For Colored Girls:
A Worldview and Selected Interpretations
Tyler Perry’s 2010 film For Colored Girls is based off an experimental play written by Ntozake Shange in 1975 entitled For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide when the Rainbow is Enuf. The original play is a poetic compilation of monologues and vignettes reflecting the experiences of various colored women growing up in Harlem New York during the latter half of the 20th century. The movie weaves these separate moments into a plausible story surrounding a group of colored women who share connections to one Harlem walk-up apartment building. The apartment is the locality that anchors the film. All of the women are either tenants of the building, have relatives who are tenants of the building, or have extenuating reasons for visiting the building sometime in the film. While each woman has a set of individual tribulations which define her struggle, together, these individual struggles create a greater commentary about what it means to be a black woman in American society.
The Cosmology of For Colored Girls is an indifferent and, incidentally, harsh one for certain people. The women live in a world where God has either absconded completely, abdicated all responsibility, never existed, or remains, yet conspires to do harm. Whatever the case, this is a world where human evils are not only permitted to exist, but encouraged to continue. Endemic poverty and government neglect suggest that, if there is a God, he cares little for the struggles of the materially and emotionally impoverished Harlem residents, leaving them to fend for themselves as orphans of a father who has either abandoned them, or never embraced them to begin with. There is a sense that other people have managed to succeed materially in this world, but they do not live here, and it is not because they are favored by God; rather, it is because they have somehow been sheltered from the horrors that are so unfortunately tethered to lives of black women living in Harlem. The Cosmology is one of divine neglect, leaving women at the mercy of the bloodthirsty hounds of misogyny, capitalism, and white privilege; but, in this vulnerability, there is a right path to live by, as cloudy and uncertain as that path may often seem. Moral objectivity exists in this neglected world, because human evil operates in that divine void and must be resisted.
The Anthropology of For Colored Girls is one of pain, struggle, and hope. To be human is to struggle to survive in the absence of divine support. To be human is to be at war with the socially-constructed world, recognizing that there are forces in it which seek to destroy you. To be a woman in this world is to recognize that you face additional problems of sexism. To be a colored woman is to recognize that these problems have been further compounded by the burdens of racism. In sum, to be a colored woman is to recognize that disease, death, rape, sadness, family discord, unemployment, identity-crisis, under-education, sexual objectification, hate, domestic abuse, infidelity, teen pregnancy, child molestation, alcoholism, drug addiction, misogyny, poverty, and estrangement are very real evils that threaten your existence; additionally, to be human is to take responsibility for your struggle or drown in these evils that surround you. It is to recognize that you shoulder the responsibility for fighting back, resisting these evils, and sharing your experience so that it may empower the women around you to do the same.
The Cosmogony of For Colored Girls is a mysterious one. However the world was created, we get the sense that it has not turned out as planned. It is certainly not the best of all possible worlds. The possibility that it is the worst of all possible worlds for the black woman is more likely. To be a colored woman living in the poverty-blighted projects of Harlem is to live in an entirely different world than the rest of America. It is to live in ‘the other’ America, the one that lies just over the metaphorical railroad tracks of middle-class privilege, the one on the lowest rung of the social ladder, the one on the economically-perforated margins of mainstream, white society. We can only get a sense for how this world was created. It was socially-constructed on the backs of the very people it exploits for the economic gains of those who live somewhere else, far away from the evils of Harlem’s derelict tenements; what’s more, is that its survival depends on the estrangement of the black woman from any means of empowerment, such as her sisters, her family, and herself.
The Eschatology of For Colored Girls is both undefined and sorrowful. For Colored Girls makes no objective statements about life in the hereafter because life on earth is what is important. The film makes no reliable assumptions about the existence of an afterlife or the end of the world. The apocalypse for the black woman is not a future date approaching on the calendar. It is not an abrupt fire ball or tidal wave which will swallow the earth and universally destroy all human life in one blow. For the black woman living in Harlem, the apocalypse manifests itself daily in the form of systematic destruction. It is the brown demise: the very struggle to fight a political and social engine pressing against you. Metaphorically, it is the consistent approach of a bulldozer on the projects. Each day you must protest its encroachment, and lobby for its removal. The Eschatology of For Colored Girls is the idea that this world, ‘the other’ America, can end at any time, when we give up the struggle, and stop getting out of bed in the morning. When loved-ones die, we do not know where they go, though we hope it is someplace better than where they lived. What we do know, is that we have been robbed of another reason to fight for our lives. Death makes it harder to continue in life.
