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

Indigo Generations: Shange in Praxis and Being the Folk

write the names

dedication and preparation

Read this article when you have a moment to participate in your own legacy.
Join me as I acknowledge what made this possible. Or come back later.

Find a pen. Find a blank enough space to write. Ready? Do this for me. Write the names. Write the names of the women who are not in the room with you, but without whom you would not be here or anywhere. This is for my mother who handed me her copy of for colored girls when I was fourteen. This is for my grandmother Lydia, who got her B.A. from Rutgers as the mother of four children. This is for my grandmother Joyce, who immigrated illegally to this country and created a chosen family. This is for my sister Ariana, Barnard class of 2008, who taught me that to be a sister is my first and last job in the world. This is for Zora Neale Hurston and June Jordan and Edwidge Danticat who, like Ntozake Shange, made me think Barnard College was a place where black women wrote. This is for Cheryll Greene, Wahneema Lubiano, Karla Holloway, Monica Miller, Farah Griffin, Tina Campt, and Kim Hall who exemplify the outrageous elegance of black feminist critical practice. This is for Audre Lorde, for Barbara Smith, for Alice Walker, for Alexis DeVeaux, for all the black women writers who taught me that words were stronger than rape and stronger than death and that I was strong enough to stand in a world unworthy of my own names. This is for Gloria Joseph, Sonia Sanchez, and all the black women writers whose letters you can find in Toni Cade Bambara’s papers at Spelman College asking about her daughter.[1] How is Karma. What is she doing now. Give her my love. This is for Savannah Shange who has the honor of saying “I grew up in a black feminist household surrounded by the magical power of black women’s words and ideas, and spent endless hours in crammed poetry readings, art galleries, and in the back of theaters watching my mother at work.”[2] For Ntozake Shange who wrote in her bio for the novella Sassafrass that she “wrote this book to help make her daughter’s dreams as real as her menses.”[3] For Ntozake Shange who published the mother daughter sister letter recipe in novel form Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo in 1982, the year I was born. It matters what exists in the physical and discursive world when we get here. This is for the people who mothered you because they wanted to do it and because they had to do it. It matters what is present in your material and emotional world when you read this. Write the names. Whisper the names. Write the names in the strongest ink you have and tear them from the paper and put them in your mouth and pause before you keep reading this. Chew on those names for moment. Chew them back where your wisdom teeth might be. Swallow the wet wad of gratitude or save it and bury it near where you sleep. Submerge it in a houseplant if you live in the city. Otherwise we will be impossible. Write the names and put them in your mouth. This is how we get permission to speak.

Indigo Subjectivities

Or the Relevance of Indigo for Contemporary Black Feminist Praxis

You might remember Indigo, the youngest sister in Ntozake Shange’s first novel Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo. That doll-making youngest sister, talking to herself and all available spirits. That consort of church ladies and witness of magic in the street. That avant-garde fiddle priestess stringing the world back together with wild sound. That gangster girl, geechee captain, adolescent hooligan running numbers and reading dreams for the redistribution of wealth and catfish in her black Charleston community. You might remember that warrior-healer writing twelve-year-old remedies out of a much older memory who eventually became that midwife dancing by the ocean with the ancestrally free, bewildering her mother and her sisters with her folk presence or what Shange calls “the south in her.”[4]

Indigo is here in each of us who would dedicate time to honor our elders and spell-cast the future. The South and Global South in us, she is the energy teaching us to practice our bottom-up collective philosophies for real in this toppling evolutionary time on the planet. The Indigo presence names the youthful old soul in each of us, and the collective power we can access in our untimeliness. In other words, the primary theorist in this paper is a fictional twelve-year-old vessel for the ancestors, and that is a good thing. I want to offer as an injunction to my fellow highly theoretical scholarly colleagues and artists who may be reading this essay a reminder that as Uncle John the junkman tells Indigo: “we aint’ the onliest ones be talkin’ with the unreal.”[5]

Indigo had priorities for her people in black Charleston and her people who are all of us gathered seriously in her name which includes:

daily visits with the spirits
the power to heal
and access to the moon

If we take Indigo’s priorities as challenges and guideposts for contemporary black feminist praxis (and in my primary communities of black feminist praxis we do) then what I call “Indigo subjectivity” (which could also be thought of as a black feminist blues ethic) calls us to take our spiritual power and ritual practices seriously, to measure and evaluate our theories and actions based on their healing power in our lives and our communities, and to be accountable to both the possibility of magic and the queer reproductive autonomy of exploited bodies.

