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168 CLA JOURNAL Black Women’s Lives Matter: Coming to Consciousness through Ntozake Shange’s Embodied Feminism Shirley Toland-Dix for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf exploded into my consciousness in the fall of 1976. I had just completed a year of graduate school at Howard University. This period of the late 1970s was a liminal space for“woke”young black women. We felt as if we were teetering on the verge of freedoms and possibilities only imagined before: they were deeply desired and almost as deeply feared. Were they a mirage? What would those freedoms and possibilities cost us? There was also a never-openly-acknowledged fear of inadequacy; fear that maybe the stereotypes of black women were so ubiquitous because there was some truth to them. It seemed that while everyone else claimed their freedom and right to be, black women were again being told “you are to be who we say you are” by black men and by white women. Acceptance into the black nationalist movement or white feminist movement seemed contingent on occupying an outwardly prescribed place and, yet again, on striving to be who someone else told you you were. The impatience of black women was palpable. Why were we continually required to prove to everyone, including any random dude on the street, that we were worthy of equitable, respectful treatment? For many of us coming of age in the seventies, Shange was a daring older sister leading the way out of internalized stasis, shame, and fear. Her feminism was unapologetic, bold, raw, and all embracing. In for colored girls, Shange’s characters perform and celebrate the power, complexity, and innate worthiness of black women. Shange stepped over and beyond dogmatic prescriptions and abstractions. Her feminism was embodied in her creative work;: expressed and given tangible form in the choreopoem, a genre combining poetry, music, and dance that Shange created specifically as a fluid collaborative performative form that embraces wholeness and improvisation. For Shange, bold, shameless, unabashed self-embrace is an essential goal of feminism. That was revolutionary for me, an individual raised by college-educated, middle-class Civil Rights activists, as I was“made to know”that I was expected to counter already existing stereotypes with my scrupulously proper behavior.1 1  Neal Lester usefully defines a choreopoem as “a theatrical expression that combines poetry, prose, song, dance, and music – those elements that, according to Shange, outline a distinctly African American heritage – to arouse an emotional response in an audience” (3). CLA JOURNAL 169 “Black Women’s Lives Matter: . . ..Ntozake Shange’s Embodied Feminism” Gender oppression is naturalized; gender roles are presented as normal even divinely sanctioned. Accordingly, girls are surveilled and limited, not allowed the same freedom and opportunities as boys, because they are girls and that is just the proverbial “the way things are.” Gender oppression is seductive. Girls are taught these things by people they love, whose approval they want desperately. As a teenager, it seemed to me, then, that women gave up their very souls trying to be “worthy” as defined by someone else. I grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama in the 1960s as part of the“Tuskegee family”because my dad was a history professor at Tuskegee University. My mother had been director of the YMCA/YWCA at Tuskegee when she met my dad. By the end of the fifties, this brilliant woman with the Master of Art degree that qualified her to be faculty, had left that directorship to concentrate on being a faculty wife. In the world Booker T. had made, respectability for women in particular was an imperative. Respectability required that women’s ambitions be properly channeled. As a young woman, I knew for certain that I was not who I was being socialized or required to be. I suspected that I did not have to be that person, to acquiesce, in order to be valuable or worthy. The brilliant black women who raised me were contained by gender roles and the strictures of respectability. To me this containment was symbolized by their long-line Maidenform girdles which made sure that rebellious hips and thighs were held firmly in place...


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pp. 168-177
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