The Soteriology of For Colored Girls is one of hope through collective empowerment and shared experience. Black women must bond together to resist the socially-constructed evils which intend to destroy them. To do so, they must recognize that their experiences are both different and one-in-the-same in that they share common enemies. The Soteriology assumes that women can derive strength from sharing, venting, and articulating their experiences with evil. As Audre Lorde once stated, the socially-constructed axiom of ‘divide and conquer’ must become ‘define and empower’. Women must define their struggles in order to recognize what afflicts them. They must empower themselves to rise-above these afflictions, lifting up their fellow sisters, as they themselves climb from the pit of social and emotional destitution. To heal in this world, which has so terribly wounded you, is to come together with your fellow sisters and lean on them. It is to recognize that, although you have lost so much, there are others like you who need your support. In helping them survive, you will also be helping yourself by giving yourself new purpose, and allowing yourself access to the curative inspiration of your fellow sisters.
The Axiology of For Colored Girls is an objective yet contextually-dependent one. There is an ethical, or morally correct, way to operate in this harsh world, and it can be known. Each action can be judged according to the support or hardship it creates for a fellow sister in Harlem. If your actions bring you closer to your sisters, help them confront their issues, and contribute to their survival in this harsh world, then they are ethically correct. In such a hostile world, if your actions make life even a little easier for your sisters, they are ethically correct. To be self-absorbed, and self-distanced from the struggles of your fellow sisters, is to live unethically. To ignore how similar your experiences with your sisters are is to ignore the piece of you that exists within them, and the piece of them that exists within you. It is to forget that you are different, yet one in the same. It is to allow the socially-constructed evils of this world to separate you from your last remaining support system, making you think, falsely, that your sisters are also your enemies.
The Spiritually of For Colored Girls is simple yet powerful. It is the ephemeral bond that exists between all sisters: the recognition and reminder that a common struggle pervades each of their lives. The religious notion that each woman is spiritually-linked by their experiences with this struggle: the metaphysical dilemma of being a colored woman in 20th century America.
Note: My informed comments offer a list of possible ways of interpreting the worldview of For Colored Girls. I initially attempted to construct this section critically with my biases, but found that too hard of a task. I find that the possibility of truth lies in each of the theories that I have included below.
Darwinian Social Constructivism
To accept the worldview of For Colored Girls is to acknowledge that there are, at the very least, two worlds in America: the one of the struggling Harlem residents, and the one people who survive somewhere else under different circumstances. It is to acknowledge that For Colored Girls is a subjective experience with a Soteriology that is based around survival techniques that are contextually specific. It is understandable that people elsewhere, under different circumstances, would not prescribe to the For Colored Girls worldview, and vice versa. The worldview is admittedly subjective, post-modern, and possibly determined by wish-fulfillment. Knowing this, we must ask whether the worldview of For Colored Girls is an exercise in a Darwinian-esque Social Constructivism. The cosmology of an absconded God could have been created because the women of Harlem needed an explanation for the poor quality of their surrounding circumstances. The rest of the worldview is the Darwinian part, because it is designed to help women survive in these harsh conditions. If we accept this Darwinian Social Constructivist model, there is very little that For Colored Girls can tell us about the world outside of Harlem, without watering down the idea to some version of the saying, “different contexts, different worldview.”
