African American writing by women often exemplifies rich and varied literature that typically features women of broad and diverse backgrounds. Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo is the eponymous example of such work. There are many themes featured throughout the novel, but of particular interest are the relationships forged by Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo throughout the novel. Shange’s work features women who are not defined by others, but who have through their own experiences, shaped their lives. It is through such experiences that Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo’s relationships to their spirituality, to each other, and their own femininity are integral to the development and understanding of the novel.
Sassafrass, Hilda Effania’s eldest daughter, is a woman living in Los Angeles, California, divorced from her native Charleston. Sassafrass craves a closer connection to her spirituality and she satisfies this desire in several different ways. By weaving cloth, Sassafrass is continuing a tradition which forges and maintains spiritual ties to her slave ancestors. Moreover, Sassafrass’ association with individuals in the rural Louisiana commune indicates that she seeks to “to keep the company of the priests & priestesses” and to try “everything to be a decent Ibejii, a Santera (213). Carol Marsh-Lockett further expounds upon this idea in her essay, “A Woman’s Art; A Woman’s Craft: The Self in Ntozake Shange’s Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo” when she states that “Sassafrass comes into spiritual and emotional fruition through plying the craft she learned from Hilda” (50). Sassafrass’ weaving serves as a paradigm of how black women keep traditions in the black family alive and maintain healthy relationships to their spirituality.
Indeed, a connection to all things spiritual is not Sassafrass’ alone to possess. Cypress also expresses her spirituality through her exuberant dances. Dancing offers Cypress more than an outlet for expression; it provides her opportunities to connect with the Orishas, particularly Damballah. During an intensive dance at a tavern, Cypress becomes one with the pulsating music, surrendering herself to the spirits. Cypress is transformed; she behaves as if she is the avenue through which the father of all spirit travels. She dances “curved and low to the ground, her back undulated like Damballah’s child must” (156). Cypress’ respect for the spirits and is made known when she states that guests are not to “touch the altar for the Orishas” (102). The imagery Shange uses in the novel suggests that all women can have a relationship with their spiritual self through art. For Sassafrass it is through weaving, and for Cypress it is through dance.
Indigo’s outlet for her spirituality comes in various forms, but is most notable through her music. Aside from representing the granny midwife archetype, Indigo is a special girl with unusual powers and a deep understanding of the spiritual world. She converses through music with slaves whose language was stolen. As Shange demonstrates in the novel, the whites took “them languages we speak. Took off with our spirits & left us wit they Son…The fiddle be callin’ our gods what left us” (27). Indigo serves as a conduit for the expression of the spiritual forces around her. Furthermore, Indigo maintains an array of spells for healing afflictions, self exploration, love, happiness and other uses. Yet communication with spirits through music and the creation of spells is not the only indicator of Indigo’s mystical prowess. As a young girl, she rarely speaks to her family or the townspeople. Instead, she prefers to talk with her dolls and treat them as if they were alive. While Indigo’s behavior may seem strange, perhaps it suggests that children are more receptive to the supernatural than their adult counterparts.
Even more remarkable is the relationship that the siblings have with each other. Although they live far away from one another—Sassafrass in Los Angeles, Cypress in New York, and Indigo in Charleston, they are able to maintain healthy connections with one another. Despite being the oldest daughter, Sassafrass is in need of sisterly advice from Cypress when she leaves Mitch after a brutal beating. Arlene Elder expounds upon this notion in her article, “Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo: Ntozake Shange's Neo-Slave/Blues Narrative.” Elder states that “Shange culturally specifies her story…by showing the positive influence on Sassafrass of her sister Cypress” (104). Instead of telling her sister what she wants to hear, Cypress explains that Mitch remains selfish and unyielding.
