Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

Learning How to Listen: Ntozake Shange’s Work as Aesthetic Primer

What follows is a purely subjective analysis.

The primer of my title refers to several meanings of the word:

  1. A prayer book or devotional manual for the use of lay people.
  2. A book that covers the basic elements of a subject.

For over three decades, Ntozake Shange’s writing has been a source of pleasure and insight as well as the subject of theoretical, historical, and cultural musings. In all of these instances, it has also served as a kind of primer that introduces readers to contemporary music, art, dance, and culinary practices. It also provides a context and a set of aesthetic principals for appreciating them. Furthermore, if the content of her work engages these art forms, the form of her written work does so as well. Her words dance, sing, and construct visual design on the page. This paper will focus primarily on music because this has been the subject of much of my research of late, but what is said here holds true for Shange’s literary relationship to dance and the visual and culinary arts as well. Her meditations on and representations of black art and its production yield exciting and beautiful insights:

  1. That black art is cosmopolitan. That cosmopolitan doesn’t have to mean a denial of black identity or a distancing from it…but instead a broadening of our understanding of what constitutes black art.
  2. That art is necessary for personal and collective survival.
  3. Art, especially black art, is a source of historical, political and spiritual sustenance.

I will play Oliver Lake loud
      for colored girls

for colored girls probably introduced a number of readers and spectators to Oliver Lake: “I will play Oliver Lake loud,” says the lady in blue in Shange’s 1975 choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. “I will play Oliver Lake loud” stands out as a one of the poem’s statements of defiance, second only to “I found god in myself and I loved her, I loved her fiercely.” Many must have wondered, who is this Oliver Lake? What does his music sound like? Why does it make the lady in blue so assertive, so defiant? Other musical figures populate for colored girls: Willie Colon, Archie Shepp, Eddie Palmeri, Charles Mingus. The club Slugs even makes an appearance—lady in blue, disappointed that Willie Colon is not performing, instead discovers Archie Shepp:

& if jesus cdnt play a horn like shepp
waznt no need for colored folks to bear no cross at all.[1]

Along with Jayne Cortez, Toni Cade Bambara, and others, Shange introduced black women into literature who were creative, multilingual, bohemian, literate, hip to avant-garde jazz and Latin music, and political. These were women whose work emerged from the encounter of the Black Arts Movement with feminism. The new music—post-Coltrane free jazz—was central to the rhythms, sounds, and settings of the work they produced. References to music (especially jazz) appear throughout the poems; jazz musicians, literal and fictional, appear as characters. In Shange’s work, music is everywhere. The language of her poetry and prose is itself musical; she is always attentive to sound.

As with Bambara, Alison Mills, and Sherley Ann Williams, Shange creates women characters who are involved with jazz musicians.[2] In addition, throughout her career, Shange has frequently performed with musicians: Oliver Lake is a frequent collaborator, as is David Murray with whom she recently recorded Wild Flower. In this collaboration, Murray, Shange’s former husband, improvises on tenor sax and bass clarinet to accompany her reading of her poetry. Both Lake and Murray were founding members of The World Saxophone Quartet.

Though she is most often spoken of as part of a multicultural group of artists and feminists from the Bay area (where for colored girls was first developed), Shange’s experience on the New York scene was especially influential. For a time, she lived with other artists on the Lower East Side, and when she returned from the West Coast in the 1970s she became part of the loft scene. Producer, director, and choreographer Aku Kadogo, who was part of the original cast of for colored girls, recalled: “When I met Ntozake, it was Ntozake, Paula [Moss], myself and a woman called Kirstin. And I was actually working as a dancer with Ntozake. So we did a lot of improvisation. We would go to bars. Ntozake would read, and we would dance. And the musicians would join in and play with us. So I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the music scene and being in the music scene. The loft scene was coming. The Art Ensemble of Chicago was there. David Murray had just come to town. There was so much going on.”[3]

Shange was part of a generation of avant-garde black artists who were pushing boundaries and creating new vocabularies and communities. This scene was a generative one and it is both source and setting for much of her work. Like Bambara and Williams, who are both a bit older than she is, Shange addresses the peculiar bind some black women found themselves in during the Black Power and Black Arts Movements, particularly those who were part of artistic communities. They confronted images of black women as materialistic, bourgeois, and unwilling to support the artistic aspirations of black men,[4] while at the same time they struggled against the pressure to accept black male patriarchy. In contrast, Shange and other artists gave us black women characters who were appreciative of and concerned about music, women who frequented jazz clubs as supporters of the music, if not lovers of the musicians. They all seemed primarily concerned with what Hortense Spillers calls the “intramural” relations between black people—mothers and daughters, men and women, and women friends.[5] While first readings reveal the gender conflict represented by the women writers of the seventies, interestingly, jazz is often (but not always) the common place, the meeting ground, the space of genuine communication between black men and women. And while the male musician speaks in tongues, it is the woman writer who has the gift of interpretation.

