Muhammad Ali, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.

In the middle of her childhood, Shange moved from New Jersey to Missouri. In Missouri, Shange remembers a particular traumatic situation. Because Shange was considered a "gifted" child, she was bussed off fifteen miles into St. Louis to go to a non-segregated school. Shange had always gone to segregated schools and had not yet experienced blatant racism. At the new school, White children harassed the young and unprepared Shange. It seems that Shange bottled up her frustration for inspiration later in life. In order to make her life more bearable, Shange immersed herself into her studies. She was particularly interested in reading various writers in their native language.

Reading was my life. I read all the Russians in English (my goal was to free Raskolnikov from his guilts) and the French in French and the Spaniards with the aid of a dictionary (Current Biographies, 1978). However, in retrospect, Shange claims that she was leading a double life in her childhood years. She was trying to struggle with her Blackness yet trying to fit into the White mold in which she was placed.

Shange went onto undergaduate school at Barnard College. Here she kept to her "all-American" up-bringing, behaving herself, keeping her virginity, and eventually marrying a lawyer. However, after the lawyer left Shange, she began to have bouts of suicidal tendencies. At one point, Shange tried to put her head in the oven, in hopes of killing herself, but her Aunt came and pulled her out.

At this point it is necessary to stop and look back at Gardner's model in regards to Shange's placement in it. From the herstory mentioned above, it is obvious that Shange's parents were in support of their young child's artistic and intellectual development. However, it was said that even though they supported her they did not seem to see that Shange was struggling at the desegregated school and becoming lost in a split between her Black identity within a White society. Although her parents did not notice her struggle, Shange did have prominent radical Black supporters as frequent visitors to her home. I see Shange's family and those frequent visitors as the beginning of Shange's matrix of support. Further, Shange's frustration with her placement in a "white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy" (Wallis, 1995), gave her the inspiration to begin to create.

After finishing her undergraduate studies in 1970, Shange moved to Los Angles to attend the University of Southern California. Here, Shange held a teaching fellowship while pursuing her masters degree in American Studies. It was in 1971 when Shange decided to change her name. She claimed "I had a violent resentment of carrying a slave name; poems and music come from the pit of myself, and the pit of myself isn't a slave" (Current Biography, 1978). At this time, Shange became a frequent visitor to poetry bars and poetry readings.

Again, looking at Gardner's model, it is necessary to take notice of from where Shange's inner creativity came. As an American Studies major, she was probably constantly bombarded with White-male history. Feeling the need to remove herself from this White-male patriarchy, Shange changed her name to one that held and respected her African roots. At this point Shange began to become in touch with her creativity along with her whole self. Further, Shange began to demonstrate her interpersonal intelligence through her recognition of "her personal relation to the artistic enterprise introduc[ing] a final, if not an essential, aspect of contemporary [B]lack women's writing- that breathing precedes politics" (Gates, 171). In short, Shange became aware of her roles to represent the Black woman's struggle. She was acutely aware of a double burden of pain and negation suffered by women who are Black in a society defined white men- where Black women are not even granted the ambivalent recognition some white women receive for youth and beauty or for being wives and mothers of white men (Christ, 97).

In 1974, Shange began to write the series of poems that would become a part of her choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, representing the double burden of being both Black and a woman. From here Shange's choreopeom moved off Broadway in June of 1976. Later that same year, the performance was introduced to Broadway where it remained until July of 1978. During her time on Broadway, Shange received three prestigious awards, the Obie Award, the Golden Apple Award, and the Outer Critics Circle award.

Shange's development and performance of for colored girls incorporates two new intelligences into her creativity model. The mere word "choreopoem" is a dead give away. The word choreopoem means "a peice that is part dance and a part language" that "'fits in between all' genres and does justice to 'human beings' first impulses, which 'are to move and to speak'" (Timpante, 200). Shange uses her verbal and kinesthetic intelligences to create such a peice. Further, she must incorporate her spatial ability to actually produce a visually pleasing peice.

For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf, is representational as Shange's breakthrough. Although she wrote many other poems and pieces, it was this specific choreopoem that gave her the step she needed to become recognized in the public. Also, for colored girls is looked at as Shange's best known piece. However it is difficult to single out one or a group of people that served as Shange's matrix of support at this time. Although she frequently cites people such as Bob Marley as aiding her inspiration, it seems that most of her support came from within. Unlike the other people that Gardner explores, Shange finds her inspiration and support to come from her frustration with a White patriarchy.

