What Remembering Ntozake Shange Taught Me About Empowering Young Women (and Myself)
By Reniya Dinkins
This past Saturday, I was devastated when I found out about the passing of Ntozake Shange on Twitter. Several people were quoting the poet’s words from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” one passage in particular:
i found god in myself
& i loved her/ I loved her fiercely
Ntozake Shange illustrated with her work that a woman having the courage to redefine what is divine by looking within herself is revolutionary. It is often accompanied by a great deal of pain unseen by an outside world that has negative and constricting ideas, expectations, and critiques of her before she even enters it. Yet, every day we witness more and more women breaking barriers by seeing something great within themselves: they are running for elected office, starting and reviving movements, and challenging the world to center their perspectives and experiences.
While things may seem to be going so well for women, it is still important to raise up future women leaders who will move us towards a more equitable world with their rise to power. Our progress does not mean that there is no longer a need to create spaces for young women to comfortably build themselves and grow as people. Many of the challenges that await them are the same ones that awaited us and the women before us. As people, it is so important to have that extra push to encourage us to love and embrace our authentic selves when facing these challenges.
In middle school, I remember being embarrassed about feeling any kind of negative emotions. I would never cry in front of people because my biggest fear was my sadness being minimized to “being such a girl.”” I never allowed myself to feel anger, but instead would suppress it because I wanted to avoid the repercussions of being boxed into the “sassy” or “angry black girl” mold. Like many other young girls, I had internalized negative messaging about being black and a girl and a human, and I felt the need to be less human and more superhuman, refusing to show anger or sadness in order to seem valid to those around me. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that unconsciously suppressing my emotions had become an unhealthy habit that negatively affected the way I entered new spaces and cultivated new relationships.
Being a part of several empowering women’s groups and organizations over the years (Running Start, Girls Inc., the WomanHOOD Project, Sister Circle, and Girl Scouts) has helped me to embrace myself instead. In addition, coming across Ntozake Shange’s iconic choreopoem for the first time at 17 years old gave me a space to feel comfortable with myself as a person with my own experiences, emotions, and flaws. The lady in green, one of the seven narrators, taught me to take ownership of everything that I have to offer the world and to even love my scars. The lady in orange taught me that it is better to be my authentic black girl self than to exhaustingly mask myself out of a fear of being typecast or misperceived.
As a young person in my first year out of college and in the workforce full-time, recently rereading Shange’s work has reminded me of why being authentic is so important. My authentic voice is necessary at the table because no one else has it; the table will never truly be inclusive until everyone has the space to bring their true selves with them.
Shange has also reminded me of why it is so important to foster spaces where young girls can be “half notes scattered with no rhythm,” free to learn and embrace themselves in a way where they feel validated and motivated enough to be revolutionary. These spaces are vital because growing is a part of living, and to feel that there is no place to grow without judgment or hostility is stifling and tragic.
While I acknowledge that not every young girl has my experience, so many of us are faced with the challenges of womanhood within a traditionally patriarchal world. Ntozake Shange’s spectrum of colored girls brings disparate feelings and experiences to the story, and yet, all of the women are connected in that they use their individual stories to motivate and inspire themselves to move to the ends of their own rainbows to reach the ultimate goal of self-love.
While I am so grateful for the work and impact of Ntozake Shange, to carry on her legacy, we must continue to make space for girls, especially the marginalized girls, to grow in themselves so that they can exist freely and change our world.
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly
Reniya Dinkins is the Executive Assistant to the President at Running Start. Her advocacy for more women in politics stems from her passion for uplifting the voices of marginalized groups in the US. She is a native Washingtonian, and she has been involved in community affairs since she was 15 years old as an intern in the local office of her congressional representative and as a member of the DC Youth Advisory Council. Reniya loves encouraging and empowering young people, especially young women of color, and she is committed to working in the nonprofit sector to serve underrepresented and underserved communities. She graduated from Columbia University in 2018 with a degree in Political Science and Sociology. Reniya was a Running Start intern in 2016!