Dawn Miller: Poetic memoir connects across race, time

Anyone can see something of herself in Jacqueline Woodson's “Brown Girl Dreaming,” whether you call yourself black, like many of the fifth graders I read to at Piedmont Elementary School, or white, like me, or brown, the term Jacqueline herself uses.

The class started the story a while back in anticipation of Woodson's appearance at the West Virginia Book Festival at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 24.

I was dazzled from the start. Somehow, she has taken those humble little stories that all families have, about birth and memory and aspiration and loss. You know those soft, familiar stories that get repeated on birthday or holiday evenings, or whenever visiting relatives are in a nostalgic mood. To Woodson's ear, they are poetry, and the way she sets them down, even in their plain, simple language, the language of the kitchen table or the porch, they become poetry for her readers, too.

Like every child, she sees her circle of knowledge and experience grow as she grows — relatives, neighbors, school.

And because she is a brown girl growing up in the United States of the 1960s and 1970s, those experiences reflect the nation's ongoing struggle with race and justice. Like Jacqueline, her readers can never get too far from it.

She remembers white people in stores paid to follow black shoppers. In the chapter “ghosts,” she writes of “white only” signs being painted over in downtown Greenville, S.C.:

… Except on the bathroom doors,

they didn't use a lot of paint

so you can still see the words, right there

like a ghost standing in front

still keeping you out.

 

She writes of men and women, putting on their Sunday clothes, packing a bag, heading north, away from that world, toward opportunity.

There was a hush in the class as we worked through these chapters. These students are as far removed in time from the events in Woodson's book as she and I were from the Great Depression when we were their age. And yet, not so removed.

As we read together, I was conscious of the news, of black citizens dying at the hands of police, of black worshipers dying in a South Carolina church, of disputes over the Confederate battle flag.

I cannot know how much of today's events are on the minds of students in the class. Certainly it varies.

But on the second or third encounter with the author's father in the book, one student observed that he is often angry. No explicit reason is spelled out for it.

“Do you think he has reason to be angry?” I ask.

“Yes, he does,” came the immediate, certain reply from another student, a masculine voice.

I asked the students if they had any observations they would like to share. Here are a few:

n “I love this book because Jacqueline wrote about her feelings and her life about what happened during her childhood.” — Nykira

n “This book is inspiring and interesting to learn about Jacqueline Woodson's life.” — Keenan

n “She is a very unique person because her great-great-great grandfather was Thomas Jefferson and she speaks up for what is right, and she always talks about her grandfather.” — Zyleah

n “The story flows like poetry; each chapter covers a long period of time because there is a lot packed into each phrase.” — Bonnie

When her mother's high school is burned down, we learn that Woodson's mom attended school alongside Jesse Jackson. The students had no way of knowing that long before Barack Obama, Jesse Jackson ran for the Democratic nomination for president.

“Did he win?” one student asks, which tells us something, I think, of the possibilities in the minds of these children, possibilities in the past, as well as the present and future.

Dawn Miller, the Gazette's editorial page editor, can be reached at dawn@wvgazette.com, or @gazette_opinion.

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