Brown Girl Dreaming

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Mama Character Analysis

Mama is mother to Jacqueline, Odella, Hope, and Roman. After leaving Jack—Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope’s father—she moves the children from Ohio to South Carolina and later to New York City. In New York City, Mama, a single mother, works full-time to provide for her children. A quietly progressive figure, she partakes in the Civil Rights Movement and supports the Black Power Movement. During the course of the memoir, Mama suffers the loss of two siblings and her father.

Mama Quotes in Brown Girl Dreaming

The Brown Girl Dreaming quotes below are all either spoken by Mama or refer to Mama. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Memory Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Nancy Paulsen Books edition of Brown Girl Dreaming published in 2014.
Part 1 Quotes

My birth certificate says: Female Negro
Mother: Mary Anne Irby, 22, Negro
Father: Jack Austin Woodson, 25, Negro

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker), Mama, Jack
Page Number: 3
Explanation and Analysis:

Woodson describes her birth certificate in the second poem of the memoir, “second daughter’s second day on earth.” This quote is significant because it purports to be a transcription of how the birth certificate itself reads. Shockingly to modern readers, Jacqueline’s race and the race of her parents are written on the birth certificate, using the out-of-date term “negro.”

The presence of Jacqueline’s race on a legal, medical document suggests that her race is an objective medical fact, rather than a societally imposedone. The certificate’s racial category shows both how Jacqueline is racialized from the very moment of her birth, and how that racialization, even in a Northern state, is conducted through the government and the medical community. Later in the poem, Woodson lists the Civil Rights activism occurringat the time of Jacqueline’s birth; knowing the text of Jacqueline’s birth certificatehighlights the need for such activism.

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My time of birth wasn’t listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people’s bad memory.

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker), Mama, Jack, Grandma Grace
Page Number: 18
Explanation and Analysis:

In the poem that this quote comes from, “other people’s memory,” Jacqueline listens to various members of her family describe the day of her birth. Each of them (her mother, father, and grandmother) describe the event differently, and through the lens of their own experience— Mama talks about being mad that Jack was not there, Jack insists he was present, etc.

Jacqueline’s birth takes place in the context of other people’s already complicated lives. This frustrates Jacqueline, because it prevents her from knowing some objective facts about her existence, such as her birth time. The discrepancy also initiates the reader into the frustrations of memory; Jacquelinemust rely on other people’s unreliable experience and perception to glean basic facts of her own identity, and she is upset that she cannot access these experiences in her own right.

You can keep your South…
The way they treated us down there,
I got your mama out as quick as I could…
Told her there’s never gonna be a Woodson
that sits in the back of a bus.

Related Characters: Jack (speaker), Mama
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quote from “journey,” Jack discusses his aversion to the South, which he sees as aplace that he “saved” Mama from. Jack’s hatred for the South conflicts with Mama’s love for it—she considers itto be home. Jack’s reason for hating the South, as he suggests here, is that he feels it more racist than the North. Jack sees the South, where Jim Crow Laws (laws that legalize racial segregation) are still in place, as a terrible, oppressive place to live as a black person. Jack does not want his children to be subjected to the overt, traumatic racism he knows exists in the South.

Although Jack means well, it becomes clear as the book progresses that Jack did not really save Mama from anything, and that Mama was not someone who needed saving. Mama loves her home in South Carolina. Rather than condemning the South as an uninhabitable place for black people, Woodson goes on to show how the South becomes a home for Mama and her children despite its difficulties.

We’re as good as anybody.

Related Characters: Mama (speaker), Jacqueline, Odella, Grandpa Hope
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Mama speaks this quote in “greencille, south carolina, 1963,” after she walks to the back of the bus and sits down with her children. The family, minus Jack, is on their way to visit Mama’s parents in South Carolina, where bus segregation is still in effect. Mama follows the rule, likely fearing violence and wanting to protect her children.

Still, Mama’s whispered reassurance suggests that she also fears that her children will internalize the racism they experience, and think that the fact that Mama followed the law means she believes they are inferior to the white people who sit in the front. This quote exemplifies a painful decision that African-Americans had to make under explicitly racist laws— by following the law, Mama fears she will make it seem like she agrees with the laws, but she also cannot afford to risk her safety or that of her children to defy them. This is a powerful illustration, too, of the stakes involved when Civil Rights protestors like Rosa Parks actually did decide to upend their lives in order to protest an unjust law. While Parks is a hero for her activism, Mama is also courageous in her navigation of complex choices in order to raise her children safely.

