On Tuesday, Events Editor Julia Tolda attended “Creation Is Everything You Do: Shange, The Sisterhood & Black Collectivity,” a Barnard College event celebrating Ntozake Shange’s life and legacy.
“Both Barnard College and Columbia University were founded in settler-colonial anti-Black violence and exclusion,” announced Professor Alexandra Watson in her opening statement, “and have continued to perpetuate harm against Black people, Indigenous and people of color through ongoing practices of gentrification and displacement. Through racist policies of admission. Through the violence of policing. Through the uncritical transmission of a white supremacist canon.”
She paused. “Tonight we refuse this cannon. Tonight we celebrate Ntozake Shange, Barnard class of 1970.” The stage was set for a powerful discussion on Black feminist activism and collectivity.
Originally planned as an in-person event last spring as part of the Shange Magic Project, a two-year series celebrating the late Black feminist writer Ntozake Shange, “Creation Is Everything You Do: Shange, The Sisterhood & Black Collectivity” attended focused on the revolutionary power of artistic communities for Black feminist activism. Speakers Courtney Thorsson, Patricia Spears Jones, and Mecca Jamilah Sullivan discussed artistic collectives past and present, lessons learned from them, and new paths collectives seek to take.
“Ntozake would be thrilled to know we were here tonight investing in, and affirming our essential creative selves… And talking about her work!” started Shange’s sister Ambassador Bisa Williams. In her introduction, she thanked Barnard for taking such loving care of her sister’s legacy and shared touching personal anecdotes. Smiling brightly, Williams told listeners about her sister’s attempt to usurp their mother and rename her siblings with African names. Their brother Paul soon dropped his new name, but Bisa changed her’s. “My name is a Ntozake creation!” she said, delighted.
While Williams acknowledged sibling-sisterhood was not the topic of the night’s discussion, she admitted that it was where it all started for both her sister and herself. Ntozake wrote of the hardships and pains of life, constructing and creating resilience and joy willfully. For Williams, her sister’s work was an extension of “what we do to stay alive,” in a world that has attempted to destroy and oppress Black people. The deep bonds created through art, sisterhood, and Black collectivity, which Ntozake sought to nurture and create, live on.
Associate professor in the English Department at the University of Oregon, Courtney Thorsson then spoke on the history of the Sisterhood. Drawing on research for her forthcoming book, an interpretive cultural history of Black Women’s literary organizing in the late ‘70s, she described the role the group took in the lives of its participants. The Sisterhood began meeting in 1977, at the height of controversy for Shange’s groundbreaking choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf.” The uproar of hateful responses by males against Shange’s work deeply upset her, but it was in the collective that she found peace.
The group met once a month for two years, kept minutes and collected dues, and over 30 women attended at least once. Some of its best-known members include Audre Lorde, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, June Jordan, Patricia Spears Jones, Margo Jefferson, and Shange. The Sisterhood was a place of collaboration, in which women discussed the shifting spheres in Black feminist work at the time. The group was host to political, academic, and literary conversations, but it also acted as a refuge, another life for its members offering sustenance and support from a racist, sexist world. The Sisterhood’s legacy is its “collaborative advocacy for black women’s writing rooted in love,” influencing many publications and shaping the work of leading Black women writers to come.
Poet and Sisterhood member Patricia Spears Jones spoke of her memories of the meetings and her experience as a Black woman in ‘70s Manhattan. She noted Ntozake as “one of the daring and occasionally generous young women writers and performers who made living in this city exciting challenging and fun,” and playfully called her “someone you wanted to be at a party with.”
Life in New York was difficult, the times were volatile. Searching for experience and love, Jones noted how important it was to find other Black women she could share her experiences with, “to talk it out and talk it through.” Collectives were her way to find language to talk about herself, a refuge from sexist literary warfare, a place where she could exist as a woman and feel understood. It was the Sisterhood which “allowed us to see ourselves as intelligent, competent, creative, engaged, enraged, and ambitious,” stated Jones, “through talking, laughing, getting stuff done.”
Lastly, Assistant Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College Mecca Jamilah Sulivan spoke on the place of collectivity in the choreopoem form. Created by Shange, the choreopoem connects “body and voice, language and dance.” It sees the “stage as a space of Black feminist possibility and collectivity,” exploring “feminist vernaculars of touch” as well as energy and feeling. The most celebrated example is Shange’s 1976 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf,” originally written as a series of poems on sex and love, violence and healing. Following the poetic narrative of seven Black women through a combination of lyrics and dance, Shange brought the audience closer to art than ever before.
And with new generations of writers, new forms of collectivity are created. Sullivan mentioned Lenelle N. Moise’s “Cornered in the Dark” as a site of shared feelings for Black women. The choreopoem, which critiques the violence of misogynoir and celebrates the joys of 21st century Black womanhood, invites attendees to participate and speak up.
Sullivan closed by talking about her experiences with collectivity organizing Ntozake’s memorial. By supporting Savannah Shange, “who [she is] lucky to count as part of my sisterhood since graduate school,” Sullivan felt the magic of collective effort. Looking for someone to perform Aguanile, a song requested by the family about “prayer, pain, fighting, and the collective transcendence of the spirit,” Sullivan and Shange were surprised by Diana Asseli and her band not long before the memorial. And once the first chord played, all attendees got up as if on cue and “in collective celebration of Ntozake, danced.”
The session ended with an anonymous question about how to survive the writerly risk of rejection, in addition to white supremacy, racial macro- and microaggressions, patriarchy, and sexism. Sullivan mentioned the ongoing need for collectivity and trust in the work for itself. Jones echoed the sentiment, and also reminded listeners that “if you are somebody who is putting anything out into the world, not everybody’s gonna love you.” Her advice? “Say to them ‘I don’t give a… whatever!’ because my work is important enough.” Thorsson closed the discussion, mentioning we don’t know if members of the Sisterhood healed from the backlash received, but they continued writing.
Overall, the event offered a dynamic and powerful panorama of the Sisterhood, and of Black collectivity. It was fascinating to learn about Ntozake Shange, her personal life, and her work. Thorsson, Jones, and Sullivan were incredibly in-sync. Their different perspectives made the discussion enjoyable and insightful, and I felt honored to have been present to watch their conversation.
Image of Essence Magazine, November 1976 from the talk via Bwogger.