Ntozake Shange, 1948–2018
The playwright who wrote For Colored Girls
Shange was born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., and raised in St. Louis, “where she was one of the first black children to integrate into the city’s all-white public schools,” said The Washington Post. Her politically active parents, both medical professionals, “mixed with a crowd that included musicians Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, as well as writer W.E.B. DuBois.” Shange began to hone her poetic voice at Barnard College in Manhattan, from which she graduated in 1970. Around this time, Shange adopted a Zulu name, said USA Today. Ntozake means “She who comes with her own things,” and Shange “She who walks like a lion.” Shange was 27 years old when For Colored Girls debuted on Broadway—only the second play by a black woman to appear there, following Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.
“Her unconventional play was a hit and nominated for a Tony Award,” said The New York Times, although some black critics objected to its unsparing depiction of abuse committed by black men. Shange went on to write 15 plays, 19 poetry collections, six novels, five children’s books, and three essay collections, “an oeuvre all the more remarkable” given her struggles with bipolar disorder and addiction. She remained steadfast in her belief that poetry could change the world. “You have to keep acting like it is enough,” she said in 2013. “You have to keep hoping that it will move the mountain.”