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]

The Power to Heal

When Indigo says that she wants her people to have “the power to heal,” she is speaking physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Indigo grows up and goes on to apprentice with her Aunt Haydee, a traditional midwife who, like Indigo, has a profound respect for the healing power of plants. Indigo subjectivity reminds us that reclaiming old ways of knowing and healing that precede allopathic medicine, and certainly precede the access of black diasporic people to accountability from Western forms of medicine (such accountability still does not exist) is key to Black feminist praxis. Alondra Nelson remembers the importance of healing and the creativity around health in Body and Soul, her book on the practices of the Black Panther Party’s healthcare initiatives. The Black Midwives’ organization, the International Center for Traditional Childbirth, combines training in evidence-based practice that prevents low birth weight and high infant mortality rates in communities of color with lobbying for policies that increase the range of healthcare access and treatment for people of color giving birth. These and so many more examples share and respond to Indigo’s challenge to cultivate the power to heal. And like Indigo, these initiatives do not separate body from soul. Indigo’s side-by-side remedies for “Emergency Care of Open Wounds/When It Hurts” and “Emergency Care of Wounds That Cannot Be Seen” bring home this point. Both remedies start by requiring the emotional intentionality of the caretaker (“Calmly rinse the wound” and “Hold the victim gently,” respectively). Both remedies offer plant medicine (mandrake berries and red sunflower brew, respectively). And both remedies honor the urgency of physical and emotional pain with the same word all capital letters: EMERGENCY.

Indigo’s subjectivity is instructive as ever here. The contradiction is that often in our activist meetings we are so overwhelmed by the urgency of the issues we want to influence that we devalue and skip over the healing we may need to do individually and together, leading us to organize on top of unresolved trauma. Organizing on top of “wounds that cannot be seen” has an impact on the way we treat each other and sometimes it can cause our action steps to be out of balance and reactionary. Because it hurts. On the other hand, in our intellectual space of reflection, where our timelines are arguably slower, and stopping to think seems to be the whole point, we often shy away from the word healing and the practice of healing for the sake of appearing to know something, or to perform an impossible objectivity that many of us seem committed to embodying (even when we say that we don’t believe in objectivity). Furthermore, in our academic spaces of reflection, the measurement of our success rarely includes the healing impact of our work on people inside or outside of the academy. Indigo subjectivity challenges us again as we navigate black feminist praxis in organizing and in intellectual spaces that do not seem to have time or space for the crucial healing work that Indigo prioritizes. I think about this challenge in terms of accountability as one of the key clarifications that distinguishes black feminist and womanist praxis from unmodified, unaccountable (read white capitalist) manifestations of “feminism.”[10] Indigo’s relationship to accountability is profoundly clarified in the moment she evolves out of the street gang the Junior Geechee Captains. Exceptional and strange as a young girl, Indigo and her wild violin win a place in a street gang, the junior offshoot of the Geechee Captains, a motorcycle gang that controls much of the underground economy (numbers, bootleg alcohol, cockfighting, etc.) of black Charleston. Indigo has a critique of the abuse of animals that takes place during the cockfights, but she plays her violin in the juke-joint-esque, all-day, illegal space of the lead Geechee Captain in order to work her healing magic on the people in the space. However, once she witnesses a domestic dispute in which Mabel, the girlfriend of Geechee Captain leader Pretty Man, is punished for limiting the freedom of the young gang members. While being the only female in the gang was “feminist” in the sense that it allowed her to (dare I say) “lean in” and participate in a masculinist space, transcending the gendered barriers that usually would have excluded her, she realizes that her increased mobility and autonomy is not meaningful unless it includes a collective accountability to oppressed women. “Shame crawled up her cheeks. She was going to see about Mabel. Mabel had gotten in trouble ‘cause of Indigo’s fiddle, ‘cause Indigo was a Geechee Captain. Mabel was just some woman. One day Indigo would be a woman too.”[11] In this moment, Indigo experiences the collective embodied memory of the enslaved who “accepted indifference as kindness,” and they surround her with a “blood thick chorus” and lead Indigo to create the healing remedies she needs to address the physical and emotional wounds that Mabel has experienced as a result of gendered violence, which Shange implies is a part of the legacy and continuation of the “Chains. Leg irons.” Of slavery.

