Issue 12.3-13.1 | Summer 2014/Fall 2014 / Guest Edited by Kim F. Hall, Monica L. Miller, and Yvette Christiansë

“Everything you do . . .”: Recipes from Ntozake Shange’s Art/Work

“Cooking is the oldest of the arts.”
—Jean-Antheleme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

Cooking food and other rituals of daily life compose the corps/core of Ntozake Shange’s artistic praxis. This essay focuses on recipes as food for life in Shange’s performative art/work.[1] It analyzes her aesthetic practice as a form of nourishment and political empowerment. In Shange’s work, talk of food (particularly eating and cooking food) indexes the body in performative ways. This is another way of saying that representations of food and cooking serve Shange’s worldview. Such references appear throughout her oeuvre as quotidian strategies for survival. There are three works in particular where Shange grapples with food as symbolic and material substance: in her choreopoems (her neologism) and in the recipes she features in Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (1983) and If I Can Cook/You Know God Can (1998). By reading Shange’s references to food, cooking, and eating, we can understand how she partakes of and contributes to an historic and historical genealogy of black oral culture located in—if not fixated on—the black mouth. As Kyla Wazana Tomkins argues, “the black mouth speaks, laughs, and eats in the face of the violent desires of white supremacy: in fact, speech, laughter, and eating are conjoined as tropes of black cultural presence and resistance.”[2]

This thesis is apparent in Shange’s novel, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, which is set in Charleston, S.C. and opens with a reference to the character Indigo with “a moon falling from her mouth.” In the second sentence, readers learn that although Indigo “seldom spoke . . . Having the moon in her mouth kept her laughing.”[3] On this opening page, we also see Indigo conjuring the folk through the dolls she makes out of socks stuffed with “red beans, raw rice, saw dust or palm leaves.”[4] We immediately enter a black female world of love and ritual where ingredients become meaningful and magical through processes of transformation.

Section 1: A Daughter’s Geography[5]

“Every alimentary custom makes up a miniscule crossroads of histories.”
—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Ntozake Shange was born Paulette Williams in New Jersey in the 1950s. She graduated cum laude from Barnard College with a degree in American studies and earned a master’s degree in the same field from UCLA. Her interdisciplinary training in American studies has shaped her approach to her art/work. She is a consummate multimedia artist with broad interests in music, visual art, dance, literature, history, geography and world cultures, and all kinds of transformation. Indeed, in Shange’s world, geography—the writing of the earth—shades into geophagy, the eating of the earth.[6] This is true not only in relation to the sense of place in her works, but also in relation to their global, diasporic scope. Shange attends to the difference that dirt and soil make in the “fruits” such earth bears. From the East Coast to the West Coast, from the Caribbean to France, and from Brazil to Benin and beyond, she shows that “what and how we cook is the ultimate implication of who we are.”[7] As part of her life’s work, Shange has eaten all over the world, recording distinct black styles, sampling recipes, and discerning differences of taste, race, and place. This “re:search” shows up as the driving force behind her stories and her own “re:invention.”

Following a period of profound depression, Shange changed her name and moved to Northern California. Shange’s sojourn in the Bay Area in the 1970s placed her firmly in the countercultural hotbed of women’s studies, radical activism, feminist presses, black power, anti-Vietnam-War protests, modern dance, the food revolution, and performance happenings. During this fruitful period, she participated in collective arts including dance, writing and theater. Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo pays homage to this period of her life. This magical text, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo, was published in 1982 as a kind of extended replay and expansion of her earlier novella, Sassafrass, published in 1976 by Shameless Hussy Press.

In Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo each of the three sisters (the book’s title is eponymous) is symbolized by a pictorial image in the shape of a leaf. The book contains letters, recipes, various fonts, italics, calling cards, poems, lyrics, journal entries, a revue, spells, invitations to wassails on white paper, and other graphical flourishes. These performative elements, like the lighting cues that gave a surreal element to the “actually” colored girls in her choreopoem—symbolized by the lady in red and the lady in brown—are also figures personified, abstracted, and aestheticized. This is yet another example of how Shange transforms material into symbolic forms—or cooks/combines ingredients into something nourishing for the eye, mind, mouth, and body—as a daily act of survival. By recounting this extremely truncated “daughter’s geography,” I am setting the stage for Shange’s enduring interest in interdisciplinary arts and the politics of the everyday. What mattered to her most were the words, the bodies that spoke them, and the movement between the two that, like food, opened the boundaries between material and symbolic, life and art, and politics and aesthetics. One could even say that it was food that sustained it all. Shange’s work takes seriously the idea that cooking is a feminist act, if not a form of feminist art. She transforms the stereotypical figure of the “Mammy” cook epitomized by the character Dinah in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s transatlantic hit, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and instead claims cooking and eating as part of black women’s desire and power to heal.[8]

