Jacqueline Woodson, one of today’s finest writers, tells the moving story of her childhood in mesmerizing verse.
Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world. Woodson’s eloquent poetry also reflects the joy of finding her voice through writing stories, despite the fact that she struggled with reading as a child. Her love of stories inspired her and stayed with her, creating the first sparks of the gifted writer she was to become.
Brown Girl Dreaming, a memoir-in-verse by Jacqueline Woodson, was released in 2014 and showered with awards including a Newbery Honor and National Book Award. So naturally, I wanted to read this as a part of exploring middle grade and for reading more books by and about African-Americans this year.
Woodson covers her early childhood and adolescence in the book, and in that short span of time she has plenty of history and perspective to cover. She’s a black girl born during the Civil Rights movement to a Southern mother but a proud Northern father who divorce when she is a baby. She’s raised in the South with her grandparents, but then her mother leaves for New York, and she and her brother and sister are raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses by their grandmother. When her mother comes back to take them to move to New York (Brooklyn), they continue the practice, and they experience the contrasts between the North and the South through constant visits. Later, she becomes very aware of the 1970s movements that surround her, particularly feminism. Plus, there are quite a few references to the music of the times, which I enjoyed.
As much of the book covers a time when Woodson was quite young and naturally doesn’t remember everything, the verse form allows her to imagine her family at moments she would not be able to see or remember. It’s a creative blend of memoir, hope, and commentary. I also loved to see Jacqueline’s growing love for writing and poetry. Her older sister was the quick-learning, book-smart one, so she felt like she disappointed teachers, but she begins to find her own voice and it’s lovely.
I sometimes struggle with free-verse book form–I think I like single poems more, and particularly poetry that experiments with form, sound, rhythm, rhyme. I like longer “single” poems, and in a lot of popular collections they are quite short and structurally simple. (And just to clarify, I’m not saying those collections aren’t poetry. I just don’t enjoy them or get as much out of them.) But Woodson here has some longer lines and variations in her poems, and the style works very well for that blend of what she remembers and what she imagines.
Brown Girl Dreaming is a great book for the upper elementary and above, especially if you’re interested in writing, poetry, African-American history and perspectives, Jehovah’s Witnesses experiences, or are just a fan of Jacqueline Woodson in general. I’m interested in reading her latest, Another Brooklyn, although that one is a fictional novel for adults. As some of her life in Brooklyn in the ’70s is chronicled in Brown Girl Dreaming, it will be interesting to see how her life influenced that story.
I’m calling this one #1.5 because a) the book features white characters but James Baldwin is addressing a different aspect of his identity, namely homosexuality, and b) Moonlight is a film. Nevertheless, considering they’re both written by black gay men, this seemed like the perfect pairing for a post (and it happened that I was finishing up Giovanni’s Room the same weekend that I saw Moonlight).
This book. It’s a new favorite, because the writing was lovely and captured so many conflicting feelings.
I suppose it’s the brief story of David, an American in Paris (much like how Baldwin exiled himself to Europe), and his love affair with Italian expat Giovanni. Except it’s told from the point-of-view of a present-day David, post-relationship, guity over Giovanni’s impending guillotine fate and engaged to a woman named Hella. This book was published in 1956 and has a very intimate (albeit more emotionally than anything) gay sex scene on page 6. James Baldwin literally changed publishers because his old one was like “hey, we thought you were a Harlem Renaissance writer–this is going to alienate your African-American fanbase!” Which, yes, all the characters are white and are in Europe, but there were gay African-Americans, too. (Though unfortunately they’re not as represented–why was part of why Moonlight was so important.)
It doesn’t have the happy ending so rarely afforded to LGBT characters (though David doesn’t die, either), but it’s not a punishment–it’s a statement about society. David’s so caught up in the 1950s American world of suburban family conformity, homosexuality as mental illness and a crime (the Lavendar Scare) that he can’t commit himself to Giovanni or accept his sexuality. This perspective also means that he has internalized prejudices and occasionally makes homophobic comments–including some really awful transphobic ones, as a head’s-up if you’re particularly affected by that.
