Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Bitch You Must Be Crazy: Representations of Mental Illness in Ntozake Shange's for Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1976)

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Bitch You Must Be Crazy: Representations of Mental Illness in Ntozake Shange's for Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1976)

Article excerpt

When Ntozake Shange's (1976) classic play, For Colored Girls Who Consider Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, was released, it was praised most for its use of experimental form to deliver a candid treatment of African American women's experiences. The play compiles vignettes, poetry, song, dance, music, prose, and mime in a nonlinear form to tell the stories of the experiences and pressures the seven characters face as both Black and female. The release of Tyler Perry's (2010) film For Colored Girls revived debates about Shange's classic work. While past and contemporary critiques allude to an implicit discourse about emotional trauma in the work, there remains a popular and scholarly silence around the most salient topic--mental illness (Staples, 1979, p. 32; Span et al., 2006; Eder, 1976, pp.187-191; Neal 1992, p. 320; Bond, 1976, pp. 187-191; Willz, 2010; Lucas, 2010). Shange's original play, my focus here, directly speaks to a contemporary crisis in Black women's mental health. This article is interdisciplinary--it is anchored in literary analysis, but draws on theoretical frameworks from the field of Women's Studies to address a social problem--the national suicide crisis among Black women.

Thirty years ago suicide rates among white youth were more than double that of their African American counterparts. However, as Dr. Kirk Alton (2009) discusses in Black Suicide: The Tragic Reality of America's Deadliest Secret, beginning in the late 1970s there was a rise in suicides among African American young people (pp. 15-22). Although suicide rates among Blacks were, and remain, lower than the rates among whites, the rate spikes over time within the group are astounding. In his book, Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis among African Americans, Dr. Alvin Poussaint (2000) notes that between 1980 and 1996 the suicide rate jumped from 3.6 to 8.1 deaths per 100,000 (p.12). In 1999, Dr. David Satcher, the then surgeon general, issued a groundbreaking national report, "Call to Action to Prevent Suicide," which included new data on the African American population. According to the Center For Disease Control, the report indicated, suicide was the third leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four and the seventh leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of twenty five and forty four (United States Public Health Service). By 2003 suicide rates began to decline, but suicide remains a major issue. The most recent completion rates among Blacks, 12.43 per 100,000, do not capture the full impact of Black suicidal behaviors; they do not include hospitalizations due to nonfatal attempts. While the suicide competition rates are higher among Black males, 3.85 times that of females, Black females are more likely than males to attempt suicide (American Association of Suicidology, n.d; Crosby & Molock, 2006, para. 5). Despite higher attempt rates, there is little work on suicide among Black women in particular.

To understand how For Colored Girls can be useful for addressing the issue, we must consider accepted knowledge about mental illness. Mental illness in its various manifestations--psychotic, mood, and anxiety, among others--is not unique to any group. Yet, experiences of mental illness, like all medical conditions, do not exist outside particular socio-historical and cultural conceptions. Medical research points to the various factors that lead to, and protect against, mental illness in Black women. Factors such as conflicting intimate relationships with partners; negative self image; physical, sexual, and/or emotional abuse; social support; and healthy relationships are major themes in For Colored Girls (Kaslow et al. 2005, pp. 400-412; Compton et al., 2005); Meadows et al., 2005, pp. 109-121; Havens et al., 2005, pp. 110-115; Joe et al., 2006, pp. 2112-2123; Span et al., 2006, pp. 553-568). An examination of its representations of these themes can help us better understand and address this serious mental health concern among Black women. …

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