I met the playwright, poet, and novelist Ntozake Shange for the first and last time in April 2018 at a conference.
She was the keynote speaker.
There are black women and other people of color in my life who know so much more than me about her and her work, so I felt embarrassed to be in her presence. When I did meet her, I asked if she would give me permission to hug her — and she warmly welcomed it. I included a kiss on her cheek.
For some reason, in that particular moment, I imagined I would not have the opportunity to do so again.
I often think about the unexpectedness of death. When I do and the remembrance of death grips me, I usually make the best decisions.
That evening, as she was speaking, she paused when she remembered she was speaking of the dead as if they were still present.
She recognized the artists who influenced her work over the years. About one mentor and friend who had passed on, she said he taught her, “We are entitled to dance; we are entitled to create beauty; we are entitled to our lives; we are entitled to our own agency; we are entitled to be free.” In response to a question about becoming better writers, she said, “If you don’t read, why are you writing?” She also said, “Free yourself. Get the editor of oppressive culture out of your mind.”
She also spoke of the class politics among her own family and community with regard to speaking in Spanish. She expressed her belief that if we are committed to a deep, abiding solidarity we must embrace the multiplicity of the Americas and develop a true bilingualism in our lives. It’s why she was committed to including her poems in Wild Beauty/Belleza Salvaje in both English and Spanish. The text — a collection of her poetry — is one of her last works published.
On Saturday, I read about her passing only hours after reading about the murders in Pittsburgh. On Sunday, I took Wild Beauty/Belleza Salvaje off from my shelf and turned to her poem “for all my dead and loved ones/para todos mis muertos y seres queridos.”
Atter this weekend of grief, the following verses speak to me:
“but what shall I do
with my dead/ loved so particularly
leaving me/ specifically
pero qué debo hacer
con mis muertos/ querido tan particulares
que me dejan/ tan específicos”
She closes the poem, writing —
“for I wander regularly in moments of the dead
if you wd have me speak
you must learn the tongue of my dead & loved ones
i have been left behind
holdin out for more
porque a menudo me pregunto por momentos sobre los muertos
si quieres que hable
tienes que aprender la lengua de mis muertos y seres queridos
los he dejado atrás
a la espera de algo más”
إِنَّا لِلّهِ وَإِنَّـا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