Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo

by Ntozake Shange

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 391

A strong underlying theme of Ntozake Shange's novel is the importance of African American traditions in the lives of contemporary black people during the 1970s. Closely related is the theme of creativity as a central part of female lives. For the three sisters of the title and their mother, Hilda, African American female creativity is also tightly linked to the Southern environment—specifically coastal South Carolina—where they grew up and where their mother continues to live. The difficulty of establishing positive partnerships with men also resonates throughout the book.

The continuity of African American cultural heritage, especially in the coastal Gullah or Geechee culture, strongly affects the identity development of all three daughters, in part because of their mother's influence. Hilda has been a weaver, and the daughters absorb the creativity and discipline of a life in craft but turn toward more individualized arts. In the case of Indigo, cooking and making potions are significant, and she becomes deeply absorbed into a world of magic powers and enchantment. From childhood, Indigo has also made dolls, often seeing the small cloth people as equal to her flesh-and-blood siblings. In Indigo's life—more than her sisters' lives—the preoccupation with creativity leads her down dangerous paths, but her family helps her turn into a positive direction as she learns midwifery from her aunt.

For Cypress, expressing her creativity through dance involves her directly with political culture through art. In joining an African American dance troupe, she connects with the San Francisco Bay Area Black Power movement. Moving both deeper into the meaning of blackness for creative people and away from conventional cultural expressions symbolized by her home community, Cypress struggles to find balance. Acknowledging the centrality of gender in her creative life, including separating from negative male associates, is a major step that moves her toward resolving that internal conflict.

The theme of female connection to traditional cultural expression seems most directly linked to Sassafrass, because her work descends most literally from her mother’s weaving. Through textile art pieces, she applies her knowledge of materials and methods to uniquely personal creations. Although writing is a major passion as well, it is complicated by her male partner's way of privileging this genre over cloth art. In this regard, the reclamation by women of male-dominated creative genres expands on the female creativity theme.

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