Austin and Ntozoke Shange

Austin was amazing. I found a full-time job at the Austin Community College library and an apartment within walking distance. I heard Spanish spoken on the bus. At ACC’s Rio Grande campus, I met Mexicans, black Americans, Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees, and Iranians here on student visas. I hadn’t realized how limited my opportunities in Manitowoc and Madison had been to meet and work with people of other races and experiences.

Like most big university cities, Austin had a thriving arts community that went beyond the progressive country music movement centered around the Armadillo World Headquarters–there was a Chicano arts magazine, Aztlán, put out by a Chicano art collective that included ACC’s head of the art department Luis Guerra and adjunct instructor José  Francisco Treviño. There was WomanSpace, where I connected with a feminist consciousness-raising group, the Common Woman bookstore on Guadalupe Street, and a Native American art gallery nearby that I sometimes visited during lunch. 

Everything felt exciting but gritty. The oil-rich University of Texas seemed wealthy beyond imagining. One classroom building had an escalator in it. By comparison, UW-Madison seemed like a set of gray concrete staircases. Yet there were no predictable sidewalks in my Austin neighborhood, the neighbor’s rooster woke me early every morning, and my pretty one-bedroom apartment swarmed with cockroaches. 

I wasn’t the only one with a cockroach problem. My boss Melissa, who lived in Clarksville, an enclave of hippies, complained about them as much as I did. Her ex-husband was a local musician who left her–or forgot–numerous shoeboxes full of cassettes that formed an eccentric playlist to our acquisitions and cataloging work. I don’t know how I found out about Ntozake Shange’s poetry event, but I think I might have heard it advertised on the radio that Melissa and I turned on after the Stephane Grappelli tape spilled out of the cassette player. How did I even know who Shange was? Perhaps I read about her work in Ms. Magazine or in one of the other feminist magazines I devoured (chiefly, Women: A Journal of Liberation and Quest: A Feminist Quarterly) when I could afford to buy a copy. At any rate, I determined to attend her reading, not an easy feat for someone without a car in the massive, sprawling city.

Melissa insisted that I had to take the bus, though I thought I could hoof it. All I remember is that the bus didn’t take me directly to Juarez-Lincoln University where the reading was going to be held. I literally ran across an acre of undeveloped land to get there, concerned that I would be late and miss it.  

 

 Isiahjerim, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

But I was early, and comfortably settled by the time others entered. Another poet read first, a young woman about my age with a collection of typed love poems in her hand. She read bravely. And then Ntozake Shange was introduced. What a performance! She had no need for typed pages–she held a book in her hand, a book of her poems, and what poems! She spoke in a poetic vernacular that thrilled and made shivers climb up my spine and down my arms. Her voice was insistent, impossible to disregard. I was mesmerized as she told stories from black women’s lives with power and honesty.  

somebody almost run off wit alla my stuff & i waz standin there/ lookin at myself/ the whole time & it waznt a spirit took my stuff/ waz a man whose ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow/ waz a man faster n my innocence/ waz a lover/ i made too much room for/ almost run off wit alla my stuff/ & didn’t know i’d give it up so quik/ & the one running wit it/don know he got it/ 

        –from For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange.

Her words meant everything to me. It was my story, too. My life in Madison had become a chaotic whirlwind impossible to navigate. I could only grasp a rope and keep my head down as I edged around the cyclone. Luckily I had beautiful, compassionate friends who encouraged me to explore the world, pursue my dreams, and apply my smarts to whatever I encountered. Opening my eyes again, I was 1,300 miles from home, lonely but armed with a B.A. in anthropology from the University of Wisconsin and four years’ work experience in an academic library. That was enough to create a new life.

To write was still my dream, and Shange gave me three big clues about how to proceed. Tell your story; be authentic. Juanita’s angry, broken heart electrified me. Next, get published. It’s a sign that your work has maturity. Aim for it. Another lesson: before acknowledging the wall of applause that thundered the room after her reading, Shange turned towards the woman who had read first and gave her kind words of encouragement. How gracious she was! 

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