our names. After their move to South Carolina, Jacqueline notes that people start to refer to her, Odella, and Hope in relation to their grandparents (saying, for example, they are “MaryAnn’s babies”). She also pays attention to how her grandmother says the names all in one breath, while Gunnar says them slowly.
Woodson shows Jacqueline’s early attention to language when she describes the different ways that people refer to her in South Carolina. Jacqueline not only considers how people refer to her in relation to her grandparents, but also the specific sound these names and the speed at which they are said. Jacqueline’s early interest in the sounds of words foreshadows her interest in poetry.
ohio behind us. Jacqueline and her siblings ask Mama how long they will stay in South Carolina, and their mother replies that she does not know. Mama tells them that she doesn’t feel as at home in South Carolina as she did when she was younger and her siblings still lived there.
This conversation with Mama makes it clear that Mama’s sense of being at home in South Carolina is waning. Although Jacqueline’s own sense of belonging in South Carolina is tied deeply to the land (she refers again and again to the soil), Mama’s seems more tied to people, and many of Mama’s loved ones have moved North.
the garden. Jacqueline describes Gunnar’s garden, talking about the promise the dirt holds for yielding vegetables and fruits. She notes that Gunnar only missed slavery by one generation. She mentions that, as the first free man of his lineage, Gunnar’s father worked on a farm picking cotton, and so Gunnar grew up familiar with farm work.
In this poem, Woodson links Gunnar’s favorite pastime, gardening, with the history of his family, and, disconcertingly, with the legacy of slavery. She connects his hobby with the fact that his ancestors worked picking cotton, even after slavery had ended. Woodson’s connection between Gunnar’s gardening and the legacy of slavery tempers the positive associations Jacqueline has with dirt. Like the South in general, it is both comfortingly familiar and deeply troubled.
gunnar’s children. Jacqueline describes watching Gunnar come down the road from work while singing, a daily practice. She imagines his daughter, Aunt Kay, hearing him and thinking of home. When Gunnar is close enough, Jacqueline and her siblings run to him and climb on him playfully.
Woodson begins to show the extremely close relationship that Jacqueline has with Gunnar, with whom she shares many personality traits. Gunnar’s singing enraptures Jacqueline, and makes her imagine her aunt listening along. Again, Woodson shows Jacqueline’s attention to sounds and music, and how sounds help to trigger Jacqueline’s imagination.
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 grandchildren, “Y’all are Gunnar’s children.”
Again, Woodson shows Jacqueline’s close relationship with Gunnar. Importantly, she does this through language. When Jacqueline and her siblings call Gunnar “daddy,” it suggests a much closer relationship than the average child has to a grandparent. Once again, Jacqueline pays special attention to the depth of feeling that original language can reveal.
at the end of the day. Jacqueline describes Gunnar’s work at a printing press, where he is a foreman. The ink of the printing press obscures the race of the workers, but despite this, the white workers still call Gunnar by his first name instead of “Mr. Irby.” Gunnar attributes this disrespect and others (like the fact that sometimes they don’t listen to him) to the quickness with which the South is changing.
Woodson shows how, despite Gunnar’s higher status in his workplace, race still negatively impacts him at his job. His coworkers’ disrespect is revealed through language use— it is the fact that they call him “Gunnar,” not “Mr. Irby,” that shows their racist sentiments, along with the fact that they often don’t listen to his directions. Gunnar’s explanation for this— that the South is changing too fast—shows again that white Southerners’ attitudes towards race are deeply regressive.
Jacqueline notes that each man who works at the press clocks out the same way, but only the African-Americans go back to Nicholtown. Nicholtown is populated exclusively by “brown people.” MaryAnn tells Jacqueline that racial segregation is how the South has traditionally been organized, but that times are changing. Jacqueline says that she is “happy to belong to Nicholtown.”
Woodson highlights the way that, despite equal job responsibilities in the workplace, social and geographic segregation is rampant in the South. Although they share a workplace, African-Americans and white Americans don’t live in the same places. Jacqueline seems to feel ambivalent about this social segregation— although it is clearly born out of racism, Nicholtown is also a place where she is surrounded by people like her, and where she feels comfortable and welcome.
daywork. Jacqueline describes the “daywork” (housework for white families across town) that African-American women do to make ends meet. MaryAnn starts to do daywork two days a week to supplement her income as a part-time teacher now that she must also provide for her grandchildren. She dresses up in a hat and white gloves, and says “I’m not ashamed if it feeds my children.”
