My theme this spring has apparently been “start great books I don’t have time to finish,” and Brown Girl Dreaming is no exception. This was a gift from my mother-in-law at Christmas, and although I started it over a month ago, it’s too beautiful to rush through. This hardcover has come with me for a much needed haircut, in the stroller to the park, and out to the grill when I was supposed to be keeping an eye on the food, and that’s saying something since I’m much more accustomed to making use of the Kindle app on my phone.
Written in free verse, Woodson’s perfectly paced memoir is exquisite. Having put together my own memoir in verse a few years ago, I recognize how difficult it is to make every piece as strong as the previous one, and she puts my meager efforts to shame. How she does it – I can only imagine how much work went into telling this story. How she must have agonized and organized and overwritten in order to eventually prune down to this one exceptional volume.
When it comes to books like this, it’s hard not to get lost in considering the craft behind it. In some cases, peering behind the curtain might mean a book is lacking in some way – the reader is distracted by all the bells and whistles – but in this case, it’s more like examining a butterfly’s wings. The detail makes the experience richer. Woodson’s technique is fascinating, and I want to both bathe in it and somehow make it my own.
Her experiences growing up both in the north and the south also give her a unique perspective on the racial tension that was exploding across the country then, and which we still feel the effects of today. I only hope this book makes it onto reading lists in schools every year, because when I was a child, I had the privilege of thinking this discussion was only a part of history, when my friends and classmates knew differently, from experience.
Woodson writes her truth in a way that is accessible and beautiful. Her story is one children can both enjoy and understand from a young age. For an older audience, it’s a wonderful jumping off point for challenging conversations about discrimination in this country while encouraging hope and love as the bedrock on the path to justice.
South Carolina at War
Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us-
we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is
why people are marching all over the South-
to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.
First they brought us here.
Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863,
and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.
And that’s why people are so mad.
And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio
without hearing about the marching.
We can’t go to downtown Greenville without
seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting
where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit
and getting carried out, their bodies limp,
their faces calm.
This is the way brown people have to fight,
my grandfather says.
You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist
gently. Walk toward a thing
But be ready to die,
my grandfather says,
for what is right.
And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway.
Even my mother joins the fight.
When she thinks our grandmother
isn’t watching she sneaks out
to meet the cousins downtown, but just as
she’s stepping through the door,
her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,
Now don’t go getting arrested.
And Mama sounds like a little girl when she says,
More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,
and we’re still fighting for the free life
we’re supposed to be living.
So there’s a war going on in South Carolina
and even as we play
and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.
Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.
And just as good and bright and beautiful and free
And nobody colored in the South is stopping,
my grandfather says,
until everybody knows what’s true.