february 12, 1963. In this opening poem, Jacqueline Woodson states the fact of her birth and where it took place (Columbus, Ohio). She situates her birth in the context of her family’s history, describing the place of her birth as “not far” from where her great-great-grandparents worked as slaves. She also describes her birth in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, stating that the movement’s purpose is to provide children with freedoms denied to their parents and grandparents.
In this opening poem, Woodson makes it clear that Jacqueline (Woodson’s younger self, and the protagonist of the story) exists in the context of a greater struggle for racial equality. She does this by highlighting the fact of her ancestors’ bondage and by noting the events of the Civil Rights Movement that are taking place when Jacqueline is born. By connecting the very first moments of Jacqueline’s life with these struggles, Woodson is suggesting that the history and preexisting racial conditions of the United States will affect Jacqueline’s life even from its first moments. In noting this, Woodson shows how the legacy of slavery has continued to affect the lives of African-Americans long after the institution of slavery ended.
second daughter’s second day on earth. Jacqueline describes her birth certificate, which notes that she and her parents are “negro.” She further ties her birth to the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements by relating it to different organizers and artists who are a part of the movements (like Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and James Baldwin). Jacqueline then compares herself to Ruby Bridges, the first black child to attend an all-white school after it was desegregated.
Woodson further situates the reader in the racial climate of the 1960s when she describes the racial classification on her birth certificate. This shows the reader the way that Jacqueline is officially, legally racialized from the moment she is born. This underscores that racism in the 60s was institutional and governmental as much as it was interpersonal. Evoking the story of Ruby Bridges shows, too, that children like Jacqueline were not exempt from discrimination and vitriolic racism, and nor were they absent from Civil Rights activism.
a girl named jack. Jacqueline relates how 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 Jacqueline’s mother refused to name her Jack, her father left the hospital angrily and her mother named her “Jacqueline” instead.
This poem begins to show Jacqueline’s relationship to family stories and memory. Because Jacqueline was an infant at the time that the event she recounts took place, she is obviously retelling a story that was told to her, not one that she remembers herself. The idea of memory’s effect on storytelling—particularly the unreliability of other people’s memories—later becomes an important theme in the memoir. Woodson also shows the reader early tensions between Jack and Mama, foreshadowing their separation.
the woodsons of ohio. Jacqueline discusses the history of her family on Jack’s side, who believe they are the descendants of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, who was the President’s slave. Jacqueline notes how the Woodsons take pride in this legend, attribute their success to it, and like to recount it whenever they can.
Once again, Woodson connects Jacqueline’s personal and family history to greater African-American history, and also, here, to the history of America itself. By including her family’s legend that the Woodsons are descended from Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Woodson highlights how closely the proud mythology of America (represented by President Jefferson, author of the Declaration of independence) is tied to the horrifying institution of slavery (as embodied by Sally Hemings).
the ghosts of nelsonville house. In this poem, Jacqueline describes the ancestral home of Jack’s family, a big, white house in Nelsonville, where her father grew up. She describes the rooms in the house and how the house used to be filled with children. Jacqueline looks at photographs of the house in its prime and the people in them (aunts, grandparents, uncles, her father). In these people, Jacqueline sees herself “beginning.”
In this poem, Woodson shows Jacqueline, as she looks at family photographs, beginning to situate herself in the context of her family’s own stories and reaching into the family’s memory to look for clues to her own identity. The Nelsonville House, for Jacqueline, is the site of her relatives’ childhoods, which then shaped their adulthoods, which later influenced Jacqueline’s own childhood. Woodson also showcases Jacqueline’s early imaginative powers, as Jacqueline pictures her relatives playing there as children.
it’ll be scary sometimes. Jacqueline describes her great-great-grandfather, born a free man in Ohio in 1832. Jacqueline mentions how he fought in the Civil War and his name is on a memorial in Washington D.C. 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 of white people.
Jacqueline learns, once again, how intimately her family history is tied with major events in American history. In this poem, Woodson also shows Mama teaching Jacqueline a survival strategy for coping with spaces in which she is the only black person. Mama tells Jacqueline to think of her great-grandfather— effectively showing her how to use stories as a source of strength. As Jacqueline grows up, storytelling will continue to be a source of catharsis and control for her when facing not only racial alienation, but also grief and pain.
football dreams. Jacqueline discusses Jack’s youth playing football and his football scholarship to Ohio State. She describes how easy it is to get to the South from Ohio, but Jack says that no sane black person would ever want to go the South.
Here, Woodson shows that, because of the racism in the South, Jack harbors negative opinions about South Carolina. For him, the overt racism and segregation is so disturbing that he rejects the South entirely. This seems to be a source of tension between him and Mama, who is from the South and loves her home.
other people’s memory. Jacqueline describes how various family members tell the story of her birth. These accounts differ greatly from one another, suggesting that she was born at different 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 remembers her birth at night. Jacqueline feels that her birth has been lost in “other people’s bad memory.”
Here, Woodson shows the reader one of the ways in which memory can be problematic. As Woodson describes the three different ways that three of her relatives remember her birth, she highlights the unreliability of memory and the way that objective reality becomes lost to people’s perceptions of what happened. Jacqueline, presumably hearing these memories recounted as a child, is upset by the ambiguity of the time of her birth. She implies that a part of her personal narrative is lost to this subjectivity and she resents this “bad” memory as a result. In this poem, memory is a problem for Jacqueline.
no returns. When Mama brings Jacqueline home from the hospital, her brother wants to “return” her since she is a girl.
