To know Ntozake Shange was a privilege. Like many Black women, I was first introduced to her brilliance in college when I read her choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and found myself in her words. As I immersed myself in her other written work, I learned that she wrote boldly with a heartbreaking and beautiful honesty that centers the stories and lives of Black people across the diaspora, and particularly, Black women and girls. She never dulled her experience or language for the sake of making a mainstream white audience feel comfortable, and instead, wrote plays, poetry, novels, and essays that affirmed Black lives, culture, and being. Her writing exuded pain, joy, warmth, brilliance, and she was constantly moving beyond the written page and letting her art take multiple forms, especially on the stage. In both her writing and life, Ntozake Shange practiced a mesmerizing authority that required those around her to make space and take in her dynamic presence, intelligence, and artistry.
I began working with Ntozake Shange on the reissue of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can for Beacon’s Celebrating Black Women Writers series. When we first reached out to her about reissuing the book, she was thrilled to hear we were refreshing her collection of recipes, memories, and stories from the Black diaspora and eagerly offered to write new material. What I anticipated as being limited interactions with a literary icon quickly turned into frequent communication, as she started to call me regularly to discuss her ideas for the reissue. Ms. Shange (and, no, I never called her “Ntozake” or even her nickname “Zake,” because my mother would not have approved of that, and I couldn’t bring myself to refer to the Ntozake Shange by her first name) began each of our conversations with, “Hi Maya, it’s Ntozake.” It was always a short and direct greeting, and before I could fully respond she was already ahead of me, discussing her most recent drafts and thoughts for the book, leaving me to quickly scribble notes.
As a young assistant and then editor, I relished in these phone calls, soaking up her words and grasping onto each sentence knowing that this was an artist at work. When she couldn’t reach me, I’d return to my desk to find a voicemail waiting with her signature, “Hi Maya, it’s Ntozake,” followed by a flurry of information I’d have to listen to a few times in order to I catch every word.
Once we covered the business in our calls, she would take a moment to catch up. The conversation would shift to discussing topics such as the origins of my last name or her recent trip to Brooklyn for an Afropunk festival, which she very much enjoyed. I am forever grateful for these casual conversations with a woman whose work impacted me so personally.
Last year on her seventieth birthday, Ms. Shange left me a voicemail that ended up being our last correspondence. At the time, she was in the midst of preparing for the release of the new edition of If I Can Cook and working on several new projects. Her excitement was palpable. Something I learned while working with her, was her unrelenting need to always create and write. Her work never ceased, regardless of the health issues she experienced during her later life, exemplifying her innate artistry. Though shortly after her birthday, she passed away in her sleep on October 27, 2018.
One of the new projects she was working on her next book, which focuses on Black movement and dance. As a dancer and performer herself, Shange’s written work often coincided with the stage, and her love of Black dance was something that she believed needed to be shared widely. Originally signed to Beacon by former editor Tisha Hooks, in 1997, the book was put on hold for two decades, because Shange suffered from two strokes and needed time to recover. But following the completion of the new material for If I Can Cook, she was determined to pick the project back up and share her personal history of Black dance with readers.
I am pleased and honored to share that in October 2020, Beacon Press is publishing Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance. Told through a series of portraits and interviews with prominent Black dancers and choreographers, along with her personal journey as a dancer, Ntozake Shange welcomes us into a world of movement, culture, and expression. She documents her early beginnings as a student learning from those who trained her, moved with her, and inspired her, as she shares the exquisite power of the Black body. In her authoritative tradition, she places these often-overlooked Black stories at the center of her writing, affirming that Black dance is a life of a people, and argues that it passes along the intergenerational history of the diaspora. Though she couldn’t complete the book in its entirety, this is one of the many gifts she has left behind. Dance We Do commands space while also welcoming readers into her early rhythmic beginnings.
The loss of Ntozake Shange affected so many of us. Her writing gave solace, her art inspired, and her poetry provided guidance. But like she lived, Ms. Shange acted with a purpose, and her determination to create work that we can enjoy after she is no longer with us was intentional. In a 1995 interview with Rebecca Carroll for Mother Jones, she said, “I write for young girls of color, for girls who don’t even exist yet, so that there is something there for them when they arrive . . . I concentrate on giving this to young people because they are the treasurers of black culture.”
So today, on what would be Ms. Shange’s seventy-first birthday, I would like to thank her for doing exactly that. She leaves behind a collection of work that each day impacts a new reader. Her timeless art continues to be enjoyed through multiple mediums. This is definitely true with the exciting revival of for colored girls that is currently onstage at the Public Theater from October 8 to December 1. With the upcoming publication of Dance We Do, her legacy continues to tell the untold stories of Black culture and provide space for those who have yet to come. If you are interested in updates about the book, please subscribe to our newsletter.
In the 2018 epilogue of the new edition of If I Can Cook/You Know God Can, Ms. Shange signs off saying she is “Somewhere in the Diaspora.” With her work findings new readers each day, I like to think that with her writing and spirit remains somewhere in the diaspora. Happy Birthday, Ms. Shange!
About the Author
Maya Fernandez, assistant editor, joined Beacon Press after graduating from American University in 2016.