In her first novel, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (1982), Shange presents women who are not only the lovers or wives of jazz musicians, but who are also artists in their own right: Sassafrass, the weaver, live-in lover of Mitch, an avant-guard saxophonist and heroin addict; and her sister Cypress, a dancer who marries the very successful musician/composer Leroy McCullough, whose “horns” and “arms” had “offered her horizons where she was free to see what she chose, feel what she had to, be what she dreamed.”[6] Here the musician/dancer, male/female artist relationship is not one of rivalry, jealousy, or insecurity. Instead it is one that enables Cypress’ own creative journey and risk-taking. But for our purposes, it is the baby sister, Indigo, who serves as the representative of Shange’s understandings of music and its spiritual and political implications. Through Indigo, Shange posits a theory of black music, indeed, of black art—one that is clearly informed by the Black Aesthetic, but as is the case with much of Shange’s work, in Indigo, the Black Aesthetic (Cultural Nationalism) meets feminism: her priest-like musician is female, not a woman, but a girl. If for colored girls opens with the plea that the poet “Sing a Black girl’s song,” Indigo plays her own song, and in doing so, she also plays the songs of her ancestors, while creating a pathway for the yet-to-be-born who, as a midwife, she will later usher into this world.

sound falls round me like rain on other folks
      i live in music

The magic child Indigo—with the moon in her mouth—is a consort of the spirits; she learns to allow them to speak to and through her, especially through her music-making. She is a fiddler. When her Uncle John makes Indigo a gift of a fiddle he tells her: “When them slaves was ourselves & we couldn’t talk free, or walk free, who ya think be doin’ our talkin’ for us?” His answer is a poem: words made music.

Them whites what owned slaves took everythin’ and was ourselves & didn’t even keep it fo’ they own selves. Just threw it on away, ya heah. Took them drums what they could, but they couldn’t take our feet. Took them languages that we speak. Took off wit our spirits & left us wit they Son. But the fiddle was the talking one. The fiddle be callin’ our gods what left us/be givin back some devilment & hope in our bodies worn down & lonely over these fields & kitchens. Why white folks so dumb they was thinkin’ that is we didn’t have nothing of our own, they could come controllin’, meddlin’, whippin’ our sense on outta us. But the Colored smart, ya see. The Colored got some wits to em you & me, we ain’t the onliest ones be talkin’ with the unreal. What ya think music is, whatchu think the blues be, & them get happy church musics is about, but talkin’ with the unreal what’s mo‘ real than most folks ever gonna know. (emphasis added)[7]

Internal rhyme links feet and speak, and in doing so, demonstrates the relationship between the elimination of physical mobility and the elimination of linguistic and imaginative mobility of language. “Colored smart you see”/“colored got wits to em you and me” joins Uncle John and Indigo to the enslaved ancestors. The rhyme of “Son” and “one”: the divine in Christianity is the Son (Jesus), but the fiddle is the one. The instrument (like Archie Shepp’s horn) provides access to the divine. The music speaks the unspoken, speaks what the enslaved could not say, expresses the reality of their existence and their longings and aspirations. Indigo first learns to let the fiddle speak her own concerns: “Whenever she wanted to pray, she let her fiddle talk. Whenever she was angry, here came the fiddle. All the different ways of handling a violin & bow came to Indigo as she needed.”[8]

