Ta-Nehisi Coates asked ‘Is For Colored Girls a Classic’: My Response

By Guest Contributor Renina Jarmon, originally published at New Model Minority

In March, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a blog post titled, “The Debatable Legacy of For Colored Girls.” He writes,

“I haven’t read it in years, but even as a younger person I remember thinking it was somewhat over the top and heavy-handed. Hence when I heard that Perry was involved my thoughts were more along the lines of “Of course” or “Perfect.” I could be off on this and I’d like to hear some discussion around this.”

Nearly four years ago, I shouted out Ta-Nehisi Coates after reading an article of his in O magazine on his process of being a Black dad. I stated explicitly that publishers needed to give him a book deal. He responded to me a year later, and arranged to send me a galley of Beautiful Struggle, which I then reviewed on this blog. So i say this knowing that we have some limited history and I want to acknowledge that.

I have found Ta-Nehisi’s Black gender politics to be lacking on his blog and in some ways the questioning of whether or not For Colored Girls is classic symbolizes some of what troubles me about his Black gender politics.

When reading this post Moya asked me two questions. The first was, “Why does it matter to Ta-Nehisi Coates whether For Colored Girls is a classic?” The second is “Is he saying that because it is not a classic that it doesn’t matter if Tyler Perry butchers it?

This is not to say that For Colored Girls should not be questioned. Work around Black gender relations should be given a critical eye.

The issue for me is his reliance on his memory as a basis for questioning whether or not it is a classic.

What does it mean that a Black man, at a popular White publication openly questions whether or not a work by Black feminist artist is a classic, having not read the work since his was younger?

Ta-Nehisi is a reader. Last summer he read and blogged so much about the civil war that he had me revisiting the founding fathers narratives on slavery and democracy. Blog post here, “The Coming Coming Jobless Society.”

In fact, he is currently re-reading Malcolm’s autobiography. Why not re-read For Colored Girls, then ask whether or not it’s a classic?

To read something is to deem it important, significant and worthy of your time.

In the book Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Clinton, Duchess Harris explains the significance of For Colored Girls. I picked up this book on Tuesday because I suspected that Dr. Harris would analyze the cultural moment out of which For Colored Girls emerged. I include three of her quotes below. She writes,

The work of Michelle Wallace and Ntozake Shange shook Black academe and the predominantly male establishment, creating necessary controversy that advanced the Black feminist movement. Without the debates the works engendered, Black feminist writings would not be as developed as they are today. Wallace and Shanges works were also necessary since they were articulations not only about Black women, but by Black women, offering a narrative that diverged considerably from the limiting sterotypes of the Monyihan report, as well as those books such as Soul on Ice by former Black power leader Eldridge Cleaver.

She also says,

Yet, the fact that Shange asserted women’s rights to have their own narratives and, moreover, the right to tell those narratives, opened the door to a new type of creative cultural production that expanded opportunities for Black women to explore, discuss, and understand the issues that affected their lives, as well as present these issues before a broader more diverse audience.

She goes on to say,

Shange also resisted the notion that she glamorized Black women at the expense of Black men, and insisted that her treatment of Black women was neither glamorizing or uplifting but rather a reflection of how she viewed reality. Black men and some Black women were not accustomed to seeing Black women stand up for a Black autonomous feminism that questioned racism within White feminist movements but also went against sexism within Black society. Such a stance is central to Wallace’s and Shange’s writing, since they did not attack all Black men- only the ones who abuse and oppress women and those who let other men so without educating them to act otherwise.

In the essay, “Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Crisis of African American Gender Relations” Michelle Wallace said that a significant aspect of the Black feminist work is to,

“get black scholars and intellectuals of Orlando Patterson’s superb caliber to think seriously and write publicly about Black gender relations.”

In many ways Wallace’s sentiments towards Patterson captures my sentiment’s toward Ta-Nehisi.

Given Ta-Nehisi’s ability to dig in deep on a topic, AND the audience and platform that he has, he could conceivably impact the tone and content of Black gender discourse in profound ways.

Some great books on Black gender politics (relationships between Black men and women) are When and Where I Enter by Paula Giddings, Black Macho and the Myth of the Super Woman by Michelle Wallace and Black Feminist Theory from Margin to Center by bell hooks.

  • Do you think that For Colored Girls is a classic? Why or Why not?
  • Would you need to learn more in order to say so?
  • What is politically at stake when we discuss text we haven’t recently read?