Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming
Book review by Monica Friedman
Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in poems, Brown Girl Dreaming, presents a child’s life straddling multiple worlds, existing on both sides of a divide but also in the spaces in between.
Young Jackie perceives the many closely detailed binaries of her life: north and south, black and white, young and old, city and country, clean and dirty, believer and unbeliever, present and absent. She also sees beyond those dualities, pondering how a thing must be one or the other, but can also be both at the same time, and she writes about the intersections and delineations of all the angles of her childhood.
It’s an autobiographical work, beginning with the protagonist’s birth, but then immediately following its own roots back into the past, situating the heroine as one settled atop a strong foundation.
Woodson acknowledges on page one, how
my great-great grandparents
worked the deep rich land
and then draws a line from slavery in America’s history to the civil rights movement that informed her childhood:
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today—
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children like me can grow up
The beginning of the book, while recounting some moments in her early life, focuses on ancestry, both those long gone, and those who recall her childhood.
The echoes of memory resonate loudly throughout the book. While Woodson remembers her own past, she also encourages the voices of the deeper past to flow through her characters, who remember things that happened before she was born.
It is an excavation of understanding, as the author sets history in order before making sense of her own life. She cannot recollect the moment her parents’ marriage dissolves, but still she strives to take the knowledge she has and find meaning:
Maybe the memory of Columbus was too
for my mother to save
Maybe the memory of my mother was a painful stone inside my father’s heart.
For whatever reason, her parents divorce, her father disappears from her life, and her Ohio existence is reordered as her mother relocates the family to her parents’ place in South Carolina, where everything is different.
There is gardening and church and family. People tell Jackie and her siblings they talk too fast; they must become conscious of racism and cautious of their own behavior in a way that never existed up north.
completely new world, one full of love and treats, but not the world her mother
It’s hard for children to understand how adults make decisions, and while Woodson, the adult author, makes it fairly plain what’s going on in her mother’s mind, Jackie the little girl is almost a feather in the wind, blown here and there without regard for her own desire.
Throughout Brown Girl Dreaming, the themes of family and place are repeated and examined from every angle.
Jackie comes to understand what it is to love, and what it is to believe, and to fight, and to learn. She works through her own questions about herself—who she is, what she can do—and begins to find herself as a teller of stories.
In the book’s penultimate poem, “what i believe,” she reconciles all the divergent concepts in her life, concluding, “I believe in one day and someday and this perfect moment called Now.”
Brown Girl Dreaming finishes up by expanding upon the possibilities of a life in the poem, “each world,” which begins, “When there are many worlds/you can choose the one/you walk into each day.”
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