She Who Walks Like a Lion
Ntozake Shange is one of the preeminent feminists of our time, but that doesn't really explain her Diet Pepsi fetish.
By April Miller
Professor Ntozake Shange and her doll collection
Ntozake Shange carries a bag filled with cans of Diet Pepsis and stopped in front of an office door before opening it with her key. She turns to enter the room before saying, “This is not mine” and then proceeds to unlock the door to her office, which is one door away.
Her office is clean. It doesn’t have books fighting for shelf space or papers lying all over her desk, and it appeared to lack the certain “professor style” that most have.
Then again, Shange is not your run-of-the-mill professor.
After she shuts the door to her office, the wall—a wall that could sum up her professional life—becomes fully visible. Rows of black dolls, many of which were given to her from fans of her writing, hang from the wall. One doll doesn’t have a body, one resembles a clown, one is from Nicaragua and another from Jamaica, and the one with the super-long legs was made by her sister.
Shange, a renowned playwright and poet, is a full-time professor at the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research and the Department of Theater and Dance at UF.
When April Patten registered for the class “Women of Color,” she did not know what to expect or who would be teaching the class.
“She’s definitely an artist in the true sense of the word,” she says. “She was very unconventional. When we had to write and read reflections of what we read previously, we had to read them aloud, and some were very personal. She didn’t think anything of it when we read them, but later said it was a conflict of the generations since a few of us thought ours were very personal.”
Shange was born in 1948 as Paulette Williams and in 1971 changed her name because she “didn’t want a slave name.” The name she now goes by was given to her by South African exiles who said it fit her personality. In the African language Zulu, her name means “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion.”
Growing up, Shange’s home in New Jersey was often frequented by W.E.B. DuBois, Miles Davis and Chuck Berry, who lived next door. In addition to her father, whom she calls a jazz aficionado, they introduced her to jazz and blues. She remembers staying up late with her father, an Air Force surgeon, while he filled out forms for his patients while the two listened to jazz.
It was her love of music and poetry that drove her to create the “choreopoem,” a mix of poetry, movement, dance and music, when she was in her mid-20s.
In 1975, Shange created and performed in possibly her most famous play, for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf: a choreopoem. This play, which received an Obie Award and was nominated for a Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award in 1977, was first produced Off-Broadway before making it to the Booth Theatre on Broadway.
“I wanted to perform, but I didn’t have to,” she says. “I used to want to be in it all, but it’s not always appropriate now that I’m older.”
But she hasn’t stopped performing yet. In 2003 she performed in the Vagina Monologues and goes on the road to read her poems.
When she’s not traveling, Shange does what she’s always seen herself doing: teach. She says it was “so long ago” that she received her master’s in American Studies from University of Southern California at Los Angeles, but she’s certain she’s always wanted to teach, and she has taught at several universities, including Yale and New York University.
She teaches several classes at UF, including theories of feminism from different ethnic groups. Shange says she studies the “different needs for women, see what they are and what difference the United States can make.”
“Since she is involved with fine arts and women’s studies, she is a bridge, and some people don’t know what to expect,” says Angel Kwolek-Folland, the director of the Center of Women’s Studies and Gender Research.
Even after her class with Shange finished, Patten still remembers the issues they discussed and the books they read. But she also remembers the smaller details about Shange, the person.
“(She) would come to class with a knapsack full of Diet Pepsis,” she says. “She would line up three or four Pepsis and when she finished, you were like, ‘When did you finish the last?’
“She would also have smoke breaks halfway in the period where she would be puffing away. Sometimes she would ask if we’d picked partners for a presentation.
She would say, ‘I’ll give you the time it takes me to smoke.’
“She is also clumsy in an endearing way. She wore high-heeled boots and she fell both times she wore them.”
These personal attributes and teaching methods, along with her knowledge of women, make Shange’s classes what they are.
“The response to Shange has been excellent,”
Kwolek-Folland says, "That is why we want to keep her here. She is a public figure and is very approachable, kind and cares a lot about the students."
Shange considers herself a feminist, which she says is someone who believes in equal rights for men, women and children.
"Young women are afraid of the word, even though they are here only because of the women's movement," she says. "There is a discoonection between the women's movement and younger people because we didn't let the younger women know what it was about. They are going on very little information."
As for the women of today, she offers "great encouragement and optimism."
"This is a wonderful time to be a woman," she says. "There is a lot to fight for and a lot to gain. Power makes the ability to make things change."