Choreopoems & Word Paintings: Walking THAT History

This post continues a week-long meditation on Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreo-poem, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf and Tyler Perry’s 2010 feature film of the same name. For the full series follow the tag sing a black girl song. NOTE: The tag for posts specific to this Nunez Daughter series has changed. Since the movie’s release, the global conversation has deepened by tens and hundreds, all using the for colored girls tag. But the ND series is still tagged for colored girls: click either and join the conversation….

A choreopoem, the Secret Sister Society Network reminded me. Not just a poem, but a choreopoem.

Ah. Yes.

But what does that mean?


And this is how it begins.

In the university library. Searching for Shange. A walk down her aisle and titles pop out at me:

ntozake shange. the love space demands
ntozake shange. see no evil
ntozake shange. a daughter’s geography
ntozake shange. ridin’ the moon in texas
ntozake shange. sassafrass, cypress & indigo

I find a book on Black Arts Movement woman poets. And my heart stops. Beside it is:

lisa sánchez gonzález. boricua literature: a literary history of the Puerto Rican diaspora

I am following Library of Congress subject headings:

lester a. neal. ntozake shange: a critical study of the plays

This is what happens when you look.

Arms full of books. I want to eat them all. Especially the ones written by Shange. But I leave three or four. Don’t want to deprive others of the pleasure of her company. After all, I’m not alone.


i begin with Cheryl Clarke & i remember what captivated me about the choreopoem’s title in the first place:

“Shange’s for colored girls cleared space for more “colored girls” to tell their stories, as was and remains its (abiding) intent. However, the Broadway production of for colored girls sacrifices the cultural ethics that undergird the California development of this work. The Collier-Macmillan edition shows Shange in moments extending its lessons beyond the specificity of black women…the “sacrifice” is also an accommodation of the Balck Aesthetic, which was embedded in New York Black Theatre—on and off Broadway….” (Clarke, 100)

Colored girl :: Third World woman :: colonized machete sugar cane tobacco growing mountain woman :: indigenous blooded slave born woman :: black & Puerto rican woman :: all around brown bodied hot sex positive feminist woman

i’m a poet who writes in english
come to share the words with you

the movie/play didn’t mention black girls who spoke Spanglish when English is enuf.

i keep reading, digest the history, watch as it repeats and repeats again. i get angry.

i am soothed:

“In its deployment of theatre and music (R&B, jazz, salsa) ensemble techniques, its revision of Afro-American call and response, Afro-American folk rituals, and the pastiche of signifiers from other diaspora cultures in for colored girls, black women function synecdochally for women of color and indeed all women—in community—recovering their voices and stories and doing their work…” (Clarke, 98)

and again:

and again:

(you see him bite his lip at her? mmmhmm)

this is a choreopoem, she reminded me. indeed.


i discover that the Journal of Black Poetry is special, at least in my neighborhood (read: unavailable to the general public) (read: available only to privileged young adults who pay thousands of dollars a year for pleasure of books, words, pages that lie forgotten and collecting dust far from the neighborhood I grew up in) (read: archived). i cannot reach for it as cyborg and i cannot reach for it In The Flesh unless i have a car, a tank of gas, two-three hours of travel time, one-two hours of browsing time, change for the copy machine and a student ID. To read it, I have to “enter the lists”…

“The list, with any luck, will disclose the ways in which cataloguing a material, conceptual, and imaginiative site–diaspora–does little to undo, and indeed reconstitutes, our present geographic order, particularly if this cataloguing follows the guidelines set out by our presently imposed biocentric classificatory systems, wherein Man/knowing is overrepresented as the only, the strived for, versions of human/knowledge and Man-human-geographies.” ~McKittrick, “I Entered the Lists” Xcp (2007)

…the holding ground for displaced and misplaced knowledges.

The Journal of Black Studies is special which makes it sacred & untouchable & foreign & dangerous & most important of all: away.

i don’t think i mind. At least it isn’t lost. As Zora was once. And Anna Julia. And Maria. And Phillis even.

So, really, I don’t mind. But where is our archive? And relying on the written word–as all archives do–can it ever be complete?


word paintings follow:

“Paintings and poems are moments, capturing or seducing us, when we are so vulnerable.” ~Shange, “Riding the Moon in Texas: Word Paintings” (1987)

a book of words and images, paintings and photographs holding hands with poetry. i think: this is the kind of stuff Tumblr was made for.

but the pictures feel smushed, confined in a space they were never meant to occupy. and a picture of a sculpture does little to capture the sensuality of stone and wood. i am disappointed.


& i sit back, holding the covers to my chest.

sechita had heard these things/she moved
as if she’d known them


This is how I remember it. This is what they told me. This is how it was. This is how it is.

My students are saavy: Zarité remembers, they say. She listens to the words around her. She is informed by her own experiences. As she tells her story, the world is made and therefore is. No outside authority or confirmation needed. Certainly not from the French man who owns her, curses her as ugly one minute and taking her from behind the next…

women relinquish all personal rights
in the presence of a man
who apparently cd be considered a rapist

…A choreopoem disrupts the archive, the list and the away because it must be spoken (just as a word painting disrupts the primacy of the eye and creates optical illusion by invoking the mind and memory). A choreopoem must be moved into action through script and song and familiar rhythms. A choreopoem demands corporeal knowledge. It is is an engagement with The Flesh.

mama’s little baby likes shortnin, shortnin
mama’s little baby likes shortnin bread

& like a whirling, a bamboula in Congo Square, like gossip over back fences and hashtags gone viral, a choreopoem cannot be contained.

Except by being forgotten.

…to be continued…

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