Ntozake Shange on the creative gifts accessible to her after overcoming massive obstacles

When we create our stories each week, one of the most agonizing decisions is what to call people. How do you distill a life—in the case of our storytellers, an otherworldly life—into the three or four words of a title scroll?

“I wish I hadn’t seen some of the life portrayed here; that the blood and tears were imaginary,” Ntozake Shange writes in the preface to her new collection of poetry Wild Beauty. “Sometimes the myth and history of our people sustain me, regardless of the sweat, tears, calluses and struggle we have endured.”

In wondering about the devastating and tender moments in the lives of another, Ntozake Shange’s art is a portal to understand ourselves in the reflection of her characters.

Best known for her Tony, Grammy, and Emmy award nominated Broadway play, and subsequent 2010 Tyler Perry movie adaptation, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. This “choreo-poem” uses dance, music, poetry, and drama to tell the story of the abuse, disappointment, and survival of seven black women and how they come to recognize in their sisterhood the promise of a better future.

In Wild Beauty, Shange proves again how she came to be one of the most iconic literary figures of the past 50 years.

Shange’s writing captures every experience and emotion a woman has ever had. Here’s a woman who was so deeply connected to her body that she literally crafted a new art form to more robustly express the artistic blend of words and dance. “I had always felt very close to my body,” Shange remembers, “I’d dance myself into a frenzy and would love to sweat.” After decades as a professional dancer, she came most alive connecting rhythmically to the resilience of black bodies through afro-Caribbean and Latin dance. “I always imagined that I’d be 80 and doing the meringue with a fine 90-year-old gentleman,” she recalls at the beginning of this clip.

Over the past decade, her once vibrant body has endured incredible pain and crushing disabilities. After two strokes left her unable to read, Ms. Shange was diagnosed with neuropathy, a painful disorder that left her unable to write or walk. When the first part of life is created around inhabiting your body so completely, how do you live, how do you create, when that same body breaks down?

With the muscle memory of a dancer, and the help of soul sister Maya Angelou who quickly sent children’s books to help her learn to read again, Shange regained some strength. With each physical step she took, the voices and stories that had gone silent slowly woke up. Descending upon her in a flurry of language, her characters were communicating again. She describes here the remarkable grit she summoned to again birth her characters, their stories, these poems to life.

Since voice activation software didn’t understand her faltering diction, the next obstacle was getting her shaking, weak fingers to type. It took years, but eventually she began to write again. And for a woman who chose a last name that means “she who walks with lions,” you’d be ill-advised to underestimate her determination.

Watching Shange defy the odds to follow her muse is beyond inspiring. But more importantly, her example offers us access bigger questions: How do we hold the disabled among us? Conversations with artists like with Shange will undoubtedly enrich our society. But what of the others, those less well known, who can no longer create or work? What is the social cost of writing off a whole portion of the population?

Often, we stop at asking what our duty to is the most vulnerable among us. Instead, let’s ask, what is our honor? How are we enriched by knitting those on the margins into the fold of common life?

Who are they? How can we better understand ourselves through their stories? And what have we lost by our inability to see?

Ntozake Shange’s legacy, her dazzling body of work, challenge and inspire us to a moral reckoning with those who society deems disposable.

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Her latest is: Wild Beauty a bilingual collection of new and beloved poems. Poetry written side by side in English and Spanish evokes a metaphor of Shange’s ability to be a translator of worlds, inspiring a new generation of compassionate crusaders for justice.

Find out more about Ntozake Shange.