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

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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?

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  1. 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]
  2. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 49. [Return to text]
  3. 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]
  4. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 29. [Return to text]
  5. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 29. [Return to text]
  6. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 31. [Return to text]
  7. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 32. [Return to text]
  8. 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]
  9. 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]
  10. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  11. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  12. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]
  13. Shange, Sassafrass 1982: 223. [Return to text]