Friday, September 18, 2020

Freeform Friday: Brown Girl Dreaming - Jacqueline Woodson

At Reading for Sanity, we understand the importance of honoring different voices and experiences, especially those that are often marginalized or stigmatized.  In that vein, we have decided to dedicate more of our upcoming reviews to books and authors that offer Black, Indigenous, and Person of Color perspectives.   We'd also like to direct you to our new label (BIPOC Perspectives), located in the right sidebar, where you can find more books like this one.  

Summary:  In vivid free verse, award-winning Jacqueline Woodson shares what it was like to grow up in the 1960s and 1970s both in the North and the South.  Raised in South Caroline and later in Brooklyn, New York, Woodson often felt halfway home in each place, and describes the reality of living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the civil rights movement.  In the South, kids teased her and her siblings about their northern way of talking, and in Brooklyn, being a Jehovah's Witness meant following rules their friends didn't understand. But through all their journeying, there was always one constant -- a deep family love and pride that made each Woodson stand up a little taller and shine a little brighter.

Woodson's eloquent poetry also describes the joy of finding her voice through writing -- something she always loved to do, despite the fact that she struggled in school.  Readers will delight in witnessing her growing love of stories -- and her funny, touching experiments in storytelling -- as she exhibits the first sparks of the writer she was to become.

Poignant and powerful, each poem in Brown Girl Dreaming is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child's soul as she searches for her place in the world.  (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:  Confession time -- I have always been intimidated by the poetry genre.  I like a good haiku as well as the next person, but until recently, my poetry experience was limited to some required reading in high school and all things Silverstein (who doesn't love Shel, am I right?).  However, last year I found and fell in love with an amazing book (Dear Mother: Poems on the Hot Mess of Motherhood by Bunmi Laditan) which helped me realize that poetry doesn't have to be hard to understand to be meaningful.  Her book resonated with me on a deeply personal level and gave me the courage to further explore the genre.  Brown Girl Rising has been sitting on my shelf for the last several years, quietly nudging me, and in an attempt to embrace poetry, broaden my horizons, and read more books that offer a BIPOC perspective, I decided it was high time we became acquainted.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an illuminating memoir written in free verse poetry that tells the story of a young black girl as she navigates early childhood and adolescence in the civil rights era. The poems are easy to read and hard to put down, but they are best read in chronological order to retain the meaning and flow of the story.  Some poems read as nostalgic vignettes of happier times, while others provide thought-provoking insight, portrayals of familial sorrow and joy, or disturbing incidents of racism, all filtered through the lens of childhood memory.   They really are marvelous -- and even more so when the author reads them aloud.  If you'd like a few examples of what I mean, you can click here or here.  Beware, if you do, you might end up buying the audio book!

Jacqueline's childhood was in some ways patently idyllic and in other ways beset with uncertainty and fear.  In Ohio, South Carolina, and, eventually, New York, she finds love and acceptance in the form of family and close friends, writing affectionately of warm southern winters, quiet nights on the porch, the smell of wet grass and pine, grandma's mouthwatering cooking, and eventually discovering the power of her own words.  However, as her awareness grows, Jacqueline also writes about personal loss, bullying, racism, poverty, and injustice.  She tells of family members admitted into but ignored in formerly 'white-only' establishments, of tense bus rides, being followed in stores, tormented in daycare, and the looming presence of thinly painted over 'white-only' signs, which served as a crude reminder of everyday oppression.  As a result, the book is neither overly romantic nor intensely depressing, but instead provides a fully authentic picture of a life that came with its own trials and triumphs.

With Black Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson adds her meaningful perspective to the collective black experience with an exquisitely-rendered portrait of familial love, personal growth, and ethnic identity.  Personally, I think it would be an excellent choice for parents hoping to start helpful conversations about race in the home, as it raises important issues about history, especially the civil rights movement, and serves as a stark reminder of the work that still needs to be done.  In closing,  I would like to share one of the poems, entitled after greenville #1, that hit me rather hard and captured the overall feel of the book.  Do me a favor though?  Take a deep breath, and imagine a mother and her young children getting ready to leave their ancestral home in South Carolina and travel by bus to Ohio:
After the chicken is fried and wrapped in wax paper,
tucked gently into cardboard shoe boxes
    and tied with string...
After the corn bread is cut into wedges, the peaches
washed and dried...
After the sweet tea is poured into mason jars
    twisted tight
and the deviled eggs are scooped back inside
    their egg-white beds
slipped into porcelain bowls that are my mother's now,
    a gift
her mother sends with her on the journey...
After the clothes are folded back into suitcases,
the hair ribbons and shirts washed and ironed...
After my mother's lipstick is on and my father's
scratchy beginnings of a beard are gone...
After our faces are coated
with a thin layer of Vaseline gently wiped off again
with a cool, wet cloth...
then it is time to say our good-byes,
    the small clutch of us children
pressed against my grandmother's apron, her tears
quickly blinked away...
After the night falls and it is safe
    for brown people to leave
the South without getting stopped
and sometimes beaten
and always questioned: 
Are you one of those Freedom Riders?
Are you one of those Civil Rights People?
What gives you the right...?
We board the Greyhound bus, bound
for Ohio.
Me again. You see what I mean?  Read (or listen to) this book.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  There are some issues regarding race and racism, told from a child's perspective, that might make certain readers uncomfortable.  Personally, I believe that any reading, however uncomfortable, that leads to growth, compassion, and understanding, is worthwhile reading.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails