The Presentation of Violence
The Presentation of Violence in For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
The different rivers of violence – sexual, domestic, racial, personal — that flow through Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf and August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom end in a single confluence of trauma, in one tragic realization: the horror of physical assault is succeeded and prolonged by the psychological distress that burrows into one’s soul and continues underground, unseen, unnoticed and unattended for years to come.
Shange and Wilson use language to shine a light at the subject of rape from angles not usually seen. Thus For Colored Girls becomes a brutal education for young women about the reality of rape. It makes bright the secret despair that tracks rape victims once the physical shock has faded. Rape is first a physical violation, but then unexpected distresses arise: the rapist is not, as the usual conceptions have it, some fiend hiding in a dark alley at night, but he is girl’s close friend, or a respectable date; strangely a girl begins to blame herself for her attack, she thinks that she invited it, that she willed it. If she becomes pregnant the shame and stigma is too much and she hides her distress by turning it inwards, and thus sets it to eat away at her all life long. But Shange’s play is also a safehouse and a shelter for women who have already endured rape; it breaks through their isolation and offers hope by discussing the lives of other women who have endured the same fate. In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom it is a young boy that witnesses his mother’s rape by a group of white men, but the final effect is similar: he suppresses the incident for three decades, but it slowly gnaws away at his mind, at his religion, at his perception of the white man until it finally leaps out, when, ironically, he murders one of his black friends – the only sort of person who has never harmed him. The circle is completed: violence begets violence, and he is destroyed by his burden. Thus one theme is repeated throughout both plays. Sexual, domestic and racial violence are all funneled in each victim into profound psychological trauma – a trauma made more intense by the extra prejudices that face a black person living in America. In one play the trauma of violence is presented as surmountable; in the other it shown as is terminal.
For Colored Girls presents in brutal and beautiful language those aspects of rape that are unknown and unseen by most women. The first words of the choreopoem reveal one concealed effect of rape. The lady in brown says,
dark phases of womanhood
of never having been a girl and i can’t hear anything but maddening screams soft strains of death (Shange, 3,4)
Rape steals from a girl her childhood, her natural right to innocence and to a healthy and stable sexual initiation as a teenager. Rape crashes through these natural steps, distorting them and forcing upon a girl ‘dark phases’ of womanhood. That there are several phases suggests that she cannot escape the original trauma. They continue to stalk her as a woman. The opening scenes of the play present this theme graphically. To the sounds of music and dancing the seven girls remember the thrill and excitement of their sexual awakening as teenagers. The lady in yellow says in excitement ‘I waz the only virgin in the crowd’ , ‘I got drunk and couldn’t figure out whose hand waz on my thigh’ and ‘I hadda make like my hipz waz into some business’ (Nzotake, 5). But these are innocent remarks without anything sinister: they are the cheerful comments of a young girl who is becoming sexually active. But the tone of choreopoem is suddenly shattered and darkened by a stage direction and these lines
(There is a sudden lighting change, and all the ladies react as if they have been struck in the face. Everyone runs in different directions)
Lady in red
if you know him you must have wanted it
Lady in purple these things happen
Lady in blue
are you sure you didn’t suggest it
Lady in red
a rapist is always to be a stranger
to be legitimate someone you never saw a man wit problems
Lady in blue
Ticket studs from porno flicks in his pocket
These lines are quoted at such length because they reveal the essence of the secret damage caused by rape. The ladies are struck in the face telling that immediately all innocence is gone; they wake up to reality. But it is a confused reality. Each of the next lines is an attempt to make an excuse for the perpetrator of an inexcusable act. These women think that somehow they must have invited this tragedy upon themselves. Thus Shange introduces a new aspect for her reader’s understanding of the psychology of rape: the phenomenon of self-blame. Rape ruptures hidden insecurities in a woman’s psyche and women use these insecurities to justify their attackers’ attacks. The second thing Shange does in these lines is to show the falseness of the common assumption that rapes are usually committed by psychotic strangers – by a man with ‘ticket studs from porno flicks in his pocket’. The most frequent reality of rape is quite different. These women are ‘being betrayed by men who know us’ (Shange, 17), men who ‘make elaborate Mediterranean diners’ that ‘carry all the ethical burdens’. This is the second unforeseen reality of rape. That rape is usually rape by those men close to us, those men we have known long, and those men we have trusted. Thus the violation is worse and more prolonged. Perhaps a woman who is raped by a stranger can recover eventually, can move past it by thinking of it as a horrific accident; but how can a woman who is raped by someone she has trusted ever trust again? This sentiment is expressed by the lady in red who realizes that all men are suffering from ‘latent rapist bravado’ (Shange, p17). She feels that not only insane men, but all men are capable (inclined?) to rape. The lady in blue confirms that rape by someone close is no more justifiable than a stranger, saying, ‘(they are) no less worthy of being beat within an inch of his life / being publicly ridiculed / having two fists shoved up his ass’. At the end of this scene of harrowing realizations comes the seminal line in the play. The lady in red in dejection and in with much pathos says ‘cuz it turns out the nature of rape has changed’. Rape is no longer at the frontier of the possible, something that happens only to other women: it is a reality for all women and is becoming domesticated. (Something shown harrowingly in the final scene of the play where domestic violence leads a desperate Beau Willie Brown to drop his children from a fifth-storey window). One wonders whether the nature of rape has changed from what it used to be in former generations, or whether rape has changed from what she assumed it to be? With this statement all traces of girlhood innocence vanish utterly, and the lady in blue sees in disgust
Eyes crawlin upon me
Eyes rollin in my thighs
Metal horses gnawin my womb
Dead mice fall from my mouth (Shange, 20)
These are words of solitude: something is eating her from within but she must live with it in total silence: the outside world knows nothing of her misery.
And this theme of solitude and silence is extended by Shange third revelation about the trauma of rape. If rape leads to pregnancy and abortion then an entirely new inner misery begins. The shame of admitting the rape is an unbearable stigma and so this too gets turned inwards and inflates the desperation the woman is already feeling. The lady in red confides ‘I cdnt have people lookin at me pregnant’ and ‘nobody came / cuz nobody knew / onze I waz pregnant, shamed of myself (Shange, 27). And the women in the play cope with the extra prejudices associated with their race. She asks whether all this is happening to her because she is black? And the lady in orange finally laments ‘cuz I don’t know anymore / how to avoid my own wet face with tears cuz I had convinced myself colored girls had no right to sorrow'(Shange, 44)