Podcast #47: Ntozake Shange on Inspiration and Harlem

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
February 6, 2015
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

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As we begin Black History Month, The New York Public Library Podcast welcomes the great American playwright and poet Ntozake Shange, creator of the Obie-Award-winning play “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.” At the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Shange celebrates the 40th anniversary of her landmark work with a panel discussion about its inspiration, Harlem, and her enduring legacy.

Ntozake Shange podcast

Shange attributes the genesis of her artistic work to her early upbringing, especially her immersion in black culture:

"The most significant part of my background I think is that I was raised in absolutely colored neighborhoods until I was fourteen years old, so the neighbor, the dry cleaning man, the pharmacist, the dentist, the grocer, the school guard: everyone was colored. So it never occurred to me that we were illegitimate in some way because we were a whole world. And I think that that has given me a kind of strength that pulls me through the moments that I otherwise might not know how to get through... My parents were very interested in the arts and culture of the black people from all over the place. My father collected drums from Cuba and Haiti. My mother recited poems from the Harlem Renaissaince. She read us Paul Laurence Dunbar. The first poem I knew was not 'O Captain! My Captain!' but was 'Speak up, Ike, an' 'spress yo'se'f!' That's a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem. So I was immersed in black culture without having to be told that I was having something done to me, and that's where the richesse of my work I think comes from."

Harlem itself has played an important role in Shange's body of work. She explained:

"I was living in a boarding house with merchant seamen, and the toilets were all in the hall and they had urinals in them and toilets, and there were just all these clomping feet all the time in the hallway.  I would go down to the Lower East Side Monday nights to do my poetry at the Old Reliable Cafe on East 3rd Street and then have to drive myself back to 149th Street and Amsterdam and sometimes on that last trek around the block to find a parking space, guys just decided to try to take liberties with me, and so I got a fairly bitter attitude toward nightstalkers in Harlem on 149th Street. But that's also where I found Dianne McIntyre's Sounds in Motion that led me to incorporate choreography into my work even more."

In response to an audience question, Shange spoke about artistic bravery:

"Being an artist is a scary thing. When they say you take your life in your hands or write a poem like you took your life in your hands or say a line like it's the last breath you'll ever use or jump in the air until you feel like you're gonna reach Jupiter, we say things like that; we really mean it. So when it gets scary for you; it was scary for me. When it gets joyful for you, it was joyful for me. If it seems sacred to you, it was sacred to me. If it seems miserable and sadistic to you, it was miserable and sadistic to me. So I'm not asking my readers to go through anything I haven't gone through already."

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