Ntozake Shange — Robert Kipp
On Thursday night, April 23, I went to see Ntozake Shange, who was speaking at the Hubert H. Humphrey Center as part of the NOMMO African American Authors Series, NOMMO (it’s always capitalized — they seem pretty insistent) meaning, “the magic power of the word.” Nice title, eh? Anyway, I came in with a very limited familiarity — for another class, I was supposed to have read her magnum opus, For colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem, but had done little more than flick through it. Ultimately, however, what Shange taught me had nothing to do with her work. Sure, the work was pretty good. She read poems for while. She read something about “marine intrusions” in the San Francisco bay, she read from her Lizard Series, which she explained was inspired by seeing lizards in the bathtub when living in Trinidad and in Texas, and by a man with lizard tattoos up his arms. She read her harrowing poem, “With No Immediate Cause,” which starts: “every 3 minutes a woman is beaten / every five minutes a / woman is raped/every ten minutes / a lil girl is molested.” Shange is very much an avowed feminist, and is very much concerned with the women’s issues, particularly black women (of which she is one, if that wasn’t already clear). “Ntozake Shange,” notably, was not her birth name. She was born Paulette Williams, but found it silly to have been named after a man, so she took up her current title, Ntozake meaning, “she who comes with her own things,” and Shange meaning, “she who walks with lions.” The lion thing might be a bit much, but hey, I’m cool with it. When she was reciting her poems, she had along a helper/handler/friend to tag team a few (also, to just help her around generally — she didn’t look too well, almost as if she’d had a stroke or something). He had on red pants and a frayed rainbow-plaid blazer. I wrote in my notes: RED PANT DUDE / AWESOME. / NICE BLAZER. He had a great voice, especially when closing out, “With No Immediate Cause,” with: “every three minutes / every five minutes / every ten minutes / every day.” But on to what I learned. So, I wasn’t really all that impressed by the poetry or the presentation. I’m sure I could get to like the poetry — actually, wait, there was one really good one, but I forgot the title — if I knew it better and could see it, instead of straining to hear it through some slurring and stuttering. But I didn’t mind about the poetry and the performance — I was attracted to something else. When she first came on, Shange led everyone in a little prayer — a slow breath in, slow breath out kind of thing. At first it was kind of an, “Oh brother, c’mon,” eye-rolling type thing. But when she asked, “Doesn’t that feel better?” and answered, “Feels better.” I knew that there was no pretense, no awkward self-consciousness. She just smiled and wanted everyone to feel better. I could see that. So here’s what I learned: it’s not how you say something. It’s not even what you say, hard though that may be to believe. It’s seriousness. It’s sincerity. It’s confidence in one’s self and one’s work. It is an incorruptible self-actualized right-mindedness. It is an absolute belief. And I could see that Ntozake Shange had an honest belief in what she was doing.