Daily Visits with the Spirits

Indigo models this for us as she navigates her coming of age and her girlhood and womanhood in the text. Indigo creates technologies that allow her to engage in the spiritual communion that she needs. She uses sacred, everyday, collective materials (rice, red beans, and otherwise quiltable scraps of cloth from the clothing of her mother and sisters) to make dolls that she can keep with her at all times. The dolls are material manifestations of the ancestral listening, communicating, and healing that are Indigo’s spiritual communion. The dolls themselves and their construction are a healing ritual meant to honor ancestors across the black diaspora. Indigo made “African dolls filled with cotton root bark, so they’d have no more slave children. Jamaican dolls in red turbans, bodies formed with comfrey leaves because they’d had to work on Caribbean and American plantations and their bodies must ache and be sore. Then there were the Mammy dolls that Indigo labored over for months. They were almost four feet high, with big gold earrings made from dried sunflowers, and tits of uncleaned cotton. They smelled of fennel, peach leaves, wild ginger, wild yams.”[7] In addition to her creation of and communication with her diasporic dolls, she also uses the fiddle in order to give herself the creative space to do spiritual work and to become available to spiritual messages beyond words. Indigo plays her fiddle without need for a (voluntary) mortal audience, and when she does get an audience in the Geechee Captain saloon she uses abstract sound to connect with and heal the hurting people in her oppressed community. (Farah Jasmine Griffin’s piece in this issue elaborates more on this practice.)

Indigo’s daily spiritual practice and life purpose is the healing of “the folk,” the black diasporic ancestors she loves across time and space. Indigo subjectivity in black feminist practice is our materialization of a reality, an everyday portable and shareable lived experience, that in its intent and physicality offers healing backward and forward in time and space. This means that our accountability as black feminist practitioners is not only to the communities of the living, but to the ancestral presence of those who have both lived earlier manifestations of the oppressions we speak out against and offered precedent for our resistance.

Many black feminist practitioners are helpfully pragmatic and materialist in their work, which is very important in order for black feminism to be a grounded accountable practice and not just a theoretical exercise to be marketed in institutions that exploit our labor. However, Indigo subjectivity asks us to cultivate a spiritual accountability beyond and through the material. Black feminist theorist and co-founder of the field of black women’s studies Akasha Gloria Hull makes space for this form of accountability in Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African American Women, where she provides the context for a move in the earlier 1980s (around the time that Indigo was born into our discursive reality through the publication of Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo) when self-identified black feminists and black women committed to freedom began to engage in practices that could be defined as “New Age.” Lucille Clifton engages in automatic writing and channels messages from “The Ones;” Toni Cade Bambara incorporates psychic healing, astrology, and hypnosis into her antioppression cosmology and listens to the Mud Mothers; Octavia Butler hails a profoundly queer future; Sonia Sanchez experiments with nonlinear sound invocations that make room for more than words. Hull responds to those who might think New Age refers at worst to white hippie irrelevance and at best to specifically Eastern practice without roots in African, American indigenous, and black diasporic experience by using Toni Cade Bambara’s definition of what is marketed as New Age, namely “everybody’s ancient wisdom.” In arguing for a spiritual accountability and the development of Indigo-resonant superpowers by embattled black women needing multilayered fortitude to come through the Reagan era, Hull argues for a manifestation of spiritual reclamation that supersedes the New Age marketing of shared ancient wisdom structures, and highlights the improvisation and eclecticism through which, like Indigo, the black women artists she interviews create their own practices and rituals. Paraphrasing Toni Cade Bambara, Hull says, in her introduction, “being spiritual is also a legitimate way to participate in social struggle.” Therefore she validates visualization, physical healing practices, and meditation as important actions in the service of political transformation, and as ways that we, the living, can embody transformation. I argue that Indigo, as she lovingly creates and communicates with her dolls and writes them remedies based on the lessons she learns through her own lived experience, is making herself into a site of healing for generations of oppressed people. In the words of scholar, poet, and novelist Melvin Dixon in “I’ll be Somewhere Listening for My Name,” his last public address before he died painfully of AIDS, “You, then, are charged by the possibility of your good health, by the broadness of your vision, to remember us.” Indigo subjectivity asks us to have a broad enough vision to include known and unnamed ancestors in our communities of accountability in physically activated ways. As black transnational feminist M. Jacqui Alexander presents a spiritual approach to transformative theory, and as she once said to a group of us gathered in her home, “Spirit answers an aesthetic.” How does this look in your praxis? What is the structure, smell, taste, color, feeling of your everyday living such that spirit knows to fill it up? Indigo paints a mural on the wall of her bedroom. She plays the violin with abandon. She talks and listens to old women. She looks at unfair situations like cockfights and food injustice in her community and visualizes them in a way that brings balance. She shares strategies for reading dreams and participates in underground economies of wealth redistribution. What practices in your daily life are portals for the visitation of spirit and the healing of the old ones? What are the material manifestations of your radical thinking life? How would you describe your daily visits with the spirits?[8] As Shange distinguishes, there is a difference between having an “interest in folklore” and what Indigo was: “Indigo was the folks.”[9]

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  1. Toni Cade Bambara Mansucript Archives. Spelman College. Box 2. [Return to text]
  2. Savannah Shange, Letter of Support for the Indigo Journeys program, 10 Jan. 2012. [Return to text]
  3. Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass (Berkeley: Shameless Hussy, 1976). [Return to text]
  4. Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (New York: St. Martin’s, 1982) 29. [Return to text]
  5. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 27. [Return to text]
  6. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 27. [Return to text]
  7. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 27. [Return to text]
  8. I suggest you actually write down or tell a loved one the answers to these questions. If you would like to share your answers to these questions with me, you can offer them at the Indigo Days website. [Return to text]
  9. Shange, Sassafrass 1982. [Return to text]