Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book)
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014
352 pp., $17.99
Carissa Turner Smith
Brown Girl Dreaming
In depicting the family's moves and her Witness upbringing, Woodson draws on both the child's perspective and the adult's perspective, without calling explicit attention to differences between them. With an outlook probably attained through maturity, Woodson gives tribute to her mother's courage in forging a new life for them at the tail end of the Great Migration; as a child, though, Jacqueline and her siblings feel torn between the "home" they knew with their South Carolina grandparents and the "home" their mother has established for them in Brooklyn. Woodson, like Toni Morrison, explores what was left behind, as well as what was gained, in the Great Migration, and she challenges any simple equation of the South with restraint and the North with liberty. Her mother deems it prudent to move with the children to the back of the bus on the way from South Carolina to Ohio in 1963, but she also punishes the children for any lapse into what she views as "southern" or "subservient" speech—"ain't," "y'all," and "ma'am."
"As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
The ambiguity with which Woodson shades the mother's actions in this scene is one of the particular strengths of Brown Girl Dreaming. She manages to pay tribute to her mother's fierce need to give her children the language of self-respect, but she also shows how the mother's desire for "northern" ways had a silencing effect on the children.
Woodson's description of being raised, according to her maternal grandmother's wishes, as a Jehovah's Witness, is similarly nuanced. (This nuance was regrettably lost in Woodson's reading at the National Book Awards in November, during which she told the audience, "I was raised Jehovah's Witness. [pause] I'm not anymore," followed by titters from the crowd. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson seems far less certain that one can call an old identity over and done with.) She writes of the children's enthrallment to her grandmother's rendering of Bible stories—
Our questions come fast but we want
the stories more than we want the answers
so when my grandmother says,
Hush, so I can tell it!
—but also of how women aren't allowed to speak onstage alone at church. After a section on how she and her Jehovah's Witness classmates have to leave the room during the pledge of allegiance, she reflects on other Witness prohibitions: "We will never taste the sweetness of a classroom / birthday cupcake / We will never taste the bitterness of a battle." Even a religious identity centered, from the perspective of a child, around "what we don't do" isn't as simple as it initially seems: the legacy is both freeing and restrictive at the same time.
Similarly, the last section of Brown Girl Dreaming, "each world," begins as an ode to an expansive and hopeful version of double-consciousness, a sense that being two things at once is an opportunity rather than a burden:
Each day a new world
opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are—
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar's child and Jack's daughter
Jehovah's Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline—
gather into one world
But then the lines take a turn toward a more simplistic self-empowerment anthem:
where You decide
what each word
and each story
and each ending
will finally be.
Declarations of self-determined identity are always going to ring hollow to a reader who prefers a notion of identity centered in Christ, but these last few words collapse the richer, polyphonic "you" that readers have followed throughout the book.
And, in truth, sometimes you don't entirely get to decide how your words will be framed. Brown Girl Dreaming received publicity for winning the National Book Award for Young People's Literature, but even more attention due to the deplorable conduct of M.C. Daniel Handler (best known as children's author Lemony Snicket), who, after Woodson won the award, made light of her achievement by invoking racial caricature. Handler "joked" to the audience: "I told Jackie she was gonna win, and I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind."