Ntozake Shange (aka Paulette Williams)
October 18, 1948 – October 27, 2018
Notable: Playwright & Poet
Paulette Williams was born in Trenton, New Jersey, the first of her parents’ four children. Her mother Eloise was a psychiatric social worker and teacher while her father was an Air Force surgeon. The Williams were an upper-middle-class family and lived in what was then a racially and ethnically diverse middle-class neighborhood.
Her parents were friends with many notable musicians and entertainers of the day. She grew up in a home that was regularly visited by the likes of Miles Davis, Josephine Baker, Paul Robeson, and W.E.B. DuBois. Williams was exposed to music, dance, art, literature, and ballet as her mother, especially, made it a point to take her to shows featuring Black performers.
When Williams was eight, the family relocated to St. Louis. St. Louis was a segregated city and their arrival coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and the push to desegregate. Thus while the Williams lived in a large comfortable house with domestic servants, the home was in segregated North St. Louis. Unlike back in Trenton, there were no White neighbors but rather families with ties to the Caribbean, Africa, Central America, and Asia.
Williams was a part of the wave of Black students being bused to formerly all-White schools after they were forced to desegregate. New to town and a newly integrated school, Williams experienced harassment and attacks from White students. Williams’ parents were “race people”, a term then used to describe Black people who supported and pushed for the uplift and progress of Black people. They instilled a sense of moral duty in Williams that she was to overcome this obstacle in pursuit of her education and the betterment of her people.
The family moved back to Trenton when Williams was 13, just in time for her to enroll at Trenton High School. Despite her youth, Williams’ experiences in St. Louis opened her eyes to the realities of living in Trenton. While Trenton might not have been as overtly segregated and racist as St. Louis, there was still gender and race-based inequality.
It was during her high school years that Williams began to write. Some of her poetry was published in the school’s magazine. But when she wrote obituaries for Malcolm X after his assassination, she experienced varying degrees of criticism from her parents and White teachers. This unexpected rejection prompted Williams to stop writing for a while. Yet she continued to be a voracious reader.
As the daughter of well-to-do middle-class parents growing up during the years of the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement, expectations and limitations were placed on Williams. While her parents encouraged Williams to get an education, beyond that they expected her to remain chaste and marry well. Thus while an undergrad at Barnard, she married a law student but the marriage quickly fell apart. To cope, Williams made several suicide attempts (years later she would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder).
At the time, her grief for the end of her marriage likely seemed insurmountable. But it would also play a pivotal role in guiding the direction of her life. Free for the time from marital obligations and social expectations, Williams was able to explore herself and her experiences to better understand herself as a Black woman.
This awakening coincided with the Women’s Rights Movement. But most of the women in those groups were White and didn’t focus on issues experienced by Black people. The Black Panthers, SNCC, and other Black-focused organizations were active but equality for women wasn’t a major part of their platform. Williams also took issue with some aspects of the Black middle class. Thus Williams split her time between a variety of groups to cover issues that were important to her.
In 1970, Williams left the East for a master’s program at the University of Southern California (USC). She found herself surrounded by creatives and freethinkers at a time when Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, and Toni Cade Bambara were publishing books about the experiences of Black women. A year later, Williams adopted the name “Ntozake Shange”. The first name means “she who comes with her own things” and the last “she who walks with the lions”.
Shange settled in Oakland after completing her master’s degree. She began a career in academia that would see her teaching humanities and women’s studies at various colleges. It was around this time that she became part of a friend group that included other female artists and creatives.
By this point, Shange had long since returned to writing. Her experiences, the experiences of these other women, and literature by and about women began to take form in a new work. Deciding not to put limitations on the expression of her work, Shange called on her exposure to poetry, dance, and music. She collaborated with Paula Moss on choreography for the piece. The choreopoem that emerged was an early rough version of “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf”.
The duo began to perform variations of for colored girls around town. It became a very popular show and eventually made its way to New York City. There Shange took a chance and began working with a stage manager, Oz Scott, on refining the show into a play. for colored girls made its off-Broadway debut in June 1976 and debuted on Broadway that December garnering acclaim along the way. In 1977, for colored girls won an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony Award. for colored girls was later published as a book and adapted into a movie.
Shange would go on to write 19 volumes of poetry, 15 other plays, six novels, five children’s books, and three volumes of essays. She continued to teach and lecture at various universities around the country.
Ntozake Shange died on October 27, 2018, at the age of 70 in Bowie, Maryland. She was survived by her daughter, granddaughter, and all of her siblings.
- Als, Hilton. 2010. “Ntozake Shange’s Outspoken Art.” The New Yorker. Condé Nast. November 1, 2010. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/11/08/ntozake-shange-for-colored-girls-play-profile-hilton-als.
- Boydston, Cassandra. 2020. “Ntozake Shange (Paulette Williams) (1948-2018).” Blackpast.Org. October 19, 2020. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/shange-ntozake-williams-paulette-1948/.
- Collins-hughes, Laura. 2018. “Ntozake Shange, Who Wrote ‘for Colored Girls,’ Is Dead at 70.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. October 28, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/28/obituaries/ntozake-shange-is-dead-at-70.html.
- Dessem, Matthew. 2018. “Ntozake Shange, Author of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Dies at 70.” Slate.Com. The Slate Group. October 27, 2018. https://slate.com/culture/2018/10/ntozake-shange-dies-for-colored-girls-who-have-considered-suicide-when-the-rainbow-is-enuf-obituary.html.
- Kennedy, Mark. 2018. “Ntozake Shange, Who Wrote the Influential Play ‘for Colored Girls,’ Has Died at 70.” USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. October 28, 2018. https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/books/2018/10/28/author-ntozake-shange-colored-girls-fame-has-died/1798955002/.
- “Ntozake Shange.” n.d. Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/ntozake-shange.
- “Ntozake Shange’s Biography.” n.d. The HistoryMakers. Accessed September 29, 2023. https://www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/ntozake-shange.
- Wainwright, Katherine. 2023. “Ntozake Shange .” Contemporary Black Biography. Encyclopedia.com. September 19, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/ntozake-shange.
- Ama Ata Aidoo
- Florence Onyebuchi “Buchi” Emecheta
- Audre Lorde
- Shirley Graham Du Bois
- Toni Cade Bambara
- Toni Morrison
- Alice Walker
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