Jacqueline’s description of MaryAnn’s daywork clearly highlights that cleaning for white families is an act of desperation for her grandmother, rather than a choice she happily makes. Although MaryAnn says she is not ashamed of the work she must do, her insistence on this fact, and the fact that she dresses so well to go to her job, seems to suggest the opposite— that cleaning up the houses of white families is, in fact, a job that makes her feel lowly. Woodson shows again how race affects the dynamics of work, and how necessity brings MaryAnn to take a job that makes her feel racially debased.
When MaryAnn returns from the daywork, she is extremely tired, and her body aches from the hard housework she has done all day. She tells Jacqueline and Odella to never do daywork, since she is only doing daywork so that they never have to. While their grandmother finally relaxes, Jacqueline, Hope, and Odella wash her feet in Epsom salts to reduce the swelling.
Woodson shows the reader how difficult and straining daywork is, and how much daywork pains MaryAnn both physically and emotionally. MaryAnn’s hope that they will never have to do daywork shows how deeply upsetting she finds the job. MaryAnn’s physical discomfort because of her job cleaning for white families shows how racial inequality is a phenomenon that takes a toll, not only emotionally, economically, and socially, but also physically, on the bodies of African-Americans.
lullaby. Jacqueline describes the sounds in the South Carolina night—dogs, owls, frogs. The crickets, she says, are the loudest, and they continue after the other sounds have ceased, chirping what Jacqueline refers to as a “lullaby.”
Once again, sounds and music fascinate young Jacqueline, and her special attention to them foreshadows her later forays into verse, as poetry is a form of writing that has a particular allegiance to sound and spoken language. The sounds of the South, which she describes as a lullaby, make Jacqueline feel comfortable.
bible times. MaryAnn tells Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope about the Bible stories she reads each night before she goes to bed. When she tells them, for example, about Noah and the flood, Jacqueline and her siblings pepper their grandmother with questions. The story of Salome, one of the Bible’s villains, scares them. Meanwhile, fall arrives in South Carolina, bringing a chill, but the house is warm and full of delicious food.
Jacqueline’s fixation on stories and storytelling is clear again in this poem. Rather than simply focusing on sounds and words, though, Woodson shows a slightly older Jacqueline beginning to be excited by more complete forms of storytelling. It is significant that some of Jacqueline’s first excitement over storytelling is linked to religion, as religion becomes an important theme in the memoir. Jacqueline vascillates between embracing and rebelling against religious narratives.
the reader. Jacqueline continues to describe daily life in South Carolina, noting how, from time to time, Odella disappears under the kitchen table to read. When Hope and Jacqueline try to distract her with playful noises, she ignores them.
Jacqueline’s descriptions of daily life show how at home she has begun to feel in South Carolina. Odella, meanwhile, begins to become a foil to Jacqueline (meaning her character contrasts emphatically with Jacqueline’s)—Woodson shows Odella reading (a fixation on written language), while Jacqueline becomes more and more fascinated with storytelling (spoken language).
the beginning. Odella teaches Jacqueline, age three, to write the letter “j.” Jacqueline revels in the ability to write it, and looks forward to writing her whole name herself.
This poem describes Jacqueline’s first attempts at writing. As she learns to write a “j,” the first letter of her name, Jacqueline’s excitement shows her intense desire to express herself through language.
hope. Hope isn’t adjusting well to South Carolina, due to his allergies in the warmer climate and his homesickness. This reminds Jacqueline of Jack saying, “you can keep your south.” Since moving to South Carolina, Hope has become withdrawn, taking refuge in comic books.
Although Jacqueline feels quite at home in South Carolina, Hope longs for the North, where he spent his early childhood, and for his father. His unhappiness in the South is reflected in his increasingly reserved personality. The family’s pull between the North and South causes Hope pain and discomfort.
the almost friends. Jacqueline considers the other neighborhood children: a boy with a heart defect who listens to their stories and asks why they have Northern accents, Cora and her sisters, and three brothers from down the road. MaryAnn won’t let her grandchildren play with these other children, but they know not to ask why (the reason is never made clear).
