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CLA JOURNAL 151 Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo Revisited: The Intersections of Politics, Culture, and Self-Development Jacqueline Jones In an interview that appears in Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work, novelist, poet, and dramatist Ntozake Shange states that “if there is an audience for whom I write, it’s the little girls who are coming of age. I want them to know that they are not alone and that we adult women thought and continue to think about them” (162). Shange’s first novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982) does just that. Set in Charleston, South Carolina in the 1960s and 1970s, the bildungsroman charts the effects shifting cultural, political, and artistic values have on the coming-of-age experiences of sisters Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. The product of several generations of women weavers, the sisters learn to weave, dye cloth, and cook from their mother Hilda Effania. Shange integrates poems, tonics, recipes, letters, and dance choreography into the narrative to provide additional context for the characters’ rich lives. Eldest sister Sassafrass follows in her mother’s footsteps and becomes a weaver; she also is a poet. Middle sister Cypress is a dancer. Youngest sister Indigo plays the fiddle, communicates with the spirits of slaves, and has magical powers. Drawing from black nationalist and black feminist ideologies of the period, Shange constructs the sisters as working toward dismantling various forms of oppression through self-development and redefinition. The sisters look toward African diasporic and women’s cultural practices, their connection to nature and the spirit world, as well as their artistic abilities to create and define individual identities. Sassafrass engages and extends the conversations of black women writers in the 1970s and early 1980s regarding the role black communities play in the lives and self-development processes of black girls and women. Using what we would now consider an intersectional approach, novelists of the period illustrate the effects patriarchy, sexism, violence, and internalized racism have on the development of black girl and women.1 As Barbara Christian asserts in “Trajectories of SelfDefinition ,” novels including Toni Morrison’s Sula (1973) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) depict black communities as “a major threat to the survival and empowerment of women” (240). This was significant as black women writers articulated that not only do their experiences with sexual violence, patriarchy, and other issues within black communities require the same urgency as institutional racism in larger society but also being both black and women compounds their marginalization. In these works, then, protagonists challenge community norms as they work toward survival, autonomy, and self-definition. Characters in 152 CLA JOURNAL Jacqueline Jones 1970s novels were likely to find that their endeavors left them isolated from the community or with a limited sense of social inclusion. In several early 1980s novels, the addition of a “strong woman’s community” results in most protagonists surviving, with some experiencing “the possibility of wholeness” (Christian 243). Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo has generally been linked to this latter category of early 1980s novels in which protagonists create “the possibility of wholeness” through female friendship and or engagement in communities of women. While the novel does depict problematic attitudes and behaviors related to gender and sexuality that pose a threat to black girls and women, it also incorporates instances where the sisters’ community of origin aids or empowers the protagonists’ self-development. Though most of the positive interactions that occur in the novel happen among women, there are also occasions, particularly during the sisters’ childhoods, where the protagonists are empowered by elder men in their community. Furthermore, Shange distinguishes the text from similar works of the time by providing her characters with more than the “possibility of wholeness” (Christian 243). With exposure to a broad array of spiritual, cultural, and political influences, Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo learn to internalize the values and lessons that work for them and discard or overcome the ones that do not. The sisters leave home on a quest for education and fulfillment, and they harmoniously return self-actualized and as meaningful participants in their community. As such, through Sassafrass, Shange offers a vision of black women establishing autonomy without sacrificing communal integration, which she...


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pp. 151-167
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