From the very title, the theme of race permeates Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, intersecting with many other themes such as gender, age, family, and history. Woodson shows how the treatment of African Americans changed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, using her own family as an example. While Jacqueline enjoys much more freedom than her great-great-grandparents who were slaves, or even her own parents and grandparents who lived through the Jim Crow era, her experiences show that there was still much progress to be made during the 1960's and 70's.
While both of Jacqueline's parents are African American, they have very different views on how African Americans should live and act due to growing up in different parts of the United States: Jacqueline's father in the North and Jacqueline's mother in the South. Jacqueline herself experiences living in both parts of the United States, and she sees these differences first hand. When she is living in the South with her grandparents, the battles of the Civil Rights Era are still being fought, and she must sit in the back of the bus and not enter certain stores for fear being followed around like a criminal. She realized that people like her grandparents, while free and somewhat educated, are forced by circumstances back to the menial jobs their ancestors did while enslaved. And even while non-violent protests go on nearby in the South, Jacqueline sees that not everybody can participate for fear of losing their jobs or risking harm to themselves and their families.
Later, living in New York, Jacqueline experiences life in the more progressive North. She is able to interact with children of different races and observe the rise of the Black Power movement. However, Woodson makes it clear that race was and is still an issue in the Northern United States. For example, Jacqueline's uncle Robert is sent to prison. Because Woodson does not specify what he was arrested for, the fact of his incarceration stands in for the over-policing of people of color. Woodson also touches on the lack of African American representation in children's literature, making special note of the first time that she read a book where the character looked like her. Through these depictions of her childhood experiences in South Carolina and New York City, Woodson demonstrates that progress was made during the mid-20th century with regard to racism and racial identity, but that during this period African Americans still did not have equal rights and respect.
The main conflict of Brown Girl Dreaming is Jacqueline's internal conflict over where to call home. Six of the poems in the memoir have "home" in the title, and the word is certainly one of the most used in the book simply because Jacqueline spends so much time feeling torn between homes, especially South Carolina and New York City.
Through Jacqueline's pursuit of a stable home, the author leads the reader on an exploration of what makes a home. Jacqueline feels comfortable in South Carolina as a young child because of her connection to family there, but also does not feel entirely accepted because she is African American in a racist society. When she moves to New York City, she promises that she will never call this new place home, but as she spends more time there, she starts to become more comfortable with the Northern way of life. Her accent changes, making her feel out of place in South Carolina when she returns for the summer, and she realizes that she can feel at home in New York City when she is around family, other people from the South, and even new friends who make her feel accepted. By the time Jacqueline is in late elementary school, she has little connection to the South and a very strong connection to New York, especially Brooklyn.
At the climax of the memoir, Jacqueline comes to accept that she can have many facets of her identity, including many homes. In "what i believe" she writes, "I believe in the city and the South...Buckeyes and Birmingham...I believe in Brooklyn!" (317-8) and in the next poem, "each world," she similarly states, "Ohio and Greenville...gather into one world/ called You" (320). Through Jacqueline's journey, the reader comes to understand that home is wherever one can find family, friends, or a community that accepts them, which means one will hopefully have many homes throughout their life.
Religion is another internal conflict that Jacqueline grapples with throughout the memoir. Religion is introduced as a theme in Part II of Brown Girl Dreaming when Jacqueline and her siblings are converted to Jehovah's Witnesses by their devout grandmother. While Jacqueline's mother says, "The children can choose their own faith/ when they're old enough" (112), Jacqueline's grandmother tells the children, "In my house...you will do as I do" (112). Jacqueline is forced to devote a great deal of time to praying, studying, and proselytizing, but she specifically tells the reader on many instances that she doesn't understand why she must do or believe certain things. For example, she knows she is supposed to believe that her grandfather, as a non-believer, will not go to Heaven, but she does not want to believe this because she loves her grandfather dearly.
When Jacqueline moves to New York, her relationship with being a Jehovah's Witness becomes even more tense. Even though they are not living with their grandmother anymore, she and her siblings are are still forced to be Jehovah's Witnesses. With no strong force of religion in their home, being a Jehovah's Witness becomes more about what she can't do—celebrate classmates' birthdays, say the Pledge of Allegiance in the morning, or write creative theatrical sketches. By the end of Part V, Jacqueline begins to pursue an interest in Islam, sparked by her uncle practicing the religion without forcing it on anyone else in the family.
Woodson's relationship with religion throughout her childhood seems to be one of confusion and negativity, in large part because she was not given a choice about what religion to practice or how intensely to devote herself. However, it is important that religion is still a part of the complex identity she comes to accept at the end of the memoir. She writes, "I believe in God and evolution/ I believe in the Bible and the Qur'an/ I believe in Christmas and the New World" (317), compelling the reader to acknowledge that these beliefs don't have to be mutually exclusive.
The dedication of Brown Girl Dreaming reads, "This book is for my family—past, present and future. With love." (v) Following this, there is a family tree showing Jacqueline's family going back to her grandparents' generation on both sides. By including these two pieces of information at the beginning of the book, Woodson sends a clear message that family will be a major theme in the book.
For most of Jacqueline's early life, family only includes those who are biologically related to her. She has a fascination with the physical features that tie her family together. In the poem "the ghosts of the nelsonville house," she focuses on the way she looks like people in the pictures on the walls of her father's parents' house. Later in the book, she mentions multiple times that many people on her mother's side of the family have the same tooth gap as she does. Because Jacqueline's home and relatives changed are not stable in the first few years of her life, she finds stability in these clear, biological relationships.
