new york city
Jacqueline complains about the reality of New York City, comparing what southerners describe when they imagine it—“money falling from the sky,/ diamonds speckling/ the sidewalks” (143)—to her experience living there—“gray rock, cold/ and treeless as a bad dream” (143). She says she will never call New York home.
brooklyn, new york
Jacqueline’s family quickly move out of their first apartment, which is in Brooklyn, because of its shabbiness. Aunt Kay and her boyfriend help them move.
The family moves to Herzl street, where Aunt Kay and her boyfriend as well as another friend from South Carolina live in their building. On the weekend, more people from the south come to their building to hang out and eat southern food. Jacqueline calls them family.
the johnny pump
Whereas the children got to walk around barefoot in South Carolina, they have to wear shoes at all times in New York because of hot pavement and broken glass. However, something that makes them happy during the New York summer is when a man comes and turns on the johnny pumps, or fire hydrant, for children and even adults to play in. Jacqueline recalls one day where her mother took off her shoes, put her feet in the water, looked at the sky, and smiled.
Jacqueline is connected to her mother, her grandfather, and all three of her siblings by the gap in their front teeth. Even though Roman, her baby brother, has very light skin, people can tell he is their sibling by the matching gaps.
caroline but we called her aunt kay, some memories
Jacqueline recalls vivid snapshots of Aunt Kay: waiting for a hug, getting dressed up and performing with a band, braiding Jacqueline’s hair, laughing. Then, suddenly, Aunt Kay dies from “a fall” (150).
The family moves from Herzl Street to Madison Street because of their grief over the death of Aunt Kay. Like when her brother died, Mama becomes very quiet. Mama and Aunt Kay were less than a year apart in age, so people thought they were twins when they were children. The house on Madison Street has a sculpture of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in front, and people often stop in front of the house to pray. Mama makes fun of the sculpture, but secretly smiles at it sometimes.
Jacqueline gets a composition notebook and adores it even though she can’t write. She smells it, listens to the sound of the pages, and gazes at the clean, white pages. Odella, her intelligent older sister, doesn’t understand her fascination.
Jacqueline is proud and motivated when she writes her full name for the first time.
The children are unhappy that their breakfasts in New York often consist of simple pancakes rather than the amazing food they were served by their grandparents in South Carolina. However, they keep quiet because they remember what it was like to be without their mother.
At six years old, Jacqueline attends school for the first time. Her sister takes her there, and Jacqueline is awed by the size and architecture. She loves her school, her classroom, and her teacher Ms. Feidler who welcomes her each day with genuine care.
another kingdom hall
Jacqueline's grandmother prods Mama to continue the children's education as Jehovah's Witnesses. They are sent to another Kingdom Hall, (the place of worship and study for Jehovah's Witnesses), and the children, now older, have increased responsibility to make themselves presentable when they go. Mother doesn't go with them, but prefers to stay home or read in the park while they attend meetings.
Jehovah's Witnesses aren't allowed to say the Pledge of Allegiance, so Jacqueline, along with two girls named Gina and Alina, have to go out in the hall while the class says it every morning. Gina is a true believer, but Alina and Jacqueline only follow Jehovah's Witnesses practices because their families make them.
because we're witnesses
Besides not being able to say the Pledge of Allegiance, Jehovah's Witnesses also can't celebrate holidays including Christmas, Halloween, and birthdays. They also can't vote, fight, curse, or fight in wars. One painful way this manifests in Jacqueline's life is that she isn't allowed to have a cupcake when birthday parties of other students are celebrated in class.
When it rains in New York, it doesn't smell sweet like in South Carolina, but everything just becomes dark and wet. Instead of going outside to enjoy the rain, Jacqueline sits by the window and imagines the South.
While other kids get to watch TV and play outside, mother wants her children to play with each other inside. One day she brings home two shopping bags full of board games. The kids are ecstatic and start by playing Trouble. Soon they play Monopoly, tic-tac-toe, and checkers, though usually the two older kids don't want to play with the two younger ones.
Jacqueline’s sister Odella is praised for her academic talents. In contrast, Jacqueline struggles in school, especially with reading. She wants to be able to read easily and keep up with her class.
There is only one other house on Jacqueline’s block that doesn’t have a father. The boy who lives there says that his father died, and Jacqueline begins lying sometimes by saying her father also died. She also tells other lies about him, like that he’s coming to live with them soon. When Odella is nearby, she publicly corrects Jacqueline’s false story. She says that “We don’t have a father anymore” (170) and “Our grandfather’s our father now” (170).
Uncle Robert, Jacqueline’s mother’s younger brother, moves to New York City. He arrives late at night and all of the children wake up and beg him for presents. He gives Odella a pair of silver earrings and says, “This is a gift for how smart you are” (171). Jacqueline is jealous, so she says that she knows someone smarter than Odella who gets nicer jewelry. Uncle Robert questions whether she’s telling the truth. As Jacqueline thinks about how everything is real if it’s in her head, Uncle Robert pulls out more presents. He gives Jacqueline’s mother a James Brown record; they put it on and everyone dances.
