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. She and her siblings take on a Southern way of talking due to this exposure, but they also have some lessons about language and accents explicitly taught to them. In the poem "the right way to speak," Hope is whipped for saying the word ain't, and Jacqueline and her sister clamp their mouths shut, "Fearing the South/ will slip out or/ into them" (69). This example shows the harsh reality that someone's way speaking can reveal their social background.
When the children arrive in New York City, they stand out because of their accents. 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. In the poem "mrs. hughes's house," the author writes, "the other kids circle around us. Laughing...[at] our city way of talking—too fast, too many words/ to hear at once" (193-4).
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 in 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.
Dirt appears throughout Brown Girl Dreaming as a way of tying Jacqueline to nature, her family, and history. The most prevalent references to dirt are Jacqueline's experiences in the South as well as her memories of the South once she moves to New York. In the poem "the garden" (48-9), Woodson writes "Each spring/ the dark Nicholtown dirt is filled/ with the promise/ of what the earth can give back to you/ if you work the land" (48). She goes on to say that her grandfather deeply respects the dirt in his garden, and she draws a link between his attitude toward farming and his ancestors who were slaves in the same area of the United States. Similar statements about gardening, walking, and playing barefoot in the dirt are made during Jacqueline's early childhood in South Carolina.
Once she is in New York, Jacqueline specifically references dirt when thinking about things she misses about the South. She says, "Some days we miss/ the way the red dirt lifted up and landed/ against our bare feet" (147). This makes her misgivings about New York more tangible for the reader. She even compares people from the South to dirt—"they were red dirt and pine trees" (145)—using this simile in the positive sense to explain how people who remind her of her grandparents and their community are comfortable and familiar to her. In effect, the references to dirt while Jacqueline is in the South show her connectedness to nature and to her grandfather, and by referencing dirt later in the book, the author reminds the reader how these important things are lacking from Jacqueline's life in New York.
Gap Teeth (Symbol)
In Brown Girl Dreaming, gap teeth symbolize the connection between Jacqueline's family members. In the beginning of the book, the author recalls looking at pictures of her ancestors and seeing herself, writing, "Look closely. There I am/ in the furrow of Jack's brow,/ in the slyness of Alicia's smile,/ in the bend of Grace's hand.../ There I am" (12). It is clear that she takes pride and comfort from being connected to her family by physical characteristics.
Gap teeth particularly connect Jacqueline to her mother's side of the family. Jacqueline's mother, grandfather, and aunt all have gaps in their teeth. Besides Jacqueline's clearly important relationship with her mother, Jacqueline is especially close with her grandfather and is very emotionally affected by the death of Aunt Kay. Their gap teeth provide physical evidence of their connection to Jacqueline. Jacqueline even mentions that her mother's cousin Dorothy has the same gap in her teeth. Though Jacqueline and Dorothy are not close emotionally, having a wide range of family members around in South Carolina makes Jacqueline feel more at home.
Jacqueline is not only connected to her elders by gap teeth, but also to her siblings. In the poem "genetics," Jacqueline writes that "Each child in this family has the same space/ connecting us" (148). Jacqueline goes on to say that her younger brother Roman's gap teeth convince strangers that he is actually the sibling of Jacqueline, Hope, and Odella since his skin is a lot lighter than theirs. The fact the author tells the reader about all these characters having the same gap in their teeth that Jacqueline does emphasizes how important familial relationships are in the story.
Hair has great significance for Jacqueline with regard to race and family. The first reference to hair in Brown Girl Dreaming is in the poem "hair night." In this poem, Jacqueline gets her hair done by her grandmother, who uses a burning hot comb to straighten it. Jacqueline would not be able to bear this without distracting herself with stories read aloud by her sister Odella, who will have her hair done next. This ritual, done every Saturday night during Jacqueline's early childhood, creates a bond between Jacqueline, her grandmother, and her sister. Not only do they spend this quality time together, but they all have a similar hair type, as relatives and as African American women, and together experience the laborious process of straightening it into what was a socially appropriate style at the time.
In New York, Jacqueline's hair is done by Aunt Kay and Mary Ann, Jacqueline's mother. This shows knowledge and responsibilities moving down a generation, from Grandma Georgiana to her daughters. While Jacqueline is an elementary schooler in New York City, the afro also emerges as a popular African American hairstyle. Jacqueline wants to wear her hair this way, especially after her mother and uncle style their hair in afros, but Jacqueline's mother says that she is not old enough. The fact that Jacqueline wants to style her hair this way shows that she takes pride in her racial identity and wants to participate in contemporary black culture. Jacqueline's mother preventing her from doing her hair this way, while seeming to Jacqueline like harshness or hypocrisy at the time, can be read as a move to protect Jacqueline from the risks to which African Americans were exposed during the time of the Black Power movement.
Later in the book, when Jacqueline's Uncle Robert goes to prison, he is forced to shave his afro. Jacqueline's uncle loses his strong personal and racial identity while in prison, and Woodson ties this directly to the loss of his afro. She writes, "He is not/ Robert. His afro is gone now,/ shaved to a black shadow on his perfect skull" (272). Woodson's specific mention of his hair in this context represents her criticism of the treatment of African Americans in the criminal justice system in general. However, when Uncle Robert gets out of prison, he is able to regrow his afro after a year. This shows that he has held onto his racial identity and returned to having agency in his life.
In Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shows that silence can be both a positive and a negative thing. Throughout the book, the idea of not needing words to communicate is repeated. Jacqueline's mother and her father's mother are connected by this ability to coexist in pleasant silence, something Jacqueline attributes to them both being from the South. Jacqueline similarly enjoys sitting in silence with her head resting on her grandfather's arm; she even names the poem in which she talks about sitting with her grandfather "sometimes, no words are needed." She tells the reader in this poem, "You don't need words...just the silent promise/ that the world as we know it/ will always be here" (131). From these examples, it can be understood that Jacqueline sees some instances of silence as comforting.
The author also shows that silence can signify grief, fear, or other negative emotions. After Jacqueline's mother's brother Odell dies, the author describes how the silence between Jacqueline's mother and grandmother turned to a negative kind of silence: "More silence/ both of them knowing/ there's nothing left to say" (26). In this example, the silence doesn't show comfort but rather a lack thereof. Woodson also depicts herself and her siblings in silence in moments of fear or sadness. She and her sister are scared silent by their brother being whipped for speaking incorrectly, and they also keep silent about their mother's cheap cooking not being as good as their grandmother's. In these examples, the children keep silent because they fear they or others will be hurt as a result of speaking.
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.