Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson

Penguin, 2014

352 pages

I don’t read a lot of poetry, and I’m not entirely sure why. When my poetry-loving friends put up Facebook posts sharing a favorite line or two from what they’re currently reading, I always think, “How beautiful. I really should read more poetry.”

Maybe verse is not my default because I like to get lost in books, and poetry feels very interruptive to me. I have a hard time gliding from poem to poem in a collection – my brain always has to make a clean stop and come up for air at the end of each poem.

The one exception is books that tell a story through a collection of individual poems. When I see a glowing review of one, I tend to go looking for it. That’s how I ended up with Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, the author’s memoir-in-verse.

I originally picked up the book because, as I’ve mentioned on this blog, I am very interested in the subject of race, and it was clear from the book’s title (and the review I read) that this was a major theme in Woodson’s story.

Woodson does indeed focus on race in the book, particularly on the differences between living in Ohio (where she was born), South Carolina (where she spent her early childhood), and New York City (where her family ultimately settled). As I would have expected for a memoir, she covers the intersection of social attitudes and movements with her family’s own history: her great-great-grandfather’s Union service during the Civil War, the enforced and de facto segregation of her grandparents’ town in South Carolina, her mother’s participation in the Civil Rights movement.

She also paints an incredibly clear picture of how issues connected with race flowed through and around her and her family’s daily lives and their ways of approaching the world. For instance, she explains her grandfather’s devotion to his expansive vegetable garden through the lens of his family history. The grandchild of slaves and the son of a sharecropper, he was the first of his lineage to freely work his own land and use the proceeds entirely as he wished. “So this is what he believes in,” she writes, “/your hands in the cool dirt/until the earth gives back to you/all that you’ve asked of it.”

Since before my daughter was born, my heart’s desire has been to raise a child who loves others for who they are, not for what society says they are worth. My husband and I want to instill compassion and humility so that she sees injustice, desires opportunity for others, and never feels entitled about her own privileges or opportunities.

So I was deeply touched and inspired by Woodson’s depiction of how her parents and grandparents worked to instill a sense of justice from the other side of the divide. How her mother whispered “We’re as good as anyone,” even as she moved with her children to the back of the bus. How her aunt shared a passion for civil disobedience over the dinner table. How her grandfather tells her she’s as much as part of the Civil Rights movement as anyone “Because you’re colored…/And just as good and bright and beautiful and free/as anybody./And nobody colored in the South is stopping/until everybody knows what’s true.”

I was also inspired by a completely different theme in Woodson’s story: her growth into a reader and writer. As I mentioned in my mini-review, this is what made the book one of my favorites from last year. Her poem “Hair Night,” where she describes listening to her sister read aloud as their grandmother straightens and braids their hair, literally brought me to tears (in the middle of the office break room, no less).

Woodson is like many poets: her facility with language is incredible. She has the knack for just the right turn of phrase – the perfectly chosen three or four words that create an entire mood and image out of nothing. So I was surprised to discover that she initially struggled with language, and even more surprised to discover that it did not in the least dampen her ambition to be a writer.

I’ve always loved words, too, but they came easily for me. I read fluently at age three and fell in love with Dickens at age seven. Writing down my thoughts has always felt natural and easy. So as I read Woodson’s description of words twisting on the page, letters not making it from pen to paper, I developed a strong admiration for her persistence and certainty. I remain inspired by her drive to master words and make them her life’s work, even though early signs said she’d never get there.

This was the other, less obvious dream of the title: her dream to become a writer. Reading her book was a wonderful reminder to me that apparently unreachable dreams can be achievable, and that we can share dreams with others across boundaries of race, place, and time.

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