Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo

by Ntozake Shange

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo is a novel by American writer Ntozake Shange. The book was published in 1982, which was a period in American history when citizens, particularly minorities, were still experiencing the after-effects of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The 1980s was also the beginning of the decade after the Post-Civil Rights Movement era (1970s). In 1982, Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States, and his terms in office proved to be a challenging time for the African American community, particularly due to Reaganomics.

The story centers on three sisters in South Carolina who are textile artists. Each sister performs the process of spinning, weaving and dying textiles. This is, perhaps, a reference to Moirai in Greek mythology, or the Fates in English. In the Greek myth, three sisters—Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos—each perform a specific task in determining one's existence. Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis measures the the thread in relation to the person, and Atropos cut the thread of life. The latter chose how a person would die.

The fates of each sister are told and examined. The first character to be introduced is Indigo, who becomes involved with a cult-like group. The second sister to be introduced is Sassafrass, who lives with her abusive boyfriend in Los Angeles. She is a creative person and so is her younger sister, Cypress, who she eventually moves with in San Francisco. This part of the novel showed the two sisters' interweaving lives, as if they are two colorful threads that braid to form a larger tapestry.

When Cypress moves back to New York City to continue her dance career, she becomes more in-tuned with the political plight of minorities, particularly African Americans and the LGBTQ community. She also becomes more involved in feminist activism. Cypress conducts a fundraiser to support the Civil Rights Movement, which illustrates Cypress's yearning for a higher purpose in life. She uses her talents to contribute to causes that are important to her identity as an African American female.

The final section of the book shows Sassafrass returning to South Carolina to give birth, where Indigo, who learned midwifery, performs the childbirth. This symbolizes the Fates again in that Indigo spins the thread of life, thus marking a beginning for a new member of the family.

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