Though Jacqueline likes the South, she and her siblings are somewhat isolated from their peers there— in this poem, Jacqueline’s loneliness is palpable. Though MaryAnn’s reason for keeping the children apart is ambiguous, it seems to be out of some kind of elitism. The boy with the heart defect asks about the children’s Northern accents, which shows that the children’s language still marks them as outsiders in Greenville.
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 particular ways they must speak—avoiding words like “y’all” or “gonna,” which Mama believes are the improper, Southern way of speaking. Mama also insists they never say “ma’am,” because she links it to the racist insistence on black subservience.
This poem suggests the complicated relationship between race and language use. Mama insists that her children speak properly, presumably out of a fear that they will be mocked or disrespected by white people if they speak in stereotypically Southern ways. Mama also makes her children promise to never say “ma’am,” because, for her, it represents black subservience. When Mama beats Hope for failing to follow these rules, Woodson shows the intense fear Mama has that her children will be demeaned because of their speech, and how unjust it is that the onus of defying racist stereotypes should be on them.
the candy lady. Gunnar takes the children on Fridays to a woman down the street who sells candy out of her living room. Gunnar always gets a lemon-chiffon ice cream, and the children follow suit. Together, they walk home slurping their ice creams.
Woodson again shows the close relationship that Jacqueline has to her grandfather, and her happiness in her life in the South. Later in the memoir, the memory of lemon-chiffon ice cream returns as a reminder of her grandfather’s kindness and the belonging she feels in Greenville.
south carolina at war. Gunnar explains to the children the reason behind the Civil Rights Movement, which is happening throughout the South. He tells them about how the protestors want to end segregation, and he explains that segregation continues the legacy of slavery.
During their outing to get ice cream, Gunnar’s explanation of the Civil Rights Movement allows the reader to see Jacqueline’s increasing racial awareness. Woodson also shows how racial injustice is embedded into even the most pleasant and unremarkable moments of the children’s lives. It also demonstrates again how the legacy of slavery still affects the present.
When Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope go into Greenville, they see the sit-ins for themselves. Gunnar explains that peaceful protest is the only way to get what they want, 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 movement and the backlash against it as a “war.”
As the children witness the sit-ins in Greenville first hand, and Gunnar explains why he supports nonviolent protest, the reader gets a better sense of the tone of and reasoning behind the Civil Rights Movement. Later in the memoir, when Woodson describes the tone of the Black Power movement, the reader can contrast these two senses of social justice. Jacqueline’s reference to the movement as a “war” reflects both the real danger activists in the 60s faced and the importance of the political movement.
the training. Dorothy, Mama’s best friend and cousin, visits with her children, who say they won’t play with Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope because of the fast, Northern way they speak.
Again, Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope’s Northern way of speaking alienates them from their peers and marks their difference from children born in the South. Once again, language keeps Jacqueline from fitting in.
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 the face of humiliation and attacks. Dorothy says that she would not be able to follow the training in the face of such a response, quipping that, in such a circumstance, “this nonviolent movement is over!”
The Civil Rights Movement continues to feature prominently in the children’s lives, as it is frequently discussed and explained by adults. Through Dorothy, Woodson suggests the drawbacks of peaceful protest. Dorothy, who has attended nonviolence training, admits that she would stop being nonviolent in response to certain humiliations. Woodson seems to be implying that the expectation that protestors should endure such degradation and violence without ever reacting is difficult, and perhaps unfair.
the blanket. Mama goes to visit New York, leaving Jacqueline and her siblings with MaryAnn and Gunnar. Jacqueline reflects on the close relationship she has with both grandparents, and how the sadness of her mother’s departure is tempered by their blanket-like love.
This poem serves mostly to forward the plot, as Mama leaves the children with their grandparents to explore the possibility of a life in New York City. It also affirms the sense of belonging Jacqueline has come to feel with her grandparents in South Carolina, as she describes being enveloped in their love as being wrapped in a blanket.
miss bell and the marchers. Jacqueline describes the goings-on at the home of Miss Bell, a woman who hosts secret Civil Rights meetings at her house. Miss Bell cannot participate publicly because her white boss threatened to fire her, so instead she provides her home as a space to gather and organize.
Through the character of Miss Bell, Woodson shows the potential economic repercussions of partaking in the Civil Rights Movement. By protesting, Miss Bell risks losing her job, and Woodson makes clear the bravery and cleverness of Miss Bell’s solution to this predicament when she discusses Miss Bell’s secret meetings at her house.
how to listen #2. Jacqueline states that she and her family are followed around in stores because they are black.