Part 2 Quotes

Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days…

The list of what not to say
goes on and on…

You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak.

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker), Mama (speaker), Grandpa Hope
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

This quote is part of the poem “the right way to speak,” in which Jacqueline describes her mother’s strict policies around language. Mama punishes the children when they speak in ways that she deems unacceptable or improper, even beating Hope with a willow switch when he says “ain’t.”

Among the words the children aren’t allowed to say is the word “ma’am,” a rule which Jacqueline understandsto exist because Mama associates the word “ma’am” with painful memories of racism in the days when African-Americans were still expected to be subservient to whites. Mama’s hatred for the word “ma’am” shows how words can carry intense, often painful memories.

The reader might conjecture that Mama’s intense language policy comes from her fear that, as African-Americans, her children won’t be taken seriously by white people if they don’t speak “properly,” or if they act too subservient and call them “ma’am.” The intensity of Mama’s focus on language is both a gift and a curse for Jacqueline. On the one hand, it is well-intentioned and it focuses her attention on language, which she grows to love. On the other hand, though, these rules limit the range of expression available to Jacqueline and alienate her from the norms of her peers.

And I imagine her standing
in the middle of the road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South:

I want to ask:
Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
between home

and home?

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker), Mama
Page Number: 104
Explanation and Analysis:

When Mama indicates to the children in “halfway home # 1” that she intends to eventually take them with her to New York to start a new life, Jacqueline is confused. This quote exemplifies the sense that Jacqueline has of being pulled between different places: the North and the South, Ohio, Greenville, and eventually Brooklyn. Jacqueline imagines her mother standing in the middle of a road pointing in different directions, which highlights the confusion that Jacqueline feels, and her sense of being lost.

Jacqueline’s many desperate but unspoken questions also give the reader a sense of how unsettling moving is for her. “Will we always have to choose between home and home?” Jacqueline thinks, suggesting the pain of this choice. Interestingly enough, it is not Jacqueline who is actually choosing— it is her mother. Although Jacqueline frames this move as a choice, much of Jacqueline’s discomfort might come from the fact that, as a child, she has little control over decisions about her life. Though Jacqueline will not be able to control the circumstances of her life, she will eventually learn to control the narratives through which she understands these confusing decisions and situations, which gives her some peace.

Part 3 Quotes

It’s hard to understand
the way my brain works— so different
from everybody around me.
How each new story
I’m told becomes a thing
that happens,
in some other way to me…!

Keep making up stories, my uncle says.
You’re lying, my mother says.

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker), Mama, Uncle Robert
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

Jacqueline’s storytelling continues to be a big part of her life, but itbecomes a problem when she fails to distinguish between storytelling and lying. Some adults in Jacqueline’s life, like Mama, find Jacqueline’s storytelling concerning, believing it to be dishonest and thinking it will lead to trouble. Robert, on the other hand, is amused by Jacqueline’s stories, and encourages her to keep up her habit.

Jacqueline doesn’t seem to understand the problem with storytelling/lying, or the source of her mother’s anger. Here in the poem “believing,” The difference in the ways that adults respond to Jacqueline cause her to wonder if her brain works differently from other people’s—an idea that could be alienating or exciting, or both. This quote shows Jacqueline’s confusion and angst as she is unsure of whether to be proud of her talent or ashamed of her difference; she is struggling to decide whether storytelling is a gift or a burden, and the adults in her life can provide her no clarity. This is a pivotal moment in her intellectual development, as she must make a decision about her values that will, no matter what, defy the advice of someone she loves.

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Mama Character Timeline in Brown Girl Dreaming

