I finished one of my most need-to-get-to books last week: Brown Girl Dreaming.
It is hard to say anything new about Brown Girl Dreaming; all summer long, those lucky ones who were able to get advance copies raved about the power of this book, and I felt privileged to get my own copy at last so that I could experience it as well. In this memoir, Woodson writes of growing up in two worlds – the South Carolina home of her beloved grandparents, and the Brooklyn home of her mother.
As her family’s needs shift and change, Woodson moves North to South and back again. America is changing slowly in those days of Civil Rights marches and the still-present vestiges of Jim Crow, and Woodson’s family embodies the journey we made (and are still making) towards “all men are created equal”. Her mother looks forward to a future of equal opportunity, her grandparents are wary of such promises. And Woodson, herself, is caught in between – there is the comfort of what is known in South Carolina, and there is a sense of empowerment and hope in Brooklyn. As she moves between these worlds, she notices everything; and she comes to recognize her gift with words, with which she can (and does in Brown Girl Dreaming) make us understand how her story is, really, our story. I was especially moved by the scenes in South Carolina, evocative vignettes of what is noticed by the senses (the magnolia scented heat, the texture and taste of collard greens and cornbread), and what is known through the heart and mind of an unusually discerning young girl.
Irene Latham had shared this excerpt last Poetry Friday on her blog, which, I think, speaks to this traveling between two worlds and showing us the way between that Woodson does so hauntingly:
the fabric store
– from BROWN GIRL DREAMING by Jacqueline Woodson
Some Fridays, we walk to downtown Greenville where
there are some clothing stores, some restaurants,
a motel and the five-and-dime store but
my grandmother won’t take us
into any of those places anymore.
Even the five-and-dime, which isn’t segregated now
but where a woman is paid, my grandmother says,
to follow colored people around in case they try to
steal something. We don’t go into the restaurants
because they always seat us near the kitchen.
When we go downtown,
we go to the fabric store, where the white woman
knows my grandmother
from back in Andersons, asks,
How’s Gunnar doing and your girls in New York?
she rolls fabric out for my grandmother
to rub between her fingers.
They discuss drape and nap and where to cinch
the waist on a skirt for a child.
At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.
Here she is, reading an excerpt herself:
And here she is, being interviewed by NPR:
My own copy of Brown Girl Dreaming has begun its journey through a long line of readers, beginning with a former student, Lizzie, who was so excited to have the book over the weekend. We had worked through a social justice book club together when she was in my sixth grade class, and she had read and loved Hush and Miracle’s Boys ; now she was eager to read about what had informed the author’s perspective, how Jacqueline Woodson’s past had shaped her voice and her stories today. It was lovely, really, to place the book in her hands knowing the spell it would cast.