Discussion Process and Questions
“Brown Girl Dreaming,” the novel by Jacqueline Woodson, presents her life through a series of poems. During the discussion, the classmates revealed various themes and tensions that helped to understand the feelings and messages of the main character Jacqueline. Three themes the discussion was focused on are memories, racism, and the relationships between the North and the South. It was discovered that the novel presents the lives of teens and tweens and focuses on their experiences. Jacqueline and her siblings moved from the North to the South where African Americans were still treated unequally. While her sister Hope sorrows for the home they lived, Jacqueline is more tied to their new home in Greenville, South Carolina. This helped to understand that not only adults but also children were the victims of racism and discrimination, and they felt pain and struggled against them in their own manner. This was the point that made the discussion members think differently about teens and tweens. It goes without saying that children did not participate in any movements, yet the author emphasizes that they shared lamentable events and experiences.
The mentioned themes are directly related to the course materials, since the former deepen knowledge received during classes. The novel presents firsthand stories that clearly describe how African American teens and tweens lived in the 1960-1970s on the South. Such tensions as fights between Jacqueline’s mother and father, unfree ex-slaves, discrimination of African Americans by White people, mother’s memories, etc. were important to understand teens and tweens. The following questions were discussed:
- Why does the author connect the historical background and her childhood?
- What are the key factors that impact Jacqueline’s identity and self-perception?
- What do family and friends mean to the main character?
- How does the author manipulate the memories of herself and others to convey her feelings and messages?
The novel by Woodson (2014) presents a range of important themes, while this paper will focus on racism, the Civil Rights, and Black Power Movements, relationships between the South and the North, and memories.
Racism along with Civil Rights and Black Power Movements
In the first part of her novel, the author identifies her early childhood and places herself within the broader context. Considering a harsh struggle of African Americans for racial equality, this theme becomes the leitmotif of the whole novel. Born in 1963, Jacqueline writes: “my great-great-grandparents worked the deep rich land unfree,” thus emphasizing her ancestors’ background and the social status that was partially inherited by her (Woodson, 2014, p. 7). She also mentions her father’s bondage and the events of the Civil Rights Movement occurred when she was born. By connecting her birth with the above events and history in general, the author suggests that they affected and will continue to impact her life by predetermining some issues. In particular, one may note that she describes the lives of African Americans freed from slavery yet still suppressed: they “keep fighting and marching and getting killed” (Woodson, 2014, p. 7). This shows that the author understands her belonging to the mentioned conflict as well as its inevitable impact on her future. The existing racial classification is also outlined by the author by describing her birth certificate and the Black Power Movement. Despite the emancipation of African Americans, they were still treated unequally from the very birth date that underscores racism.
The story with another African American girl, Ruby Bridges, shows that children were no exception for discrimination, and they were also involved in the movement against it. By writing about the Woodsons of Ohio, the author considers the history of her family from the point of Jack, her father, who wanted to name his daughter after him, thus suggesting that she would continue their family. This man believed that he is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, the President’s slaves. Since Woodson (2014) mentions how the family of her father was proud of the above legend, it is possible to assume that the institution of slavery was closely connected with the myths offered by the President Jefferson. Namely, there is an allusion to Jefferson-Hemings controversial story that presents a potential sexual liaison between the President and his slave along with fathering of children of the latter. This may be regarded as the onset of Black pride along with the Black Power Movement, the activism that significantly contributed to social justice.
Relationships Between the South and the North
The second theme presented by the author in “Brown Girl Dreaming” refers to how people considered the North and the South of the United States. When her parents stopped their relationships, Jacqueline, her siblings, and Mama moved to Greenville, South Carolina to grandparents, MaryAnn and Gunnar. When the young girl asked her mother whether she likes the place of her childhood, she answered that it was more pleasant before. The mother stated that she did not feel at home, and her daughter “imagines her standing in the middle of the road, her arms out fingers pointing North and South” (Woodson, 2014, p. 96). This dialogue shows that Mama is more tied to people since her beloved ones were in the North, while the author feels her connection with the land as she repeatedly mentions the soil. Another scene in the garden describes the attitude of the grandfather whose work is gardening. Likewise in times of the slavery, he remains involved in the same occupation – cotton picking. In Jacqueline, this causes associations with dirt. More to the point, the author connects this with the legacy of the slavery as well as its informal continuation after the abolishment. In other words, it is possible to observe the link to the whole South where ex-slaves remained dependant on their work and, disconcertingly, ex-masters.
Various examples show the life of the South, namely, how African Americans lived. Compared to the North, their living places were traditionally segregated from those of White people, and this situation remained unchanged after the official slavery abolishment. The author also discusses the fact that even though people in the South had equal job opportunities, African Americans still experienced workplace discrimination. She notes that her grandfather was working at press clocks where Whites called him Gunar instead of Mr. Irby. However, in spite of social and geographic segregation, the South tended to change for better from the point of the mentioned hero. As for the views of the author, she feels ambivalent regarding the identified theme. On the one hand, she understands that segregation comes directly from racism. On the other hand, she loves the place where she can find people like her and feel comfortable. For example, Jacqueline admires the Southern music calling it “lullaby”, storytelling, and reading, especially empathizing with Odella. However, through focusing on Hope’s allergy and homesickness, she discovers that the North is also their home. When their mother moves to New York, she states to children that they are halfway home, thus emphasizing that the family exists between two homes, the South and the North.
Within the first three parts, the author refers to her own memory as well as to those of others to show how it works. Memory here is a significant theme that helps readers to track the life of Jacqueline and her relationships with the family members. Reading the novel, it is possible to note that words, odors, people, environment – all the details are important to understand Jacqueline’s life as a tween and then as a teen. The theme of memory begins from the very beginning of the book: as noted by Woodson (2014), “outside the window of University Hospital, snow is slowly falling” (p. 14). The author portrays her birth from her mother’s, father’s, and grandmother Grace’s points. It is evident that a baby cannot remember his or her early days, and that the author’s representation of her birth can be biased primarily because the views are different. The second and third parts also present various memories.
In this regard, memory seems to be perceived by the girl as something confusing and impeding her self-identification. As a teenage girl, he feels her mother’s pain and suffering from oppression she encountered when hearing the word “ma’am”. Another example is associated with Hope’s feelings of pain, when their parents quarreled. The only difference is that Jacqueline did not remember it, while Hope’s experiences are still alive. Jacqueline also mentions the memories of Aunt Kay, claiming that they had some lovely moments, but then she fell and died. The author notes that she had no more memories about her aunt, yet she used them to process her grief. This reflects the role of memories as a tool to let go of grief and live further. Even though she suffers, Jacqueline clearly understands that death is inevitable, thus proving her mature view of life. Furthermore, the author remembers that her mother was also grieving for Aunt Key, and the statues of her reminded the past times, thus causing her smile. While remembering her life in the North, Jacqueline imagines some stories and relives her sorrows by using memory and imagination to mitigate pain.
The analysis of the memories as a theme in the given novel helps to represent the life of the African American girl moved from the North to the South of the United States and encountered specific social problems. Woodson (2014) claims that “somewhere in her brain each laugh, tear and lullaby becomes memory” (p. 29). The above words may be interpreted as memories compose a rather important part of her life, be it positive or negative moments.
To conclude, “Brown Girl Dreaming” by Woodson is characterized by remarkable themes. Connecting her life and the wider social context, the author creates the novel filled with stories about family, friends, and society. Thus, it seems that Jacqueline is grateful to her memory as well as other people’s reminiscence as she can utilize them in her novel and convey her feelings to the public.
Woodson, J. (2014). Brown girl dreaming. New York, NY: Penguin Group.