Indigo subjectivity asks for a feminism that is black in its accountability and impact, where increased class mobility, ease in navigating oppressive institutions, and assuming aspects of white, male, or wealth-associated privilege is not the point, and, in fact, risks the cause. This is the place where Indigo subjectivity is most clearly a blues ethic. The healing approach of Indigo subjectivity is not to avoid the depth of oppression by opportunistically operationalizing difference as privilege in ways that invest in a violent status quo. The healing approach of Indigo subjectivity insists that we go deep for each other. Go back for each other. Retain our accountability to each other by remaining accountable and present for the most oppressed and the most likely to be excluded from our marginal victories. In the case of contemporary black feminist praxis, that means accountability to the poor women and girls and trans women and girls who are experiencing more violence in public and private than anyone else. It means not disdaining to address the normalized gendered violence in all classes in order to maintain a pretense of respectability that we think will grant increased access to systems based on logics that make violence predictable. Indigo seeks to escape from Mabel’s anger and pain in a space Shange calls “the caverns,” but in the caverns she hears “the slaves who were ourselves.” They “sang out from the walls, pulling Indigo towards them. Indigo ran her hands along the walls, to get the song, getta hold to the voices. Instead her fingers grazed hard metal rings.” At the root of the problems we seek to evade is the organizing logic of slavery, a context in which leveraged privilege without collective accountability fuels continued oppression. Scholars like Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and Fred Moten, who are hailed as part of the Afro-pessimist intellectual movement articulate the ways that antiblackness, exemplified by the abjection of slavery, is at the root of neoliberalism and every contemporary logic through which humans dehumanize humans. The slaves that were ourselves are there in caverns when gendered violence happens and we find a reason to turn away. Indigo subjectivity invites us to examine our complicity and turn toward each other with our hearts on collective liberation.

Access to the Moon

Indigo is an old-school afro-futuristic kid for sure. She paints the moon on the wall of her room. She creates rituals for women and girls to connect with the moon, their desires, and their bodies, even though the only people listening are her dolls. In her coming of age process, Indigo faces many of the issues that contemporary black feminists have prioritized and that comprise what is now called the reproductive justice movement. Critical of the hyper-individuality of the reproductive rights movement, women of color created a more holistic movement incorporating systemic analysis and healing work called reproductive justice. As Loretta Ross, one of the founders of this movement, describes it in her essay, “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice,” reproductive justice is “the complete, physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls” and “will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality, and reproduction for ourselves, our families, and our communities in all areas of our lives.”[12]

Indigo is living this vision and the challenges that make this vision necessary. When Indigo first starts menstruating she has the blessing of being offered a beautiful flower ritual by an elder in her community who sweetly gives Indigo time to contemplate her greatness naked among the roses, and, of course, Indigo writes a ritual for her dolls called “Marvelous Menstruating Moments.” This combination of intergenerational affirmation and individual ritual reflection is what we emulated with our local Indigos (see below). However, the beginning of Indigo’s menstruation is also marked by violence. When she goes to the store to get sanitary supplies, Mr. Lucas, the storeowner seeks to take advantage of her, and she narrowly escapes his most violent intentions for her. Her open communication with the spirits tells her to run away. The persistence of rape culture is clear in the fact that Mr. Lucas is confident that no one will believe Indigo if she tells what he has done because of “the south in her.”[13] He also admits to himself that it is Indigo’s self-possession, her access to the moon that makes him want to enact violence against her. “He didn’t know what it was, an irreverence, an insolence, like the bitch thought she owned the moon.”[14] In fact, Indigo chooses not to disclose Lucas’s violent behavior to her mother or anyone else, but instead to make a ritual of protection prioritizing her own healing, energy, and alignment. She arrives at both traditional and modern remedies for how “To Rid Oneself of the Scent of Evil” which include multiple steps toward reclaiming one’s body and realigning one’s spirit in order to be “cleaned of all the offender’s toxic presence.”[15]

