Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014)
It’s a portrait of the writer as a young woman who is Africa-American. She was born in Ohio in the early 1960s, and the Civil Rights movement features in this narrative as significant backdrop.
___________ we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.
After her parents split up she and her two siblings move to Greenville, South Carolina, to live with their grandmother who imposes strict Jehovah’s Witness discipline, then at about the age of seven they rejoin their mother in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where the Witness discipline is relaxed somewhat, and among other things young Jacqueline discovers her vocation as a writer.
There’s something almost miraculous in the way the narrative swings along, one short, self-contained poem at a time. The little girl’s relationships with her mother and grandparents, and even with the father they leave very early in the piece, are finely drawn. Likewise her position in the family: in the shadow of her smarter older sister, concerned for their vulnerable youngest brother, born in Brooklyn, and proud of their quietly achieving middle brother. There’s a lot about the Witnesses and the Civil Rights Movement, and the joys and pressures on children’s inter-racial friendships. When a beloved uncle comes home from gaol as a convert to Islam, the telling provides a tender contradiction to the way such a story would be treated in the mainstream press.
This is from near the end of the book, but I don’t think it’s a spoiler:
the promise land
When my uncle gets out of jail
he isn’t just my uncle anymore, he is
Robert the Muslim and wears
a small black kufi on his head.
And even though we know
we Witnesses are the chosen ones, we listen
to the stories he tells about
a man named Muhammad
and a holy place called Mecca
and the strength of all Black people.
We sit in a circle around him, his hands
moving slow through the air, his voice
calmer and quieter than it was before
he went away.
When he pulls out a small rug to pray on
I kneel beside him, wanting to see
wanting to know the place
he calls the Promise Land.
Look with your heart and your head, he tells me
his own head bowed.
It’s out there in front of you.
You’ll know when you get there.
It’s a terrific book, and the reader falls in love with young Jackie and her family, so it’s a real pleasure to discover the pages of photos of them all up the back.
I feel obliged to mention, though, a shock I had when I read the poem ‘bushwick history lesson’. The first four stanzas begin: ‘Before German mothers wrapped scarves around their heads’, ‘Before the Italian fathers sailed across the ocean’, ‘Before Dominican daughters donned quinceañera/ dresses’, and ‘Before young brown boys in cutoff shorts spun their / first tops’. We are reaching back into the beginnings of this part of the world. But where we get to is: ‘Before any of that, this place was called Boswijk.‘ In the beginning were the Dutch and ‘Franciscus the Negro, a former slave / who bought his freedom.’ For young Jacqueline, this meant that African heritage people had been in Bushwick from the beginning. But for the reader it’s a painful shock all the same to have the pre-colonial past, and the dispossession of Native Americans so thoroughly erased.
To quote Joe E Brown’s character says at the end of Some Like it Hot, ‘Well, nobody’s perfect!’