The timeline below shows where the character Mama appears in Brown Girl Dreaming. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: i am born
Memory Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...her father wanted to name her “Jack,” his own name, rather than Jacqueline. Jacqueline’s mother (Mama) and her aunt, however, said it was not a suitable name for a girl. When... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...She notes that his son, her great-grandfather, was the first African-American in his white school. Mama tells Jacqueline to think of him whenever she is the only African-American in a group... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
...times and in different conditions. Grandma Grace believes she was born in the morning, while Mama remembers her birth in the afternoon and her father trying to arrive on time. Jack... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
no returns. When Mama brings Jacqueline home from the hospital, her brother wants to “return” her since she is... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
uncle odell. In this poem, which takes place before Jacqueline’s birth, Mama receives the news that her brother, Odell, has died after being hit by a car.... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
my mother and grace. Jacqueline describes Mama’s relationship with her mother-in-law, Jacqueline’s paternal grandmother, Grace. Both hail from the same city in... (full context)
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
Meanwhile, Mama still mourns Odell’s death as she nurses her new baby, Odella. Grace tells Mama the... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
each winter. Jacqueline describes Mama’s winterly migration to her home in South Carolina to visit her family. During this time,... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
greenville, south carolina, 1963. Jacqueline describes Mama moving to the back of a bus with Hope, Odella, and Jacqueline in South Carolina,... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
home. Mama, Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope arrive at the home of Mama’s parents, MaryAnn and Gunnar, in... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
the cousins. Still in South Carolina, Mama celebrates her birthday with her cousins. While listening to music and dancing, they reminisce about... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
night bus. Jack arrives in South Carolina to beg Mama’s forgiveness for the fight that made Mama take her trip to South Carolina. He apologizes,... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
...the family getting ready for the trip back to Ohio. They pack food and clothes, Mama puts on lipstick, and Jack shaves. Then the family says goodbye to MaryAnn and Gunnar.... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...was only one photo of them together, which was a wedding picture. She imagines what Mama looked like leaving him: proud and with her children, while Jack (whose skin reminds her... (full context)
Part 2: the stories of south carolina run like rivers
The North and The South Theme Icon
ohio behind us. Jacqueline and her siblings ask Mama how long they will stay in South Carolina, and their mother replies that she does... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Jacqueline notes that she, Odella, and Hope call Gunnar “Daddy,” because it is also what Mama calls him. Jacqueline describes his appearance, saying he is tall and handsome. Gunnar reminds his... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
the right way to speak. Jacqueline recounts an instance when Mama beat Hope with a willow switch for saying “ain’t.” This reminds the children of the... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
...but that he is also ready to die for the cause. Jacqueline thinks of how Mama, too, participates in Civil Rights meetings, which causes MaryAnn to worry. Jacqueline refers to the... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
the training. Dorothy, Mama’s best friend and cousin, visits with her children, who say they won’t play with Jacqueline,... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope spend time with Dorothy and Mama. Dorothy talks about activist training with their mother, which teaches protestors the non-violent approach in... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
the blanket. Mama goes to visit New York, leaving Jacqueline and her siblings with MaryAnn and Gunnar. Jacqueline... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
MaryAnn then changes gears, saying how, when Mama was little, she wanted a dog. MaryAnn thought a dog might turn on them, and... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
the beginning of leaving. Mama returns from New York and reveals that she plans to take the children back there... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
as a child, i smelled the air. Mama, drinking coffee on the porch, says that the New York air smells different. Jacqueline joins... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
...to fight. Jacqueline is sure that, unlike those memories, she will remember what’s happening presently: Mama’s second departure from Greenville. (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
halfway home #1. Mama tells them she is leaving for New York, as she is planning to eventually move... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
my mother looks back on greenville. After the children’s pre-bedtime routine, Mama boards the bus to New York. She sits at the back of the bus and... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
sterling high school, greenville. The high school that Mama attended as a teenager burns down during a senior dance. Mama believes it was due... (full context)
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
faith. Following Mama’s departure, MaryAnn forces her grandchildren to practice their religion more fervently (they are Jehovah’s Witnesses),... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...When the phone in the house rings, the children run to it, knowing it is Mama calling. Hope picks up the phone, but MaryAnn takes it from him, and promises them... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
new playmates. Mama sends Jacqueline and Odella dolls from New York and writes about the city’s architecture, the... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
the letter. On Sunday, a letter arrives from Mama. Odella reads it aloud after breakfast, and they all learn the news that Mama is... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...MaryAnn tells her that she will no longer be the baby of the family when Mama arrives with her new sibling. Jacqueline worries, realizing that she enjoys her role in the... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
leaving greenville. Mama arrives back in Greenville late at night. She lies down with the girls in their... (full context)
Part 3: followed the sky’s mirrored constellation to freedom
The North and The South Theme Icon
brooklyn, new york. The family does not stay in the apartment that Mama found them, which turns out to be uninhabitable. Instead, they move in with their Aunt... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