In the contemporary moment Indigo’s response might leave something wanting. Mr. Lucas is a menace. Why is he thinking of twelve-year-old girls holding dolls as “bitches” that he should violate? Mr. Lucas owns the pharmacy. He looks at his degrees on the wall after Indigo escapes. He is one of the most economically and educationally privileged members of his generation of the Charleston black community. Why should this predator have control over the reproductive lives of the women in his community (who do not have the choice, thanks to segregation, to get their medication, sanitary napkins, or anything else elsewhere)? Reading this with reproductive justice in mind, we would think of Mr. Lucas as someone who should be held accountable for his harmful views and practices, especially because of his relationship to medical supplies and information about the girls and women in the community and their reproductive vulnerabilities and needs. He is exactly the pharmacist who we would NOT want making the decision about whether or not someone will have access to the morning-after pill or birth control. Shange wants us to make this connection. It is not just any person who intends to rape Indigo. It is the local pharmacist.

However, Indigo does not share her experience of narrowly escaping Mr. Lucas’s “evil.” Maybe she agrees that no one would believe her. Maybe she wants to protect her mother from the consequences of the “ire” that would certainly be raised in her if she knew. “Nowadays Indigo minded what she said & to whom.”[16] The recent book Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence, edited by Lisa Factora-Borchers, affirms from a reproductive justice standpoint the fact that survivors of sexual violence can respond to their violence in whatever way they find empowers them the most. We do not owe a state, or a school, or a church, or a family that has not been accountable to our bodies and spirits a testimony of the violence against us, especially if the likelihood is that we will neither be believed nor honored. As Charlotte Pierce-Baker points out in Surviving the Silence: Black Women and Rape, black women who bring rape charges to court are dismissed at a wildly disproportionate rate.

It is not a coincidence that my community of black women and black gender queer people in Durham, North Carolina, who so identify with Indigo, are also co-survivors of the horrific Duke lacrosse rape scandal, during which a black woman was attacked in the media and discredited in the courts for reporting a gang rape at a Duke University team party and possibly not being able to correctly identify which team members/party attendees attacked her while she was drugged. It is not a coincidence that—as a person who survived sexual assault while I was a student at Barnard and did not report it—I have turned to Indigo over and over again while seeking to create a community of accountability here in Durham.[17] Indigo chooses to prioritize giving herself and others access to means to clear the energy of offenders away from them and to reclaim their bodies and spirits, but she does add parenthetically in the remedy: “Only during wars of national liberation, to restore the honor of the race, or to redress calamitous personal & familial trauma, may we consider brute force/annihilation.” In effect, Indigo validates what might be considered extreme means to respond to trauma, even though she does not choose those means in this case. Indigo subjectivity includes responses to sexual violence that prioritize the physical and spiritual needs of the survivor, call for accountability, and can even include violence. The contemporary reproductive justice and antiviolence movements include this range of approaches.[18]

It is important that this Indigo subjectivity comes to us in the form of an adolescent girl who we see mostly in her coming of age and get a glimpse at later when she has come into her full purpose because “access to the moon” in the Indigo sense is not only about reproductive justice by queer reproduction of the potential of the community. I am using queer here to mean that which intervenes in the reproduction of oppression. Indigo is about reproduction and the sanctity of the moon, or those physical and spiritual energies associated with sexuality, birth, and cycles of menstruation, but she is interested in the connection to those energies in a transformative sense that makes “new people of color” possible.[19] We need Indigo’s adolescence, and the participation of and accountability to children and adolescent people in black feminist praxis because there is something queer and possible in those not yet adjusted to the oppressive society we live in. There is something that must be perpetually cranky, growing, and without full access to normalcy that challenges us in our movements to change what we may have grown resigned to. Indigo subjectivity in its important old-soul adolescence trips us up when we want to say “that’s just the way it is.” We need to be tripping like teenagers, talking with what Uncle John, who gives Indigo her fiddle, calls the unreal. Uncle John the junkman would know. He is an elder who has never quite assimilated and remains in the street outside of respectability and with an attunement to the ancestral and the young.

