Ntozake Shange

Moor Mother: Hardcore Poet

“Basic” may be the most chilling pejorative of our time. And it is never more severe than when Philadelphia’s Camae Ayewa, aka Moor Mother, churns it out on one austere, Nicki Minaj-sampling single from last year: “Look ma, we made it/Only lost a hundred thousand coming over on them slave ships/That’s just one ship,” she booms. “Muhfuckas, I’m jaded/I’m in one big room, and everybody basic.” Ayewa articulates so lucidly and irreducibly that it’s like she is writing with a ballpoint pen; if you have chosen to remain silent in the face of injustice, which is to say in the face of our world, this artist is staring you in the eye.

On a weekday night on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Ayewa caps off a performance at a stranger’s apartment—10 foldings chairs, Christmas lights, a bevy of plants—with “Basic.” Her set, which is part of a series highlighting politically-oriented artists, is a mix of soundscapes and poetry. Phrases I jot down during the show include: “no more androids for president, no more zombie artists”; “cops are grim reapers, violence costs nothing”; “the public housing of minds”; and “at what age do we teach our daughters to play dead?” Reality is rendered as hard as it ought to be. “Everything I do is a true story,” she says to the crowded living room. “I just tell the truth.”

After a decade spent in the Philly underground—as show-booker, community organizer, punk musician, rapper, poet, and multidisciplinary visual artist—Ayewa’s work has coalesced into a total vision. It is concrete-heavy, abrasive, and generative. Ayewa reimagines protest songs as radical electronic noise montages, but her lyrics about systemic racism and historical trauma are searing Afrofuturist statements. Take, for example, this incendiary line from Fetish Bones, her recent solo debut: “I’m bell hooks trained as a sniper,” Ayewa snarls, transmuting the intersectional feminist theorist into a warrior. She then declares herself “Sandra Bland returning from the dead with a hatchet,” referencing the 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in jail after being pulled over for a minor traffic violation last year. Befitting the tremendous fire of Ayewa’s words, a 122-page book of poetry was released alongside Fetish Bones.

“I let these stories pass through me—I’m the narrator,” Ayewa tells me over Skype a couple of weeks after her house-show set. In conversation, she is a calming and genial presence; she measures her thoughts, and when she mentions Alice Coltrane, it’s not hard to imagine her in graceful meditation like the cosmic jazz swamini herself. This is in utter contrast to the unwavering anger of Ayewa’s staggering performances. “I start out so smiley, but as soon as the lyric comes, I’m pissed,” she says of her live shows. “When you’re telling the truth, and trying to be respectful to the things that are happening around you, it comes out like that.” [Read More]

& i wont be sorry for none of it

i loved you on purpose
i was open on purpose
i still crave vulnerability & close talk
& i’m not even sorry bout you bein sorry
you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me

—  Ntozake Shange, from “Sorry” (from for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, a choreopoem)
For My Sistah(s): A Black Feminist Queer Consciousness-Raising Book List

Annie John – Jamaica Kincaid

Annie Allen – Gwendolyn Brooks

Assata : An Autobiography – Assata Shakur

Betsey Brown – Ntozake Shange

Black Girl in Paris - Shay Youngblood

The Bluest Eye – Toni Morrison

Bone Black - bell hooks

The Color Purple – Alice Walker

The Coldest Winter Ever – Sister Soldier

Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology – Barbara Smith

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings – Maya Angelou

I, Tituba: Black Witch of Salem - Maryse Conde

Kendra – Coe Booth

Kindred – Octavia Butler

Liliane - Ntozake Shange

A Piece of Mine – J. California Cooper

Possessing the Secret of Joy - Alice Walker

Sister Outsider – Audre Lorde

Soldier - June Jordan

Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

The Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor

Unburnable – Marie-Elena John

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name - Audre Lorde

my love is too delicate to have thrown back on my face.
my love is too beautiful to have thrown back on my face.
my love is too sanctified to have thrown back on my face.
my love is too magic to have thrown back on my face.
my love is too saturday nite to have thrown back on my face.
my love is too complicated to have thrown back on my face.
my love is too music to have thrown back on my face.
—  For colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf

Black Womyn Poets you should know

Maya Angelou: an American author, poet, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, and several books of poetry. Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.

