Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming Summary and Analysis of Part I: i am born

Summary

february 12, 1963

Jacqueline is born on February 12, 1963 in Columbus Ohio. Since the 1960s were the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Jacqueline describes the United States at the time she was born as "caught/ between Black and White" (1) and the South as "explod[ing]...people/ who look like me/ keep fighting/ and marching/ and getting killed" (2). She says that though she is born in the North, from the moment she is born she is connected to the South and to the history of her great-great-grandparents who were slaves.

second daughter's second day on earth

Jacqueline continues to describe the state of the Civil Rights Movement when she was born. The word "Negro" (3) is used for Jacqueline, her mother, and her father on Jacqueline's birth certificate. The author contrasts the major historical events in the 1960s, such as Malcolm X making speeches in Harlem and Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, with the personal history of her birth. Woodson describes her hands curling into fists, which is a natural reflex for babies, and says that she does not know whether these hands will later be "raised and fisted" (5) like Malcolm X's, "open and asking" (5) like Martin Luther King Jr.'s, "curled around a pen" like James Baldwin's, or "gently gloved/ and fiercly folded...ready/ to change the world" (5) like those of Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges.

a girl named jack

Jacqueline's father, Jack, wants her to be named Jack as well, saying it will make her strong. Jacqueline's mother and aunts do not agree, thinking it is not a fitting name for a girl. They agree on the name Jackie, short for Jacqueline.

the woodsons of ohio

Jacqueline's father's ancestor is Thomas Woodson, the first son of President Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemmings. Because of this, the Woodson side of the family is very proud of their heritage and the prestigious jobs members of their family have held.

the ghosts of the nelsonville house

The Woodsons live in Nelsonville, Ohio, which is near the state capital of Columbus. There are not many Black families in the town. Jacqueline tells the reader that there were once many children in the house, including her father. She describes the pictures in the house which show her grandmother Grace and grandfather Hope and their children—Alicia, Jack (Jacqueline's father), Woody, Anne, and Ada. The pictures depict a happy, successful family. Jacqueline sees herself in the features of her family members.

it'll be scary sometimes

Jacqueline's great-great-grandfather on her father's side was born in 1832 in Ohio as a free man. He was a farmer, then a coal miner, then fought in the Civil War. Jacqueline says that he is "living still" (13) because his name appears on the Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

His son, Jacqueline's great-grandfather, was named William Woodson. He was sent to live with his aunt in Nelsonville, where he was "the only brown boy in an all-white school" (14). Jacqueline's mother tells Jacqueline and her siblings that when they are scared because they are the only Black person in a room, they should think of William Woodson.

football dreams

Jacqueline's father was a talented football player in high school, which earned him a scholarship to Ohio State University. He was excited to live in a city with the potential to venture even further from home. Though he could technically have travelled to the South, he says "no colored Buckeye in his right mind would even want to go there" (16).

other people's memory

Jacqueline's grandmother on her mother's side recounts the day that Jacqueline was born. Grandma Georgiana remembers the sound of birds squawking, the phone ringing, and Jacqueline's mom saying it was another girl. While Grandma Georgiana remembers this happening in the morning, Jacqueline's mother recalls Jacqueline being born in the late afternoon. She adds that she took a bus to the hospital since Jack had been at work, and he did not make it in time to see Jacqueline be born. A third account comes from Jacqueline's father, who thinks she was born at night. He says that when he saw her he immediately thought she looked like him.

no returns

When baby Jacqueline arrives home from the hospital, her older brother Hope, three years old at the time, tells their parents to return her.

how to listen #1

In Jacqueline's young mind, all the things she experiences ("each laugh, tear and lullaby" (20)) become encoded in her memory.

uncle odell

6 months before Jacqueline's older sister is born, their mother's brother Odell is hit by a car and dies. Mary Ann, Jacqueline's mother, finds out from her own mother Georgiana and experiences great pain from the loss.

good news

When Jacqueline's older sister is born in the fall of 1961 she is named Odella Caroline after her uncle Odell (who passed away earlier that year) and her aunt Caroline, both siblings of Mary Ann. The author recounts the phone ringing in South Carolina, where Jacqueline's mother's mother and father live, to announce the good news of the baby's birth.

my mother and grace

Jacqueline's mother Mary Ann and her father's mother Grace bond together because they are both from the South. The author says that "They are home to each other" (25) and that it is especially comforting to be able to "talk[] without words" in the way southern people do. However, after Odell dies the silence turns from comfort to awkwardness and isolation.

each winter

Each winter during the first years of Grace, Dell, and Jacqueline's lives, their mother takes them down to South Carolina. Sometimes Jack comes, but usually it is just the mother and children. The author again says that to Jacqueline's mother, the North would never be home.

journey

Jacqueline's father hates the South. He recalls how he and Jacqueline's mother were treated there before they moved together to Ohio to start a family. Jack says that there will never be a Woodson made to do things like sit in the back of the bus or say "Yes sir and No sir" (29) to white people, and he tells his children that they are "stronger than that" (29).

greenville, south carolina, 1963

In South Carolina, Mary Ann and the three children do sit in the back of the bus. Mary Ann is tense and silent, and she tells the children to sit up straight and say "Yes sir. No sir." (31) if a white person approaches them. Mary Ann's tenseness softens when she looks at three-year-old Hope, and she whispers to her children, "We're as good as anybody" (31).

home

Mary Ann, Hope, Dell, and Jacqueline arrive at Jacqueline's grandparents' house in South Carolina. They say "Welcome home" (32), and as everyone hugs, Jacqueline feels herself enveloped in the middle of so much love.

the cousins

On Mary Ann's birthday her cousins come over for a party. There is loud music (specifically Sam Cooke's "Twistin' the Night Away"), dancing, and reminiscing about childhood hijinks. Jacqueline's mother feels comfortable and joyful at home, and her cousins agree that she belongs in the South.

night bus

In May, Jack arrives in South Carolina. He apologizes to Mary Ann, they hug in the rain, and the next day the whole family travels back to Columbus.

after greenville #1

The family takes a Greyhound bus to get to Ohio. They carry Southern food, lovingly prepared, with them, and everyone is clean and neatly dressed. They leave at night so that people won't question them, saying things like, "Are you one of those Freedom Riders?/ Are you one of those Civil Rights People?/ What gives you the right...?" (37).

rivers

The author describes following the Hocking River as it departs from the Ohio River and then joins back with it again. She imagines it saying "I'm sorry...I went away from here/ but now/ I'm home again" (39).

leaving columbus

Jacqueline's parents "fight for the final time" (40) when she has just turned one year old. They separate, and Jacqueline notes that only one picture of the couple remains, from the local newspaper announcement of their wedding. Jacqueline imagines what it may have looked like "when she finally left him" (41): a tall woman with three small children walking down a cold street, and her father standing in the yard lifting a hand to wave goodbye.

Analysis

An epigraph is a line of poetry, an excerpt from a song, or a famous quote used at the beginning of a book or chapter. Epigraphs are important to analyze because they are often specifically chosen to highlight and foreshadow particular themes or ideas the author will draw upon. Brown Girl Dreaming begins with an epigraph: a poem by Langston Hughes. It reads "Hold fast to dreams/ For if dreams die/ Life is a broken-winged bird/ That cannot fly./ Hold fast to dreams/ For when dreams go/ Life is a barren field/ Frozen with snow" (xi). This poem is meaningful for a number of reasons. Firstly, Langston Hughes was a famous African-American poet who lived and wrote through most of the Civil Rights Movement and died just a few years after Jacqueline's birth. In addition, Jacqueline later references Langston Hughes being an influence in her early poetry writing as an elementary schooler. Finally, Hughes's poem Dreams is very similar to Brown Girl Dreaming. Thematically, both recognize the dangers of a life without hope yet maintain faith in the power of dreams, and stylistically both works use nature in metaphors about life.

At this point in the text, it is useful to note Woodson's use of italics and roman (non-italicized) typesetting. Italic text is used in two general ways throughout Brown Girl Dreaming; to provide direct quotes from characters who are not Jacqueline, and to distinguish separate concepts stylistically. The first example of the former use, for providing direct quotes, comes in the poem "a girl named jack" when the author writes, "Good enough name for me, my father said/ the day I was born./ Don't see why/ she can't have it, too" (6). The latter type of italicization, though it happens less frequently in the book, actually occurs first, in the poem "second daughter's second day on earth" (3-5). Throughout the poem, historical events are set in roman type while vivid details from Jacqueline's first day as an infant are set in italics. This different typesetting and the fact that the stanzas in italics are also centered on the page rather than left-aligned like the roman text juxtaposes the bold and important events in history that are occurring just as Jacqueline is born with the simplicity of her early life.

Jacqueline's mother's and father's sides of the family have had very different experiences as African Americans over the past three generations. In Part I, the author only focuses on her father's side of the family, especially in the poems "the woodsons of ohio" (8-9), "the ghosts of the nelsonville house" (10-12), and "it'll be scary sometimes" (13-14). She describes how the Woodsons are proud of a lineage stretching back to Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Because of this connection, her descendants were able to move north and get jobs as "doctors and lawyers and teachers/ athletes and scholars and people in government" (8) during an era when most African Americans were enslaved, and later share-croppers and servants. In Part II, this is contrasted with Jacqueline's mother's side of the family. In the poem "the garden" (48-49), the author writes, "My southern grandfather missed slavery/ by one generation. His grandfather/ had been owned" (48). As the product of both of these lineages, Jacqueline must struggle with her notions of race, history, and prospective careers.

Woodson creates ironic tension regarding the state of African American rights in the 1960s with the back-to-back poems "journey" (29) and "greenville, south carolina, 1963" (30-31). Jacqueline's father is proud of his family's history and his own position in life, and he never wants his family to go to the South even for a visit because of the way African Americans are treated there. In the first poem, "journey," he tells the children that "...there's never gonna be a Woodson/ that sits in the back of the bus" (29). Irony and social commentary ensues when in the following poem, "greenville, south carolina, 1963," Jacqueline's mother immediately takes the three children (all of whom, of course, carry the last name Woodson) to the back of the bus. Through these contrasting scenes, the author shows the disconnect between how African Americans were lawfully supposed to be treated (and largely were treated in the Nort), and the powerful restrictions on African Americans in the South.

A theme of searching for home begins to develop in Part I. It will become perhaps the most important overall theme of the book as Jacqueline is moved from place to place and struggles to connect with people and places different from her. The first uses of the word "home" in Brown Girl Dreaming come in the poems "uncle odell" (21) and "my mother and grace" (25-26). In both of these poems, Jacqueline's mother Mary Ann and her father's mother Grace spend time together, connecting over the fact that they are both from the South and therefore have similar manners of "talking/ without words" (25). Even in these early pages of the book, the word home is used to represent two linked but distinct concepts. It is used in its literal sense to represent a physical location of dwelling, such as in the phrase "my uncle Odell is hit by a car/ while home in South Carolina" (21). However, it is also used to describe a feeling of connection and acceptance, such as in the sentence "They are home to each other, Grace/ to my mother is as familiar/ as the Greenville air" (25). As Jacqueline struggles to find home throughout her childhood, it is important to recognize that a home goes much further than a physical space where one finds safety and shelter.