There are very few pulls toward the keyboard anymore; feeling less and less interested in sounding off for the sake of sounding off. This right here, as I'm sure it is for many, is personal. Bear with me.
Mommy had the album, & maybe a slim copy of the book existed in the house as well, but Mommy had the album. Around age 8, after my parents split and we moved in with my grandmother, I developed a relationship with my mother's albums. Music had always been alive in our home, records playing at any time to set or accompany the mood either of my parents were setting. I had albums of my own, children's stories and skits by Black artists that uplifted my melanated reality, reminding me of an inherent greatness that I didn't yet know would threaten others. I was allowed to operate the record player myself and took great pride in playing MY records, singing along & reciting joyously. Like I said, by 8, however, we'd moved & Mommy's records were under the bar in the basement, on the other side of the beaded curtain. I used to lay in that small space, just big enough for 2 adults to stand & reach low to a collection of spirits that I never saw served to anyone. The spirits in the bottles lay dormant, few rubbing the bottles to release the genie who'd grant wishes, but the spirits of the various singers & musicians were very much alive back there. & it was there that I would go to sit with them, in counsel, listening to the wisdom of experiences I was still very much removed from by virtue of not even being in double digits.
It is behind the bar that I consciously recognized I'd discovered Ntozake Shange. Her most celebrated [& controversial] work, For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enough, lay amongst so many other wonders, with its cover of intrigue. On it, a Black woman, wearing a scarf much like 1 I'd seen my mother & other mamas wear, & a face I'd seen her & them wear as well. I didn't at all understand the title as suicide was not yet a concept I was familiar with. Despite my contextual understanding of the joy of rainbows I understood there was no joy in the woman's face & it probably signaled whatever suicide is. It made me wonder about when my Mama wore that face what was behind it. It made me wonder if it came with the scarf. It would be a few years before I played the record inside the mysterious cover on my own, though I'd heard Mommy play it on other occasions. For the time being, I was satisfied with staring into what I somehow began to identify as my legacy as a future Black woman, & work toward decoding what that would mean. I had no idea what that truly meant then, & now I know that Black womanhood is an evolutionary process, encompassing not 1 but all of the various iterations of Black women within the choreopoems Shange served up.
Not sure how old I was when I first encountered Nina Simone's 4 Women, but it was released 10 years prior to Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls which arrived a year after I was born, in 1976. You can feel the imprint of 1 on the other which taught me, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that we have a responsibility to tell our stories so that we can release the stories in others. This is so important toward combating the notion that we must suffer in silence, rendering ourselves alone even in times of celebration, because isolating becomes as habitual as breathing once convinced neither your trials nor your triumphs are worthy of breath & love. Nina informed Ntozake who informed my mother who informed me & then I saw the necessity of modeling for other Black girls & women how to spread our mouths W I D E, loosen our tongues & allow our worlds to pour out of us. If not, if we do not exercise our voices, our bodies will be filled up with unshed tears, the salt licks of crystalized sweat, & a host of other bodily secretions we've learned to be ashamed of for their volume & composition & scent. We say better out than in for gas but don't apply it to whatever else we carry around; a decorative vase of manure & dying flowers.
I learned to see myself looking at my Mama's face in the drawn, composite face of a Black woman on an album cover that I somehow knew on a soul level while still just a Black girl child. Mama Ntozake Shange did that for me. I've read some of her other works, & at times struggled with deciphering the chosen tongue, but there were no struggles or strains to find pieces & parts of myself developing, settled, & still evolving in the timeless ethnographic depiction of Black womanhood--dare I say, in the US.? I wasn't a daughter of theater & never got to be in a production, but my lived experiences have added me to this perennial assemblage, as have yours & yours, & it has given us all permission to elevate those experiences so that those who walk behind us know that they are not the firsts or the last & can find community in our sisters & aunties & foremothers. Permission was granted to tie on the scarf, feel what we feel, seek out the colors of the rainbow & ride it into a better space & time because as long as we choose to, we keep getting up & that's half the battle.
I thank Mama Ntozake Shange for fighting her battles & working to provide us a blueprint to fight our own. Her battle is over. We must continue to fight. May she ascend & rest well.