Uncle Robert tells the children that if they catch a dandelion puff, they can make a wish. The children run around catching puffs, making wishes, and hoping they will come true.
Uncle Robert and Jacqueline play a game where he starts to sing a simple song and she responds with made up stories about things she has done. Uncle Robert likes her stories even though her mother says lying will lead her to other vices like stealing. Jacqueline feels that her brain works differently, since she doesn’t feel that her stories are really lies or even untrue.
Meetings at Kingdom Hall start with a song and a prayer, but the children are often late and have to join the song once it has already begun. Jacqueline sings loud and off-key, and she even finds it exciting to sing what she calls “boring Witness songs” (177). Jacqueline sees this as another way her mind works differently; she hears a different tune than everyone else, but it “sounds so right” (178).
eve and the snake
Jacqueline notices that only men, not women, are allowed to give Sunday sermons at Kingdom Hall. The sermon of the day is about Adam, Eve, the apple, and the snake. Jacqueline reflects that Eve biting the apple causes her to be at Kingdom Hall on a Saturday afternoon, praying to God that she will resist temptation.
our father, fading away
The children have forgotten a lot about their father: his voice, the color of his skin, and his behavior. Since moving to Brooklyn, they haven’t kept in touch with their father’s side of the family at all, including their grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Someone who knows the Woodsons in Ohio tells Jacqueline’s mother than Grandpa Hope, Jacqueline’s father’s father and Jacqueline’s brother’s namesake, has died. The children are not upset because they barely know him. Jacqueline thinks about her father for a moment, but then moves on.
halfway home #2
Jacqueline gets used to living in the city; her voice changes and she becomes used to not being around nature. Her grandmother notices, and Jacqueline feels there is not enough time to explain New York to her over long-distance phone calls. They promise that they will come back to South Carolina soon, and Jacqueline almost cries when she hears her grandmother’s Southern drawl on the words “I love you, too” (184).
the paint eater
The four children share a bedroom in Brooklyn. Roman, the youngest, starts a habit of secretly eating paint chipped from the wall. He eats so much that there is a large hole showing the plaster.
Hope only likes to talk about comic books, superheroes, and science. He talks fast, asking many scientific questions, until mother buys him a chemistry set. He mixes chemicals studiously after school, and some days he takes apart toy trains and puts them back together. Jacqueline feels that each of her siblings is looking for something in their own way.
baby in the house
One day Roman won’t get out of bed. He cries when he is held and when he is put down, so mother takes him to the hospital. She comes home alone, though Roman isn’t dead. Jacqueline is the youngest in the house again, but she doesn’t want to be; she wants her brother to be okay.
going home again
In July, Robert takes Hope, Odella, and Jacqueline to South Carolina. Roman wants to come, but he has to stay at the hospital because there is lead in his blood from the paint. They promise him that they won’t have fun without him.
home again to hall street
The house in South Carolina is just how the children remember it. There is delicious food and drink, grandma lovingly scolds Hope for slamming the screen door, and Jacqueline falls asleep on her grandfather’s shoulder. Jacqueline doesn’t find it strange that the place still feels like home.
mrs. hughes's house
Grandfather is too sick to work now, so grandmother has to work full-time. This means the children have to go to a day school every day at the house of a woman named Mrs. Hughes. At the nursery, the other children tease Jacqueline and her siblings for their hair, clothes, names, and Northern accents. Jacqueline cries easily and often. Odella takes a long time to cry, but when she does she also becomes violent. Hope remains silent. While Jacqueline previously said returning to South Carolina meant coming home, she now feels torn between two homes, as if they belong to both places and neither.
how to listen #4
Odella tells Jacqueline to turn away and pretend to know better when children tease them.
On Saturday mornings, the children are still made to knock on doors so that they can spread Jehovah’s Witness materials and beliefs. Jacqueline is now old enough to knock on doors alone. The first door she knocks on alone reveals an old woman who calls her special. Jacqueline suddenly loses her voice, but manages to get out her usual introduction. The woman tries to find the money to buy the book from Jacqueline, but she comes back empty handed. Jacqueline feels pained for days after this encounter, thinking it wrong that someone would be left out of a religion because they don’t have enough money. When Jacqueline tells her grandmother this, she assures her that another Witness will help the woman find her way.
sunday afternoon on the front porch
Hope, Odella, and Jacqueline sit on the porch swing on a hot summer day. Miss Bell across the street waves and talks to their grandmother about how big they’re getting. Grandfather pulls weeds from the garden, but because of his poor health he must do this while seated in a chair. He still has a sickly cough, and he is so weak that Hope has to move the chair around the garden for him. Jacqueline later goes to join him in the garden and then massages his hands in warm water with Epsom salt. She worries about grandfather and Roman.
home then home again
Summer comes to an end. The family makes plans for the children to return to New York, and the children begin to fantasize about school, laughing with Roman, and watching TV. They’ve gotten too big for their swing set, so it shakes when they swing too high. They pack their clothes in suitcases, but they don’t feel sad because they know they’ll return next summer.