The Culture of Poverty
The Soteriology of For Colored Girls has a problem in that it seems incomplete. Once women have shared their experiences of abuse, poverty, etc… with one another, what happens next? How do women convert these experiences into social, physical, monetary, legal, and political change? The Western, capitalistic world favors tangible progress, i.e. success that can be measured in time, materials, employment, finances. How can the collective sharing of experience yield these results, and thus, lift women from the pit of poverty and abuse in which they live? If we believe that the problems of Harlem are indeed just that, problems with the very place itself, then it can be assumed that the ultimate goal is to leave Harlem and move to a “better” context. But the girls do not seem to want this. They seem intent on staying in Harlem and risking the persistence of the abuse that seems endemic in the environment. Perhaps it is a catch-22 scenario, where black women do not want to leave Harlem and its abuses behind, because so much of their culture exists in the neighborhood. Leaving the neighborhood could mean both a betrayal of your “sisters and brothers” in Harlem, and the submergence of your cultural identity in a foreign environment. When we add these two assumptions together, that black culture and abuse are endemic to the Harlem environment; we arrive at the sociological theory of The Culture of Poverty, which suggests that these “evils” are inherently connected to black culture, and no Soteriology will permanently extract them. Are the women in For Colored Girls trying to eliminate these “evils,” or are they simply trying to deal with their inevitability?
In the For Colored Girls worldview, people succeed because they are privileged to live away from the “evils” of Harlem. This worldview is similar to A Thousand Sisters, with the differences that, in For Colored Girls, the protagonists exist within “the Congo” as opposed to outside of it. Lisa Shannon was able to live a safe and financially-secure life in Portland because she was far removed from the troubles of the Congo. When she came to the Congo, she had difficulty adjusting the violence that seemed endemic there. Similarly, if a well-to-do stock broker from Manhattan moved into the Harlem walk-up of For Colored Girls, he/she would have difficulty adjusting to the new atmosphere. Literally, this move is to cross over from one world into another, where an entirely different set of subjectivities reign. Lisa Shannon operated under the assumption that her work in the Congo was “good” because it made individual differences for the families living there. Our epistemology in For Colored Girls is the same. We can know “good” because we can see the effect in the lives of the people around us. We can see it in the absence of any further injury to them. Both operate under the altruistic notion that human life is universally good, and every individual human life deserves the right to be happy and healthy. The Altruist with this notion must explain why such evil is allowed to exist. They can explain this through Atheism, an evil deity, or the evils of society which God does not, or cannot, control. Either way, the Altruist must believe that they are not undermining God’s will by helping those in less fortunate circumstances. They must rationalize why their altruism is not an affront to the way things were supposed to be.
Hegemonic Social Constructivism
For Colored Girls offers an interesting qualification of Social Constructivism. It is the idea that humans naturally construct multiple worlds through socialization, and those worlds spill over into each other. The result is a relationship whereby the standards of one socialized world exercise a dominant role on another socialized world. The theories, concepts, assumptions, and norms of one world expand as that world grows in body and influence. The bigger world spreads like an organism, eventually projecting its assumptions onto a smaller socially-constructed world and attempting to convert that world to its way of thinking, in order to continue its expansion. The result is that the organism “looks down upon” and devalues the culture of the smaller socialized-world. Its assumptions bleed into the smaller socialized world, and people suffer under their inability to adapt to them. So, instead of bluntly stating that all humans socially construct worlds, we can take this concept further, and say that these socially constructed worlds are clashing upon each other, vying for room to grow. The Harlem neighborhood, in this model, is a collective of people holding on to the hope a socially-constructed world that is struggling to survive; thus, the people in it are also struggling to survive. Harlem is literally “in the way” of a greater socially constructed world that is trying to consume it. In Chicago, we may be able to apply this model to ideas of urban gentrification.
The Theory of Return
The biggest questions that the worldview of For Colored Girls raises are: what parties and what factors are responsible for the “evils” that exist in Harlem, are those “evils” inevitable in some cultures, and whose job is it to deal with those “evils”? As A Thousand Sisters suggests, is it greater New York, America, and the World that is responsible for addressing these travesties, despite their distance from them? As For Colored Girls suggests, is it the women within the environment that are responsible for finding ways of coping with and combating them? Whatever the case, one thing seems clear. The farther one lives from the “evils,” the easier it is to ignore them. This thought leads us to the greater question of whether some people historically socially-constructed their worlds in order to get away from these “evils”; thus, asking someone outside of Harlem to attend to its problems is counter-productive and even regressive. It is a measure of asking them to return to the world that they intentionally invented themselves out of.