February 28 is the end of Black History Month but not Black history. You can find Black history all year round in the HistoryMakers Video Archive, the largest resource of oral African American history in existence. This fascinating resource contains 149,171 interviews and counting, telling the story of African Americans’ contributions in virtually every facet of American life and culture — in the arts, business, the legal and healthcare professions, politics, architecture, engineering, education, and more.
You can see and hear playwright, poet, and novelist Ntozake Shange (1948-2018), born Paulette Williams in Trenton, N.J., tell how South African refugees gave her the Zulu names Ntozake, (meaning “she who comes with her own things”) and Shange (“who walks like a lion”); how she was accepted into a gifted student program in elementary school where white schoolmates shoved her and attacked her with racial slurs; how she graduated cum laude from Barnard College and earned an M.A. in American Studies at the University of Southern California; and how she invented a radically experimental new form combining drama, poetry, music, and dance for her acclaimed first play “For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf” — telling the stories of seven Black women who have suffered oppression in a racist and sexist society.
Shange’s struggles with undiagnosed bipolar disorder factored into the title of her play. “I was in one of those massive depressions when I was driving to work one day. And I saw a double rainbow. And when I saw the double rainbow and I drove through it, the depression just disappeared. And so I said to myself that’s the hope, that’s the future. And I put it in the title because that’s what happened to me …” She yearned for the spiritual experience she found “in the holy roller churches. I grounded myself in fiction and, and poetry because nothing else seemed to be close to the kind of uplifting that I thought religion should have.”
Shange lists influences as varied as Euripides, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edna Ferber, Jean Racine, Charles Baudelaire, Andre Breton, Gunter Grass, and Karl Marx. “I liked black and white movies and I was inspired by movies like ‘It Happened One Night,’ ‘Imitation of Life,’ ‘Stormy Weather,’ … ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ I like Frank Capra movies and I like Barbara Stanwyck movies and, oh ‘Mildred Pierce’ and ‘Stella Dallas,’ influenced me.” In music, her influences included Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gloria Lynne.
As a teaching assistant at the University of Southern California, Shange taught the works of Samuel Ray Delany, Jr. “because I thought it was important for the students to know that there were Black people who wrote science fiction … I wanted my students to see the co-relation of how you can depict oppression as a Black person in many different ways and forms …” She also began one Literature class with translations of Aztec language love poems. “Because I thought that was so wonderful because we always think of Aztecs as people who, who drank blood and burned skulls and made sacrifices. And here was this beautiful collection of Aztec love poems that stood right in the face … of all the mythology about Native American people.”
You can learn more about Ntozake Shange by viewing her complete HistoryMakers interview. See how the far-right John Birch Society came to recruit her activist father at a Black civics club meeting, how she butted heads with Producer Tyler Perry over his 2010 film adaptation of “For Colored Girls,” and how she overcame a series of strokes in 2004, teaching herself to write all over again. You can find the HistoryMakers Digital Archive in the Library’s A-Z Databases list where Black history lives all year round!