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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343

Ntozake Shange tells the story of two generations of a family: a mother, Hilda Effania, and the three daughters named in the title. Set primarily in the 1960s–70s, the novel follows these African American women from Charleston, South Carolina on their distinct paths. While the mother encourages her daughters to...

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Ntozake Shange tells the story of two generations of a family: a mother, Hilda Effania, and the three daughters named in the title. Set primarily in the 1960s–70s, the novel follows these African American women from Charleston, South Carolina on their distinct paths. While the mother encourages her daughters to pursue education, optimistic that it is a path to marriage and happiness, each of them interprets their future differently. Their individual voices appear in the novel as letters, diary entries, and magic spells. Their family had been accomplished weavers, an art that Sassafras pursues. The traditional coastal Geechee cultures of formerly enslaved peoples also help to shape the women’s identities and journeys.

Indigo’s identity quest and interest in spirituality immerses her in a fantastic world of magic, combined with hand-crafting unique dolls. She learns to play the violin drawing on her inner depths, thanks to a gift from the ragpicker John, eschewing the formal lessons her mother had pushed on her. Finally confronting the brutal legacy of slavery, and then turning away from the darker side of magic, Indigo learns to be a midwife from her aunt.

Sassafras’s artistic longings take her to the West Coast, where she develops her talents in fiber arts. After an affair with Mitch, a musician with substance abuse issues causes her to doubt this calling and move with him to Louisiana. Recovering her confidence in her own vision, she leaves him and renews her commitment to art on her own terms.

The artistic direction of Cypress lay in dance, which she pursued in San Francisco. As adults, the two sisters’ lives become intertwined once more as Sassafras leaves Mitch and joins her there. Rejecting the confines and social irrelevance of ballet, Cypress joins a troupe devoted to African American dance, while earning a precarious living by selling drugs. On a performance trip to New York, she breaks with the group’s members, especially the sexually aggressive men. There she joins a radical feminist dance group, but establishes a heterosexual partnership with a musician.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 822

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo incorporates Shange’s earlier novella Sassafras (1976). Apparently set during the Vietnam War era, it tells the story of Hilda Effania and her three daughters, African American natives of Charleston, South Carolina, descendants of a family of weavers who did piecework for a wealthy white family. Hilda Effania has conventional aspirations for her daughters, hoping that each will marry well and happily, preferably to a doctor’s son. She gives them the means to follow an upwardly mobile path: She sends Sassafrass to an exclusive northern prep school and Cypress to New York City to study ballet. She offers Indigo the opportunity to study the violin. Her daughters, however, are not content merely to follow the paths she suggests to them.

The daughters’ stories are told separately. Indigo’s story concerns her arrival at sexual maturity at the age of twelve and the resulting changes in her life. Her constant companions have been dolls she has made, and she sees herself as inhabiting a world of magical people and events. When she is on the verge of giving up her dolls, Uncle John the ragpicker, one of the mysterious figures she has befriended, gives her a violin. She becomes adept at improvising on the instrument, producing unconventional but compelling music. Initially resisting her mother’s desire that she learn to play properly, she ultimately does learn to play conventionally.

For a while, Indigo uses the magical power of her fiddle as part of a motorcycle gang, the Geechee Capitans. Her epiphany occurs when she is being chased during a misadventure through vaults where African slaves were once imprisoned. At that point, she renounces her flirtation with a life of violence: “Indigo knew her calling. The Colored had hurt enough already.” Ultimately, she goes to live with her aunt on a coastal Carolina island, where she learns the aunt’s trade of midwifery.

Despite her education, Sassafrass eschews college in favor of the artistic life. A weaver like her mother, she has turned the craft of weaving into an art form, weaving expressive hangings rather than utilitarian cloth. In Los Angeles, she becomes involved with Mitch, a tenor saxophonist and drug addict, with whom she has a tempestuous relationship. Mitch wants Sassafrass not to be a weaver but to express herself through writing. They finally move together to an artistic commune in Louisiana, where Sassafrass finds herself through religion and leaves Mitch behind definitively.

Sassafrass’s story is interwoven to an extent with Cypress’s—during a stormy episode with Mitch, Sassafrass goes to visit her sister in San Francisco. Cypress has become a dancer in an African American idiom rather than ballet, with a dance troupe called The Kushites Returned. She supports herself largely by selling drugs and surrounds herself with a bohemian entourage. She travels with The Kushites Returned to New York City. Disgusted with the behavior of the male dancers around her, she enters the orbit of Azure Bosom, a radical feminist dance company by which she feels comforted and protected for a time. Feeling betrayed by one of the dancers in Azure Bosom, however, she falls into a relationship with Leroy, an alto saxophonist, with whom she finds happiness.

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo combines third-person narration with other literary forms: It includes letters, journal entries, even recipes and magical spells. Although each sister’s story is told separately, they are punctuated by letters to the sisters from their mother which frame each story in terms of the mother’s values and ambitions for them. This diversity mirrors the multiple pressures and issues the three women must face as they discover themselves. Each woman must, in her own way, reconcile the need for autonomy with her family and ethnic history, and with the urge to create. Indigo negotiates her mother’s disapproval of her interest in magic and desire to leave the mythological aspect of their heritage behind by immersing herself in Geechee culture, where she is accepted as a midwife and woman of magic, while simultaneously studying the violin. Her fiddle playing, spell casting, and desire to help her race fit comfortably into the folk culture of the island.

Through her immersion in non-Western religion, Sassafrass also finds a context that gives her natural creative outlet, weaving, a higher significance. Cypress explores several possibilities, expressing aspects of herself through her work with African American and feminist dance companies. Through her relationship with Leroy, she is freed from the attempts of others to define her creativity and also freed to express her rage at the historical mistreatment of African Americans. Ultimately, all three women return to Charleston to attend to the birth of Sassafrass’s child. Each has found her own path and place in life, her own way of reconciling their common conflicts, and her own way of permitting her particular sense of personal and racial identity to create a context for her need to create.

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