Jacqueline points out the everyday bigotry that she and her family experience just because of their race.
hair night. On Saturday night, MaryAnn does Jacqueline and Odella’s hair. While MaryAnn works to straighten Jacqueline’s hair with a hot comb, Odella reads long, difficult books aloud. Jacqueline, meanwhile, imagines the faraway scenes in the books, leaning in toward her sister. Her grandmother tells her to hold still, so she sits on her hands while her mind wanders.
In this intimate moment, Woodson asserts once again Jacqueline’s love for and deep interest in storytelling, writing, and the possibilities of imagination. As Odella reads aloud, Jacqueline is so overcome by her excitement that she leans in towards her sister, showing how the words attract her. Woodson shows Jacqueline’s rich imagination as she pictures all the events of the story in her mind.
family names. Gunnar and MaryAnn tell their grandchildren all the names of their own siblings (the children’s great aunts and uncles). Gunnar’s parents “gave their kids names that no master could ever take away.” They discuss Hope’s name, which Odella says is strange for a boy. Hope argues it’s because he’s the hope of the family.
Again, the discussions that Jacqueline recalls from her early childhood are primarily conversations about words and names, reflecting Jacqueline’s interest in language. Gunnar’s parents’ decision to give him a name that “no master could ever take away” reflects the fact that slave owners gave slaves their own last names as a sign of ownership. Through this, Woodson shows naming to be a politically significant act, and self-naming to be an important aspect of self-possession and liberation.
american dream. While the children wash MaryAnn’s sore feet in Epsom salts, she tells them that the Civil Rights protests didn’t just start recently; they have been going on since her own children were young. Jacqueline asks what would make people live together in peace, and her grandmother replies, “People have to want it, that’s all.” She goes on to say that everyone has the same dream, which is to live in a free, equal country.
MaryAnn’s assertion that the Civil Rights protests are not a new phenomenon reflects Woodson’s interest in portraying African-American history and racial justice not as a series of disconnected events, but as a continual, interconnected stream of history. MaryAnn’s belief that everyone dreams of living in a free, equal country connects racial justice with the very foundations of American political thought, showing how the same ideals white Americans valorize are incompatible with a racially segregated society.
MaryAnn then changes gears, saying how, when Mama was little, she wanted a dog. MaryAnn thought a dog might turn on them, and so said no. In response, Mama brought home kittens, which MaryAnn let her keep. The children try to picture the scene.
MaryAnn’s ambiguous metaphor in this section of the poem could be read several different ways. The dog could be a figure for violent protest (think of police dogs in Birmingham turned on Civil Rights protestors), while kittens may represent nonviolent action. The metaphor could also speak to the idea that by asking for big leaps in racial equality, African-Americans will achieve at least some progress (just like asking for a dog leads, at least, to kittens). The ambiguity of the metaphor allows it to carry a variety of possible resonances.
the fabric store. Jacqueline says that, on some Fridays, she and her siblings go with MaryAnn to the fabric store, which is the only store in downtown Greenville that doesn’t actively discriminate against African-Americans. MaryAnn knows the white owner, and they chat about their families and sewing as she shops. Jacqueline thinks, “At the fabric store, we are just people.”
Jacqueline’s description of the fabric store shows the reader what racial equality could look like—uncomplicated everyday experiences. Because of the friendship between MaryAnn and the white shop owner, the fabric store is a space where Jacqueline and her family can be “just people,” rather than having their interactions mediated through the lens of race. The observation that the fabric store is a place where they can be “just people” shows also how racist spaces effectively deny the humanity of African-Americans.
ghosts. Jacqueline describes the “whites only” signs in downtown Greenville, which have been painted over. The paint is thin, and so she can still see the lettering underneath, which is “like a ghost.”
Downtown Greenville has been desegregated, but the lettering of “whites only” signs is still visible. This reflects the fact that the legal change has not yet been accompanied by a social one, and the “ghost” of segregation still haunts the town.
the leavers. Jacqueline describes watching men, women, and families, dressed in their best, taking the bus to leave Greenville for other cities. According to the stories that circulate in Greenville, these cities hold more economic promise for African-Americans.
