Brown Girl Dreaming takes place during a crucial time in African American history. The Civil Rights Movement is considered to have taken place between 1954 and 1968, meaning Jacqueline is born nearly a decade into the historic period. However, as noted in this quote, the fight for African American rights and social respect goes further than the Civil Rights Movement. It began when slavery was ended thanks to the Emancipation Proclamation, alluded to by the author's word choice in this poem, and continued for decades because the abolition of slavery did not end the mistreatment of African Americans. This quote is also emblematic of the entire memoir's realistic yet hopeful tone.
"My fingers curl into fists, automatically
This is the way, my mother said,
of every baby's hand.
I do not know if these hands will become
Malcolm's—raised and fisted
or Martin's—open and asking
or James's—curled around a pen.
I do not know if these hands will be
and fiercely folded
calmly in a lap,
on a desk,
around a book,
to change the world"
In this quote, the author alludes to many significant figures in the Civil Rights Movement. She refers to these figures—Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Rosa Parks, and Ruby Bridges—by first name to indicate a certain love and familiarity she holds for them. Through using their examples, Woodson shows that there are many ways one can participate in a revolution. The inclusion of Ruby Bridges, the first African American child to integrate a white Southern elementary school, is especially important because as a woman and a child, Ruby Bridges is the most similar to Jacqueline and perhaps the least likely to be included in traditional narratives of the revolution. By comparing Jacqueline's natural inclination to make her hands into fists as a baby to the hands of these significant figures in African American History, she communicates empowerment and hope and inspired curiosity in the reader as to what the character will become.
"Will the words end, I ask
whenever I remember to.
Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now,
and promising me
From a young age, Jacqueline is intrigued by words, writing, and stories. This quote comes from the poem in which Jacqueline writes the letter J for the first time. Just by writing one letter, Jacqueline feels exposed to a world of infinite possibility. The moment is also meaningful because it is a positive experience between siblings whose relationship will later become somewhat strained by the expectations of formal education. Though Odella has more talent for school, at this young age, she is willing to help her younger sister get a head start on writing. Jacqueline's interest in the many possibilities opened through writing and language later lead to her career as a respected author.
"You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak.
As the switch raises dark welts on my brother's legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
As Jacqueline and her siblings move from place to place—starting in Ohio, then moving to South Carolina, then to New York City with trips back to the South in the summer—their accents and vocabularies change. This quote shows how much social stigma can come with certain accents or vernaculars. Specifically, it shows that though Jacqueline's mother was from the South herself, she saw speaking in a stereotypically Southern way as an indicator of low social class. This is the only time in the story that corporal punishment is inflicted on a child in the story, and it has a clear impact on all of the children even though Hope is the only one physically affected. Having to consciously reject Southern vocabulary or mannerisms intensifies Jacqueline's feelings of not having a true home.
"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.
Be ready to die, my grandfather says,
for everything you believe in.
And none of us can imagine death
but we try to imagine it anyway"
Death is a theme throughout Brown Girl Dreaming, both in the deaths of Jacqueline's family members and in the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement. This quote shows the emotional trauma African American children endured because of their race. Jacqueline's grandfather is preparing her to be part of the movement whether she is ready or not. In a parallel moment later in the book, Jacqueline and Maria chant "We are not afraid to die...for what we believe in" (303), and Jacqueline notes "But both of us know—we'd rather keep believing/ and live" (303). These quotes, read in tandem, show that African Americans who lived during the Civil Rights Movement saw their cause as a life or death matter. Furthermore, even those not directly participating in the protests, such as children and elders, still felt as if their lives were on the line.
"Saturday night smells of biscuits and burning hair"
Jacqueline has a great sense of smell, and her childhood observations about the smells of places work as vivid reminders of those moments. This quote refers to the smell of Jacqueline's grandmother and grandfather's house in South Carolina, where she lived as a young child and then spent the summers after moving to New York. By saying "Saturday night" smells a certain way, the author communicates the repetitive ritual of preparation for the coming week. The fact that the smells mentioned are biscuits and burning hair plays upon the motifs of food and hair throughout the book. The motif of hair is especially important, as different hairstyles and methods of doing hair are important to the African American experience. Jacqueline's grandmother taking the time to caringly, if aggressively, do Jacqueline and Odella's hair every week shows her devotion to them and to helping them shape their identities as black women.
"At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we're just people"
One of the most impactful and harmful experiences for Jacqueline during her early childhood in the South was being treated with rudeness and suspicion in stores. Jacqueline's grandmother would only visit a few stores in her town because in many others they were followed around as if they were going to steal something or not served at all because of their race. However, the fabric store stands out because the shop owner treats Jacqueline's grandmother like just another good person looking to buy material, which we as readers know is the truth. Jacqueline clearly carries memories of being treated badly at stores in the South because she shares these experiences with her friend Maria later in the book.
"Right now, our mother says,
we're only halfway home.
And I imagine her standing
in the middle of a road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South.
I want to ask:
Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
Brown Girl Dreaming links together many of its poems with common titles. One example is the series of "halfway home" poems, of which there are two. This quote is from the first poem, "halfway home #1" (104). It expresses the core internal conflict of the book, which is Jacqueline's feeling of lacking a home and wanting to find one where she will feel her presence is stable and accepted. The different series in the book help us see how Jacqueline's life has changed, and how it has and stayed the same as she grows. These poems in particular tie together moments in which Jacqueline feels like she lacks a home in any particular place (first when she is in South Carolina but knows she will have to leave, then when she is in New York City but misses the South). The fact that there are only two installments of this series, and that it is never mentioned again, shows that Jacqueline came to accept New York City as her true home fairly quickly, even though she didn't think she would.
"...promise each other
future summers that are as good as the past.
But we know we are lying
coming home will be different now.
This place called Greenville
this neighborhood called Nicholtown
will change some
and so will each of us."
Age and growing up are major themes in Brown Girl Dreaming, and this poem holds a key to understanding Woodson's views on aging. Whether or not she actually knew this as a child or is using 20/20 hindsight when looking back to childhood, the author communicates that everything changes as time goes on. It is impossible for something to be just the same as it was in the past, and even if it were to stay the same, one would perceive it differently because of oneself changing over time. It is also important that Jacqueline refers to South Carolina as home in this poem. Not only will she change by the next time she returns to South Carolina, but eventually she will not even see South Carolina as her home, which is evidence of her changing relationship to the place over time.
"...what is bad won't be bad forever,
and what is good can sometimes last
a long, long time."
This quote encapsulates Woodson's tone throughout the book. Though Brown Girl Dreaming includes some very difficult topics and themes such as racism and death, Woodson keeps the tone hopeful and largely positive throughout. This may be because the book is intended for a young adult audience, or perhaps because Woodson truly looks back on her childhood as a positive experience, especially because she was eventually able to follow her dreams and see the Civil Rights Movement make a positive impact on American society. This quote also shows how Jacqueline's character; even as a young child, she was thoughtful, practical, and full of hope.
Brown Girl Dreaming Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Brown Girl Dreaming is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.