Ntozake Shange. The name jumped to me from the screen. Searching around, I learned Shange, born Paulette Williams, was an American playwright, poet, and novelist. Her Zulu name, adopted in 1971, means “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks with the lions.” I wanted to know more.

Reading about Shange’s more than 30 works, I came upon one of her novels, Some Sing, Some Cry published in 2010 and co-authored with her sister Ifa Bayeza.

Ifa Bayeza, born Wanda Williams, explains that adopting her new name was “embracing an Africanness that I didn’t know, but I felt. But I still keep the essence of Wanda”(Black Art Story).

A quick search indicates that Ifa means ‘keeping faith’ and Bayeza translates as ‘sacrifice’ or ‘innovative’, and ‘powerful’.

Based on what I know of these women and their creations, I would say their chosen names are amazingly accurate.

A Sisters’ Writing Project

One of my first thoughts about their co-authorship of the novel Some Sing, Some Cry was how they managed this project together.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard of novels being co-authored, and by members of the same family even, but something about this project especially intrigued me.

After interviewing the sisters, journalist Joyce Persico shares:

“When she and Shange worked on Some Sing, Some Cry, she [Bayeza] found their collaboration almost “symbiotic,” with each sister taking turns at writing different aspects of the winding Mayfield family saga.”

According to Bayea:

“It was kind of easy with the original outline going from enslavement to freedom. We divided it into eight sections, with the generations overlapping, and split them up four and four. Then we went off and did our thing.”

Speaking with the sisters, Persico discovers that “the actual writing took eight years although they never worked side by side.”

Yet, the overall process was longer than eight years:

“Written sporadically over a 15-year period, the book is populated by characters and incidents passed down to the sisters as family lore”(Persico).

There is a semblance of family ancestors and stories incorporated in this novel that spans “200 years and seven generations of women in an African-American family”(Persico).

In the book’s acknowledgments, Bayeza reinforces this point, “We’ve borrowed snips and snapshots from both sides of our family to make this musical quilt”(567).

Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was an American playwright, novelist and poet. “As a Black feminist, she addressed issues relating to race and Black power in much of her work.” Born in Trenton, NJ, Shange attended Barnard College and the University of Southern California in LA. Her play “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf,” which became a Broadway play and the Tyler Perry movie, “For Colored Girls,” catapulted her to fame early on. She went on to create over 30 works that continue to inspire many today (Wikipedia).

The Lure and Power of Music

Indeed, music commands a steady presence throughout the story. This is not surprising after reading about Shange and Bayeza’s earlier lives. They grew up in a household that valued and welcomed music, known to host such musical greats as Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Chuck Berry, and Paul Robeson.

Bayeza describes music’s omnipresence in the novel:

“Surrounded on all sides by music, while writing this book we discovered again and again how vast and varied the music of African-American people, how vital. There are so many antecedents, it’s impossible to name them, so rich is the panoply. With our collage of characters we can only suggest the singers, players, composers, writers, dancers, and producers; the theaters, churches, living rooms, and sidewalks, the cabarets, juke joints, and dance halls; the solo artists, big bands, and combos – the heavenly choir of legendary and anonymous voices that have filled our nation and world with song”(568).

Shange says that Some Sing, Some Cry reveals their “rich and complex cultural history”(565) and clearly, this history is steeped in the magic of music, as well as the fortitude of the human spirit.

Ifa Bayeza (b. 1958) is a playwright, novelist, producer, and director. Born in Trenton, NJ, she attended Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her play “The Ballad of Emmet Till” is probably her best known work. In addition to writing “Some Sing, Some Cry” with sister Shange, she directed Shange’s “A Photograph: Lovers in Motion” (Wikipedia)

Some Sing, Some Cry: A Multi-Generational Saga

The story traces seven generations of Mayfield women. The central female characters help to answer the question scholar and writer Kaiama Glover asks in her review of the novel:

“For roughly the last half-century, nearly every black female writer of any consequence in America seems to have had one very particular story to tell — or, rather, one particular question she’s tried to answer: Just how in heaven (or hell) have black women managed to survive?”

While readers must still seriously ponder this question, the characters in Some Sing, Some Cry provide a glimpse as to where these women may have derived their strength. Each female character reveals a possible means to survival and persistence in the face of atrocities and injustice.

There is no better example of this resilience than matriarch ‘Mah Bette’, the first woman readers meet in Some Sing, Some Cry.