Jacqueline observes African-American families migrating North in search of jobs. This foreshadows her own family’s future and supports her father’s assertion (and the sense among the community in Nicholtown) that there are more opportunities for black people in the North than in the South.
the beginning of leaving. Mama returns from New York and reveals that she plans to take the children back there with her. She shows them pictures of the city, and talks about her friends from Greenville who have moved there. MaryAnn is extremely sad about the news.
This poem serves again to forward the plot, describing Mama’s homecoming and her announcement about their move to New York. The pictures Mama brings offer the children an idealized version of the city. Presumably, these pictures, along with the stories they’ve heard about the economic prosperity there, spark Jacqueline’s imagination of the city.
as a child, i smelled the air. Mama, drinking coffee on the porch, says that the New York air smells different. Jacqueline joins her on the porch. She predicts that she will remember the different scent of the Greenville air when she moves to New York. The smell, her mother says, is like memory.
Mama takes note of the different sensations of the North and the South when she says to Jacqueline that the air seems different. Jacqueline states that she will remember the smells of the Greenville air, showing the reader how, before she even moves, Jacqueline is attempting to gain control of her memory by giving it a narrative. This poem also shows how sensations evoke memory.
harvest time. Gunnar’s garden is in full bloom, and once the vegetables in it are picked, MaryAnn makes them into side dishes.
Gunnar’s garden marks the change in the seasons as fall arrives and the vegetables are picked. The garden, despite its earlier associations with the history of slavery, is a source of happiness and abundance for the family. This shows the potential of regaining control over fraught aspects of life in order to derive joy from contradictions.
grown folks’ stories. One fall night, the neighborhood women quilt on the porch together and talk. Meanwhile, Hope, Odella, and Jacqueline sit on the stairs and eavesdrop, quiet for fear that MaryAnn will put them to bed. From the adult gossip, Jacqueline fills in the gaps in various stories herself, adding to them and thinking them over after her siblings are fast asleep.
Jacqueline and her siblings, hungry for adult stories and gossip, eavesdrop on their grandmother and her friends. Jacqueline makes use of her highly active imagination and penchant for storytelling, as she often misses parts of the conversation and makes them up later. She mulls the stories over in her head and adds detail, testing her ability to invent and embellish. Through this practice, Jacqueline builds her storytelling skills.
tobacco. Jacqueline thinks over Gunnar’s smoking and his perpetual cough. He is so short of breath that he can no longer sing as he walks home. She thinks of how tobacco is grown, and says she does not yet realize that sometimes “the earth makes a promise it can never keep.”
Gunnar’s cough worsens, making Jacqueline anxious. His inability to sing on the way home saddens her, since, with her special love for oral sounds and music, she really loved his voice. Jacqueline refers to the abundance of the garden when she worries that “the earth makes a promise it can never keep.” This suggests that tobacco plants, rather than providing nourishment, are, in fact, very destructive. The presence of tobacco plants—along with the legacy of slavery that they evoke—is another contradiction inherent to the garden.
how to listen #3. Jacqueline awakes, startled, to Gunnar’s coughing.
Gunnar’s coughing disturbs Jacqueline and makes her worry.
my mother leaving greenville. Jacqueline describes the woodstove burning in the house, warding off the autumn chill, before acknowledging that it has been many years since she saw her father Jack. Hope tells her she is lucky she doesn’t remember how their parents used to fight. Jacqueline is sure that, unlike those memories, she will remember what’s happening presently: Mama’s second departure from Greenville.
As the woodstove symbolizes Jacqueline’s comfort and sense of warmth in the South, she thinks about her weakening connection to the North and her father. When Hope tells her that she is lucky to not remember their parents fighting, he implies that he associates those memories with pain. Memory, for Hope, is a source of hurt rather than comfort. Jacqueline’s lack of memory is a blessing, but her sense that she will remember her mother’s second departure suggests that she will not be exempt from sad memories in the future.
halfway home #1. Mama tells them she is leaving for New York, as she is planning to eventually move the whole family there into a house of her own. Mama says that, in Greenville, they are only “halfway home.”
As Mama leaves again for New York, she tells the children they are only “halfway home,” which reflects the larger sense in the book that Jacqueline and her siblings are always caught between the North and the South, and suspended between two different homes.
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 looks out the window, teary but hopeful.
Woodson, who was not present for the events she describes in this poem, is clearly either inventing them or describing her mother’s memories. Again, Woodson tests the limits of memory and of memoir by using other people’s memories and not just her own.
the last fireflies. Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope, knowing that they will soon be moving away from Greenville, catch their last fireflies each evening, then let them go again. Jacqueline thinks it’s as if the children believe that by being kind and letting them go, they might be allow to stay in Greenville forever.