Sidenote: I also appreciated that Hella, though not as prominent as some of the other characters, was vivid in herself. There’s this part near the end where David’s hugging her but knows he isn’t in love with her (as much as he wishes he could be to make his life easier) and I got so darn emotional because I’ve been there, I’ve been on the receiving end of that hug.
If you’re looking for older LGBT literature, you can’t miss this. And if you like James Baldwin’s writing but haven’t read this yet, check it out. Now I’ve got to read some other Baldwin because I love his writing style.
Can we talk about this without talking about the Oscars? Maybe, but look, I’m still really upset that I was so tired and annoyed Moonlight didn’t win Best Director that I shut off the TV after they said “La La Land” for Best Picture. Then I was staying up much later than expected trying to understand what had happened through Twitter and upset that I missed it. I knew Warren Beatty looked confused when he looked in the envelope! And all the online clips seem to cut off after the Oscar was handed to Moonlight so I haven’t seen whatever speeches were given, unfortunately.
Okay, got that out of my system. As I mentioned above, I thought this should have won Best Director (though in retrospect, the decision looks more like a consolation prize for La La Land, I guess). That’s because this film is SO MUCH about the visual experience. It’s all about putting you in the head of the main character (Chiron, called Little, Chiron, and Black in the three acts of the film, respectively), whether that’s extreme shaky-cam as he runs away from bullies, stone silence during tense moments, or water bobbing over camera as he’s learning to swim. It’s really hard to watch in parts, while other segments are touching or fraught with sexual tension or pain. (I haven’t seen La La Land yet, but from what I know about it there’s at least one easy case to be made for this as Best Picture, and that’s because the former borrows a lot of techniques from old Hollywood films as an homage while this tries to do something unique at every turn.)
There were also so many little details that weren’t called attention to but, nevertheless, the camera lingered long enough for you to understand, like Black’s license plate in the final act, or the crown on his dashboard that draws a parallel between him and another important character. (Best Supporting Actor winner) Mahershala Ali’s character is missing in the second act, and only a passing line will tell you why, though you can understand how that happened to him.
I know I’m not telling much of the plot here, but this isn’t about plot, necessarily–it’s the experience. See it. Feel all of the things.
I haven’t been blogging too much about books because, well, I confess I haven’t read a book outside of class at all this year quite yet! I have, however, read A LOT of books for class, and so while I haven’t read any yet on my list of Africa-American novels, I HAVE read books for class that fit into that category. And since I’m learning a lot of the historical context surrounding these works, I’ve got quite a bit to say that’s, IMO, more interesting than a standard review (which is why I don’t usually review books I read for school, or classics in general).
Plus, I also watched the documentary 13th, and it only seems appropriate to talk about that here as well.
Native Son by Richard Wright
Recently in development for a film, Richard Wright’s Native Son has been a successful installment in African-American literature since its publication and selection for the Book of the Month Club in 1940. It’s the story of Bigger Thomas, an African-American youth who, essentially, accidentally kills a white girl and everything points back to the institutionalized racism that put him in this position. A tense cover-up and hide-out from the police follows, laced with commentary about racist yellow journalism and the communist movement, and then there’s the famous lengthy trial where it’s about something bigger than Bigger. (That’s actually almost a direct quote, I think.)
Native Son can be frustrating in a couple of ways. One, you’d think the institutional problems it discusses wouldn’t be as relevant 70 years later, but sadly they are. As much as the last part of the book turns into an essay sometimes, it’s definitely an in-depth exploration and a worthy perspective to read; I definitely feel like I learned something. Secondly–and I admit this is a lot due to the essay prompt I had to write for it and Wright’s comments on Zora Neale Hurston, which I’ll talk about below–the writing style tends to use the same words over and over again (fear, hot, cold, taut, etc) and leave little question to what these motifs mean. I don’t mind its tendency to hammer its point home; I wonder if white readers (or editors/publishers, for that matter) in the 1940s would have given it much of a chance if it didn’t explain (telling, not showing) exactly what and why Bigger was feeling. For me, it made the reading and analyzing of it a little frustrating, and the pace could be bumpy at times with digressions. Nevertheless, I’m giving historical context the better of the doubt here, and this is definitely worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the social realism tradition of African-American literature.
