Brown Girl Dreaming (Newbery Honor Book)
Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014
352 pp., $17.99
Carissa Turner Smith
Brown Girl Dreaming
These are words that sink in the mind indeed, words that leave one despairing about whether much progress has really been made since 1903 or 1963. In response to Handler, Woodson wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, in which she recounted another childhood reading experience, one not mentioned in Brown Girl Dreaming: "In a book I found at the library, a camp song about a watermelon vine was illustrated with caricatures of sleepy-looking black people sitting by trees, grinning and eating watermelon. Slowly, the hideousness of the stereotype began to sink in. In the eyes of those who told and repeated the jokes, we were shuffling, googly-eyed and lesser than." Woodson here establishes her identity as a writer who can replace these images with better ones: "This mission is what's been passed down to me—to write stories that have been historically absent in this country's body of literature, to create mirrors for the people who so rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than the stereotypes they're so afraid of. To give young people—and all people—a sense of this country's brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever thinks they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another's too often painful past."
Important words, yet Woodson's op-ed almost rewrites Brown Girl Dreaming as if it were written in response to Handler's insensitivity. I find myself applauding Woodson's response at the same time that I wonder if she cedes too much power to Handler by allowing his words to frame even her own discussion of her work. It's as if her post-Du Boisian double-consciousness is suddenly forced back into the old Du Boisian struggle.
Handler, to his credit, apologized with tongue removed from cheek, gave a lot of money to the grassroots campaign We Need More Diverse Books, and said on Twitter, "It would be heartbreaking for the #NBAwards conversation to focus on my behavior instead of great books." In one sense, I think he's right, which is why I've saved any mention of his words until the end of this review.
In another sense, though, the ways that Handler's comments have shaped our conversations about Brown Girl Dreaming shine a light on another trick of memory, the ways that Americans are especially prone to pretend that the past is past, that the troubling history of American racism is part of a national childhood that may be left behind now that we have achieved enlightened adulthood. As Woodson suggests in Brown Girl Dreaming, though, "past" selves can coexist with present ones, and that's as painfully true for the nation as it is for the individual. We can be the America Du Bois described at the same time that we are the nation Woodson described. When it's 2015, it's also 1963 and 1903. Sometimes it takes a children's book and the kerfuffle surrounding it to force us to acknowledge that.
Carissa Turner Smith is associate professor of English at Charleston Southern University. She has published articles in the journals African American Review, Literature and Belief, and Renascence, as well as in a couple of collections of academic essays on children's and young adult fantasy literature. She's also written for Christ and Pop Culture.
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