I finally saw For Colored Girls yesterday with ambivalence. I had promised myself that I would not go, that I would not give Tyler Perry another 8 of my dollars, that I would not subject myself to false images of myself, and that I would hold on to the For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf that I knew and fell in love with by myself– I knew I could not resist forever. A colleague has asked me to offer input on a piece he is writing about the film. I will be teaching the text again in the spring and I need to know what distortions of the story my students (may) have been subjected to. Further, a need to be a part of the conversation seduced me to the theatres. I arrived early and sat in my seat defensive, arms closed, head tilted, mouth smirked.
I have been protective of black women’s stories for years, and particularly For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the choreopoem that my white professor introduced me to in a performance class when I was 23 years old. I could not believe the words we were reading and the words that performed themselves when I spoke them out loud, sounding just like myself. I did a performance of “no assistance” and fell in love instantly, wondering why in the world I had never heard of Ntozake Shange before—and committing myself to learning to pronounce her name correctly. Ntozake (n-toe-zah-kay), formerly Pauline. Shange (shaun-gay), formerly Williams. Her new name, the name she chose, was Zulu and meant “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion.” I was immediately impressed. I was instantly moved.
Two colleagues met me at the theatre and we watched together, one colored girl, and two white women, all marginalized. I wondered, at times, if they could sense me suffocating in the dark. There were at least three times. The first time was when I found some characters unrecognizable. The poems, which I have read one hundred times, felt familiar but missing. Their lives were blurred. Their voices were too blended. Who were they? Where were they?
The “colored girls” lives were so combined it was hard to recognize ourselves, my self. And I wondered how that was any different from any other black woman representation–different versions of various stereotypes. This was not what shange had told me (in the original version). I was not a stereotype in the text, I simply was… finally and on paper. My broken-hearted self. My tough and sassy self. My little girl and grown up self. My elegant and fearless self. My “behind my waist is aching to be held” self. My “usedta live in the world” self. My “cravin’ vulnerability & close talk” self. My “tryin not to be that” self, leavin “bitterness in somebody else’s cup.” My “lost touch with reality” self. My “hot iron scar, leg wit the flea bite, calloused feet and quik language in my mouth” self. My “reglar colored girl” self. All of these selves at the same time. But not a damn stereotype.
We (women of color) are always fighting to be heterogeneous because people can’t tell us apart, our lives, too broken, too (un)familiar, too pathological. The delicious difference(s) between us is often lost in translation. But it was not lost in the text.
Lady in Red (from the poem One)’s vulnerability was taken away—disguised beneath profanity and a tough exterior that was not my interpretation of Lady in Red at all. Her need to be held, no different from my own. Her love of sex hidden behind a lack of self esteem. But a black woman’s sexual agency is not always about sexual abuse (though I believed she had been hurt/left/not loved back so much that sex and sexuality became her way of being desired and wanted in decadent moments of discovery, rather than left, sleeping, and hopeful for connection). She was empowered by her sexuality, if only in moments that were momentary. “& she had been so divine/devastatingly bizarre the way/her mouth fit round.” The crying herself to sleep part was left out. We never saw her by herself.
Crystal’s strength and pushback was silenced. Black Mother Women, as Audre Lorde says, are both beautiful and strong. Crystal fought for her children but her words were lost in the parade of black women’s bodies in ten shades. She defended her children, if not herself. She threatened to kill Beau Willie Brown. She took out papers. She consciously refused to be his wife because of physical abuse and infidelity (saying “o no i wdnt marry yr pitiful black ass for nothin”). We never heard her talk back, or take up for herself.
My need for imagination was lost in the movie and so was my identity. The beauty of the text, the complication of the meaning(s), over-simplified. Another moment of held breath. (“there waz no air”).
Though my day was filled with other interactions and responsibilities I kept thinking about the inconsistencies of the movie and wondered where my emotion went. I had heard of people seeing the movie and crying, feeling moved. I was not moved. I was offended (at times), I was pissed off (at times), angry (at times), confused (at times).
I cried when I first read the words, not fully understanding them yet, but recognizing myself in them. I cried watching the broadway version, which left the nuances of life in the room for individual interpretation. I cried when I taught it for the first time, knowing without the class, the requirement, the reason, so many women would have gone their whole lives not knowing the text existed. I cried when they cried, portions of themselves scattered on the pages.
A black girl’s song.
A black woman’s story.
Taking “our stuff” back and owning ourselves.
Moving to self-actualization.
In an interview in the early 80s with Claudia Tate, Ntozake Shange said that the audience she writes for are little girls who are coming of age. She says, “I wanted them to have information that I did not have. I wanted them to know what it was truthfully like to be a grown woman. I didn’t know. All I had was a whole bunch of mythology—tales and outright lies. I want a twelve-year-old girl to reach out for and get some information that isn’t just contraceptive information but emotional information.”
I appreciate that. Because “colored girls” don’t have the luxury of fairy tale fantasies. That is not what our lives are like–and sometimes to be saved, we have to save ourselves.
And while disappointed I was not utterly disgusted by the movie. For the first time in a while I did not walk out wanting my money back. But I did want my words back. And the connections I made on the page that I didn’t make in the theatre. So I came home, sat on the floor of my office, and read the choreopoem out loud until I was finished. I remembered myself while remembering them, recognizing some of the words that were spoken in the movie, but finally, recognizing myself, returning to my self.
In 1976, shange closes a preface to the text saying:
“i am on the other side of the rainbow/ picking up the pieces of days spent waitin for the poem to be heard/ while you listen/ I have other work to do/”
And all this time after
now that the poems have been/are being heard
there is still (other) work to do.