Lit Counts: Sing the Song of Her Possibilities

By Suzi Q. Smith

I have been writing poetry since I could hold a pen (or at least for as long as I can remember my life), starting with variations on “roses are red, violets are blue...”. By high school, poetry had become one of the primary tools I used to understand and navigate my life.  

The first time I encountered the work of Ntozake Shange, I was a freshly-divorced young mother, wandering along the poetry shelves of the newly opened Blair Caldwell Library in Five Points. I recognized the familiar names of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and Paul Laurence Dunbar, all poets I had grown up reading so much they felt like family. There among them, a title leapt out at me: For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. I paused, pulled the book from the shelf and stared at the cover, wondering at the title, the description “A Choreopoem by Ntozake Shange.”

“somebody/ anybody
sing a black girl's song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you ...”

I ran my finger over the word “choreopoem”, a word that explained so clearly something I’ve always known but have never had language for. I began reading the book standing in the aisle of the library, falling in love. The words danced across the page. I was thrilled, relieved to find myself painted in its pages in a language I breathe. I laughed and wept with the words as I recognized myself and my friends; pieces of our stories I had never before seen in print. I wondered how it was possible to have lived my life up that point without this book.

“... but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life...”

While I was disappointed that it had taken so long for me to meet such a profound and important piece of literature, it came into my life right on time. I went on to devour her poetry, plays, and novels, admiring her determination to create work that challenged and redefined the boundaries of genre. I saw so much of myself in her writing, laughing at the critics who have said that my writing is too musical, too theatrical, to be poetry. Her work affirms the oral traditions, the dialects, and the written word that are deeply entrenched in my cultural history.

Since first encountering this book, I’ve gone on to write more poetry. I’ve written songs, plays, and performance pieces that allow them all to exist on stages and pages together. With her recent passing last month, I continue to reflect on her courage and commitment to create work that reflected her truth, to carve out spaces to exist, to bring so many of us along with her (including me). I will remain grateful for the words she left us with:

“sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.”

Editor's Note: Lit Counts is an essay series in which readers and writers from our community express why they believe in supporting and elevating literary arts—the mission of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. The series will countdown toward Colorado Gives Day on December 4, the annual statewide fund drive for nonprofits. For 2018, Lighthouse has set a goal of $90,000, to support the continued growth of our literary programs. If you believe in the mission of Lighthouse, consider scheduling your contribution today.

Suzi Q. Smith is an artist, activist, and educator who hails from Denver, Colorado. She is Community Engagement Coordinator at Lighthouse.