One could point to other precedents for Shange’s aesthetic such as the theater of Brecht (she did a version of Mother Courage and was influenced by cabaret culture) and, importantly, the anthropological writings of Zora Neale Hurston (who graduated from Barnard College in 1928). Hurston, who held a PhD in anthropology, wrote eloquently about “the Negro’s will to adorn” and thereby transform the known world.[9] Shange and Hurston shared more than an alma mater and an enduring love of modern black folk culture: They both understood the significance of everyday performance art and the value of modern black ritual. Hurston famously said, “You might be race but you are not my taste,” and wrote down recipes for life like those used in Shange’s work.[10] Hurston had gleaned from her ethnographic travels in the Southern United States and the West Indies (particularly Haiti and Jamaica) that modern myth and cultural practices were alive and well. She recorded numerous recipes and tales—on vinyl and film and in ink—that showed the transforming survival of oral practices.[11]

In Hurston’s brilliant essay, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” published in 1934, she states that Negroes turn nouns into verbs.[12] She mentions, for example, that the noun “friend” was used as a verb (sorry Facebook!). Hurston lists other active verb-noun combinations such as “chop-axe” that show words that “do” things. This creative use of language is akin to Shange’s use of the “choreopoem” that adds action to a noun in an effort to understand poetry as an embodied art—at once conjuring the chorus and choreographed.[13] Hurston’s essay has folk stories, like those recounted by Indigo in Shange’s work, which reference modern urban figures such as Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller as often as they mention mythic folk that appear primitive or out-of-time. Similarly, Hurston’s anthropological studies include recipes for life such as “how to get out of jail,” which are akin to Shange’s recording of Indigo’s recipes for “How to rid oneself of the Scent of Evil.”[14] In other words, Hurston’s interests in showing the aesthetic politics of black American art serve as a model for reading Shange’s work. Both Hurston and Shange dedicate their work to organic intellectuals.

Whereas early anthropologists “naturalized” black American art or did not understand its ethic of the “changing same,” often dismissing it as “vulgar noise,” both Hurston and Shange provide “metacommentary,” or a contextual critical lens to make sense of radical interventions both on and off the page. For example, in Shange’s manifesto on performance, the preface to for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, Shange writes of her “body & mind ellipsing probably the first time in [her] life.”[15] The statement has been cited and recited and serves as one of the key documents of black feminist aesthetics (and, not coincidently, is an example of a noun used as a verb). Shange learned to “move what waz my unconscious knowledge of being in a colored woman’s body to my known everydayness.”[16] The perfection of the enjambment—where everydayness is a single word—performs its philosophical value. Again, we can look to her neologism, choreopoem, as the term gave us a language for understanding this new kind of interdisciplinary performance where action, voice, and body all move collectively in a performative “inter(in)animation.”[17]

Shange says she is the kind of poet she is because she “has always been a performing poet.”[18] She writes, “I believed from my euro-american training that the greeks were right. Poetry must be heard. I knew as a black person that when I asked somebody for a poem I didn’t mean for them to give me a book, I meant for them to ‘deliver’ it, say it, make it jump, fire the air with power and magic. This was always.”[19] She says this more forcefully in her essay, “my pen is my machete” (which makes me think differently about all of those slashes in her work!).[20] The machete is also the tool used in clearing cane from many fields in the Caribbean.

The power of black style/politics represented in Shange’s work is rarely credited as foundational. Thus, it is important for us to revisit, revise, and remember her as a major contributor to black art. All of Shange’s work generates black beauty. Her astute use of the asymmetrical slash and lowercase letters (i.e., her devotion to anticapitalization) and frequent deployment of the letter Z (as in “wuz”) are examples and exemplars—not only of the Negro’s will to adorn and mark difference—but also of a new black arts aesthetic. This compensation and commitment to an excess of beauty reflects Shange’s belief that “Speaking American ain’t necessarily nourishing.”[21] This statement, however, shows how speaking “black American English” and pointing to oral culture is, in fact, nourishing. The character Sassafrass demonstrates a similar desire when she says to Mama, “when I told them white folks at the …School that I wanted some red sauce & rice with shrimp, clams, hot sausage, corn, okra, chicken & crab meat they’d go round campus saying You know that negro girl overdoes everything. Can you imagine what she wanted for dinner?”[22] This story condenses an entire history of white supremacist thinking that sought to deny rights—to pleasure and abundance, to full stomachs and full citizenship—to blacks. As Doris Witt observed, the deep-seated “connection between and frequent conflation of African-American women and food has functioned as a central structuring dynamic of twentieth-century U.S. psychic, cultural, sociopolitical, and economic life.”[23]