Quicksand by Nella Larson
Nella Larson was a Harlem Renaissance writer who was mixed-race, which led her to feel like she didn’t fit into black or white communities, and the same is true of her protagonist Helga Crane in Quicksand. She’s a teacher in a Booker T. Washington-style school with a lot of pressure to be the best (oh man did I relate to that from my charter high school days, minus the racial elements) who decides she’ll be happier if she leaves, so she does. But visiting her uncle doesn’t quite work out and she struggles to get a job, so she eventually moves to Harlem. It’s fine for a while, but then she feels like she doesn’t quite fit into the black community, so she takes an opportunity to visit her mother’s family in Copenhagen where she thinks there won’t be a constant discussion of the “race problem.” This is okay for a while, but she’s constantly fetishized that she yearns to return back to America. This cycle does end, and I won’t spoil it, but it’s…not particularly fun.
Naturally, Quicksand can be frustrating and disappointing, and that’s entirely the point. She’s trapped in-between and…well, slowly sinking downward like she’s stuck in quicksand. I learned quite a lot about biracial life in this particular time and place–which, let’s be honest, isn’t something we tend to think about with black history. I also liked Larson’s writing–it’s simplistic but gives Helga a strong voice within third-person narrative–and appreciated how Helga was not necessarily “likable.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
I never read Their Eyes Were Watching God in high school, but I know it’s commonly read in high schools across the country. It was surprising to me, then, to learn about its history. Zora Neale Hurston and her work didn’t achieve much acclaim and recognition in her life, and we can more or less credit Alice Walker (The Color Purple) for rediscovering her work in the 1970s. I read this after Quicksand in a different class than I read Native Son in, but Richard Wright came up because he (as well as contemporary Alain Locke) criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God when it came out–comparing it to racist characitures found in minestral shows, comparing her “sentimentality” to African-American poet Phillis Wheatley, and saying “her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.” Woah, right?
In defense of Wright, he and Locke were part of the movement within African-American literature at the time to “uplift the race,” which focused on writing social realism (which is what it sounds like–realist literature with a social purpose) often focusing on representations of middle and upper-class African-Americans in literature. In other words, they didn’t think Hurston’s focus on the black “folk” (working-class) in America were helpful. The thing is 1) Hurston’s writing very much from her perspective as an anthropologist and folklorist, so she captures very real dialect and lifestyles and also has some uniquely beautiful writing and 2) there is social commentary. It may not be as on-the-nose as Native Son, but the core of this novel as about taking matters into one’s hands to find happiness, which leads Janie to multiple marriages to find fulfilling love and feel like an equal to her partner. I can’t help but feel Wright and Locke missed these feminist themes to claim there was no social commentary, which is just frustrating.
So that’s the context I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in, and I can’t separate that context from the novel and how I retroactively felt about Native Son. Such happens when one is studying literature sometimes. Nevertheless, Hurston’s writing is lovely and Janie’s journey poignant and inspiring. The story leads to this climax that I didn’t expect, and then a slow-burn sad things happens, and then an even bigger climax I really was not expecting.
During this time I read these books, I also watched Ava DuVernay’s documentary 13th on Netflix on a whim. I don’t voluntarily watch many documentaries and my interest in this came from DuVernay directing the new Wrinkle in Time adaptation (which I am so! excited! for!) and its critical buzz surrounding Oscar season. After hearing what it was about, I knew I’d learn something from it.
Saying this doc is about the prison-industrial complex or the rise of Black Lives Matter doesn’t cover the amazing breadth this 100-minute documentary has, though. Nor is it about the 13th amendment–it focuses instead on a specific, surprising clause and how that has eerily continued throughout history. I’m not going to give much away because I think you should WATCH THIS, but the connections it makes between language and media (topical rap songs provide transitions, for instance, and Birth of a Nation also plays a terrifying role) and the politics of Nixon through Clinton in particular are mind-blowing. As much as I thought I knew about this topic and history, I definitely did not see the full picture, and that’s what this film succeeds in. It made me realize how important the big picture is, and I felt more confident in standing up for that when a conversation gets focused on micro-details that miss the point of a controversy.