Alice  Walker: an American author and activist.  Walker has become a focal spokesperson and symbol for black feminism and has earned critical and popular acclaim as a major American novelist and intellectual. Her literary reputation was secured with her Pulitzer Prize-winning third novel, The Color Purple, which was transformed into a popular film by Steven Spielberg.

Ntozake Shange: an American playwright, and poet.As a self-proclaimed black feminist, she addresses issues relating to race and feminism in much of her work.Shange is best known for the Obie Award-winning play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf.

June Jordan : the author of more than twenty-five major works of poetry, fiction and essays, as well as numerous children’s books. Jordan wrote the librettos for the operas Bang Bang Uber Alles with music by Adrienne Torf, and I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, with music by John Adams; she wrote lyrics frequently for other musicians, as well as plays and musicals.

Audre Lordean American writer, radical feminist, womanist, lesbian, and civil rights activist. Her poems and essays focused on civil rights issues, feminism, and the expression of black female identity. Lorde is best known for technical mastery and emotional expression in her poetry, particularly the poems which express anger and outrage at civil and social injustices.

Toni Morrison: an American novelist, editor, and professor. Her novels are known for their epic themes, vivid dialogue, and richly detailed characters. Among her best known novels are The Bluest Eye (1970),Sula (1973), Song of Solomon (1977), and Beloved (1987). She won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award in 1988 for Beloved and the Nobel Prize in 1993. 

Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits
—  Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo
Where there is a woman there is magic. If there is a moon falling from her mouth, she is a woman who knows her magic, who can share or not share her powers. A woman with a moon falling from her mouth, roses between her legs and tiaras of Spanish moss, this woman is a consort of the spirits.
—  Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo
for muslim girls who have considered suicide when iman is not enough. to the sisters who can’t bring themselves to face a city they have never set foot in. whose knees haven’t felt the redemption of grandma’s sijada for the third week in a row. in your dreams, you bloody your knees in prostration hoping that if you busy your tongue with prayer you can plea purpose into your life. in your nightmares you do not believe in God.
for muslim girls who are told depression is just a side effect of doubt. the girls who swear they have heard the sound of spine cracking under the weight of family honor. of endless expectations. of becoming more symbol than human. the ones who found religion in the beating hearts of dim basements and soft hands. the girls who desperately want to believe and the ones who do but are told not enough. for the muslim girl whose body has not left her bed’s embrace in too many days. sinking is supposed sin, soaking in self-loathing. for turning the shape of his mouth into a house of worship, his skin into scripture. for managing to be too much and not nearly enough in the same supplication. ‘questioning is for the cowardly. the shameful. the undeserving of breath.’ since when did living require permission and whose are you looking for?
for muslim girls who would rather hurt themselves than cause harm to anyone else. you are afraid that you will slice yourself open and won’t stop pouring. spilling your insides inside out. you do not want to leave an ugly stain behind. you would rather go quietly. clean. all hushed whispers and round edges. you would rather tiptoe around the part where your eyes close and the door shuts gently behind you. maybe even, you would rather remain.
for muslim girls who have considered suicide when the world was not enough. have you ever wondered what God was thinking when he molded you into being? when he breathed life into you, did his breath smell like dark roast coffee? or something sweeter? there is a universe inside you growing each day you decide to love too hard or brave the world with your softness. they say you are impossible: faith does not go well with the fear of living. but I bet. I bet if you were stuck in a room with God and walked a step towards him, He will run to you. and if the ocean becomes ink for love letters from your Lord, surely the ocean would be drained before His words ever come to an end.
D.S. , for muslim girls who have considered suicide / after Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls