Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo

by Ntozake Shange

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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 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.

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