Just shy of a couple of weeks ago, I finally turned my attention to one of my “TBR” ’s (To Be Read’s) in my always-toppling stack. Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING (Nancy Paulson Books, Penguin, 2014) – with its shiny gold National Book Award Winner sticker – had even traveled with me in May, but I hadn’t cracked it open yet. I’d been anxious to read it, and it had certainly been praised on Poetry Friday in recent months.
Then the multiple-award-winning author was named our new Young People’s Poet Laureate by The Poetry Foundation at the beginning of this month, and I jumped into this autobiographical journey told in verse. I was immediately captivated – and not just by the exquisite writing. I hadn’t realized before that Jacqueline Woodson was born less than two weeks after I was in early 1963 (about 350 miles apart, and in some ways, worlds apart).
I was intrigued by how our early memories might be alike in many ways and drastically different in others. I was born in Tennessee and grew up in Florida; she was born in Ohio and grew up in Greenville, SC, and in New York. (Greenville is where I went to college, met my hubby, and where my daughter currently lives.)
I was not really aware of racial tensions as a very young child; I never saw “Whites Only” signs. They certainly might have existed in places where we traveled when I was tiny, but I would have been too young to read them. I have no recollections of races being separated in my early world.
In BROWN GIRL DREAMING, Woodson masterfully shows how the people she most loved and looked up to as a child had been affected by Jim Crow laws and racial injustice, how life was different in the North and South in the ’60s (and ’70s). Reading the book, you see through her eyes as a child trying to make sense of her family’s past and present.
She describes walking past a Woolworth’s with her grandmother in Greenville, because even after the laws changed, her grandmother had been ignored in that store before:
I wasn’t even there. It’s hard not to see the moment –
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
between her gloved hands – waiting quietly
long past her turn.
I remember Woolworth’s – one of the department stores of my childhood. I remember ladies wearing gloves and carrying patent-leather purses. I never remember feeling discriminated against, because that was not my reality. Of course I learned about racial inequality as I grew up and matured, but I didn’t have to endure it directly, or hear that my parents, siblings or grandparents had suffered because of it. I don’t have to battle it now.
It’s been an interesting half-century to be alive. I remember watching President Obama’s first inauguration on TV, seeing his two precious daughters and thinking they were about to move into the White House, and recalling that I had been an infant on this earth when four little girls were blown up in a church in Alabama, and I just cried.
Anyway, this month, I had been reading along in BROWN GIRL DREAMING each night when, 10 short days ago, news broke of the atrocity at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. (That’s just a little over an hour up the road from here.) I was numb. I texted my husband, who was on a church service trip with my son in another part of the state.
I cannot pretend to fathom what those families have been going through. Each of those nine souls was a shining light in their homes, communities, and in the greater world. The reactions of many of family members have demonstrated the message that love is stronger than hate. It’s been humbling and inspiring to see these grieving individuals embody such deep faith and verbalize it so simply and eloquently. Grace personified in the midst of unspeakable loss.
Of course, the timing of my reading Jacqueline Woodson’s beautiful book has made it that much more poignant for me. In case you haven’t yet read it, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s only about race. It’s about joy and loss and self-discovery, about a young writer falling in love with words and finding her voice – in vivid memories from a full childhood laced with warmth and wonder.
In addition to the poems, there are black and white family photos to enjoy as well. To me, the whole book is like a carefully and lovingly designed photo album. Each poem evokes a picture's thousand words of possibilities and connections. Artfully chosen details and descriptions create a strong, sturdy, and inspiring story – especially for someone creative, of any color and of any age. Especially for any young reader who might struggle a bit with reading or writing, but who has something to say.
For more inspiring poetry this week, please visit the lovely Carol at Carol's Corner for the Roundup. Read More