All of us at Women in Higher Education were saddened to learn that Dr. Ntozake Shange died on October 28th at the age of 70. We mourn her loss. To celebrate her life, we're rerunning the cover article about her life and work from the July 2016 issue of WIHE. Lois Elfman reported on Barnard College receiving Shange's archives.
Renowned poet, playwright, novelist and black feminist Dr. Ntozake Shange's work has addressed issues and themes of race and feminism, with her early work dating back to high school. This spring, it was announced that she had given her archival collection—constituting 31 linear feet—to her alma mater, Barnard College NY.
Dr. Kim F. Hall, Lucyle Hook Chair and Professor of English and Africana Studies at Barnard, says Shange's gift is not just another collection.
“It is a tangible marker of a black feminist legacy at a college that had for too long not honored that tradition,” says Hall. “I am awestruck to lead the first generation of student scholars to use Ntozake's archive and to see them find in the collection a much‐needed space of love and healing as campuses everywhere struggle with legacies of inequality.”
Shange has said Barnard, the New York City women's college that is part of Columbia University, is where she came of age as a feminist and an artist, and that she honed her critical thinking in English and history classes. It was during her college years that she became exposed to the black student movement and antiwar movement and became an activist.
Although Shange, author of the Obie Award–winning play "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf," is a Barnard alumna (class of 1970), it was not guaranteed that her archives would come to the school. From the perspective of Barnard's Africana Studies and Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies departments, Hall describes obtaining Shange's archive as one of the most amazing things that could happen to the college.
“The thing for me that it means most profoundly is it is material evidence of a legacy of black feminism at the college, which hasn't been fully integrated into the college's history,” says Hall, who notes that women such as author Zora Neale Hurston, poet June Jordan, educator and writer Dr. Alexis Gumbs and writer Thulani Davis are all Barnard graduates who haven't received recognition commensurate with their accomplishments.
“Having this [Shange] archive, there is a kind of impetus to make that history visible and to attract students who want to be part of that continuum of black feminist art, scholarship and activism,” says Hall.
Shannon O'Neill, associate director of archives and special collections and history librarian at Barnard, says Shange's collection is truly amazing and it is a privilege to share it with the world. She is in the process of finalizing the collection's finding aid, which is a guide to the archive.
The archive is, for the most part, being kept in the same order in which Shange provided things, but some physical reorganizing has been done to ease access for researchers. O'Neill says the collection is intellectually arranged into series akin to themes: correspondence, diaries, photographs, etc.
Something Hall thinks will be incredibly beneficial to students is seeing the many drafts that works went through until they were complete. In most traditional literature courses, students only see a finished product of an author's work, which may have been the result of years of work. It is inspiring for students to be able to see early drafts and not only experience how work evolved, but also see how Shange sought comments and opinions from others.
Some of the drafts and communications with friends to whom Shange showed her work go on for years and even decades. It's clear evidence that writing takes a lot of care, revision and time.
There are also items such as copies of Phat Mama, a handmade literary journal that Shange, Davis and several other Barnard women put together.
“You can see that collaboration and that sense of themselves as artists wanting to publish and make themselves a public collective of artists,” says Hall. “After Barnard, they put together one of the first third‐world women's collections. That work began at Barnard. Hopefully, it is a model for how you work together and how you position yourself.
“I think it gives students a real visceral sense that you don't spring as an artist full‐fledged as an adult; you evolve.”
The Shange archive figured prominently into the two‐semester course that Hall taught this past school year, The Worlds of Ntozake Shange and Digital Storytelling. In the fall, the students studied Shange's works in depth and the Black Arts Movement. The students were introduced to the collection and also toured the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture with assistant curator Steven Fullwood.
In the spring, students received training at the International Center for Photography while conducting independent research in the Ntozake Shange Collection at the Schomburg. Fullwood also helped the students in Hall's course workshop their projects.
The course was a part of the Harlem semester this past spring, a public humanities initiative between the Barnard Center for Research on Women and Barnard's Africana Studies department. As Barnard's campus is located adjacent to Harlem, a predominantly black neighborhood in Manhattan rich with history, the goal was to offer students an immersion and site‐specific education in Harlem that puts Barnard in closer dialog with the community.
Students had two or three sessions at the site, which provided a behind‐the‐scenes look at how these institutions operate. Hall says archives can be very intimidating, especially large and diverse ones, so getting this kind of exposure perhaps eased their way in learning how to access archival collections for future research.
Blogging about their work was part of the students' assignments, and Hall hopes that remains as they continue to explore the Shange archive at Barnard. She is also trying to develop teaching materials that help faculty who want to teach Shange's work and want their students to explore the archive. Hall also wants to develop tools for getting students everywhere to explore local archives and digital archives.
Renee Charlow, assistant professor in the Department of Fine and Performing Arts at Bowie State University, is teaching a version of the Shange course. Hall hopes Charlow's students will be able to explore some of the digital materials Barnard students created. O'Neill made copies of some materials and provided them to Charlow.
O'Neill says as soon as final edits are done to the finding aid it will go online. It will be cataloged in CLIO, Barnard and Columbia's library catalog, and promoted. She hopes the finding aid will be linked on Shange's Wikipedia page, so it expands the number of individuals knowing that the collection exists and that it is open for research.
The long‐term goal is to digitize materials to create broad access. Hall's students got that ball rolling with their projects.
Hall notes that Barnard offers some research grants, and she hopes that there are interested parties who will apply so that they may come and use the Shange archive for theater theses, articles and essays.
“Hopefully, my students' projects will model how you create art and scholarship out of an archive,” Hall says. “We also will provide some guidance. We can provide some kind of templates for people who want to use archives, particularly feminist archives, in their research and teaching.”
Shange came to the Barnard campus for visits in both the fall and spring semesters, which were emotional for the students and Hall. Having the subject of students' research present as the archive was introduced was a rare experience. Shange's openness and genuine interest in the students made the opportunity deeply impactful.
There was a sense that not only is there an archive to explore, but also a living resource who can provide context for questions. Along with Shange also comes a community of black feminists. Dianne McIntyre, a dancer, choreographer and teacher who adapted both Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and Shange's play "For Colored Girls" into dance performances, came to a class.
“Everybody has been so generous and so excited to talk to the students,” says Hall. “It's a living history that these people experienced. That experience of the history is different in a lot of ways from how it ends up in the history books, if it even ends up in history books.”
Hall says hopefully these students have become aware that there may be histories in their own families. Women's lives—in particular, the lives of women of color—have been undervalued as crucial parts of history. To have college students made more aware about their own histories is vital.
Having explored the Shange archive has already spurred students to explore other archives. “It has inspired them to think about where they will find women's history,” Hall says. “I feel very strongly that students need to have a sense that the library is not the ultimate base of knowledge.
“Having these spaces are reminders of the work we need to do and the richness of what they can do as students,” she adds. “Especially students at a liberal arts college where we encourage them to do their own original research to develop their own research paths.
“There are multiple histories that need to be told. They are learning the terms in which they can uncover different histories.”