However, once Jacqueline moves to New York City, her idea of family begins to expand. She says of the other people from the South who would come to her family's apartment, "All of them talked/ like our grandparents talked/ and ate what we ate...They were family" (145-6). This shows Jacqueline's view of family evolving from one that encompasses biological relatives only to one that includes everyone that makes you feel comfortable and accepted. Much later in the book, when Jacqueline feels more at home in New York City, she even takes pride in being accepted as a member of a family very different from hers—the Puerto Rican family of her best friend Maria. Thus, by the end of Jacqueline Woodson's memoir, the theme of family has come to encompass anyone who makes Jacqueline feel loved, accepted, and supported.
Death and Grieving
Multiple deaths occur throughout the pages of Brown Girl Dreaming, and Woodson's depiction of these deaths and their aftermath show that grieving can differ greatly depending on the person and the situation. The first death mentioned in the book is that of Uncle Odell, who died before Jacqueline was born. Jacqueline writes about this death almost entirely in terms of its effects on her mother, putting the focus on grief rather than the death itself. Jacqueline's mother is strongly affected by the death of her sibling, and names the daughter she gives birth to just months later, Jacqueline's older sister Odella, in her brother's honor. This choice of name, and Jacqueline's choice to include Uncle Odell's death so near to the beginning of the memoir, focus on the cyclical nature of death and birth, endings and beginnings.
Aunt Kay, another of Jacqueline's mother's siblings, dies later in the book. Unlike Jacqueline's experience of the death of Uncle Odell only through her mother's memories, Jacqueline vividly depicts Aunt Kay's life and the suddenness of her death. In a single poem, Woodson gives flashes of positive, everyday memories between Jacqueline and Aunt Kay, and then starkly juxtaposes the reality of Aunt Kay's death due to a fall. This death affects the whole family, causing Jacqueline's family to move apartments due to the emotional pain of living where Aunt Kay used to live. Woodson's portrayal of this death calls attention to the brevity and fragility of life, and it emphasizes Jacqueline's questions regarding home and family.
Finally, a pair of deaths calls attention to how different the grieving process can be based on one's emotional connection to the deceased person. Jacqueline's two grandfathers both die during the course of the book, and her reactions to their deaths could not be more different. When she finds out that her father's father Hope has died, Jacqueline says, "We keep eating because we hadn't known/ he was still alive" (182). Even though they are biologically related, Jacqueline feels no emotional connection to her father's father, so his death has almost no effect on her. In contrast, when Jacqueline's mother's father dies, Jacqueline is very emotionally affected. She writes, "Spring blurs into summer/ then winter comes on too cold and fast" (283), showing how long her initial grieving process lasts. The death of Daddy Gunnar is the most impactful of any of the deaths in the book, and Jacqueline continues to mention him throughout the rest of the book.
Memory and Stories
Jacqueline Woodson begins her final section of the book, "thankfuls," by writing "I am thankful for my memory" (327). Memory will always be key in the writing of a memoir, which comes from the French for memory, and it is clear that Woodson does not take the power of memory lightly.
Woodson's memories of childhood are vivid, full of sights, smells, and strong emotions. Further, memory plays a key part in her childhood; in elementary school, Jacqueline loves memorizing stories, songs, and conversations and repeating them later to understand them more fully. While others see her memorization of whole books as a mysterious talent, Jacqueline simply thinks, "How can I explain to anyone that stories/ are like air to me,/ I breathe them in and let them out/ over and over again" (247). Through this scene, the reader can infer that Woodson sees memory and stories as intimately linked, making memoir a fitting genre for her.
Memories and stories also intersect directly in the story, because Jacqueline's makes up some memories. Some in her life see this as lying, while others see it as imagining stories. Jacqueline not only tells tall tales to friends and family, she even makes up stories in school about what she did over the summer. This shows that from an early age, Woodson saw fact and fiction as not entirely separate concepts, likely leading her to her career writing works that incorporate history, her own experiences, and some elements of fiction.
Age and Aging
While Jacqueline does not reach adulthood during the story, Brown Girl Dreaming could be said to be something of a bildungsroman: a coming of age story which focuses on the psychological and moral growth of the main character. Age and the process of aging are central themes to the story, and though the focus is on Jacqueline, the theme is paralleled in other characters in the book.
Jacqueline measures her aging largely through experiences, milestones, and abilities rather than years. Though she rarely mentions her own age or that of other characters when events take place, she tells of her yearning to be old enough not to wear ribbons, her pride and disappointment upon being able to knock on a door alone for the first time, and her joy at reaching each subsequent grade in school. As Jacqueline ages, rather than experiencing any major shifts in personality, her childhood interests deepen; she goes from loving stories to writing them, from recognizing racial injustice to raising her fist and shouting Black Power slogans.
Other characters are forced to look back on their life choices as they age. Jacqueline's mother seems to regret not listening to her mother and learning to cook, finding it difficult to provide for her children in the way she would like. Jacqueline's grandfather is quite sick for the last years of his life due to his smoking habit, making his old age a very difficult time. Jacqueline's Uncle Robert makes perhaps the most significant changes to his life as he ages; when he leaves prison he has become devoutly Muslim and develops a much calmer personality than the youthful exuberance of his pre-prison years.
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.