Shange's work has not been without criticism. Analysts have condemned her for her seemingly negative depiction of Black men. Some critics have described her as being revengeful towards men. Because of these claims, many Black men have rejected Shange's works. However, Shange disputed the accusations. In an interview with Time magazine on July 19, 1976, she explains about her intentions,

'I love too many people in the world for that.' and she was only trying to be 'honest' about her 'own experience' of frustrated tenderness: 'I wanted to be wonderful and loving, to hold the hand, make the cake, fix the necktie. It's kindness no one wants if he's never had bread and butter. People can't afford to be open with you if every moment of their lives they are being abused. . . It would mean I was stronger than them.'

Shange sees her openness about her experiences with men as a sign of strength and support for other women facing similar issues. In her choreopoem for colored girls she confronts just this issue. After discussing a rape, four of the characters in her choreo poem come to these conclusions:

lady in brown
no this one is it, 'o baby, ya know i waz high, i'm sorry'

lady in purple
'i'm only human and inadequacy is what makes us human, (if we was perfect we wdnt have nothin to strive for, so you might as well go on and forgive me pretty baby, cause i'm sorry'

lady in green
'shut up bitch, i told you i waz sorry'

lady in orange
no this one is it, 'i do ya cause i thot ya could take it, now i'm sorry'

lady in red
'now i know that ya know i love ya, but i aint ever gonna love ya like ya want me to love ya, i'm sorry'

lady in blue
one thing i dont need is any more apologies

(Shange 1975, 52)

It was dialogue such as this that contributed to Shange's rejection. However, Shange is merely giving Black women and all women the voice that they did not have.

Ntozake Shange has, like the other people Gardner studied, a Faustian Bargain. Because she was rejected by both Black and White males, her success has been difficult.

However, it seems from here that Shange diverts from Gardner's model because it is representative of the patriarchy and especially of the White culture. This notion goes hand-in-hand with her Faustian bargain. Perhaps because Shange has had the courage to face up to society's White patriarchy, she has been further marinalized for threatening the supremacist patriarchal power.

From here it is necessary to look at why Shange does not fit into Gardner's model. Further and more importantly, it is necessary to explore the Black-feminist approach to creativity. It is unfair to overlook the Black woman's experience because it does not fit into the White male model. Michele Wallace recognizes that despite the commercial success of some books by [B]lack women writers, most [B]lack women writers are not well known. Their creativity- especially if it doesn't fit the Book-of-the-Month Club/ NY Times Best-Seller mold- continues to suffer the fate of marginality (Gates, 53).

She further sees that "black feminist creativity is routinely gagged and 'disappeared'" from politically articulate fields. Howard Gardner's deletion of Black women (and in general women and Back men) from his studies merely supports the existing patriarchy. This is why it is completely necessary to examine Shange as a representational creative Black woman who needs to have an altered model for creativity because of a cultural, marginal, and gender difference.

Howard Gardner describes as part of model, the need for a creative person to get back to the "wonder-filled child" (32). However, for individuals such as Shange who found her inspiration from oppression, certainly, child-like innocence is far beyond their creative focus. For instance Shange's work is not innovated as a child has been. She has instead taken adult issues such as sexism, racism, and marginality and created many intense pieces that are filled with 'adult-like horror.' Shange's work is filled with confronting issues such as this:

____ ......I feel his fingers on my throat. Some of my hair in the back is caught in

his fingers and he's shaken' me down from the Riviera as if nobody was around..................

............................. Outta nowhere I heard him screamin', "Who do you think you are?" and... I couldn't breathe. So I couldn't answer...

I couldn't answer....

____ But why, why would he hurt me like that?
____ Maybe, he couldn't stand to hear the music in you.

(Shange 1994, 7-8)

I certainly hope that Shange's innovations in language and performance are not child-like. Gardner does not seem to recognize that some matrix of support come from needing to express pain from within. One would assume that child-like wonder would not include sexual, mental, and physical abuse. Shange's lack of child-like innovation goes against Gardner's model. I argue that the essence of creativity is not child-like innovation or wonder. As the case maybe for many marginal figures such as Shange, their nature of creativity steams from a need to express their inner and outer suffering. Further, "Black women are often deprived of their sense of childhood because they must immediately begin striving for recognition in the home and community" (Blackshire-Belay, 168). Of course, Gardner in his general depiction of the creative being has left out the variety this type of experience.