Eventually the community says, “Too much of the Holy Ghost came out of Indigo & that fiddle.”[9] She is too involved in the spirit world and in the misery and weightiness of her people’s history. Fearing that she “was dwelling dangerous on the misery of the slaves who were ourselves,” Uncle John sends her “toward the beauty of this world & the joys of those who came before.”[10] So, like Abbey Lincoln, Indigo learns to listen to the sparrows and the wrens and she “mimick[s] the jays & peckers.”[11] Music allows her to converse with nature, and nature takes her to the realms of the spirits. Shange tells us “No creature that moved escaped Indigo’s attention. If the fiddle talked, it also rumbled, cawed, rustled, screamed, sighed, sirened, giggled, stomped, and sneered….” Before long, she can look at those around her, put her soul in theirs and pull out “the most lovely moment in [their lives] and play that…You could tell from looking that as Indigo let notes fly from the fiddle, that man’s scar wasn’t quite so ugly; …the slaves who were ourselves aided Indigo’s mission, connecting soul & song, experience and unremembered rhythms.”[12]

Although she uses the fiddle to express her feelings, to commune with the ancestors, to play what she hears in the natural world, and, ultimately, to lend beauty and healing, though she “plays from the heart,” her mother and the extended family of her community “let her be,” even as they cringe at the sound of her playing. The teachers she needs find her. There is Pretty Man, who sends his woman Mabel to buy records for the magic girl/child—Bartok Violin Concerto #2, Ray Nance, Stephane Grappelli and Bach. Pretty Man tells her to listen closely and then play what she hears. Through Indigo, Shange gives us a pedagogy for the gifted child:

  1. Play free, consort with the spirits, play from the heart.
  2. Converse with the birds, play what you hear in the natural world but also what you see.
  3. Listen and learn to play by ear.

Eventually, “Pretty Man called everything from Bach to Ellington inside of one tune,” and the girl fiddler rises to the occasion.

Through Indigo, Shange reminds us of the centrality of black music to black aspirations for freedom. Furthermore, she insists that the artist must commune with ancestral spirits but cannot remain among them. She must also engage the transcendent beauty of the natural world and the tradition of her instrument. Finally, Shange demonstrates the necessity of discipline of practice.

Through Indigo, Shange sends readers on a quest for the fiddle and for the fiddlers. Historically, we lost a sense of the centrality of this string instrument to African American culture. Certainly fiddles were important in early jazz, but even before that many of the enslaved played the fiddle. In fact, Miles Davis came from a line of enslaved string musicians on his father’s side. Advertisements for runaway slaves indicate that many of them were fiddlers. The WPA slave narratives of a runaway, fugitive, and fiddler mention that he lived in a cave near a plantation and would come out and play for his enslaved brothers and sisters at their dances. They, in turn, provided him with food. So, there is a relationship between these musicians—these fiddlers—and the love and quest for freedom that seem to have characterized many of them.

The curious reader on a quest might discover extraordinary finds: India, Cooke, Regina Carter, Akua Dixon, John Blake, the late Marline Rice and Billie Bang, as well as the groups Quartet Indigo and the Uptown String Quartet. Here dwell the freedom-loving, freedom-singing notes of Indigo and the fugitive fiddlers of long ago. In another context, Shange wrote of the late Billy Bang: “the energy he is able to generate in this instrument that has struggled so hard for its voice in the jazz arena is startling, unnerving and reassuring simultaneously.”[13]

I stopped looking for roots and heroes and heroines and I found my peers.
—Ntozake Shange, lost in language & sound

In Shange’s work, music serves as the conduit for spiritual and political longings. The notes fly free; the music invokes the ancestors. Throughout her oeuvre, music, indeed, all of black art, from Bearden’s collages to Diane McIntyre’s choreography, provides a map, a route to, a way OUT, but also a meditative way into the self. This is a notion of the arts that Shange inherits from the Black Arts Movement. This is also the power of Shange’s literature: the sheer beauty, seriousness, playfulness, momentum, and mobility of her writing also honor the ancestors—first by acknowledging their suffering and their beauty, and then by daring to imagine freedom for her own and future generations.

But freedom and music are not only parts of the plot; not only do they provide some of the content, they provide the basis of the form as well. While much has been written about the jazz-like structure of novels like Morrison’s Jazz or Ellison’s Invisible Man, few have looked at the formal qualities of Shange’s prose for structures and feelings most often associated with music. (Her poems, however, are read in this way.) In the space that remains, I want to turn to the formal qualities of Shange’s writing.

It was all interconnected . . . I’d listen to the music and hear what they were saying at the same time, so I was always integrating the two things . . . I’d do my homework, writing things, listening to Cuban rhythms and Brazilian rhythms. I think that accounts for some of my ability to work musically with language.[14]

There are three elements of Shange’s writing worth considering in this regard: the look of the words on the page, spelling and syntax, and rhythm. The experience of reading Shange’s work—whether poetry or prose—is always rhythmic, dancelike. Significantly, for a writer who became one of the faces of black feminism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Shange has always claimed Amiri Baraka and Ishmael Reed as among her greatest literary influences. Known for her lowercase letters and slashes, Shange attributes these devices to the influence of Baraka’s The Dead Lecturer and The System of Dante’s Hell and Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Book Radio. (She was influenced by their syntax and structure, not by their content.) She says she selects lowercase letters because she likes “the ideas that letters dance, not just that words dance.” The look on the page is also an effort to make her own reading of her work more interesting, while at the same time making it more challenging for those of us who read the work—we have to engage with it, move with it, even as we are moved along by it. Simply on a visual level—the way the words look on the page—Shange’s writing dances. She is also known for “odd” spelling, so that you becomes ya, with becomes wit: She spells them as she hears them. As the characters speak to her, she hears the musicality of their speech, and she has to invent a notation system to represent them. Just as the sounds of black music have not always fit within the Western musical system of notation, the English language, the King’s English, the words available to her cannot always represent the sounds of the spoken word or their full meaning.

From the look that influences the way we read the line to the spelling and the phonetic, we might add the rhythm underneath. To read Shange’s work is a rhythmic and lyrical experience. She has written about this element:

I’ll hear very peculiar rhythms underneath whatever I’m typing, and this rhythm affects the structure. For instance, if I’m hearing a rumba, you’ll get a poem that looks like a rumba on the page.[15]

We probably have to hear Shange read her own work or listen to an actor who has been given the stage instruction “Rumba-like” in order to hear what she is describing here. Shange doesn’t seem to privilege music-making over writing; instead, she sees them as part of the same process—a process of being grounded in rhythm, of attending to the notes of the spoken word. In one poem, she even includes time signatures and opens each stanza with a treble or bass clef. Throughout her work, she makes explicit the implied relationship between music and poetry, between musician and poet, between the shared artistry of sound and word.

Ntozake Shange’s body of work offers an invitation to enter into the dynamic, multidimensional world of black art. Her creative project is one that informs and teaches all who accept her invitation, and it guides us through a whirlwind of color, sound, movement, and meaning. To partake of her artistic generosity is to be initiated into a community that creates the world anew upon each reading.

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  1. Ntozake Shange for colored girls (New York: Scribner, 2010 [1975]) 27. [Return to text]
  2. Shange married David Murray in 1977, the same year he cofounded the World Saxophone Quartet with Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluett, and Julius Hemphill. [Return to text]
  3. Khari Kimani Turner, “Rainbows for the City” San Francisco Chronicle 23 Jan. 2002. [Return to text]
  4. See Val Wilmer, As Serious As Your Life: The Story of the New Jazz (London: Alisson and Busby, 1977). [Return to text]
  5. See Hortense Spillers, Back, White and in Color: Essays on American Literature and Culture (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003) 377. [Return to text]
  6. Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel (New York: St. Martin’s, 1982). Harryette Mullen suggests that Murray is the model for McCullough. See Harryette Romell Mullen, “’Artistic Expression was Flowing Everywhere’: Alison Mills and Ntozake Shange, Black Bohemian Feminists in the 1970s,” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 4.2 (2004): 205-235. [Return to text]
  7. Ntozake Shange. Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: A Novel. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1982) 27. [Return to text]
  8. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 33. [Return to text]
  9. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 35. [Return to text]
  10. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 96. [Return to text]
  11. Abbey Lincoln, “Learning How to Listen,” Wholly Earth, Universal, 1999. [Return to text]
  12. Shange Sassafrass 1982: 45. [Return to text]
  13. Ntozake Shange, “bang on!” lost in language & sound: or how I found my way to the arts (New York: St. Marks, 2011) 75. Originally published as liner notes for Billiy Bang, Bang On, Just in Time Records, 1997. [Return to text]
  14. Jessie Hamlin, “Ntozake Shange Weaves tapestries of poetry, music, dance in her serch for love’s meaning,” San Francisco Chronicle 17 Feb. 2006. [Return to text]
  15. Maria V. Johnson. “Shange and Her Three Sisters ‘Sing a Liberation Song’: Variations on the Orphic Theme” Black Orpheus: Music in African American Fiction from the Harlem Renaissance to Toni Morrison, ed. Simawe Saadi (New York, Garland Publishing, 2003) 197. [Return to text]