Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo

by Ntozake Shange

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Growing up in South Carolina, three sisters feel how tightly their lives are intertwined even as they realize their unique gifts. Under the stern guidance of their mother, Hilda, the young Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo chart individual courses from an early age. Hilda believes that their environment influences these tendencies, saying some of her daughters have “too much South” in them.

Indigo is often lost in an imaginary universe inhabited by the dolls with which she surrounds herself. She feels like they understand her as no mere human can, and she often hears them calling.

These creatures were still her companions, keeping pace with her changes, her moods and dreams, as no one else could. Indigo heard them talking to her in her sleep. Sometimes when someone else was talking, Indigo excused herself—her dolls were calling for her.

While all the family’s women are creative, Sassafrass is the one who continues their traditional occupation of weaving. Although for her it is an art form rather than a functional medium, she recognizes that she has a place in a line of weavers and associates this talent with female identity on the global scale. There is something about cloth-making that makes a mental space for women.

Sassafrass was certain of the necessity of her skill for the well-being of women everywhere, as well as for her own. As she passed the shuttle through the claret cotton warp, Sassafrass conjured images of women weaving from all time and all places . . .

Cypress expresses creativity through dance. Realizing that classical dance cannot express all that she feels, she begins to learn from African-American dancers about new forms that draw on old traditions. She thinks back to the not-so-distant time when her ancestors were enslaved and so their bodies were not their own. Cypress looks inside to consider how that lack of ownership influenced bodily presence, including posture and the kinds of losses women endured, such as having their babies removed and sold away. With her own blood, muscle, and will, she decides, she can immediately protect the people she loves and, thinking bigger, change the world

She drew upon memories of her own blood: her presence would be a mortal threat to those who wounded, maimed, her ancestors, her lovers, Leroy. Like those women before her, who loaded bundles on their heads and marched off to fields that were not their own, like the "bearers" of her dreams swamped with births of infants they would never rear, Cypress clung to her body, the body of a dancer . . .

A compelling feature of the novel is the author’s incorporation of writings other than the omniscient narrator’s voice. These take the form of letters, especially from Hilda, as well as recipes and magic spells often recorded by Indigo. Many of these are concerned with love; there are also instructions for journeys to the moon and how to remove “the scent of evil”:

To Rid Oneself of the Scent of Evil: Drink a strong mix of lemon tea and honey. This if you’ve not cheated should bring sweat to your brown. This is the poison the offender has left lurking.

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