Recognizing and Honoring Brown Girls Dreaming… and Writing

I knew Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson was going to be something special when I saw the three stickers for its Caldecott Award, Newbery Honor Award and National Book Award on the cover. The praise printed within the covers and personally expressed to me set a high bar. But I wasn’t prepared for how I felt when I finished reading it. I felt a multitude of emotions, but mostly I felt honored to have read it. It felt like a privilege to have had the opportunity to read Woodson’s story and words.

Jacqueline Woodson
Jacqueline Woodson, courtesy of her website, http://www.jacquelinewoodson.com

What was so magnificent about this book? What earned it these and many other prestigious awards? Other than Woodson’s graceful lyric verse and remarkable talent, it’s easily the content and its accessibility. The book, written for readers age 10 and up, is an autobiographical collection of poetry that tells the story of the author’s family and childhood in Ohio, South Carolina and New York City in the 1960s and 1970s. Throughout the pages she revisits memories, places, emotions and moments that informed who she went on to become.

In many ways, this is just a book about a girl. She guides you through universal trials and joys growing up, relishing her mother’s and grandmother’s embrace, playing with siblings, making friends, feeling left out, the sorrows of change, and the rush of discovering something new. So many of these are human experiences that go beyond any socially constructed divides.

But this book’s title is not just “Girl Dreaming.” It’s Brown Girl Dreaming, and race is an essential element of this book. It’s woven into most of the poems, sometimes explicitly and others more subtly. The book is written in present tense, through Woodson’s childhood eyes, but there is a feeling of retrospection in the pieces as she writes about her own childhood that puts the reader in that same position, looking back. She gently ties moments of history that impacted her life into it – the Great Migration, the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement, to name a few. She links herself to an experience much bigger than herself that makes the reader reflect on their position within the whole. As she guides the reader through her childhood, she paints a stunning masterpiece of what it’s like to grow up as a Brown Girl, dreaming.

But people of color in literature, both as authors and characters, have not been given the treatment they should have. This was illustrated when after Woodson descended the stage from accepting the National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, Daniel Handler, one of her colleagues and author of many other young adult books, made a joke about how Woodson was allergic to watermelon.[1]

NBA
Jacqueline Woodson accepting her National Book Award for Brown Girl Dreaming, 2014. Courtesy of the Washington Post.

Though Handler later apologized for his inappropriate and racist crack,[2] it highlights the uphill battle many creators of color have had to fight. The joke was made after she accepted one of the most esteemed prizes for literature in the country for a book that beautifully explores race, childhood, family, and dreams. But in a single off-the-cuff jab, he reduced her award-winning work back to racist stereotype.

In Sister Citizen, author and professor Melissa Harris-Perry creates the analogy of the crooked room, a room purposefully designed at angles at odds with the actual angles of the earth, creating a challenge for those inside to correctly right themselves. She discusses common identities projected onto black women that many struggle to combat or locate themselves in. She further elaborates that if they don’t feel like are being recognized for who they really are, and are only being identified by these stereotypes, then they feel like they are not valued citizens of the society they live in.[3] That struggle for recognition is part of the reason why diverse books from authors of color and featuring characters of color are so woefully underrepresented on our bookshelves.

But luckily, jokes like the one made at her acceptance ceremony don’t stop creators like Woodson. Right after the incident, she wrote an editorial in the New York Times where she said,

“This mission is what’s been passed down to me – to write stories that have been historically absent in this country’s body of literature, to create mirror for the people who rarely see themselves inside contemporary fiction, and windows for those who think we are no more than stereotypes they’re so afraid of. To give young people – and all people – a sense of this country’s brilliant and brutal history, so that no one ever things they can walk onto a stage one evening and laugh at another’s too often painful past.”[4]

She is still on this mission; her most recent book, Another Brooklyn, was her fourth nomination for the National Book Award.

Authors like Jacqueline Woodson and her colleagues are voices that need to be heard and celebrated. They give the wider reading community a valuable gift – the mirror and window she set out for her readers. We should be honored and humbled for that gift, because we have a lot we can learn from it.

 

[1] Woodson, Jacqueline. “The Pain of the Watermelon.” The New York Times, November 21, 2014. Online. https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/29/opinion/the-pain-of-the-watermelon-joke.html
[2] Yahr, Emily. “‘Lemony Snicket’ author apologizes for ‘watermelon’ joke at National Book Awards.” The Washington Post, November 20, 2014. Online. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2014/11/20/daniel-handler-apologizes-for-watermelon-joke-about-jacqueline-woodson-at-national-book-awards/?utm_term=.f2cb17a019bd
[3] Harris-Perry, Melissa. “Crooked Room” in Sister Citizen, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 28-50.
[4] Woodson. “The Pain of the Watermelon.”

5 thoughts on “Recognizing and Honoring Brown Girls Dreaming… and Writing

  1. I found the “crooked room” analogy fascinating; I thought it spoke volumes about how women of color often feel they have to change themselves to conform to the racist and sexist expectations society has for them. I agree with your point that by writing books like “Brown Girl Dreaming,” Woodson is defying those stereotypes not just for herself, but for others as well. I think this is especially important for other young girls of color, because when they read this book, they will see a girl like themselves portrayed as a complex, well-rounded human, not as a set of stereotypes. This may help them avoid bending to fit the crooked room themselves.

  2. I like your point about how Jacqueline Woodson grew up not just as a girl, but as a brown girl, whose experiences are linked to wider historical trends. I think she does a really good job in the book of showing through her own story how everyone’s experiences are shaped by what is going on when they’re growing up and by where they grow up.

  3. I love your analysis of this work. I think it is very important to recognize the title of this book and the inclusion of the word brown. Woodsen tells a story from a feminine perspective, but makes powerful observations about growing up black that need to be recognized and absorbed. The comments made by Daniel Handler are distasteful, but she carried herself with a grace that can be felt while reading her work.

  4. I agree that this book won many awards for a variety of reasons. I appreciated that you pointed out the accessibility and readability aspect of Woodson’s text. This was something that really stood out to me and kept me even more intrigued as a reader.

  5. I love how you brought up the specific moments in history with which she connects. In my reading I focused more on seminal events in her family life and glossed over other issues and I think it is extremely important to keep those in mind as well. Looks like I’ll have to read it again!

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