Elizabeth ‘Mah Bette’ Mayfield: Matriarch and Healer

The setting of the story begins after the Civil War, when Mah Bette, as she is known to most, and her granddaughter, Eudora are moving to Charleston, South Carolina from the plantation on Sweet Tamarind Island off the coast. The hope is to live with one of Mah Bette’s daughters living there, to begin life anew. This doesn’t work out since daughter Blanche refuses to jeopardize her social standing. Although she turns them away, her husband arranges for them to live in an apartment they own in another part of town. Not what they expected or had hoped for, the grandmother/granddaughter duo settle into building new lives for themselves.

Before leaving Sweet Tamarind, Mah Bette treks to where her departed family members are buried to say her goodbyes. Buried there are her mother, Monday, one of her three daughters Elma, and her Pa-lover, the father of her children, Master Julius Mayfield. Yes, Mah Bette was Master Mayfield’s chosen one, as was her mother who lost her life for it. Master Mayfield, a monster and lover, provides both an escape and a curse.

Mah Bette possesses an enormity of spirit, a capacity that enables her not only to survive great wrongs but to accept and embrace all who enter her life. Even if this means she must make some pay for their worst transgressions, love remains intact.

It was not right. It was not wrong. It was. Like stars are. There. Like men and women are. No different from rivers or ravines, caves, hills. Betty didn’t care about notions that divided men and women from rocks and fish. It was. She was. Her children were blessings because she had them. She couldn’t watch her offspring with disdain the way she’d seen other women look at their master’s broods. The pain of carrying hatred round in her body, in the hair that flowed down her back, was too ugly to leave any room for her. She had to be because her girls were, because the wind blows and the stars decorate the night, sometimes falling into the laps of lovers and currents of twisting creeks, the black of dream, and the song of her mother”(6).

Mah Bette’s resilience springs from a trust in her intuitive knowing and an absence of resistance, perhaps from her not having choice. However she becomes who she is, her indomitable spirit fortifies her family for generations to come.

“Mah Bette cloaked her wisdom in a folksy humor, hid her pain behind a wry half-smile. She could look at someone and know they were going to die. She could see illness before it came on. She knew someone was coming by a scent that twitched her nose. Her left eye jumping forebode ill. The forest would tell her things, the clouds, reflections in a bowl of water. Sometimes pestering souls would scratch at her back. In the voice of thunder, she heard the call of unnamed gods, of spirits who were not at rest”(120).

Her well-attended funeral, which includes her enduring connection to the past with “a boatload of old-timers from the island,” says a lot about matriarch Elizabeth Mayfield:

“When the service was over, some of Roswell’s professional pallbearers carried the coffin from the church. The birds flew singing, the goober dust went lazily through the air, the cowrie shells grazed the coffin, and the people in white began a strange dance in a circle. Their feet never left the ground, but they rhythmically made a circle in the street and sang, occasionally shouting. They clapped their hands, made random turns, and closed their eyes as if they could tell where they were going through the Lord’s eyes”(399).

The elaborate gathering after the service hosted by her standoffish daughter, Blanche Mayfield Diggs, with most of her family in attendance is another testament to Mah Bette’s impact, even on those who outwardly shunned her.

The Lost Generation: Elma, Juliet, and Blanche Mayfield

Despite the deep source of love she has for them, Mah Bette’s three daughters are mostly lost to her. Beautiful Elma with “blue or purple eyes depending on the time of day” dies young. Juliet, with her legendary singing voice, “trusted in guile, not the truth” and disappears with an abusive husband, abandoning her daughter Eudora. Blanche who lives in nearby Charleston, for the most part, rejects her family of origin.

Mah Bette says of Blanche,

“Look at my Blanche! Did so well for herself! Though Roswell was a mite older than what I woulda picked, they’s benefits to taking up with a man what’s settled. Got everybody in Charleston respectin’ the ground he walks on. There is somethin’ could be said for that”(10).

It seems mean and despicable that Blanche demands distance between herself and her mother and niece, but it’s a means of survival. Blanche’s rejection is hurtful, but it’s hard to deny her clarity and determination to create a different life for herself and her children. Yet, it’s impossible to fully escape the past, bits and pieces hold fast and Blanche cannot disengage completely.

“Blanche Mayfield Diggs was not at all pleased with the architect’s new designs for her country home. She was so annoyed that she dropped the blueprints and had to call the girl for some smelling salts. She suddenly reminded herself of her mother, Betty, who all too often associated physical ailments with something gone asunder in life. This thought made Blanche Diggs even woozier. What else, what at all could she have in common with her mother?”(18).