This moment provides an element of comedy to the story of Jacqueline’s birth. Again, Woodson cannot possibly remember this moment, and so it is constructed through the memories of other people.
how to listen #1. Jacqueline states that in her brain, sensations become memory.
Again, Jacqueline emphasizes memory as a central theme of the memoir.
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. Jacqueline imagines her mother’s pain as a result of the news.
Throughout the memoir, Woodson catalogues the grief that her family experienced during her childhood. That Jacqueline is telling a story that took place before her birth implies that the sadness of Mama’s loss of her brother still, in some way, affects Jacqueline’s life as well.
good news. Odella, Jacqueline’s older sister, is born several months after Uncle Odell’s death. Jacqueline imagines her maternal grandmother, Georgiana, picking up the phone in South Carolina to hear the good news.
By discussing the happiness of Odella’s birth right after the terrible sadness of Odell’s death, Woodson evokes a sense of ambivalence that continues throughout the rest of the narrative. Like memory, the North and South, etc., all aspects of Woodson’s childhood carry elements of both good and bad or mixed connotations.
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 South Carolina, and they bond over this shared history.
Here, Woodson shows Mama and Grace’s nostalgic longing for their childhood home in the South. As the two bond over their shared home, Woodson gives the reader a sense of what it’s like to be alienated from familiar home spaces, a theme that continues throughout the book.
Meanwhile, Mama still mourns Odell’s death as she nurses her new baby, Odella. Grace tells Mama the baby is a gift from God to replace her brother, but both know that despite this sentiment, the grief Mama feels cannot be abated.
When Grace tells Mama that Odella is a gift from God to replace Odell, Woodson shows the reader that religion and religious feeling are limited in their ability to relieve pain. Although the narrative of an all powerful God might seem helpful, it falls flat for Mama—as the memoir later shows, Mama does not find organized religion compelling.
each winter. Jacqueline describes Mama’s winterly migration to her home in South Carolina to visit her family. During this time, Jack usually stays in Ohio, but Jacqueline and her siblings go with their mother. She thinks her mother will never be entirely at home in the North.
Woodson further emphasizes the distance between Jack and Mama when she describes how Jack does not go with the family to Greenville. Jack’s hatred of the South and Mama’s deep love for her home there become a source of tension. Mama is unable to totally adjust to her life in the North, and continues to be pulled home despite her many connections in Ohio.
journey. Meanwhile, Jack has no interest in the South, which he sees as a place rife with racist oppression. He does not want his children or his wife to have to experience that kind of struggle.
greenville, south carolina, 1963. Jacqueline describes Mama moving to the back of a bus with Hope, Odella, and Jacqueline in South Carolina, where segregation is still pervasive and black people must leave the front seats of buses open for white people. After doing so, Mama whispers to her children, “We’re as good as anybody.”
In this poem, Woodson shows the everyday consequences of legalized segregation in the South. Her family is affected by these racist laws—they are not just the stuff of history books. Likewise, Woodson shows how, out of a concern for her children’s safety, Mama must comply with these racist laws. Mama’s whispered reassurance to her children is incredibly poignant, as she tries to remind them they are “as good as anybody” in a society that constantly and systematically denies that fact.
home. Mama, Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope arrive at the home of Mama’s parents, Georgiana and Gunnar, in South Carolina. Jacqueline’s grandmother greets them by saying “welcome home,” and her mother cries.
Until now, Woodson has only shown Mama to the reader as a person alienated from the place she feels most comfortable, and has only described the South as a place to be loathed or missed. Finally, the reader sees the home in the South that Mama left behind to go to the North with Jack, and this home is a place that is warm and loving.
the cousins. Still in South Carolina, Mama celebrates her birthday with her cousins. While listening to music and dancing, they reminisce about their childhoods spent playing together. Mama is extremely happy. As she dances with them, they tell her “you belong here [in the South] with us.”
Mama is able to reconnect with people in Greenville through their shared memories of their childhoods, which shows that memory can be a positive, unifying force instead of a source of disagreement and division. Mama’s sense of being at home in the South is cemented when her cousins assert that she “belongs” there.
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, Mama accepts the apology, and the whole family goes back to Ohio the next day.
When Jack comes to beg Mama’s forgiveness, he comes in spite of his deep aversion to the South. Similarly, Mama, despite feeling so at ease in South Carolina, returns to the North with him. In a moment of unity, the two overcome their sense of foreignness in each other’s territory in order to be together.
after greenville #1. Jacqueline describes 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 Georgiana and Gunnar. They board the night bus so that people who might mistake them for civil rights activists won’t harass them.
After the descriptions of the family’s preparations for travel, Woodson notes that the family must travel at night for fear of racial violence. This remark highlights the high level of hostility that white people harbored towards black people affiliated with the Civil Rights Movement. This hatred could be so intense that even black families with small children and no obvious links to the Movement had to fear for their safety in the South.
rivers. Jacqueline describes the Hocking River, which deviates from the path of the Ohio river before joining up with it again later. She imagines it saying “I’m sorry… I’m home again.”
Woodson uses the path of the Hocking River as a metaphor for her mother’s departure from, and later return to, the North with Jack.
leaving columbus. Jacqueline describes the final fight between her parents, which ended their relationship. Jacqueline notes that there 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 of the “red dirt of the south”) waves goodbye.
Woodson takes account of this definitive moment of her childhood—when her mother left her father for the final time. For Jacqueline, this not only means the end of her parents’ relationship, but also the end of her life in Columbus and the beginning of her new life in South Carolina. Woodson foreshadows this new life in the South when she notes that Jack’s skin was red like South Carolina dirt, an image that Jacqueline repeatedly returns to as emblematic of the South.