Indigo comes of age and continues in the tradition of her Aunt Haydee the midwife. Many in the reproductive justice movement see traditional midwives as the frontline workers of reproductive justice, the carriers of the plant remedies, the people who knew what roots could prevent or cause pregnancy and the people who could assist in the practice of birth itself. Indigo walks into this tradition with spiritual and creative skills including her violin, which she uses to honor parents and welcome newborns. “There was nothing could come between Indigo, Aunt Haydee, & new people of color.”[20] Even in her adulthood, Indigo is accountable to the presence of the new. These “new people of color” are not only the babies she helps bring into the world, but also the elevation of the community of people of color more broadly. When she moves to the coast to apprentice with Aunt Haydee, Indigo becomes directly connected with the legacy of an ancestor called Blue Sunday. Legend says that Blue Sunday was an enslaved woman who was lusted after by her slave master (an ancestor of the people who employ Indigo’s mother as a weaver). Blue Sunday, however, had such a powerful connection with the ocean that she could shapeshift and cause hurricanes to prevent rape. Eventually her impact was so profound that “The Fitzguhs no longer cultivated indigo as a cash crop.”[21] Indigo’s journey is in the legacy of Blue Sunday as a midwife (the ancestor that her Aunt Haydee calls on to “Please, give this child life, please, give this child the freedom you know.”[22]

No longer cultivating indigo (lowercase i) as a cash crop as the legacy that Indigo (uppercase I) walks in is significant in its poetic clarification. Indigo’s vision of access to the moon or reproductive justice and new people of color is still tied to ending the economic system of slavery that persists in the way that we are constructed as subjects in capitalism. What does it mean to no longer cultivate Indigo (capital I) as a cash crop? What does it mean to not reproduce ourselves as cash crops? Most importantly to Aunt Haydee and Indigo, how can these new people of color have the freedom the ancestors demand? Indigo subjectivity would suggest that the real question of reproductive justice is how is it possible to not reproduce capitalism through our collective children?

Indigo Manifestations

You might be getting the sense that I find the genius represented in the character of Indigo immensely valuable for the sustaining and transforming practice of black feminism. At some point, it was not enough just to keep buying copies of the novel for people in my community (like the English teacher I am) and begging them to read it. I needed to create structures through which my diversely literate community with widely varied access to education could actually live—daily, weekly, monthly—inside of what this forum calls the Worlds of Ntozake Shange.[23]

Warrior Healers Organizing Trust

The Warrior Healers Organizing Trust, a local foundation in transition dedicated to organic reparations, the transformation of blood money into blood relations, and participating in the end of capitalism (which, by the way, requires us to transform, to phase out economic currency, and re-center around the primary ecological resource of love), made grants to warrior healers, those oppressed geniuses cultivating the fierce healing practice of transformation in creative ways in our community. And when we wanted to think beyond the binary of masculine and feminine, beyond the fragmenting paradigm of either unhealthy, unsustainable, round-the-clock, organizing work to fight the injustices that harm our loved ones or supposedly depoliticized, healer-mother, wise irrelevance, we turned to Indigo. A true warrior healer, ferocious in her rootedness, transformative in her presence, grounded in the traditions of women and yet un-Westernizing the meaning of gender in her stand for dignity. As we identified and supported warrior healers in our community, Indigo subjectivity pushed us to move away from the traditional grant-making process that some folks familiar to the artist/activist hustle were very familiar with and that some folks hustling in crucial ways would have found inaccessible. We ended up funding a warrior healer who found that she was too much in her head so that she could take dance classes; longtime activists at risk of losing their houses, so they would be able to pay their mortgages; a mother and grandmother who had also raised her siblings so she could hike the Appalachian trail; an executive director of a grassroots organization who put everyone else first, so she could fill her glasses’ prescription and repair her car; a genderqueer activist media maker who could stop commuting to Durham and be able to afford to move to and make roots in Durham; a youth activist to pay the gap in her college tuition; arrested activists to pay legal fees; a dancer who wanted to create a community project who needed professional advice and mentorship; a songstress in need of spiritual advice; and many other awards. In addition to these fellowships, designed through in-depth conversations about what would give the warrior healers we were interconnected with a boost, we organized a gathering where these warrior healers could meet each other and serve as continued resources for each other.