Another aspect of Howard Gardner's model is the ten year rule. He believes that most creative geniuses have a ten year span between the time one begins to create, the time of the first major breakthrough, and then the time between the next major breakthrough. Perhaps it is because Shange is so recent and is still currently producing, that a ten year rule is difficult to recognize. However, it has been noticed that the bulk of her work was produced in the 1970's. John Timpante points out that Shange's impressive burst of productivity took place largely during the Carter years; ten years later, these pieces, although not exactly dated, bear the stamp of a period of social transition, of frustrations and possibilities, a sense of imminent change and the necessity for improvisation (198).

In more recent interviews with Shange, she has expressed that she has found new inspiration in her daughter. As a matter of fact, Shange has released A Daughter's Geography in 1983 and Liliane Resurrection of the Daughter in 1994. Perhaps as the 1990's continue, Gardner's ten year rule will become more apparent.

Although I have already touched upon Shange's lack of a matrix of support during the time of her breakthrough, I feel that it is necessary to touch upon it again. In all the creative cases that Gardner explores upon in Creating Minds, there is an obvious group of people that are supporting each genius as they come into the lime light. For Shange this same phenomena is not seen. As discussed before, Shange's support seemed to come from within. I question, to whom could Shange have gone for support at this time? Certainly there were very few (and still are very few) Black feminist women who society had accepted. To some extent, Shange should be looked upon as the beginning of a matrix of support for other Black women. How could Shange have support if it did not exist? I feel that it was just as important for Shange to have developed a support than to rely on one.

Before closing, I feel that it is necessary to give recognition to some of Shange's other works that were not mentioned before. For what I am aware of to date, Shange has produced two theater pieces, four books of poetry, and three works of fiction. Her second theater piece, Three Pieces, was a combination of a choreopoem and musical. Critics have been trenchant of her recent work of fiction, Betsy Brown. They seem to recognize that perhaps her style is transforming. Throughout her years of being in the lime light, Shange has held positions and conferences at various colleges. She has also received the Guggenheim fellowship and Medal of Excellence from Columbia University. Ntozake Shange currently resides with her daughter who serves as her inspiration.

Ntozake Shange claims, for too long now, Afro-Americans in theater have been duped by the same artificial aesthetics that plague our [W]hite counterparts/ 'the perfect play', as we know it to be/ a truly european framework for european psychology/ cannot function efficiently for those of us from this hemisphere (Gates, 169).

By leaving writers such as Shange out of his creative model, Gardner is making a political statement in support of the White patriarchy. He further assesses that any creative person can fit into his model. However, I feel that Gardner has not closely explored beyond the male Euro-centric experience and has therefore limited himself in his research. Although I can respect his choices of creative people, they are an impressive bunch, Gardner is simply giving into the existing racist and sexist mind-set. I feel that Gardner was in a position to listen to the experience of creative women such as Ntozake Shange, and represent her accordingly. Perhaps the idea, "My Mind in Rewind" proposed by one group in class is would give Gardner a chance to give credit to those who have been under-represented...


Blackshire-Belay, Carol Aisha. Language and Literature in the African American Imagination. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Christ, Carol P. Diving Deep and Surfacing. Beacon,1980. "Current Biographies". Women and Theater: The Politics of Representation. Spring 1995 Reader.

Gardner, Howard. Creating Minds. New York: BasicBooks, 1993.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Reading Black, Reading Feminist. New York: Penguin Books, 1990.

Shange, Ntozake. for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow was enuf. New York: Macmillian Pubishing Company, 1975.

Shange, Ntozake. Liliane. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Timpante, John. "'The Peotry of a Moment': Politics and the Open Form in the Drama of Ntozake Shange." ed. Schlueter, June. Modern American Drama: The Female Cannon. Rutherford, New Jersy: Associated University Press,1990.

Wallis, Brian. "Art, Race, and Gender." Art in America, December, 1995, Vol. 83 (12), pp25-27.