Part III is titled "followed the sky's mirrored constellation to freedom" (141). This is a pretty strange quote to use for the title of Part III because it appears in Part I, in the first poem of the entire book. Woodson writes, "I am born not long from the time/ or far from the place/ where/ my great-great-grandparents/ worked the deep rich land/ unfree/ dawn till dusk/ upaid/ drank cool water from scooped-out gourds/ looked up and followed/ the sky's mirrored constellation/ to freedom" (1). Why did the author choose to use this quote for a section so much later in the book? Part III focuses on the family's move to New York City, blending new experiences with nostalgia for earlier childhood in the South. Using a quote from Part I as the title of Part III concretely links Jacqueline's past to her present. Furthermore, the quote's themes of nature and freedom continue to resonate with Jacqueline's feelings and interests.
Many of the poems in Part III are connected by the motif of being different or unusual. Jacqueline enters school and is daily reminded of how different she is as a Jehovah's Witness by not being able to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning or eat cupcakes on other students' birthdays. While in that case, she has a few classmates in the same situation, in the poem "believing" (175-6) the author explains how different she felt from everyone due to her love of telling stories, which others saw as malicious lies. She writes, "It's hard to understand/ the way my brain works—so different/ from everybody around me" (176). What seems to hurt her the most is the fact that her mother doesn't understand. Only her uncle's appreciation gives her reassurance. Yet another instance of not fitting in comes in the very next poem, "off-key" (177-8). At the Kingdom Hall in New York, Jacqueline is shushed by Odella for singing too loudly and not in tune. Jacqueline's thoughts again turn to the way she is naturally different than others; she thinks, "It's the music around the words that I hear/ in my head, even though/ everyone swears I can't hear it. Strange that they don't hear/ what I hear./ Strange that it sounds so right/ to me" (178). The repetition of the word strange in the quote demonstrates the negative tone of Jacqueline's musings, but she still seems resolved to live in a way that feels natural and honest to her.
Another motif in Part III is Jacqueline's disconnect with her father and her father's side of the family. It is clear throughout the novel that family is very important to Jacqueline, especially relationships with her extended family and ancestors. In Part III, after four years apart from their father, Jacqueline and her siblings start to feel as if they don't have a father at all. In the poem "sometimes" (170), Jacqueline tries to save face by saying that her father died or that he's coming back soon. When Odella corrects Jacqueline, ever reproachful of Jacqueline's tendency to tell lies, she states the fact that their father is no longer in their lives in rather extreme terms, saying, "We don't have a father anymore...Our grandfather's our father now" (170). Later, in the poem "our father, fading away" (181-2), Jacqueline laments the fact that she and her siblings have lost touch with her father and his family to the extent that they can't remember their father's exact skin color or the sound of his voice. When they find out that Grandpa Hope, Jacqueline's brother's namesake, has died, the children hardly react. This is in stark contrast to Jacqueline's devastation later in the book when her other grandfather, the father of her mother, dies.
Accents are an important motif in Brown Girl Dreaming, as they make clear to others where one is from. When Jacqueline first arrived in the South, she took great notice of the way her grandparents and other family members talked, slowly and often drawling words together. They take on these accents during the years they live in South Carolina, so that when they arrive in New York City, they stand out because of their accents; people know where they and their family comes from. As they assimilate to New York City culture, they also lose their Southern accents. In "halfway home #2," Jacqueline notes "The city is settling around me, my words/ come fast now/ when I speak, the soft curl of the South on my tongue/ is near gone" (183). This realization that she is losing the Southern part of her is driven home when she and her siblings are made fun of for their Northern accents when they go back to the South for the summer. It is clear that during this period in Jacqueline's life, she had an accent that was somewhat in the middle; perhaps fast like Northern speech, but with some of the drawl distinctive to South Carolina. This symbolizes the way Jacqueline felt torn between homes and identities. The negative reactions to her and her siblings' accents, especially from Southerners, also emphasize the animosity between those from the Northern and Southern Eastern United States during the mid-20th century.
Part III is a section of Brown Girl Dreaming where Jacqueline reaches many milestones of growth. She attends school for the first time, which, like many aspects of growing up, has both positives and negatives. She adores her teacher and school building, but she also starts to feel insufficient when she sees her older brother and sister's successes. Another milestone is the first time Jacqueline knocks on a door alone (selling Jehovah's Witness materials). This milestone is a quite negative experience, as the woman at home says that she wants to read the magazine but doesn't have money. Jacqueline again expresses doubts about the religion she was thrust into, thinking, "My heart hurts with the sadness/ that such a nice woman will not be part of God's/ new world" (198).