Indigo Days: 2011

In summer 2011, self-identified black warrior healers (which as you may know is not a census category) came from around the United States to gather in Durham, North Carolina, for a full week of intensive skill-sharing and prismatic community, building our work as dancers, visionary space activators, healing touch practitioners, artisans and designers, yoga teachers, womb healers, and vegan black-eyed pea stirrers for a transformative intergenerational gathering where we—warrior healers ranging from teenaged to seventy-plus-years old—got our hands blue with the practical meaning and revolutionary purpose of our practices. The New-York-City-based performance troupe Body Ecology debuted a performance of an interactive reproductive justice piece based on Indigo’s rituals. The seven-day Indigo Gathering was not the result of any grant or any outside funding whatsoever. It was one hundred percent the result of black warrior healers and allies housing each other, cooking for each other, crowdraising on Facebook for each other, and reminding ourselves and each other that we are enough, and not only when our priorities ironically, accidently, or sadly converge with the priorities of the fabulously funded foundations who are steadily trying to get us to believe that black love is not black wealth.[24] Thank the goddess Ntozake Shange for Indigo, who reminds us how money moves, how dreams are real, how everything is useful, and how we have what we need because we are what we need, amen. As a result of this gathering, elder Indigo energy healers got assistance from young tech-savvy Indigos to create websites for their businesses. People connected to share mentorship that has lasted for years. Indigos facing homelessness shared housing with each other across the United States. This network of Indigos continues be a supportive resource for those of us who are sometimes marginalized or even criminalized due to the South in us. And, of course, Indigos fell in love with each other. Rub your hands together. Clap your hands together. Warrior healer energy was in your hands already. Save up and give the next warrior healer you see a high five. Alright? Alright. Indigo is here.

Indigo Night School

For two seasons on the new moon we gathered at what we call “Indigo Night School,” a space (also known as my living room) for local black warrior healers to practice collective versions of the individual healing rituals that Indigo designs for her dolls. Our elaborate full-moon-night tea rituals, where we drink phases of tea and work with the natural materials mentioned in Indigo’s remedies have been a life-saving space for those warrior healers, black women, and black genderqueer visionaries raising grandchildren, fighting for food justice, doing the daily work of antiviolence, struggling through education, and doing thankless labor all the time. At the door sits a bowl of steaming lavender water, and we wash off the day and place the names of the ancestors we bring in a bright orange bowl. We sit seriously, laughingly, lovingly; stand under a magnolia tree saying seven times the names of those who have hurt us to remove the scent of evil and release ourselves from trauma; divide bowls of berries into cold water as temporary prayer beads; read one another’s dreams into numerically syllabized poems of bite-sized wisdom, drinking consecutive teas—cinnamon, peppermint, raspberry leaf, chamomile, honey-sweetened blueberry for Indigo’s sweet presence in our lives; and we witness one another’s intentions for new moon empty-full space in the sky. This gathering space has deepened local collaborations in our community and offered black women and black genderqueer participants a deeper, more intimate way of knowing and trusting each other.

Indigo Afterschool Geniuses

Indigo knew she could travel to the moon anytime she wanted if she had the requisite plant matter and a connection to the women who came before her. In the fall after I organized a weeklong summer gathering called Indigo Days, ten-year old Alex Lockhart said to her mother (participant and novelist) Zelda Lockhart, “I want to go to an afterschool program with other girls my age at Alexis’s house.” This was my Macarthur Genius Not-Taken-For-Granted Award, the sweetest validation that I was doing it right, that the young black genius girls in my community would claim this queer relationship to black feminist books I have as place for them to live, a place for them to be themselves, after school or anytime. It really should be the first line of my bio, my greatest achievement so far: Sista Docta Alexis Pauline Gumbs is available to Durham’s Indigos.

