The OF Blog: Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming

There are white men working at the printing press
beside Daddy, their fingers blackened
with ink so that at the end of the day, palms up
it's hard to tell who is white and who is not, still
they call my grandfather Gunnar,
even though he's a foreman
and is supposed to be called
Mr. Irby.
But he looks the white men in the eye
sees the way so many of them can't understand
a colored man
telling them what they need to do.
This is new.  Too fast for them.
The South is changing.

Sometimes they don't listen.
Sometimes they walk away.
At the end of the day, the newspaper is printed,
the machines are shut down and each man
punches a clock and leaves but

only Colored folks
come home to Nicholtown.

Here, you can't look right or left or up or down
without seeing brown people.
Colored Town.  Brown Town.  Even a few mean words
to say where we live.

My grandmother tells us
it's the way of the South.  Colored folks used to stay 
where they were told that they belonged.  But 
times are changing. 
And people are itching to go where they want. 

This evening, though,
I am happy to belong
to Nicholtown.

– "at the end of the day," (pp. 53-54)

Jacqueline Woodson's National Book Award-nominated Brown Girl Dreaming is an autobiography of her life growing up in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York City during the eventful 1960s.  Instead of writing a more traditional prose memoir, Woodson recasts memories of her childhood in a series of poems that cover a wide variety of issues, from racism to food, from family bonds and parental disunity.  This choice of utilizing poetry instead of prose allows Woodson to describe in great detail certain memories of her childhood with great economy of words.

Brown Girl Dreaming is divided into five parts, each of which chronicles key moments in Woodson's childhood.  Some of the earlier poems, such as "second daughter's second day on earth," use historical events, like the planning of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington, as a backdrop to her life and the expectations that have been placed on her by others.  Others, like "a girl named jack," concentrate on the more intimate issues of self-identity, such as the argument between Woodson's parents over what name she should have.  Identity is an issue that Woodson revisits several times over the course of this collection and for the majority of the poems dedicated to exploring these questions of self-identity, she manages to create vividly-described passages in which the doubt and uncertainty which plagued her at times come to the fore and are presented well.

In later sections, particularly in the shift from Ohio to South Carolina (and later to New York City), Woodson focuses more on differences and how diverse perspectives affected the younger her.  Of particular interest was the poem "training," in which a cousin, Dorothy, voices the apprehension that many in the civil rights movement had regarding nonviolence:

But Lord, Cousin Dorothy says.  Everyone has a line. 
When I'm walking 
up to that lunch counter and taking my seat, 
I pray to God, don't let 
anybody spit on me.  I can be Sweet Dorothy
seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day 
as long as nobody crosses that line.  Because if they do, 
this nonviolent movement

is over! (pp. 76-77)

If there is a major flaw to Brown Girl Dreaming, it might be that it is too full of images and scenes from Woodson's past.  This is not to say that individual poems are poor or even mediocre, no.  Instead, there are times that it felt as though a similarly-themed poem was presented too close to another, weakening the effect that either might have had if they were separated by a greater space.  Also, there were some poems that seemed to be lacking on a technical level, as though a metaphor could have been added or dropped, or perhaps a descriptive scene could have been shortened to make for a more effective poem.  Yet in saying this, I am hard pressed to think of specific examples; this is more of a general sense of the collection as a whole rather than individual lines or poems.  Again, this is not to say that the poems as a whole were mediocre, but rather that there were times where the effect was less than what Woodson seemed to desire to achieve.

Despite these occasionally flat poems, on the whole Brown Girl Dreaming is a moving story of the author's early life and how her and her family's experiences in the 1960s helped shape her as a woman of color.  It is a good poetry collection, but not a great one; the power lies more with the story unfolding within the poems rather than in the poems themselves.  Nevertheless, it is a collection well worth reading and it is a worthy nominee for the 2014 National Book Awards for Young People's Literature.

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