brown girl dreaming
Book Review written by Sam Rhoades, Girls on the Run St Louis, Office Adminstrator
This fall, Maggie mentioned she was listening to an audiobook that she thought I might like. I knew the title because the cover art, depicting a brown silhouette of a girl with braids, set against a sky starting to catch fire, was burned in my brain. I had been wanting to read Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson, for a long time, but was intimidated by the fact that it is a story written in poems. Poems seem hard, too sophisticated to understand. I didn’t think I had the patience for an entire narrative made up of them. The audiobook sounded interesting though -- read by the author herself. I gave it a try and was introduced to what has become one of my favorite books ever.
The story told is autobiographical. Ms. Woodson was born in Ohio, and spent her childhood in South Carolina and New York. The reader (or listener) gets to experience Ms. Woodson’s South: falling asleep to a symphony of frogs and crickets, getting your hair done in Grandmother’s kitchen on Saturday night, walking to the Candy-Lady’s house for ice cream, coffee sweetened with condensed milk, being warm and safe with family. But also another truth of the American South in the 1960s and 70s: young African Americans being trained to demonstrate and protest as safely as possible, having to travel at night if your skin is not white for fear of questioning or worse, watching your relatives and friends move North as it is rumored that African Americans can find good-paying jobs there and can live with an equality and respect that is not available in South Carolina, and the pain and sadness of having your family pushed down and split up by these things.
Woodson moves to New York with her mom and siblings when she is starting school. Brooklyn seems hard and gray, but there are aunts and uncles, popsicles, learning to write, and a new best friend. The reality of life in New York is often different than the dreams promised, but it is where the young girl becomes a writer. She tells us:
“When there are many worlds
You can choose the one
You walk into each day.”
“Each day a new world
Opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are …..
gather into one world
A month later, Maggie and I were treated to meeting the author in person and hearing her speak. Ms. Woodson visited St. Louis as part of the “Lit in the Lou” St. Louis Book Festival. In front of a small audience gathered at Jackson Park Elementary School, Woodson read from many of her works and discussed her experiences as a writer, a woman, and a person of color. She struck me as strong and intelligent, with a brilliant smile. Incredibly kind, but also quick to speak the truth when called. Having had her voice in my ear for the hours I spent with the audiobook, I felt like I recognized her. I admire her, I have learned from her, and I could listen to her truth-telling for hours more.