What we’re learning: The question I wish I asked Ntozake Shange

Posted on by Sharnita Johnson, Dodge Foundation

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Ntozake Shange, the legendary poet, playwright, dancer and feminist, died this past Oct. 27 in Bowie, Md at 70. A public memorial honoring Shange, Celebration of the Life and Work of Ntozake Shange, is today at The Public Theater in New York.

During the prior year, I shared a stage with and had the honor of interviewing Shange not once but three times at various venues in New Jersey, including at the 2017 Newark Arts Festival and the 2018 Dodge Poetry Festival, which was, as I understand it, her last known public interview.

For me, the opportunity to meet and be in conversation with Shange was both unique and unbelievable. Shange wrote my soul, hopes, and fears in her Obie Award-winning play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf.

I was in my early 20s and emerging as a young woman and professional, and tending to my first broken heart, when I discovered the choreopoem and the line, I found god in myself and I loved her fiercely.” Those words filled me, affirmed and even scared me. I remember promptly typing them onto my computer as a screen saver. Each time they scrolled across the monitor, the words seeped deeper and deeper into my consciousness.

I was starting to understand at some deep level that as a black person, and a woman, I would have to rely on my inner strength and summon sometimes enormous amounts of courage to get through the many challenges life had in store for me.

I was beginning my career in the nonprofit arts sector, yet to realize the significant impact Shange’s work had on the theater, arts, poetry, and feminist movement. I went on to learn about her many books, Betsey Brown, Liliane, and Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, and the numerous honors and awards she earned. She published her last book, Wild Beauty, in November of 2017, about a month after I first met her.

I checked in with her before each time I interviewed her to ask about topics she wanted to cover, poems she wanted to read, and what they meant to her. She was generous with her life and stories and talked admiringly of her daughter and granddaughter. She talked about overcoming the many physical challenges she endured as a result of several strokes she had over a decade ago, and how she had to use a typewriter because she couldn’t hold a pen or navigate a computer keyboard. She said she needed a mechanism to get a poem that had been making itself known out of her head and on paper.

When I asked if she thought she was born to be a poet, she said no, she thought she was born to be a dancer.

I was stunned to learn of her transition via an early morning call with her manager the morning after her death. I was shaken, and although I had known her for only a short time, I felt connected to her, and so lucky to have spent that space and time on this planet with such an icon.

She was fierce, always in bold red lipstick, and warm and accommodating to fans, friends and this random interviewer she happened to meet in New Jersey. When I posted the news of her death on Facebook, my friend Chad commented, “What do you wish you had asked her that you didn’t?”

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering that question since her death several months ago, and I now know what I would have asked her.

“Did you know your words set me free?”

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