My children have grown accustomed to my grief. Over the years—from the death of my parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, a beloved cousin, to those of schoolmates and friends—they have borne witness to my pain. Sometimes, my grief resulting in depression and self-imposed isolation, even while trying to appear strong and to carry on for their sakes. I still had to get dinner on, didn’t I? There is a saying, I think, about living long enough. These were all people that I knew my whole life, and loved, and miss every day.
Then there are those that never knew me, but who I nevertheless knew and loved, or whose work I loved—Maya Angelou, Whitney Houston, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Prince (My son arrived home from school and before he was even all the way inside asked, “Are you okay, Mom?” He understands, I thought. I cried. He reached for the tissues and sat down beside me.) Then, there was Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, George Michael, Al Jarreau (I listened to “Could You Believe’ on repeat and cried all Sunday morning.) So, my daughter barely looked up from her book and my son wandered in and out of the living room, still in his pajamas, without breaking his easy stride. Mom was crying, again. Yes, I cried all day—I couldn’t stop crying as I gradually accepted what I had hoped was an unfortunate internet rumor—that Ntozake Shange had died.
She didn’t know me at all, but we were Facebook friends. You see, some time ago, I found an in through folks that I know in real life with a community that I long to be part of. Writers, poets, playwrights, artists of all kinds. I was surprised to find her social media page so open and accessible. I mean, I figured I would simply follow her if she didn’t accept my request. But, she did and I felt so honored. And I had only recently wished her a happy birthday and posted a Facebook memory from the year before (when we weren’t yet friends) in which I had posted an image and one of my favorite quotes from her play. She sent a polite thank you in response to my birthday greeting and I was giddy. She would never know how she had made my day. Because I’m just a mom who dreams of having a poet’s soul and wishes she could really write like her.
She was a woman uniquely suited to her time. A black feminist, an artist, a member of the Black Arts Movement along with other artists that I love: Nikki Giovanni, Lorraine Hansberry, and Sonia Sanchez. Yes, she was an artist uniquely suited to an era, yet her body of work remains timely and oh-so-relevant.
I first became aware of her award-winning and transformative work when I was too young to know what it even was. The play premiered in 1976; I was only 9. I can’t even imagine how I even knew of her and its existence, except I grew up in a house full of books. Was it there on one of the bookshelves in my room? I don’t know. All I knew was this sad and mysterious title, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When The Rainbow Is Enuf.” I remember thinking the title was poetry all by itself and I pondered the title for years before I ever knew anything about what was behind it, the soliloquies that the artists would perform on the stage.
I finally saw the play performed in college. One of my sorority sisters was in the cast and we went as a group as a show of support. I knew that, as a young black woman, this play was something I should see, but beyond appreciating the performances I still didn’t get it. I hadn’t been prepared for this kind of revolutionary storytelling, the combination of poetry, dance, and song. Shange coined the term “choreopoem” to describe this thing of black girl magic. (That’s what it was, you know, way back then before we had the words to describe such a phenomenon.) I was an unremarkable girl, and perhaps a bit sheltered, from an unremarkable home in the New Jersey suburbs attending a private college in upstate New York. (Perhaps if I had known Shange was a Jersey girl, too…) I was barely 21. What did I know of these women and the stories they told? What did I know of that depth? Nothing. Then, too, I had always felt that so much about my upbringing rendered me awkward and unlike the black girls I knew then— my folks weren’t from the city, I embodied no urban-ness, nor was I sufficiently from the South. I didn’t have a tragic or hardscrabble upbringing. Neither my heart, nor my body, nor my spirit had ever been broken. This was not a play about me.
Then, I read it. This was many years later. I was almost 30, after college and graduate school, after a serious bout of depression and a few years of therapy. After my heart had been broken once or twice and my spirit had been dulled. After I found myself directionless and so, gave up. Gave up everything, that is, except reading books. While the beautiful language held me rapt, I wished I had had a class, or a book club, or someone to be able to discuss the text with as I found that I was still unprepared to absorb its full meaning. Instead, I read alone in my room. In the day and in the night, I read and muddled through this piece that was really over my head. I was still too immature and knew so little of the world, art, or poetry until I came to these two lines,
i found god in myself
& i loved her/i loved her fiercely
I read those lines over and over again and was glad that this was not a library book, that I had bought it from the black-owned bookstore on La Brea Avenue, because I highlighted it and folded down the corner of the page so that I could readily find it again. I read the line over and over. Then, I wrote it out in bold on a piece of paper and decorated the paper with pastel butterflies and curlicues and taped it to my bathroom mirror so that the words would speak to me every time I saw my reflection.
Years later there was the film “For Colored Girls” featuring Janet Jackson, Anika Noni Rose, and Loretta Devine among others. By that time, I had become a single mother, divorced, having felt failure and rejection, used and used up. Here I was in my 40s and I felt I understood that old saying about “taking the best years of my life.” I remember the kids were away for their regular visitation with their dad and his new family and from somewhere I had this bootleg DVD that had been gathering dust because I don’t do bootleg. I was cleaning and thought, why not? I busied myself around our little apartment with the movie on as background and then, there she was. Loretta Devine, who played the film’s version of The Lady in Green, performing the poem, “somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff.”
somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
not my poems or a dance i gave up in the street
but somebody almost walked off wid alla my stuff
like a kleptomaniac working hard & forgettin while stealin
this is mine!
this ain’t yr stuff!
now why don’t you put me back
& let me hang out in my own
I put down the dust rag and cried. And cried and cried. Shange put words to all that I had lost and wanted so desperately to get back. I finally understood her work because now I knew that she understood me. She had always known me.
After college, I had rather quickly packed up and moved far away from home, hardly looking back. I moved around, married, became a mama, and divorced, but more and more, as I move through the world as what some might call a Strong Black Woman, I know that I am, always have been, and always will be a black girl from New Jersey. And I am forever grateful to another black girl from New Jersey, Ntozake Shange, because she knew me when I didn’t even know myself and because she told my and all of our stories. Each time I read her words, I rediscover myself, the measure of my strength, the depth of my soul, and my worth.
Shange once said, “I write for young girls of color, for girls that don’t even exist yet, so there is something there for them when they arrive.” How fitting then that her name, Ntozake from the Xhosa language, means “she who has her own things.” She knew that she was writing for me and for the daughter I would one day have—the daughter who is now a young woman getting ready for the world, who marched on January 21, and who has “Just Mercy” and “Letters to a Young Artist” on her bedside table. I want her to know Ntozake Shange. Somehow, I think she will understand if not the experiences of the women then the poetry, the artistry, and what it has meant for black girls. As her and my sense of otherness in the world has reasserted itself, there is no better time to look in the mirror and recite each day i found god in myself & i loved her/i loved her fiercely.
Jennifer Lynn Tyler is a mother, writer, blogger, educator, and attorney living and working in Los Angeles. She shares a cozy apartment with her children, Madison and Isaiah, both precocious and busy teens. Jennifer is a native of New Jersey. She attended Syracuse University’s Newhouse School where she studied Writing for Television Radio & Film, and Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. In whatever spare time she can manage, Jennifer enjoys reading, watching classic movies, hanging out with her girlfriends, sneaking out for a pedicure or a decadent dessert (or both), and quiet weekend mornings with the newspaper and a cup of coffee in her favorite mug. She is the creator of the blog Mommy Madness Wisdom & Wit, found at jlynntyler.com and on Facebook. Jennifer is also the co-creator, with her children, of the Facebook page and upcoming blog, Black Brainiac: https://www.facebook.com/Black-Brainiac-1392555580963164/.