Woodson has written a richly textured memoir in verse, poems that flow one to the next that endlessly. I was sad to come to the end.
BROWN GIRL DREAMING begins with a family tree of the Ohio Woodsons and her mother’s family, the Irby family from South Carolina. Then “i am born” with her birth in Ohio and her father’s wish to have a boy named after him, Jack. Her mother would not let him name a girl Jack, so she was named Jacqueline, until years later in Brooklyn school, when told to write her name in cursive and changed it to Jackie because
I want to say, No, my
name is Jacqueline
but I am scared of that cursive q, know
I may never be able to connect it to c and u
Jacqueline was born in 1963
“…as the south explodes
too many people too many years
enslaved, then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today–
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children like me can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want.”
In the chapter “the stories of South Carolina run like rivers” Woodson tells of growing up in Nicholtown, an African-American community located in Greenville, South Carolina after her where her mother moved back to her parents’ home after leaving Jacqueline’s father. There she was surrounded by the sit ins at lunch counters and her grandmother’s refusal to patronize businesses that were slow to serve her, even though segregation was banned. I love the poem “the fabric store” from that section. After her mother moved to New York City some years later to join her sister, Kay, and brother, Robert, she and her sister Dell and brothers continued to spend summers in the South. Parsed throughout are short numbered poems, “how to listen” which seem to encapsulate each chapter in three lines.
All these places, and the people who lived in them, like her best friend Maria from Brooklyn, are woven into the tapestry that formed who Woodson is today. The forward to the book is a poem by Langston Hughes, “Dreams” and indeed Woodson did, becoming a celebrated writer. At the end are photographs of the people spoken of in Woodson’s poems and on her family tree. Everything about Brown Girl Dreaming is special from the soft paper on which it is printed with its crinkly edges, to the drawing of butterflies on the title page. Woodson’s first book of poetry was about butterflies, to the photos at the end.
no one believes a whole book could ever come
from something as simple as
butterflies that don’t even, my brother says
live that long.
But on paper, things can live forever.
On paper, a butterfly
Even the “thankfuls” page is a pleasure to read with its sense of connections. Connections , a strong sense of place and a girl dreaming about what she wants to be and working towards that goal make up this amazing book.