So, of course, I turned to Indigo. Like Indigo, the sixth-grade girls who gathered—just starting middle school, sometimes literally getting their periods for the first time at my house surrounded by Indigo invocations and tea—were all the youngest sisters. We made dolls, we made a Pandora instrumental station for the meditative writing that they wanted to do every week. We checked in about how we were doing and blew bubbles to release any negative energy—pop. We drank a special organic tea called “Indigo is the Folks” designed especially for these girls by fourth-generation black feminist herbalist and interdisciplinary artist Alexis Pierre-Louis. We ate decadent afterschool meals prepared by grown participants in the Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind educational program, who exemplified the belief that what and whether and how a black girl eats after school is a community concern that goes far beyond individual mothers. During that sixth-grade year the Indigos provided rigorous cheering sections for one another’s musical and dance recitals, created a not-so-secret hideout in my backyard that they told everyone about; hosted an intergenerational Marvelous Menstruating Moments ritual gathering for period-age black kids and their mommas and aunties that my mother and I co-facilitated; and created a museum of sisterhood where they taught dozens of people in our community about their 11 commandments of sisterhood and mentored people much older than they were in the challenging practice of sistering in community. In the seventh grade, the Indigo Geniuses embarked on an outgrowth called Indigo Journeys, a series of Saturday fieldtrips to important black feminist sites in North Carolina (like Pauli Murray’s house, Charlotte Hawkins Brown’s school, Ella Baker and Anna Julia Cooper’s alma maters, as well as regular local sites of their own breakthroughs … where they learned to ride bikes, where they stood up for themselves) and creating temporary installation monuments to their spatial practice of brilliance. They demonstrated in the twice-a-week afterschool sessions and the sisterhood museum, where you had to sing an affirming song to get in the door, that they knew how to create sacred space. They embarked on Indigo Journeys in order to deepen their practice of moving through the world as ancestrally connected sacred portal monument sites.[25] Black seventh-grade girls moving in their power. The South in us. Now, as eighth graders very close to moving on to high school, they are focusing on their embodied power. In response to street harassment and affronts from grabby boys (one of whom declared a school-wide butt-grabbing day at one of their schools) we have created weekly dance sessions inspired by the dance experiences of Indigo’s older sister Cypress. These dance sessions are not for performance but rather for embodied listening, a safe space to explore how bodies feel in movement with the ideas that are important to them.

On soccer and track teams, in dance companies and art classes, and all day at three different middle schools in Durham they continue Indigo’s practice of creating and sharing the rituals they need. Here are three of the remedies they came up with on the very first day of Indigo Afterschool in 2011, which we are now offering as a gift when you donate toward the transportation and art supply costs for the Indigo Journeys program. Here are some remedies inspired by Emergency Care for Wounds that Cannot Be Seen:

Emergency Care for the “the funk”:
by Bailey Jo Wadlington

(like on Glee, when they were in a funk because they were afraid their singing group wasn’t good enough)

Surround oneself with loved ones, then go on top of a tall object and scream to hearts content all of ones deepest feelings. If this does not work, go in private room and listen to songs that mention only of happy things, then write down all of one’s problems and think of a way to turn them around.

Emergency for Sadness:
by Assata Carter-Goff

1. go to the bathroom and turn on hot water. let it steam.
2. get your favorite incense and burn it
3. get a robe and put it on
4. put the incense in the bathroom
5. put a stool in the bathroom
6. write all the things you are sad about on a piece of paper
7. write on the steamed mirror all the things that are peaceful
8. sit in the bathroom and be peaceful with the steaming and the incense

Forged by Fire (for hard experiences that change you forever):
by Alex Lockhart

Bathe in a tub of warm water without bubbles. Slowly lie down and let all the bad energy out. When you get out, don’t dry off, instead go to a silent room and let the peaceful air dry you off. Next rub your skin with soothing lavender oil. Now go outside and let the sun wrap its loving rays around you.

These are our Indigos. Witness your own Indigo subjectivity. The South in us. To paraphrase Ntozake Shange, they “serve notice that the colored children are manifestations of the 21st century” and every century before.[26] How can you doubt that we can go to the moon, stay here and evolve into alignment with the planet, or do anything else we might collectively need to do?

I never knew that it was possible for such a variety of black folks with different ages and genders and spiritual practices to join me so faithfully and sincerely in practicing the invented rituals of an invented black adolescent. I hope you immerse yourself and bring it into your life beyond the plasma plastic of your computer screen.

As you sit reading, bear witness. Take five quick breaths. And three slow ones. Yes. Yes. We are on our way.

Bibliography (for researchers and educators)
Source Texts:

  • M. Jacqui Alexander, Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual Politics, Memory and the Sacred (Durham: Duke UP, 2005).
  • Lisa Factora-Borchers, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence (Oakland: AK Press, 2014).
  • Akasha Gloria Hull, Soul Talk: The New Spirituality of African American Women (Rochester, Inner Traditions, 2001).
  • Alondra Nelson, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2013).
  • Loretta Ross, “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice” The Color of Violence: The Incite Anthology (Boston: South End, 2006) 53-65.
  • Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass, Cypress and Indigo (New York: St. Martin’s, 1982).
  • Ntozake Shange, Sassafrass (Berkeley: Shameless Hussy, 1976).

More information on the work:

Indigo Days: A Gathering of Black Warrior Healers:

Indigo Afterschool Program:

Other Resources:

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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]
  10. This might be a moment to explain that while black feminism and womanism are not necessarily interchangeable, I use the terms in a way that acknowledges that, at this point, they are inextricable. While in early discursive moments, black feminism and womanism were edges of a debate about black women’s political and identificatory practice, as a member of a generation that has benefited from this debate, I chose to understand that the passion of the debates about what womanism and black feminism mean to black women has resulted in a moment in which I am able to fully claim both. The current manifestations of black feminism and womanism in practice are informed by each other in a way that makes each invocation more powerful than it could have been without such a debate. Instead of citing the black feminist and womanist literature in which this debate lives, I will relate to these terms not in competition, but in collaboration. I use “black feminist” more often in my scholarly and activist work because it was the specific identification of more of the theorists who inform my work, and because it gives me the opportunity to repeat the word “black,” which is one of my very favorite words. [Return to text]
  11. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 49. [Return to text]
  12. Loretta Ross, “The Color of Choice: White Supremacy and Reproductive Justice” The Color of Violence: The Incite Anthology (Boston: South End, 2006) 64. [Return to text]
  13. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 29. [Return to text]
  14. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 29. [Return to text]
  15. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 31. [Return to text]
  16. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 32. [Return to text]
  17. For more about my experience, see the text of a talk I gave during Sexual Assault Awareness Month at Columbia in 2012 here. [Return to text]
  18. See Quarrel for more discussion of survivor-centered responses to gendered violence. Quarrel was also part of a zine event at Barnard Library in July 2013. [Return to text]
  19. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  20. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  21. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  22. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  23. In addition to the initiatives described here, other work in our community inspired by Ntozake Shange’s work includes the Sassafrass Survival Salon, addressing relationship violence in our community, and the Rainbow Reclamations Ritual series for women of color based on for colored girls. Ntozake Shange—your work is food and medicine in my community. [Return to text]
  24. Nikki Giovanni, “Black love is black wealth,” Black Feeling Black Talk (New York: Harper Collins, 1968). [Return to text]
  25. Recently the Indigo Journey’s program was honored with a gift from the We Shall Overcome fund at the Highlander Center. They are also playing a priceless role in the transformation of Pauli Murray’s childhood home into the Pauli Murray Center for Social Justice in Durham. [Return to text]
  26. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 40. [Return to text]