Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir in verse by Jacqueline Woodson. Like Gary Soto and Sandra Cisneros, Woodson here works in a niche of narrative poetry that is accessible to wary readers. The poems lure the reader in with their openness and brevity, and do a lot of work in a few frank lines.
In one sequence of verses, she recounts living with her grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina at the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement. Her family takes risks and makes sacrifices to support the marchers.
So there’s a war going on in South Carolina,
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.
Yet her mother forbids her from playing with certain children, and reprimands her brother for using “ain’t,” and worries about children born in the north being reclaimed by the south; the fight for equality is layered with elitism within the African American community. Woodson lays it out like a documentarian, for readers to digest and discuss. As I read it, my mind buzzed with interior discussion.
Their lives are sometimes subsumed by history; other times, history is subsumed by their lives. As Jackie’s grandfather gets sick and her grandmother becomes immersed in religion, the Civil Rights movement is forgotten. Jackie resumes normal childhood concerns like ribbons and swing sets, chaffing under the demands and restrictions of her family’s religion, and grappling with jealousy of a new baby brother. The family moves to New York, back to Greenville, back to New York. Woodson writes of simple pleasures and sudden tragedies in the same matter-of-fact style.
The uniting theme in Brown Girl Dreaming is stories themselves: Stories told from parent to child, grandparent to child, child to grandparent, sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor. Bible stories and family legend blend into gossip and town folklore. Stories are read aloud to while away long bus trips. A school teacher captivates a class with one of my own favorite poems. The girl Jackie loves to listen, and becomes a storyteller herself before she can write.
[. . . ] each new story
I’m told becomes a thing
In some other way
to me. . . !
I experience this with my own pre-literature son, who is not pre-narrative. We comb through photo albums and as we tell him about our lives before him, the places we’ve been and people he knew, he spins back his own stories about them. He’s been to Milwaukee, he tells us, with his not-imaginary ant friends Biggie and Buggy and they stayed in a big hotel inside the museum that looks like a bird. He remembers marmalade-colored Maxx, the kitty who died four years before he was born. Our stories become his stories, and who’s to say he’s wrong? Perhaps our lives imprint our DNA, and pass on to our children.
Later passages describe Woodson’s love for books, the facility of telling stories and the difficulty of writing them, but of course we know by then that Woodson grows up to be a great writer indeed. This is a remarkably ego-less memoir, one that is generous to family and friends, to teachers and to history, and especially to readers. It invites readers to do what Woodson has done: to compose a poem about first memories, to write what you know of your great-grandparents, to see yourself in the grand scheme of things, to recount the stories from your faith and your favorite fables, and fashion them into a story of yourself.
The year I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, I was in the fourth grade, and I read the book from cover to cover in a near constant state of anxiety. I felt exposed, but for the first time in my life, I also felt seen, fully and without a way to cover myself. Back then, I didn’t think about the authors of what I read, just the stories they created. My books were sanctuaries. This Maya Angelou woman was inside my head, and she was telling on me.
It is hard to read Brown Girl Dreaming without thinking of that book, or thinking that this is that kind of book, one which will be around for decades and have a constant presence in classrooms around the country, and make its way into the hands of young readers who need it, and inspire them to take up writing and dreaming. It’s got a lot of award buzz, and deservedly so, but I honestly think it’s bigger than that.