Tuesday, February 25, 2014

She Who Lives With the Lions And Has Her Own Things, by Barbara Ruth

Ntozake Shange, Black feminist poet, novelist, essayist and author of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” turned 65 last fall. She’s still writing, but she has a hard time with spell-check. Hey, we’ve all been done in by spell-check and auto-correct at some point, right? Happens to me all the time.

Except, that’s a gross exaggeration. It happens to me now and then. And my fingers, though arthritic, can easily go back and fix. I rule, spell-check, this is my writing, my computer, and the words are going to come out the way I want them to.

It’s vastly different for Ntozake. She writes in Black vernacular, sometimes flavored with Nuyorican accents. And auto-correct just doesn’t come in flavors other than vanilla.

So, why doesn’t she do what I do? Just fix it, Ntozake, go through the manuscript and discorrect the auto-correct. To hell with spell-check; just disable the damn thing.

The thing is, neurological disorders have disabled Ntozake, severely. First a series of strokes, then Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy (CIDP), which keep her hands and feet in constant tremor. She can no longer type or write by hand.

Like many disabled people she uses voice recognition software. And that’s her battleground.

Is this a Disease of the Month movie about a famous person? Not for me.

I know the territory of strokes, epilepsy. I’d never heard of CIDP before I read about her choreo-essay “Lost In Language and Space.” In it she says, “I can’t count the times I viscerally wanted to attack, deform and main the language I was taught to hate myself in, the language that perpetuates the notion that causes pain to every black child.” Before CIDP struck her a few years ago Ntozake already had bi-polar disorder, but that’s not so uncommon among the artists of the world, and who says disabilities get doled out one per customer? Like Ntozake, I had a season in hell when I could not read, approximately the same time she did, 2010/2011.

I speak standard English. Which is to say: standard, middle to upper-middle class white mid-Atlantic inflected American English. I know it’s rules of grammar. Ntozake does too; she graduated cum laude from Barnard, has a Masters in American Studies from UCLA.

Most of the characters living in my head speak the same kind of English as I do. But a sizable minority do not. I have written characters of many shades and generations in a novel set in New Orleans in the fifties and sixties. I am now working on a book where many of the characters’ first language is Tagalog. I only know a few words of Tagalog, and the characters speak in English, as did the Filipinas they’re based on, when they were talking to me. There are also Somalis, Latinos, and Tongans in this particular story. A lot to train my ear to. One major character is French-Algerian, another, a native English speaker from South Africa. They’re based on an ex-lover and an ex-attendant; I’ve got those accents down.

My social network is not as broad as this may sound. Most of the Filipinos, Somalis and Tongans I met while I was in the hospital. To my shame, I asked some to “straighten out their accents.” I have a whole knapsack of excuses I could produce about why I did that, but in the end, they’re just excuses, based upon some deep-seated idea, ready to pop out with I am in extremis, that I own the language. When I complained to my lover about all the accents, there in the hospital, she said, “But you love accents. Remember?” I am forever grateful to her for reminding me who I am, who I commit to being.

I am enriched by the spoken music of the people my characters are based on, as a writer, as a human being. The world changed with the production of For Colored Girls, from the first performances at the Bacchanal, a dyke bar in Albany, California, to its long run on Broadway.

I never met Ntozake Shange. She took that Xhosa name in 1971, it means: She Who Lives With the Lions and Has Her Own Things. Her pride of lions pledge their help in ripping apart Standard English. They growl to Ntozake her own words: “I am gonna write poems till i die and when i have gotten outta this body i am gonna hang round in the wind and knock over everybody who has got their feet on the ground.” Her pride will open up the English circle to include the words of the languages of the peoples of all the diasporas. The lions vow to stay with her, and promise she will always, always, have her own thing.

[Here is a photo of Shange speaking at “Ntozake Shange on Stage & Screen” sponsored by Africana Studies at Barnard. She is with Professor Soyica Diggs Colbert, also African American, who listens and looks on respectfully as Shange addresses the unseen audience. The left handle-grip of Shange's purple wheelchair can be seen, as can her fabulous gold earrings that look like life-size scallop shells.]
Barbara Ruth at two years old: Oppositional defiance - before it was a disorder
 [Image description: a sepia-toned vintage '40s photo of the author of this piece, in which a young child, arm raised up in what might be a fist, appears to be saying something important...it is easy, somehow, to imagine that this child is saying "Freedom!" with vigor and gusto.]

the bio:
Barbara Ruth is a 67 year old Ashkenazi Jewish/Potowatomee dyke with multiple disabilities. She lives in San Jose, California and delights in IDing as neuroqueer.


  1. Thank you very much. I had no idea that voice recognition software would be so restrictive - although a moment of thinking about it makes it obvious. Guess my standard-english privilege made this not even be on my radar. Thank you for bringing it forward. Valuable lesson for me.

  2. CORRECTION: I proudly put this on my FB page and was quickly told it was the Baccanal, a dyke bar in Albany, not Ollie's in Oakland where "For Colored Girls" was developed and premiered.

    1. My sense is that it would be cool to leave this like it is, in transparent real-time, to show the YES! that is interdependence and knowledge-sharing...but let me know what you think, Barbara, because I can just as easily edit the original. Love, Ib

    2. I'm putting my link to this blog and following comments public on my FB page. Anyone reading this is welcome to go there for some discussion of lesbian bars in the E.Bay in San Francisco area of CA. In the first edition of the publication of For Colored Girls this was included, in subsequent editions, when the choreo-play was famous, its lesbian roots got dropped.

    3. For ease of accessibility, I went into the original document and edited to reflect the new information, also adding that the 'Albany' in question is the one in California. Thanks, Love, Ib.

  3. Now this has me thinking of accent and neurology. I should probably think about it more often. Not the same thing, but what accent and neurology makes me think about.

    Language is relatively easy for me. An ear for language is one of my autistic strengths. I have lots of words and I'm not afraid to use them. Plus I have all sorts of education that taught me more words.
    I care for many children for whom language is one of their autistic challenges. Or non-autistic but still having language challenge. And many of their families did not have an education full of words.
    I have a not-too-strong but definite regional US accent and tend to talk quickly.
    Many of my patients and their families have a strong regional accent from a different part of the US, the part of the US where I currently happen to live. Most people in this part of the country talk more slowly than people from mine.

    Accent isn't a disability. But can affect figuring out disability when I have to assess their language or they have to respond to questions asked in mine. And when I can't understand a child, or they can't understand me, is it their accent my accent or their neurology or my neurology or yes?