Brown Girl Dreaming

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Themes and Colors
Memory Theme Icon
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Theme Icon
Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
The North and The South Theme Icon
Religion and Spiritualism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Brown Girl Dreaming, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Memory Theme Icon

As a memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming is both shaped by and concerned with memory—“memoir” comes from the French word “memoire,” meaning memory. Through her attention to memory in Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson shows how memory works, not only in her own life, but also in storytelling more generally.

An important thread of Brown Girl Dreaming is the exploration of how Jacqueline’s relationship to memory changes as she grows up. As Woodson portrays it, people create and contain memory by actively retelling and recollecting events. The collapse of the distinction between storytelling and memory is embodied in Jacqueline’s own tendency to refer to her family’s stories as being memories themselves. So, in the world of the memoir stories are memories, and, on top of that, certain words, objects, and sensations evoke memory. To Jacqueline, the smell of the air or a word like “ma’am” can contain personal or historical meaning that makes it a kind of memory.

Memory is a dynamic element in Jacqueline’s life that continually shapes her worldview. At points, and particularly towards the beginning of the book, Woodson portrays memory as a negative aspect of Jacqueline’s life, as it is confusing, painful, and muddled. For example, memory’s relationship to reality is not always straightforward: it obscures aspects of Jacqueline’s personal history and prevents her from accessing certain truths. When Jacqueline first mentions memory explicitly in the book, she lists the contrasting ways that Jack, Mama, and Grandma Grace remember her birth. Each of these memories suggests that Jacqueline was born at a different time. Moreover, the memories focus less on Jacqueline and than on each person’s own thoughts and feelings about that day. To Jacqueline, this is disturbing— the exact time of her birth is “lost again amid other people’s bad memory,” she says.

Memory not only impedes Jacqueline from establishing a concrete sense of self, but it also often triggers pain. Mama associates the word “ma’am” with traumatic memories of the oppression she has experienced, and, as a result, Mama refuses to let her own children say “ma’am.” Another example of the pain caused by memory is Hope’s insistence that Jacqueline is lucky not to remember the fights between their mother and father; by forgetting, Jacqueline escapes the pain that Hope experiences.

As the book goes on, however, Woodson tempers these negative associations with memory by showing how memory can also be beneficial. For example, when Mama returns to Greenville after her first fight with Jack, Woodson shows her reconnecting with her cousins over remembrances of stealing peach pies and illicitly swimming in a neighbor’s pool. Memory enables Mama to feel at home again, suggesting the important role memory plays in promoting human connection and warmth.

As Jacqueline grows older, not only does her perception of memory become more positive, but she also begins to understand how memory works—she even becomes able to control and shape it, as is shown when Woodson describes Jacqueline deliberately committing to memory a moment in which MaryAnn is brushing her hair. Jacqueline’s burgeoning sense of memory as a tool that can be controlled develops in tandem with her sense of language and narrative, By the book’s end, Jacqueline recognizes that harnessing control of memory is key to her self-actualization, because memory can be compiled into a narrative that simultaneously takes the power away from painful past experiences and propels Jacqueline towards her future. She states that, “every memory brings me closer and closer to the dream.”

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Memory ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Memory appears in each Part of Brown Girl Dreaming. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
How often theme appears:
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Memory Quotes in Brown Girl Dreaming

Below you will find the important quotes in Brown Girl Dreaming related to the theme of Memory.
Part 1 Quotes

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.


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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.

Part 4 Quotes

Words come slow to me
on the page until
I memorize them, reading the same books over
and over, copying
lyrics to songs from records and TV commercials,
the words settling into my brain, into my memory.
Not everyone learns
to read this way— memory taking over when the rest
of the brain stops working,
but I do.

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker)
Related Symbols: Composition Notebook
Page Number: 221-222
Explanation and Analysis:

Jacqueline narrates this quote from “writing #2” as she and her mother are sitting in the kitchenlistening to the radio. Jacqueline writes down the lyrics to the song that is playing in her composition notebook to help her learn to write.

Jacqueline’s determination to write, and her frustration with not being able to, is palpable in this quote as she lists the various audio sources from which she writes down words: the television, songs, etc. It’s clear, then, that Jacqueline’s difficulty with writing is not a lack of comprehension or curiosity. Woodson shows the reader that Jacqueline is aware that her learning style differs from most people, but, unlike in earlier poems (where Jacqueline’s differences from others made her uncomfortable), Jacqueline ends the poem firmly and confidently, stating “but I do.”

Woodson again shows the reader how Jacqueline’s experience of language is deeply connected to orality and memory, which is also reflected in Woodson’s choice to write the memoir in verse.

Part 5 Quotes

I still don’t know what it is
That would make people want to get along.

Maybe no one does.

Angela Davis smiles, gap-toothed and beautiful,
raises her fist in the air
says, Power to the people, looks out from the television

directly into my eyes.

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker)
Page Number: 305
Explanation and Analysis:

Through television and conversations with her mother and uncle, Jacqueline becomes aware of the Black Power Movement, which is gaining momentum in the United States. In this quote from “say it loud,” Jacqueline returns to a question she asked MaryAnn when they still lived in Greenville during the Civil Rights Movement; she wondered then what would make people stop being racist and want to get along. She says she still doesn’t know what it is that would do that, clearly indicating that, despite the strides made under the Civil Rights Movement, there is still more work to do.

When Jacqueline suggests that “maybe no one” knows how to end racism and make people get along, she indicates that she has a level of skepticism towards the Black Power Movement. Still, she is called towards it and excited by it, as indicated by the way she is drawn to Angela Davis’s image on the television. This marks a new phase of Jacqueline’s self-actualization, both in her burgeoning pride about her race (rather than insecurity about it), and in her ability to make her own moral choices.

Some evenings, I kneel toward Mecca with my uncle.
Maybe Mecca
is the place Leftie goes to in his mind, when
the memory of losing his arm becomes too much. Maybe Mecca is
good memories,
presents and stories and poetry and arroz con pollo
and family and friends…

Related Characters: Jacqueline (speaker), Uncle Robert , Leftie
Page Number: 306
Explanation and Analysis:

Here in “maybe mecca,” Jacqueline expresses her interest in Islam as she prays with Robert. While she has pulled away from her commitment to the Jehovah’s Witnesses because of the contradictions and immoralities she sees in the religion, Jacqueline is nonetheless intensely drawn towards spiritualism in general. She loves the idea of “Mecca” that Robert teaches, and imagines it as a place where people, like her, go to escape painful memories. She also suggests that Mecca might represent the other happy things in her life at present, including good food, happy memories, family, and friends.

For Jacqueline, Mecca is also imagination and storytelling, which represent, to her, both passion and escapism.In being drawn to Islam instead of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jacqueline reveals her increasing self-knowledge. She has always been drawn to situations that allow her to prioritize imagination over rules, and by choosing to pray with Robert she is allowing herself to explore her interests and intuitions instead of forcing herself into a situation that seems wrong for her.