herzl street. Jacqueline, Mama, and her siblings move into an apartment at Herzl Street. Aunt Kay and Bernie live... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...wrench so the children can play in the cool water while the adults watch. Even Mama takes off her shoes and smiles at the scene. (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
genetics. Jacqueline notes that she, Mama, Gunnar, and all her siblings have the same gap in their front teeth. Jacqueline then... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
...them. Bernie and Peaches move to Rockaway, a beach town in Queens, after Kay’s death. Mama grieves her sister, with whom she was so close that they were like twins. (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
...that the house is protected by a statue of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus outside, though Mama is skeptical and jokes about it. Still, Jacqueline catches her mother smiling at the sculpture,... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...good food. The children wish they were back in Greenville, but they don’t complain to Mama about it. (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
another kingdom hall. In response to MaryAnn’s prompting, Mama finds a Kingdom Hall where the children can attend services on Sundays. This reminds Jacqueline... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...way. In November, Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope beg to watch television or play outside, but Mama won’t let them. Instead, Mama brings home a bag of board games. Roman and Jacqueline... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...Robert moves to New York City. He arrives around midnight. The children are excited and Mama, initially grumpy, smiles. Robert gifts Odella a pair of silver earrings for “how smart she... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
believing. Jacqueline tells Robert made-up stories. Her uncle finds the stories amusing, and encourages them. Mama, however, accuses her of lying, and says that if she keeps lying she’ll start stealing.... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
...with their family in Ohio, and their memories of Jack have faded. Through a friend, Mama learns that the children’s paternal grandfather, Grandfather Hope, has died. They are not upset, since... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
chemistry. Hope has developed an interest in two things: comic books and science. Mama buys him a chemistry set, and Hope spends his free time concocting solutions. The mixtures... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
...house. One day, Roman does not get up. He refuses to eat, and cries profusely. Mama takes him to the hospital and has to leave him there overnight. After previously wishing... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...gave him lead poisoning. The older children promise they won’t have fun without him, and Mama says goodbye. (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
home then home again. The summer in Greenville is ending. Mama calls MaryAnn to plan the children’s return. The children miss Roman, and Jacqueline thinks of... (full context)
Part 4: deep in my heart i do believe
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...When Jacqueline and her siblings return to Brooklyn from Greenville, their reunion with Roman and Mama is an “almost happy ending,” because Roman still has a hospital band on his wrist,... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
one place. Roman travels between the apartment and the hospital until his treatment is done. Mama moves Roman’s crib far from the wall so he can’t reach the paint. At last,... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
...other hand, likes playground games, and so she is called a “tomboy.” Her walk reminds Mama of Jack. (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
game over. Mama calls the children inside for the night. The children whine. Outside, their friends, who are... (full context)
Memory Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
lessons. As Mama cooks pancakes, she tells Jacqueline that MaryAnn tried to teach her how to cook, but... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...Maria’s mother makes a particular dish that Jacqueline really likes, Jacqueline brings a plate of Mama’s food to exchange for Maria’s dinner. Then they sit on Maria’s stoop and eat them... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
writing #2. As Mama listens to the radio, the song “Family Affair” comes on and she turns the volume... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
stevie and me. On Mondays, Mama takes the children to the library and allows them to pick out seven books each.... (full context)
The North and The South Theme Icon
...One Saturday, Gunnar calls from Greenville, and all the children fight for the phone, so Mama makes them take turns. Gunnar coughs and asks how they are. Jacqueline tells him she... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
...take them to Coney Island as he promised. Robert assures them he won’t forget, while Mama gives him an ambiguous look. Jacqueline thinks of a recent incident when policemen knocked on... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...who falls in love with a boy. The story makes Jacqueline cry. Later she begs Mama to take her to the library. Jacqueline checks the book out of the library to... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
...her group’s skits all by herself. Jacqueline inserts horses and cows into the script, and Mama chastises her for being too imaginative. Jacqueline starts over, promising herself that she will use... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
curses. People tell Mama that Jacqueline and her siblings are very polite. They do not curse or behave in... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
afros. Robert comes to the house sporting an afro, and afterward Jacqueline begs Mama to let her wear her hair like that. Mama says no, but Mama wears her... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
music. In the mornings, the family listens to the radio, and Mama lets the children choose what to play. Her only condition is that the songs can’t... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
rikers island. Mama gets a phone call in the middle of the night from Robert, who has been... (full context)
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
...on paper. When Jacqueline’s family asks what she is writing, she gives them vague answers. Mama tells Jacqueline that anything is fine as long as she doesn’t write about their family,... (full context)
Part 5: ready to change the world
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
after greenville #2. After Gunnar’s death, MaryAnn moves to Brooklyn to live with Mama and the children. Spring turns to summer and then to winter. From her chair by... (full context)
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
fate & faith & reasons. As Jacqueline and Mama fold laundry together, Mama tells her that “everything happens for a reason,” and talks about... (full context)
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
say it loud. Mama tells the children how the Black Panthers are organizing to help black children, and describes... (full context)