With No Immediate Cause (notes to Ntozake)

In appreciation of the poem by the same name
with no immediate cause
by
Ntozake Shange

I used dashes (—) to mark line breaks when quoting Ntozake Shange’s poem, so as not to be confused with her artistic use of slash marks. 

The most useful piece of information I took from my intro to women’s and gender studies course was the reality that my lived experiences with harassment and gender-based violence are in no way happenstance. Nor are they the result of my choices in company, attire, whereabouts, or recreation. I am a single body inside a reality that has warped and misshaped itself into a place where “every3 minutes a woman is beaten— every five minutes a— woman is raped/every ten minutes— a lil girl is molested[1].”

 What this means is the knowledge I’ve been consciously building since I was, say, twelve is very much a part of the collective experience of tens of thousands of Black women and femmes in this country alone. An epidemic that so many people have comfortably ignored because, to them, it’s a product of what’s “natural.” In a society where the aforementioned atrocities occur as frequently as breath is drawn, the norm is male dominance. (The reality is that cishetero, able-bodied [white] men have historically wielded power via violence over all women—most predominately, low-income trans Black women.)

However, despite many people’s denial of male dominance and privilege, the lives and work of Black women—I’d argue, all of ours—are proof enough of the violence written into the fabric of this nation and practically all others. This shared experience begets a collective body of knowledge—one that is rooted firmly in the body. We are, by virtue of existence, an oppositional force aimed straight at the system working hard to maintain hegemonic rule.

… my sisters and I operate within a system that is impossible to ignore. Because we’ve experienced it, learned about it, and been forced to cope with it.

The most useful piece of information I took from my intro to women’s and gender studies course was the reality that my sisters and I operate within a system that is impossible to ignore. Because we’ve experienced it, learned about it, and been forced to cope with it. A system that does not distinguish between my circumstance and my sister’s, but is geared to take out Black, femme, poor, disabled, and trans—anyone but rich, straight white men. A system that necessitates the foundation of a Black feminist politic written entirely based on the lives and history of Black women and queer folk.  

 The connectedness of U.S. Black women’s experiences outside of our individual lives and circumstances is one of the distinguishing features of U.S. Black feminist thought as outlined by Patricia Hill Collins in her seminal text “Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment.” As Dr. Collins so perfectly describes, one Black woman does not have to experience first-hand a cashier following her through the cornerstore, expecting her to steal—though many of us have—in order to recognize the racist system that allows such a violation to be so commonplace[2]. This is a system at work—pervasive and all-consuming, as sexual violence is and has been for decades.

If I had not been sexually assaulted for the first time in the seventh grade, I would soon come to learn about my god-sister, my mother, my friend, and countless, unnamed enslaved African women. I would eventually experience it, though . . . as a thirteen-then-fifteen-then-twenty-then-thirty-year-old Black woman in America. Because it seems that sexual harassment is waiting for me at every turn. Not simply because the cameras of America have turned their glaring eyes onto powerful white men at the request of white women. Not merely because white women have tried again and again to erase the legacy of a Black woman determined to end rape culture.

No, this is nothing borne of paranoia or paying too much attention to dreadful news. This isn’t even entirely about America’s history of using rape as a means of exerting economic and physical control over Black women. More presently, this is about the fact that I have been physically and verbally assaulted more consistently in the last three months than I remember ever happening.During the summer, ten entire days passed before I noticed, “hey, no one’s harassed me today!” Though this number seems inconsequential, the lived experience of it—the muscle spasms that caused aches days later, the personality-changing rage, the bone-chilling fear, the frustration and utter hopelessness—was grave.

Nothing so eloquently epitomizes my frustrations and wishes for retribution as Ntozake Shange’s poem, “with no immediate cause”

 And it hit me all at once like a boulder. Society expects me to simply survive through this. Family and loved ones expect me to carry a feudal-era sword with me at all times, learn all the martial arts, and dress in a Helly Hansen all year long in order to walk this Earth just the same as anyone-fucking-else. Society expects me to say no, firmly so as not to be mistaken yet still polite. Then blames me for whatever result comes about. And I am absolutely, positively pissed about it. Nothing so eloquently epitomizes my frustrations and wishes for retribution as Ntozake Shange’s poem, “with no immediate cause” (ca. 1975)—one of my favorites, by her and of all time.