Shange wrote that in her childhood she “was raised to experiment with taste and sound, thus [developing] her interest in music, language and food.”[24] Music, language, and food are arts that engage the mouth, and it is no accident that they recur in Shange’s work. There is a suggestion that we are what we consume and that ritual practices amount to the performance of social identity—eyes, ears, mouths, and mind move us, become us. Food is central to these performances. As symbolic anthropologist Mary Douglas explains, food is at once “sacred and profane, a necessity and a luxury, biological and metaphysical, not just an aspect of material life but a prime model of communication, assessment, classification, regulation.”[25] It is all there—in the mix.

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  1. For all women in the struggle including Maya Angelou, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, Pratibha Parmar, Coco Fusco, Jamaica Kincaid, Fran Ross, Carmen DeLavallade, Jessica Haegdorn, Sonia Sanchez, Elizabeth Alexander, Toni Cade Bambara, Julie Dash, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Judy Grahn, and to Ms. Shange for her wonderful art/work. This paper was given as part of the Worlds of Ntozake Shange Conference organized by Africana Studies to honor Ms. Shange at Barnard College. I thank Kim Hall, Monica Miller, Yvette Christianesë, Janet Jakobsen, and Tina Campt for inviting me to participate. [Return to text]
  2. Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century (New York: NYU P, 2012) 9. [Return to text]
  3. Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (New York: Picador, 1982) 1. [Return to text]
  4. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 1. [Return to text]
  5. This is the title of Shange’s volume of poetry published in 1983. Ntozake Shange, A Daughter’s Geography (New York: St. Martin’s, 1983). [Return to text]
  6. See Elizabeth Alexander, “The Dirt-Eaters,” The Venus Hottentot (Minneapolis: Graywolf, 1990). [Return to text]
  7. Ntozake Shange, If I can cook/you know God can (Boston: Beacon, 1998) 103. [Return to text]
  8. Other powerful reclamations include Betye Saar’s mixed media art work, “Liberation of Aunt Jemima” (1972) University Art Museum, UC Berkeley and the film The Watermelon Woman (Dir, Cheryl Dunye, Perf. Cheryl Dunye, Guin Turner, Sarah Schulman, and Camille Paglia. First Run Features, 1996). [Return to text]
  9. Zora Neale Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Within the Circle: An Anthology of African American Literary Criticism from the Harlem Renaissance to the Present, ed. Angelyn Mitchell (Durham: Duke UP, 1994) 80. [Return to text]
  10. Zora Neale Hurston, Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica (New York: Harper Collins, 2000[1938]). [Return to text]
  11. For key texts on Hurston see Monica L. Miller, ed., “‘Jumpin’ at the Sun’: Reassessing the Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston,” The Scholar & Feminist Online 3.2 (2005). [Return to text]
  12. Hurston, “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” 81-2. [Return to text]
  13. For more on choreography as an everyday, embodied practice see Susan Foster, Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance (London: Routledge, 2011). [Return to text]
  14. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 30. [Return to text]
  15. Ntozake Shange, preface to for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf (New York: Scribner, 2010 (1975) xi. [Return to text]
  16. Shange, for colored girls 2010: xi. [Return to text]
  17. Rebecca Schneider, Performance Remains: Art and War in Times of Theatrical Reenactment (New York and London, Routledge, 2011) 4. [Return to text]
  18. Ntozake Shange, Lost in Language and Sound: Or, How I Found My Way Into the Arts New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011) 144. [Return to text]
  19. Shange, Lost in Language and Sound 2011: 44 [Return to text]
  20. Shange, Lost in Language and Sound 2011: 18-26. [Return to text]
  21. Shange, If I can cook 1998: 13. [Return to text]
  22. Shange, if I can cook 1998: 55. [Return to text]
  23. Doris Witt, Black Hunger: Soul Food in America (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota P, 2004) 4. [Return to text]
  24. Shange, If I can cook 1998: 66. [Return to text]
  25. Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London: Routledge, 1966). [Return to text]