Biography of Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange is a renowned poet, playwright, novelist, and performance artist. Her groundbreaking work, based on the contemporary experience of black women, has cemented her reputation as a powerful American feminist and literary figure. Her style is distinctive and idiosyncratic. As a writer, she does not want her readers to have control over the reading process. She once said that that she hoped her readers would struggle to understand her meaning. She writes what she hears in her mind, revealing the “music beneath the words.”

Shange was born Paulette Williams to an upper middle class family in Trenton, New Jersey in 1948. When she was 8, her father, an Air Force surgeon, and her mother, a teacher/social worker, moved young Paulette and her three siblings to St. Louis, Missouri. There, Paulette attended a newly integrated school where she was the frequent victim of racial insults and attacks. At home, though, her parents encouraged her interest in jazz and literature. The Williamses often hosted African American cultural luminaries at home, including Miles Davis, W.E.B. DuBois, and Chuck Berry, among others. When Paulette was 13, she returned to New Jersey to attend high school. Following graduation, she enrolled at Barnard College and majored in American Studies, graduating with high marks. She went on to earn an a masters degree from the University of Southern California.

While Paulette was in college, she married a young man and then separated from him shortly thereafter. These years were very difficult for Paulette, and she attempted suicide several times. In 1971, she learned how to manage her depression. She decided to embrace her experience as a black woman in America and changed her name to Ntozake Shange, which means “she who has her own things” and “he/she who walks with lions.”

In 1975, Ntozake Shange moved to New York City, where she wrote and staged her most famous work, a choreopoem (a combination of poetry, dance, music, and drama) called for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf. It quickly moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway, where it won several major awards. Other artists have adapted Shange's work into a stage play, a book (1977), and a feature film (2010).

In the New York Times Mel Gussow wrote, “Miss Shange [is] a pioneer in terms of her subject matter: the fury of black women at their double subjugation in white male America.” Critic Edith Oliver wrote about the experience of watching for colored girls... in The New Yorker: “The evening grows in dramatic power, encompassing, it seems, every feeling and experience a woman has ever had; strong and funny, it is entirely free of the rasping earnestness of most projects of this sort. The verses and monologues that constitute the program have been very well chosen—contrasting in mood yet always subtly building.”

Shange continued to write for the theater throughout the 1970s. Her plays from this time include A Photograph: A Study of Cruelty (1977), Boogie Woogie Landscapes (1977), Spell No. 7 (1979) and Black and White Two Dimensional Planes (1979), all of which garnered critical acclaim. In 1991, she published another celebrated choreopoem called The Love Space Demands. It focused on the sexuality of black women and their complicated relationships with black men.

Shange has also written poetry and several novels. Her published collections of poetry include: From Okra to Greens (1984); A Daughter's Geography (1983); Three Pieces (1981), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Nappy Edges(1978); and Natural Disasters and Other Festive Occasions (1977). She wrote the novels Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo (1982) and Liliane: Resurrection of the Daughter (1995). In her ecstatic review of Nappy Edges, critic Harriet Gilbert gushed, “Nothing that Shange writes is ever entirely unreadable, springing, as it does, from such an intense honesty, from so fresh an awareness of the beauty of sound and of vision, from such mastery of words, from such compassion, humor and intelligence.”

Rounding out her achievements in playwriting, poetry, and novels, Shange has also written numerous essays about the experiences of different racial and ethnic groups as well as sharing her opinions on art, feminism, and music. She has also written four children's books.

Ntozake Shange's work has been widely anthologized and performed throughout the world, and she is the recipient of a prestigious grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. She currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Study Guides on Works by Ntozake Shange