As the second novel in verse that the Books Unbound (B.U.) group has read, Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming is a lyrical dive into Woodson’s childhood. With its vivid descriptions of South Carolina land and culture, her story shines a new light on familiar elements of the state’s history, especially as it relates to Civil Rights. Woven throughout are themes of friends, faith, coming to and going from home, death of a loved one, and finding a calling or passion. Check out the round up below for main topics, insights from the conversation, a poetry-inspired creative exercise, and of course, the B.U. book rating!
Check back later for part two of the May round up, which will recap a special poetry workshop given by Charleston Poet Laureate Marcus Amaker.
MAIN DISCUSSION TOPICS
By far, the topic that most interested the B.U. members was faith, and we devoted the bulk of our discussion to it. Two main conversations emerged: religious upbringing and embracing a new religion as an adult.
LEARNING RELIGION YOUNG
Just as it is now, South Carolina was in the Bible Belt while Woodson lived in the state as a child. Even still, it’s not uncommon that many families now and historically have engaged in institutionalized Christianity minimally, saving church visits primarily for Christmas and Easter. Even among those relatively rogue families, Woodson’s mother, who believed in letting her children choose their own faiths, must have been a rarity in the South. Until their mother leaves for New York City, forcing Woodson and her siblings to stay with their grandmother, references to religion in Brown Girl Dreaming are sparse. In contrast, their grandmother, a devout Jehovah’s Witness, insists that while the Woodson children stay with her, they, too, adopt her religion. A struggle to genuinely adhere ensues.
If Woodson’s mother’s indifference toward religion made her an outlier in the South, then Woodson’s grandmother’s particular faith also marked her as unusual. While Woodson went from one extreme to another — lack of faith to strict faith — she remained in another extreme, which is that both individuals that lack faith and individuals that are Jehovah’s Witnesses are represented marginally in the South.
Given that just one percent of adults in South Carolina identify as Jehovah’s Witnesses, it’s no surprise that none of the B.U. members recall encountering the religion prior to reading Brown Girl Dreaming. In fact, many of the group members’ own upbringings correspond more to Woodson’s before she lived with her grandmother; organized religion doesn’t play a major role. They speculated that, like Woodson’s mother, their own families would support any faith they might choose. Like Woodson, they weren’t enthusiastic about her grandmother’s urging the children to be Jehovah’s Witnesses. However, they did not think it an unreasonable demand, given that she was taking care of them.
FINDING NEW FAITH AS AN ADULT
When Woodson’s uncle Robert is released from prison, he comes out changed. While we don’t know much about his religiosity prior to being incarcerated, we do know that he converts to Islam while serving his time. The B.U. members were quick to make the connection to Malcolm X, who also became Muslim while imprisoned.
The group and I discussed why it is common for people to turn to religion of any sort while in prison. Salvation, routine, and a positive lifestyle change are all strong motivations. Even among this pattern, the trend of African American men adoption of Islam stands out. We put Uncle Robert’s conversion in cultural and historical context. Malcolm X, we noted, likely served as an inspiration for him. This was the 1970’s, and Robert donned an Afro, and spoke of revolution as Shirley Chisholm ran for president. For him, converting to Islam may have been as much a social act as a religious one, and serves as evidence that practicing religion satisfies not just spiritual functions, but also broader cultural ones.
Since Brown Girl Dreaming is brimming with lovely metaphors, I had the group try to create their own. In her poem, “Herzel Street,” Woodson compares families like hers — African Americans who migrated from the South to the North — to things she most loves about the South: red dirt, pine trees, fireflies in jelly jars, and lemon-chiffon ice cream cones.
Using the same principal of comparing familiar people to the beloved things that they remind us of, the B.U. members each wrote a line of their own such that it mimicked Woodson’s technique:
They were basketball courts and cracked concrete.
They were mashed potatoes, fried chicken, and macaroni.
They were streetlights and crossed out graffiti.
They were tacos.
My favorite part of this discussion was at the beginning. After everyone was seated, they immediately launched into splendid reviews of the book. They were so impressed with Woodson’s verses and masterful storytelling!
BOOKS UNBOUND MEMBERS’ RATING
4 out of 5. In general, the group loved the book, especially since they could relate to the descriptions of South Carolina. There was only one complaint: the story didn’t detail Woodson’s adult life.