 I go back and re-read the poem when I’m inconsolable over the reality of being Black and woman in a quickly-gentrifying city during a time where violence and power inequity is currency. Shange harbors the same level of suspicion and distrust of men as I do. I, too, know how stepfathers force you to hide secrets, and husbands rewrite your sexual agency to fit their whims and fancies. I know how complete strangers force intimacy upon you, without  thought of how absurd it is to insert yourself into someone’s life like that—and to only do it to women. If these are not my first-hand experiences, they are those of my mothers, sisters, friends—of countless women.

It also engenders a lot of questions for me. How do I even begin rectifying this shitheap of a social existence? How many men in my life and passing me on the street are serial abusers? Infrequent, only-when-you-deserve-it-and-I-can-get-away-with-it abusers? Questions that have answers well beyond my comprehension, perhaps landing somewhere in the realm of “true liberation means no need for Black feminist thought.”

However, more than all the confusion this poem stirs up for me, and the reaffirmation of my belief that patriarchy and all oppressions are systemic and pandemic, this poem empowers me. Especially towards its final chapters.

And just like we can never forget the reality of our experiences, she won’t let the men around her forget it either. Not even just the men, but everyone, will answer for the warped and misshaped reality that is America’s imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy

In its entirety, the poem follows a woman on the train who is overcome by the thought that every man around her—the old man sitting next to her, the young man standing near her, the man who sold her the newspaper—is a potential abuser. Not surprisingly, there’s a majority chance he is. In her perfectly perfect way, Shange paints the lives of myself and so many inner-city Black women with vivid color. Black women who rely on public transportation as their main or only mode of transportation (likely out of necessity) and are extremely likely to cross paths with violent men (street harassment is rampant, lack of public security is real). Black women who know full well how capable any single man is of abuse.

For a while Shange guesses frantically about the past crimes each man has committed. In a way similar to my assuming any man that talks to me on the street is trying to spit game and won’t respect my lack of time nor want for such advances—won’t even take it into consideration. Looking to confirm her suspicions, she takes to reading the newspaper she bought from a possible abuser. She expects to find news of the women who are killed, raped, and beaten every day. Instead, “there is some concern— that alleged battered women— might start to murder their— husbands & lovers with no— immediate cause.” And she reacts in the same violent way I do to rapists and their loyal band of apologists. With sheer, utter repulsion.

My only relief is Ntozake’s snarky end to the poem: “did you hurt a woman today— i have to ask these obscene questions— the authorities require me to— establish— immediate cause— every three minutes— every five minutes— every ten minutes— every day[3].” That’s her clever way of promising to meet abusers and assailants with violence, even death. She is challenging, in her ever-so-poetic way, the very system that demands women have a better reason for our anger than reaction to a system committed to demeaning us. And just like we can never forget the reality of our experiences, she won’t let the men around her forget it either. Not even just the men, but everyone, will answer for the warped and misshaped reality that is America’s imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy[4].


Notes

[1] Ntozake Shange, with no immediate cause, (ca.1975)

[2] Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge,Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, (New York,Routledge, 2000), 29

[3] Ntozake Shange, with no immediate cause, (ca.1975)

[4] bell hooks, feminism is for everybody: passionate politics, (Cambridge, South End Press, 2000), 4

Published by Sunshine

Sunny Scape is a safe space for Black women and queer folks. I am committed to eradicating intersecting systems of oppression that overwhelmingly affect people like myself, and doing so in a way that centers the most marginalized of us. That means that I am an activist on behalf of Black and brown queer and trans folks, children, sex workers, disabled folks, people of low socioeconomic status, currently and formerly imprisoned people, and countless others who are pushed to the back burners and relegated to second-class citizenship. This blog and everything within it is absolutely inseparable from the liberation efforts of all the aforementioned groups of people.

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