Necromancy Never Pays

Brown Girl Dreaming


I read Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson both to participate in reading from A More Diverse Universe and as a follow-up to reading Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood by bell hooks this past spring.

Woodson’s book is recently published and I thought it would be a more modern look at some of the issues raised for me by the bell hooks memoir, which I was surprised to see was published fairly recently too–in 1996—because I reacted to it as if it were much older. The child in Bone Black is told that she cannot wear black because it is “a woman’s color.” My grandmother had similarly rigid rules about clothing styles and colors, rules that most people now have never heard about, so I reacted to most of the tribulations of the child in Bone Black as if she were of a generation earlier than mine, fighting for the rights of the generations to come, my own one of the first to benefit from the idea that elementary schoolchildren of every race should be encouraged to play together and that girls deserve to run around and play loud games with boys.

Woodson is my age, so I expected her experience to be similar, but since she was born with brown skin in Ohio and then did a lot of her growing up in South Carolina, her childhood was scarier and her desires more repressed than mine ever were. The memoir is told as a series of poems, which makes each picture of her childhood mean a little more than it says, as if a series of snapshots were being narrated, but not garrulously. I like this picture of her parents arguing about what to name her:

“Name a girl Jack
and people will look at her twice, my father said.

For no good reason but to ask if her parents
were crazy, my mother said.”

Woodson tells the story of her mother with herself as a baby, her two-year-old sister, and her nearly four-year-old brother, having to wait until nightfall to board a Greyhound bus in Greenville, South Carolina because then it is less likely that she will be questioned:

“Are you one of those Freedom Riders?
Are you one of those Civil Rights People?”

When the Woodsons move to South Carolina, when Jackie is three, civil rights battles are still being fought:

‘We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.’

I never saw this kind of thing happening–but at the age of three I was living in Missouri, where many of the children had skin about the color of mine and weren’t aware of such events, reading about them later as history.

Woodson and her brother and sister were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, which meant, to the child, that they didn’t celebrate holidays, rang doorbells selling The Watchtower on Saturday mornings, and had to stay inside on Sunday afternoons and Monday nights. When neighbor children come over one Sunday afternoon before Christmas and begin swinging on the empty swingset in her back yard, young Jackie and her siblings are told:

‘Let them play, for heaven’s sake, my grandmother says,
when we complain about them tearing it apart.
Your hearts are bigger than that!

But our hearts aren’t bigger than that.
Our hearts are tiny and mad.
If our hearts were hands, they’d hit.’

For all the parts of the memoir that are foreign and troubling, there are other parts that are familiar to me, the cornbread young Jackie remembers her grandmother making and the song her grandfather always sang, “Froggie went a-courtin’.”

Both bell hooks and Woodson, being readers and writers, eventually emerge from the troubles of their childhoods into the realm of books where many of us also took refuge.

bell hooks tells about what it’s like to be a child who wants to read all the time:
“When I become the problem child they blame it all on the books. They make me stop reading unless all my chores are done. They make me stop reading to go outside and play. They snatch the book out of my hand and throw it away because I am not listening when someone is talking to me.”

Woodson isn’t as natural a reader:

“words come slow to me
on the page until
I memorize them, reading the same books over
and over”

but developing her memory is part of what is making her into a storyteller, causing her family members to sometimes ask:

“Is that something you made up? Or something real?
In my own head,
It’s real as anything.”

Near the end of Woodson’s memoir, she tells about the first person who identifies her as a writer, an important person in any writer’s memory:

“You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
her gray eyes bright behind
thin wire frames. Her smile bigger than anything
so I smile back, happy to hear these words
from a teacher’s mouth. She is a feminist, she tells us
and thirty fifth-grade hands bend into desks
where our dictionaries wait to open yet another
world to us. Ms. Vivo pauses, watches our fingers fly
Webster’s has our answers.
Equal rights, a boy named Andrew yells out.
For women.
My hands freeze on the thin white pages.
Like Blacks, Ms. Vivo, too, is part of a revolution.”

Both of these memoirs tell about the struggles that made the writers what they are–part of a generation–but leaders among their generations, sharing what it’s like to look different and be told that you’re different from those around you, and yet eventually showing how they discovered that their words could help create better worlds than the ones around them.