Duty in the Kitchen, Liberty at the Loom: An Analysis of Sassafrass’ Modes of Creation

Last week, I enacted the scene in Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo on pages 74-75, where Sassafrass cooks dinner. I made a variation of the fish with red sauce and a vegetable side. Like Sassafrass, I did breathing exercises while preparing the ingredients and relevés while waiting for the fish to broil—embodying her physical state and emotional mood. I focused on this moment as a “calm before the storm,” due to its place in the text as a precursor to “The Revue.” 

This week, I dove deeper into this chapter (p. 67-82), analyzing the context of this cooking scene in an attempt to deeper understand Sassafrass. Sassafrass is a maker and creator, but the forces driving her creation vary depending on medium of expression. She cooks out of duty to Mitch; she writes out of responsibility to societal change; but she weaves to connect to her mother, her ancestors, her femininity, and herself. It is primarily through her weaving, then, that she experiences the spirit of art and creation—and effectively, freedom. 

Sassafrass and Mitch’s shared space is described by Shange as “a permanent monument to the indelibility of black creative innovation” (68)—a vibe created through Sassafrass’ work. Her hands made the curtains, the tapestries, and the clothes she and Mitch both wear. She invests consistent effort in pleasing Mitch, for example while she’s cooking, Shange writes, “since Mitch was into her being perfect today, she decided to make a perfect meal” (74). Even the title of the spinach reads “for Mitch” (74), showing the pressure she internalizes to make him happy. 

Despite her providing the food on his plate and the clothes on his back, Mitch is unappreciative and judgmental. He criticizes her Josephine Baker vagina art, as it “wasn’t proper for a new Afrikan woman to make things of such a sexual nature” (69). Meanwhile, he tolerates his friends’ oversexualization of her, and joins the degrading comments and sexist language during “The Revue.” Earlier, he comments, “you’re always sitting around making things with your hands” (70), pushing her towards writing rather than weaving, trivializing one form of creativity to endorse another more societally respectable one.  

When Sassafrass is upset with Mitch and with societal exploitation and degradation of the black female body in general, weaving is where she turns. The art of weaving is described for Sassafrass as “essential,” something she can do “almost unconsciously” that is generationally engraved through her female family members, ancestors, and “women everywhere” (81-82). She states it “gave her a sense of womanhood that was rich and sensuous, not tired and stingy” (81). Textually, the weaving section is presented to the reader in the form of poetry, its beauty. Through weaving, she can escape—at least for a moment—the reality of both her relationship and misogynistic social norms. When weaving, Sassafrass is free. 

What role does gender play in determining what art is respectable vs. trivial? Why is Mitch’s music respectable but Sassafrass’ weaving trivial?

Does Sassafrass like to cook? Do her breathing and dancing exercises indicate a freedom-feeling in that scene as well?

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