However, there are hurtful aspects of this sisterly bond because both women indulge in unhealthy behaviors, which border on codependency. As Elder states, “Cypress deals drugs, traverses New York City underground and above ground, from one end to the other” using some of the proceeds to give money to Sassafrass, so that she may join the New World Collective artists’ community (104). Yet it is little Indigo, the most innocent of the three, who has always been adored by her elder sisters. Christmas traditions upheld by the young women and their mother imply a somewhat mystical bond. In her essay, Marsh-Lockett goes so far as to posit that they resemble “the three fates: Atropos, who carried the shears and cut the thread of life; Clotho who carried the spindle and spun the thread of life; and Lachesis, who carried the globe and scroll and determined the length of life” (48). Shange’s novel illuminates and affirms the notion of black sisterhood and kinship. By preserving strong unions, these sisters grow and develop into better, smarter, happier women. For Elder, Shange’s book focuses on “three sisters and their mother, comprising a suspended, but ultimately strong family unit” (106).
In addition to Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigos’ connections to one another, they have a strong sense of their own feminine identity. Sassafrass’ femininity is denigrated by Mitch at every turn as he attempts to subvert her power as a black woman. He thrives in his misogynistic treatment of her, and he believes that he must stifle the things that she enjoys as a woman. He literally and figuratively relegates her to the kitchen when she is caught crocheting. Sassafrass is a strong adherent to the ideology of black womanism. Chikwenye Ogunyemi defines the term in her article, “Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English” as a “philosophy that celebrates black roots, the ideals of black life, while giving a balanced presentation of black womandom” (72). Ogunyemi asserts that black unity among men and women is an ideal component in black women’s writing. Shange does not fully reconcile the idea of harmony among black women and men, because although the three main female characters maintain strong bonds with each other and their mother, the discord between Mitch and Sassafrass leads her to stay in a relationship that mocks and denigrates her womanhood.
Cypress’ stint with the lesbian dance troupe Azure Bosom leads to sexual exploration and a deeper understanding of her feminine self. She finds kinship with the women of the group, but this ends in betrayal when she embarks upon a lesbian affair with Idrina. Cypress initially thrives in the company of these women, suggesting that she is comfortable with the feminist rhetoric she encounters. Shange’s novel is an example of what Ogunyemi calls the feminist literary movement’s desire for “the illumination of female experience in order to alter the status quo for the benefit of women” (67). Certainly Cypress’ relationships with other women accentuate the connection to her own femininity. She gains a better understanding of who she is and what she wants as a woman.
Although Indigo enters into womanhood as an adolescent, she has an understanding of what being a black woman entails. When she gets her menses, Indigo makes velvet sanitary napkins for her fifteen dolls so that they can share in her experiences as her body undergoes changes. Ogunyemi states that a “young girl inherits womanism after a traumatic event such as menarche or after an epiphany or as a result of the experience of racism, rape, death in the family, or sudden responsibility” (72). For Indigo, this process is not traumatic; instead it is celebrated as a rite of passage. Several of the rituals mentioned in the novel are rooted in concepts such as motherhood, birth, and other themes attributed to femaleness.
Shange’s novel contributes to a literary movement among black women writers. The novel references the connections that black women share with their spiritual awareness, their links to each other, and their relationships to their own femininity. The relationships in this novel are significant because these three sisters exemplify the African philosophy of Sankofa, which means “return and recover it.” Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo become stronger, happier women because they have been able to return to their true selves and recover their African spirituality. This phenomenon is not limited to Shange’s novel, but can be applied to contemporary fiction and non-fiction. By analyzing such relationships, we can uncover other important themes such as feminism, sexism, and racism, which contribute to the progression of the novel. Such issues speak not only to the African American experience, but also to the human condition.
Marsh-Lockett, Carol. "A Woman's Art; A Woman's Craft: The Self in Ntozake Shange's Sassafras, Cypress, and Indigo." Arms Akimbo: Africana Women in Contemporary Literature. Ed. Janice L. Liddell and Yakini B. Kemp. New York: University P of Florida, 1999. 46-57.
Ogunyemi, Chikwenye O. "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English." Signs 11 (1985): 63-80.
Shange, Ntozake. Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo: A Novel. New York: Picador, 1982.