There’s a Moon Journey in Octavia’s Bath

In many cultures, particularly Native American and West African, it is understood that a woman’s cycle is deeply interconnected with the water and the moon. For example, in the West African Yoruba religion, Yemoja is goddess who is associated with the moon, rivers, and motherhood. The goddess, Oshun, patron saint of the Osun river in Nigeria. She represents femininity, fertility, love and beauty. The Yoruba religion is the ancestral root of many spiritual practices found throughout the African diasporic world and has birthed hoodoo, voodoo, Vodun, Candomble, and Santeria, to name a few traditions. This belief is part of a spiritual tradition where all beings are divine. The moon controls the tides, and it has a cycle same as women have a cycle. It is interesting to know that scientifically all beings are composed of the same matter. The first law of thermodynamics is that energy is never created nor destroyed, it is only transmitted into and out of particles of matter. Energy is shared between all beings and objects. This almost asserts that god is an It, and all of itis divine. Particularly interesting to me is the knowledge that the way that hydrogen bonds to protein determines the curliness of one’s hair. Curlier hair requires more hydrogen bonds, or rather, the more phenotypically African, the more she needs water. Water bears incredible significance for women, like Indigo, who has “a moon in her mouth” (p. 1). Shange begins the text with the claim that women are inherently magic, and a woman who is intimately connected with the moon, or “has a moon in her mouth,” is aware of that magic. In looking at the Moon Journey that is detailed in Sassafras, Cypress and Indigo, I think that we can look at Octavia’s bath as a citified, less intentioned version of the Moon Journey that Indigo describes.

Shange presents us with a bath that is wholly blessed, full of intention, and has the power to transport a woman to the moon. What Shange calls the “Alternative Modes of Moon Journeys” is intended for a woman who will have to make do, as my mom would say, either because of inclement weather or limited space. The bathing water is scented and tickled. Items are kissed then dropped gently, placed, and floated. These acts are intended to bless the water before the body enters it. The final instructions are for a woman, is to “lie in the tub, with flower over your heart. Close your eyes. You are on your way” (p. 3). A woman with “too much South in her,” will enter into this ritual with the intention of visiting the moon.

Macon, GA, even in 1980, was a rural town. The rural South is often referred to as the country, and folks from the country are often differentiated from citified Southern folks as being more Southern. On a scale Southerness, Granny regards Mama as having not enough. She implores her to move back to Macon. Having left the country for the metropolitan city of Atlanta, in comparison to other women we’ve read this semester, Octavia’s Mama is Southern-lite. Despite n telling her daughter to bathe, Octavia’s Mama shares with her a Southern-lite, less intentioned version of the menstrual bath, yet the bath is still a rite into womanhood.

When Octavia got home to her mother to share that she got her period, it reminded me of my first period. It happened at school and thus, like Octavia, my mother was not the first person I told. It was a Friday night so, after picking me up from school, my Daddy took me to the church where he had weekly rehearsal with the other members of their gospel quintet. I was surrounded by men. I, like Octavia, wondered if men could sense it. Could they smell it on you? Octavia was instinctively cautious around Delvin, even before Miss Darlene warned her to “watch out for boys now” (p 200). Miss Darlene affirms that men are aware of when a girl becomes a woman, and Mama stops her from her drunken fear mongering. When I got home, my Mama told to take a bath. She and I didn’t go to Red Lobster. We sat together and watched what my Dad called “girly movies”. My brothers weren’t allowed in the living room. 

At first glance, one could assume that the intent of bathing is to achieve thorough cleanliness. However, the purpose of this bath is not to make Octavia clean. Octavia asks, “I don’t smell alright?” when her mother tells her to bathe, but Mama tells her no. The purpose of the bath is not because she’s dirty, but because the two women are “fixing to go out to dinner” (p. 200). The bath is part of a celebration, and what follows is that Octavia will dawn perform and her mother will wear her favorite dress. Later, Mama tells Octavia, “You might have to run the shower to get all that soap off.” Here we see that bathing is not sufficient for cleaning the body. 

Jones creates an intimate moment where Mama expresses to Octavia an information about being a woman. Though she bided Miss Darlene for “telling lies” and scaring Octavia, she delivers the same message more gently. She tells Octavia that upon entering womanhood, she is vulnerable to male sexual desire and violence. Octavia’s ritualized entry into womanhood comes with a warning. This warning is necessary because Octavia and her mother seem unaware that woman are inherently magic. They have no moons in their mouths, and they are vulnerable to the worldly strength of men.

Question: In Leaving Altanta, Mama and Miss Darlene warn Octavia of men, but who do the women generally fear in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo? How do women use their magic to manage threats to their safety?

1 Comment

  1. (I can’t figure out how to format italics in this comment field, so just trust that I italicized the book title and Hilda Effania’s letter below. Thanks.)

    How do the women in Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo use their magic to manage threats to their safety?

    Part of Cypress’s strength comes from her ability to maintain communication with her mother and to ask for support in times of desperation. Cypress discovers that she and Idrina had a miscommunication, that Idrina has another girlfriend, Laura, and is only playing with Cypress. Cypress tries to expel her emotions through dance; “[s]he wanted to get up and shout with her bosom and fingers. Holler with her arms: ‘I am hurt. I am hurt. I am hurt. HUUUURRRRRTTTT.’ But she didn’t move; she was rigid like a forsaken oak. Then she collapsed, refusing to dance—dance was too much joy to bear. She would not dance. She somehow got her things and left Idrina’s in a fearsome silence. Cypress had nothing to say. No dance left” (138). Like Indigo who finds her power in communicating with her dolls through her fiddle, Cypress normally speaks with her body. In this moment of miscommunication between Idrina and Cypress about each person’s desires, Cypress cannot fails to communicate with her body.
    Unable to speak through dance, we presume she writes to her mother because in the next chapter Hilda Effania responds to Cypress’s dejection. Hilda Effania says “Your new friends, Idrina and Ixchell, sound very nice, but don’t forget how I told all my girls that close women friends are always more trouble than they are pleasure. You can’t ever keep your business to yourself, or be certain that your very own beau isn’t the light of their life” (139). Paralyzed by grief, Cypress cannot speak with her body, but she can write to her mother. In her mother’s eyes, she becomes a girl again – “I told all my girls” – and in becoming someone other than the spurned woman she is grants her momentary relief. In Shange’s novel, Indigo finds her magic/power by communicating with her dolls via the fiddle. Cypress has the power of speaking with her body, and when that magic fails her, she maintains the power of writing to family. Hilda Effania generates magic in this scene from her ability to turn a fragile woman back into her baby girl.

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