"COLORED" HILDA EFFANIE has three daughters with husband Alfred: Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo. They live in Charleston, South Carolina. Indigo is a mad little "girl-child," just turned 12 and silent except with her dolls to whom she talks and who talk to her. She has too much "South in her"; she believes in the magic of her beloved Aunt Haydee the midwife; she thinks her dolls are alive and talking to her as she talks to them; briefly, she becomes a member of a motorcycle gang. Her older sister Sassafras is, like her mother, a skilled artisan in weaving and making hangings, a free spirit who gravitates to the West Coast, forms a faithful alliance with a n'er-do-well lover Mitch and becomes a deeply believing member of the spiritual New World Collective. And Cypress, a trained dancer, goes to New York, loves both men and women, experiences black, exciting, violent New York City, and dreams of black women's liberation, for herself, her mother, her ancestors.
Shange is the author of the successful play, for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (1975), a moving work full of choral poetry and genuine evocation of feminine black experience. In 1978 she published a volume of poetry, with some prose, called Nappy Edges, a book dedicated to the same three sisters whose names form the title of this, her first novel. The play and the poetry might have prepared us for the beauty and force of Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo. Shange is primarily a poet, with a blood-red sympathy for and love of her people, their folk as well as their sophisticated ways, their innocent, loving goodness as much as their lack of immunity to powerful evil. She is a mistress of the color, shape and ringing, accurate imagery of their thought and their speech.
But her voice in this novel is entirely her own, an original, spare and primary- colored sound that will remind readers of Jean Toomer's Cane. In Nappy Edges she wrote:
"we, as a people, or as a literary cult, or a literary culture/ have not demanded singularity from our writers. we cd all sound the same. come from the same region. be the same gender. born the same year. & though none of the above is true, a black writer can get away with/ abscond and covet for him or herself/ the richness of his or her person/ long before a black musician or singer cd."
This is not true of Shange, nor is it any longer true, it seems to me, of the rising generation of important black novelists and poets. Shange is a unique lyric singer whose voice is very seldom high-pitched or raucous; always it is modulated into a poetic, orchestrated sound that is not so much characteristic of fiction as it is the vocal quality of poetry. Into her narrative potpourri she tosses all the graphic elements of southern black life: wonderful recipes (or so they seem to me, a noncook), spells and potions (how to rid oneself of the scent of evil), prescriptions (how to care for open wounds when they hurt), letters (from Mama to her beloved but straying and erring daughters, full of calm reason and uncritical love, always advising accommodation to the hostility and blindness of the white world). Mama says to the picture of her dead husband at the end: "You know, Al, I did the best I could, but I don't think they want what we wanted." They are once again together at home: Sassafras to bear Mitch's child; Indigo, taking the dead Aunt Haydee's place, to deliver the child; Cypress to massage her birthing sister. And of course, Mama is there.
Shange's gift lies in her ability to convey the texture of both of simple and of sophisticated life, in a kind of shorthand laced with uncannily appropriate imagery. Here Indigo visits Uncle John and his dog, Yoki:
"In between two lone railroad cars was Uncle John's wagon. Sequestered from ill-wishers & the wind, there he was chatting away with the air, the cars . . . Sometimes men of Color disappear into the beauty of the light, especially toward day's end. It's like clouds take on color & get down on the ground & talk to you, or the stars jump in some black man's body & shine all over you. Uncle John was looking like that to Indigo's mind, just brushing away, leaving Yoki's coat glimmering like dusk."
At the same time she can turn her hand to vivid urban prose. Cypress misses her lover, the wealthy jazz musician, Leroy:
"Leroy had mediated her relationship with the City of New York. She couldn't stand it when he was gone. His horns and his arms had offered her horizons where she was free to see what she chose, feel what she had to, be what she dreamed. Now she was constrained by cement, noise, thousands of people she'd never had to take seriously. Whole blocks of black people without trees. Dance studios that looked into other dance studios. Or vacant lots crammed with tires, garbage, used strollers, broken bottles, and stench. Leroy alone shielded her from this. Now her landscape had no natural elements. In California, one was cognizant of the planet: that earth and sea were forces to contend with. New York without Leroy was benefit of any humility, dwarfing the sun, violating the waters, crowding nature into a yard called Central Park."
Whatever Shange turns her hand to she does well, even to potions and recipes. A white reader feels the exhilarating shock of discovery at being permitted entry into this world she couldn't have known; a black reader must experience a most satisfying shock of recognition at encountering Shange's poetic-real world. The list of the new generation of fine black writers is long: Clarence Major, James Alan McPherson, Toni Cade Bambara, Alice Walker, David Bradley, Charles Johnson, many more. Place Ntozake Shange's name high on that list, and celebrate her appearance by reading her remarkable book.