Ntozake Shange had a notably complex relationship with her inheritance of the Black Arts project. While she was clearly influenced by the politics of Black nationalism and the aesthetic innovations of the movement in claiming Black language practices as powerful tools of poetic expression, she also struggled to feel accepted and represented within Black nationalist camps. However, this conflict in fact puts her in the company of women writers of the Black Arts Movement, who themselves had been working for years within the movement to move the needle on problematic conceptions of gender and sexuality. In her unpublished early poems written between 1970 and 1972, Shange’s use of Black linguistic and rhetorical resources aligns with the contemporaneous work of other Black Arts women poets and successfully demonstrates the most generative elements of the Black Arts project. But by the beginning of her public career in the mid-1970s, Shange importantly moves independently beyond the Black Arts project to insist on a necessary reckoning with the barriers, within and outside of the Black community, to Black women’s liberation. This article draws upon archival research to reveal the ways Shange’s early work demonstrates both her inheritance and her innovation of the rhetorical and poetic strategies that Black Arts women writers used to make their case that Black women should be central to and vocal within Black nationalist movements.

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