As the story unfolds, Blanche displays instances of reconciliation and kindness, such as hosting Mah Bette’s repast, but continues to hold her head high and move in an alternate circle. This approach to survival involves pain and sacrifice on all sides, but it’s hard to argue that in some ways it serves its purpose.

Eudora Mayfield, aka Dora May

Eudora, the granddaughter Mah Bette raises, is a young woman when the story begins. She, like her Aunt Blanche, is desirous to leave her difficult past behind and make something of herself. Early in the story, there’s a window into the central conflict that exists between grandmother and granddaughter. This is a scene just before they depart from the plantation on Sweet Tamarind:

“Eudora was losing her patience. “Nana, the ol-timey days, as you see fit to call them, were slavery days. And those young men, bucks as you choose to call them, weren’t lookin for a wife. They were lookin’ for a good breeder. So they’d be more valuable to…”

“Julius Mayfield, that’s who.” Betty glanced at Eudora’s frantic attempts to create order, seeing only a mass of confusion. “Can’t bring yourself to say his name, I see. Well, huh, that surely tells me somethin’.”

“And what might that be?” Eudora’s anger was slipping out of her control. Her greatest desire at this moment was to pull her skin off and suck the Mayfield out of herself. Yet the best she could muster was to clamp her teeth like a hound on a niggah.

“You can’t get very far, can’t get nowhere, without takin’ all your self. From the way you soundin’ to me, looks like you plannin’ on leaving your grandpa out of who you are. You telling me you some creature made outta smoke and mirrors? You best check yourself again, gal. If all this talk proves anything, proves you a Mayfield.”

“Nana, please stop. They owned us. They owned us. That’s not a family. It’s…like harvestin’ niggahs ‘steada rice or cotton. Don’t you see that Grandma? We’re some by-product of nights when decent white women would have not a thing to with the likes of Julius Mayfield.”

Before Eudora could get another word out, Betty grabbed a switch.”(13).

For however much Mah Bette embraces the past, Eudora’s motto is “Never go backward. Always be movin’, movin’ forward. Life is in front of me, not behind”(63).

Eudora Mayfield becomes Dora May, attempting to conceal the Mayfield connection and works doggedly to establish herself as a seamstress in Charleston. Dora May works harder than most and sets herself on a path to success until she is toppled by a horrific gang rape perpetrated by three white men. Mah Bette sees to it that Eudora is healed as much as possible in the aftermath of such an atrocity, but she ends up marrying a man she doesn’t love to cover for the resulting pregnancy.

Each time a circumstance knocks the wind out of Eudora, she gets back up and dives deeper into her work, her means to survive and provide for her family. When her husband abandons the family, she doubles down, by now spending the greater part of her days hunched over her sewing machine, not looking up at her daughters much, especially young Lizzie who needs her most.

“Dora consumed herself with industry. She took on extra work from Yum Lee, added a sideline millinery business around the holiday season, clandestinely sold piece-work to the mail-order catalogue mills, and hoarded her savings against every imagined calamity”(218).

Does this work for Eudora? In the long run, yes. She is finally able to build a secure, comfortable life for herself and Mah Bette. Is there fallout? Of course. Both her daughters, Elma and Lizzie, pay a price: “Her daughters, she had failed them both, cut herself off”(402). Yet, although radically different in their approach, with role models such as Mah Bette and Eudora, Elma and Lizzie find their ways of making it in the world. Eventually, Eudora avails herself to her daughters, primarily by giving their children, her grandchildren, what she was unable to give her daughters.

Sisters’ Strength

Shange and Bayeza must have heard “snips and snapshots” of mighty strong women in their family stories because the female characters in this novel are nothing if not that. These women, Mah Bette, Blanche, and Eudora (and others to come) offer up at least partial answers to the recurrent question of Black women’s survival. Although each woman must find her way, it is absolute truth that they need one another. If a mother is not able to be present, physically or emotionally, this story shows what a grandmother, aunt, or other nurturing woman can do for another.

Even better when accompanied by music!

Ntozke Shange and Ifa Bayeza are Nasty Women Writers.

© Maria Dintino 2024

Works Cited

Black Art Story. https://blackartstory.org/2022/11/27/profile-ifa-bayeza/

Persico, Joyce J. “Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza: the erstwhile Williams Siblings of Trenton mark careers with new novel, film.” The Times of Trenton, 10 Oct 2010. https://www.nj.com/mercer/2010/10/ntozake_shange_and_ifa_bayeza.html

Shange, Ntozake & Ifa Bayeza. Some Sing, Some Cry. St. Martin’s Press, 2010.