Brown Girl Dreaming is only the second book I’ve read by Jacqueline Woodson. (The first, her spectacular picture book Show Way, is about seven generations of the women of an African-American family, from slavery through civil rights, and the instructions they pass on through a family quilt.) This book, told entirely in verse, is Woodson’s autobiography, from her birth to the time she’s about twelve. It’s tender and revealing, a portrait not only of Woodson herself but of her family and of her environment in the 1960s and ’70s as she is growing up in South Carolina and New York.
Jackie is born in Ohio and named after her father, Jack. (He actually wanted her just to be named Jack, but her mother, Mary Ann, refused, and made sure “Jacqueline” was put on the birth certificate.) She spends her first years in Ohio, but Mary Ann makes several trips to Greenville, South Carolina to visit her parents. Jack can’t see why she would go south, where Jim Crow is still alive and well, and they fight. Eventually, the couple splits, and Mary Ann and the three children — Hope, Odella, and Jackie — move south to live with Grandpa Gunnar and Grandma Georgiana.
Jackie grows to love the south, though the shadow of segregation is on everything they do, and the children always feel like outsiders because of their northern ways of talking and behaving. She helps her grandfather in the garden and her grandmother in the kitchen, and learns how much she’s loved. She goes several times a week to Kingdom Hall, where the Jehovah’s Witnesses gather. She watches as their neighbors begin to talk about marches and boycotts and sit-ins, and how to change their world.
Eventually, Mary Ann moves to New York, and brings the children with her (and there is a new baby brother, Roman, in the picture as well.) They move in with Mary Ann’s sister Caroline (Aunt Kay). In New York, Jackie blossoms. She meets a lifelong best friend, Maria, whose Puerto Rican family is like a second family for her. She has encouraging teachers who let her know that she doesn’t have to be in the shadow of Odella’s brilliance all her life — she can have her own gifts. And she learns about the Black Panthers, and Angela Davis, and revolution.
Woodson does an outstanding job in this memoir of weaving the events of her childhood — her relationship with her grandfather, her days at school, her questions about God — with the events of the world around her. It’s so interesting to see what a child notices: what are the adults talking about? Who’s being mean to Mom and Grandma? What does it mean to a kid, to have rights, or to start a revolution?
It’s also really interesting to watch Woodson watching herself become a writer. She struggled with reading and wasn’t as “smart” as her academically-gifted older sister. But ever since she could hold a pencil, she loved to write: forming letters on the page gave her a satisfaction nothing else could. And she was always a storyteller. I saw a dragon. Charlie turned green today. Telling things as they were, or never were, or as they could be. Her grandfather loved to hear her, and as he grew ill toward the end of his life, listened to her stories every day. You can see the tenderness there, as she watches the shape of that part of her life.
Weirdly, this is the second young adult book in verse I’ve read in a couple of months, and it really worked. I especially liked the series of haiku about listening. This is a beautiful book, and it makes me want to read more by Woodson.