Poetry is a perfect medium for memoir, as Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood memoir in verse attests. In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson uses free verse to tell the story of her childhood, beginning before her birth in Ohio in 1963, moving through her early childhood years in South Carolina, and then into her school years in Brooklyn with summers back in South Carolina.
The lovely thing about her use of verse is that it allows her to keep her memories fragmented as memories so often are. There are images of flickering fireflies, hot combs and hair grease, a composition notebook, chalk on the pavement, and Angela Davis on the television. These images are arranged in a sort of chronological order, often in small vignettes that Woodson shares, but they don’t have to be forced into a clear narrative. Sometimes the memories stand on their own, just bits and pieces that together make a story of a life.
Within that life story, certain themes emerge repeatedly. Family is important, as the changes in young Jackie’s family uproot her time and again while giving her stability in new situations. Her family isn’t perfect; her father is not on the scene, and her mother leaves Jackie and her older siblings with her grandparents for a few years, but there’s always love there. You get the sense that this is just the way things were. In a typical prose memoir, particularly one written for adults, I might expect more explanations of these separations, but explanations would seem out of place in a verse memoir for young readers. The book is focused on Jackie’s impressions at the time, not on adult explanations.
That’s not to say that Woodson avoids heavy topics. Race comes up several times, with her father refusing to live in South Carolina and her South Carolina grandmother avoiding stores where she knows she won’t be treated with respect, even after segregation is made illegal. The fabric store is a favorite because “At the fabric store, we’re just people.” Again, she focuses on her childhood impressions, the things she noticed and heard, letting readers find commentary between the lines. And the commentary is there, as it is in the poem called “Ghosts,” which presents a powerful image of the legacy of racism:
In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.
Our racist history is always there. Painting over it doesn’t take it away. And the memory of that history still keeps people out. It’s why, I think, removal of Confederate flags from public spaces is so important. Flying those flags is a way of keeping those words visible, telling black citizens that they just aren’t welcome. We have to do more to erase those messages from our public spaces, not just paint over them.
Another theme is her emerging voice as a writer. As a young child, Jackie struggled with reading (“the words twist/twirl across the page”), but she loved words and stories. She memorized Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant” and told it to her class. She wrote a book of haiku about butterflies. And one day she realized that words can make a difference:
I want to write this down, that the revolution is like
a merry-go-round, history always being made
somewhere. And maybe for a short time,
we’re part of that history. And then the ride stops
and our turn is over.