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178 CLA JOURNAL Black Feminist Hoodoo: Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo Dana Murphy A man or woman becomes a hoodoo doctor in one of three ways: by heredity, by serving an apprenticeship under an established practitioner, or by the “call.” —Zora Neale Hurston,“Hoodoo in America” Black feminisms and African American practices of hoodoo meet in the very first sentence of Ntozake Shange’s novel Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982):“Where there is a woman there is magic”(1).Throughout her novel,Shange invokesAfricanAmerican folk magic traditions within the context of Black feminist epistemology,acknowledging the historical roots of Black girls’magic and extolling our efforts to designate Black feminisms as a body of knowledge dedicated to our collective interests.As Shange clarifies,“Where there is a woman there is magic,”but “a woman who knows her magic...is a consort of the spirits” (1, emphasis added). Indeed, how one comes to “know her magic” is the novel’s primary inquiry. For Charleston, South Carolina sisters Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo, the journey to self-knowledge is uniquely their own. But each sister is equipped with practices for living that are steeped in African American, especially Gullah/Geechee, history. Their abilities to graft their ancestral pasts, both fortunate and fraught, onto the medium of their present-day lives has made Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo one of the most optimistic novels about the post-civil rights era and an indelible part of the subsequent surge in Black feminist writing. Shange’s optimism is especially crystallized in her depiction of youngest sister Indigo, in whose childhood Black feminist and hoodoo traditions thrive. However, Shange’s novel had to go through several editions before it included Indigo’s story. In 1976, Shange published a predecessor to Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982)—a chapbook named after its eldest sister,Sassafrass—with Shameless Hussy Press, which also printed an edition of Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf that same year. Both works were hybrid genres about Black women’s mental health and had performative aims. Shange later explained that Sassafrass depicted “an emotional breakthrough” and was designed to produce the same experience in readers (Tate 156). Thus, she intended for it to be “read in one sitting” (156). According to Harryette Mullen, CLA JOURNAL 179 “Black Feminist Hoodoo: Ntozake Shange’s Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo” Sassafrass was first published partially in various periodicals, then by Shameless Hussey Press as thirty-eight pages in 1976 and sixty pages in 1977 (227, 233n28). That Shange’s story grew larger with each publication is testament to its depiction of how Sassafrass grows in artistry across its pages. As her domestic partner becomes increasingly violent—first signaled in his inability to read Sassafrass’s textiles as legitimate art forms—Sassafrass moves out to live with her sister, Cypress, and begins to craft her own language for understanding her artistry and identity as the daughter of a weaver. Sassafrass’s story is preserved in the 1982 edition but becomes framed by her mother and sisters’ stories. While Sassafrass is a concentrated telling of a healing, its 1982 culmination as a novel resists being“read in one sitting” in favor of widening the circle surrounding that story and, as such, it becomes “dedicated to all women in struggle.” Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo is both a record of African American folk practices and an imagination of how they may address the needs of different modern-day Black women. Not only a work of fiction, it is an almanac, cookbook, correspondence, dream book, play, poem book, spell book, and more. In privileging indexical texts, Shange closely shapes the novel around its protagonists’own artistic lived contexts. What results is an expression of Black feminist knowledge production. Across the novel, the sisters must plumb their resources for solutions to various hardships (praxis) as they grow older and eventually live apart from their mother and each other. Such praxes are embodied in the novel as embedded texts, like their mother’s letters to her daughters—which, woven into the novel, appear before almost every chapter following the sisters’ departures from home, thereby encircling their lives even as they remain geographically separated...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2766-0265
Print ISSN
0007-8549
Pages
pp. 178-192
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-01
Open Access
No
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