Jacqueline and her siblings have the sense that their lives are about to change drastically. When the children release the fireflies, Jacqueline imagines that the three of them think that if they let the fireflies go, they will be allowed to stay in Greenville. She effectively imagines a narrative in which she can control and stabilize her life, and it comforts her.
changes. As MaryAnn styles Jacqueline’s hair, Jacqueline has a sense that the feeling of the brush is already becoming a memory. Jacqueline sits on the porch with Hope and Odella and they talk about how, once they’ve moved to New York, they’ll still come back to Greenville, and it will be the same as before. However, Jacqueline says that they know they’re lying; they realize that Greenville will have changed, and they will have changed, too.
Again, in this poem, the reader sees Jacqueline imagining a narrative that provides her with comfort, one in which Greenville, and her connection to it, don’t change. Jacqueline explores how, by providing herself with narratives that comfort her, she can soothe the sense of displacement she often feels. Jacqueline also increasingly harnesses control of her memory—as her grandmother brushes her hair, she recognizes it as a memory-in-the-making, willing it into memory in the process.
sterling high school, greenville. The high school that Mama attended as a teenager burns down during a senior dance. Mama believes it was due to the Civil Rights protests. Because of segregation, the students cannot attend the all-white school, and so instead have to join the lower school. Jacqueline thinks of the photos of Mama and her friends in her yearbook, including a young Jesse Jackson. Jacqueline thinks that not even arson could stop them from changing the world.
Racial violence inserts itself again into Jacqueline’s life when the family finds out that the high school that Mama attended as a teenager was burned down in retaliation for Civil Rights protests. This moment shows racial violence not only as a hateful act in itself, but as one with rippling repercussions. As a result of the arson, the lower school must accept the displaced students and provide them with resources, straining their ability to provide for the younger students, and lowering the quality of education for all the students. Still, Jacqueline ends on a hopeful note, believing that hateful violence will not, in the end, defeat racial justice.
faith. Following Mama’s departure, MaryAnn forces her grandchildren to practice their religion more fervently (they are Jehovah’s Witnesses), and to read the Bible more. Jacqueline and her siblings, however, don’t really seem to grasp the meaning of their religion.
Without Mama to keep MaryAnn’s fervent beliefs at bay, religion becomes a bigger part of Jacqueline’s life. Jacqueline, however, doesn’t really understand her religion in a meaningful way. Woodson seems to be suggesting that religion without genuine religious feeling lacks real significance, and that forcing religion upon people is ineffective.
the stories cora tells us. Cora and her sisters play with the Woodson children in the evenings. When Jacqueline steps on a mushroom, Cora tells Jacqueline that she “killed the Devil,” and says the devil will come after her. Jacqueline cries. MaryAnn finds her and comforts her, saying it is just a superstition, and that she shouldn’t believe everything she hears.
Jacqueline shows that she is susceptible to believing fantasies during this poem. It is Jacqueline’s own wild imagination, which so often comforts her, that leads her to believe Cora’s superstition in this instance. The superstition is linked to religion, as Cora evokes the idea of the devil—this shows the negativity that can be tied up in religion and spirituality.
hall street. Jacqueline, Hope, and Odella spend their Bible study time on the front porch, drinking hot chocolate and doing their work. The children wish they were playing outside instead, enjoying Gunnar’s company and the fall weather.
Again, religion features in this poem as a negative aspect of Jacqueline’s life, one that prevents her from enjoying the outdoors. Rather than inspiring awe or devotion, religion seems to be an annoying obligation for Jacqueline.
soon. 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 each a few minutes to talk to her.
This poem serves as a reminder that Mama is far away in the North, and that the children miss her. While Jacqueline is still enjoying Greenville, she is pulled between her life there and her desire to be with Mama.
how i learn the days of the week. Jacqueline lists her weekly schedule. On Mondays and Tuesdays she does Bible study. Wednesday is laundry night. Thursday is ministry school, where the children learn to spread God’s word. On Friday the children have no obligations, and so they play. Saturday, they act as missionaries, knocking on doors and handing out pamphlets about Jehovah’s Witnesses. Sometimes people are nice to them when they approach with their materials, and other times they shut their doors on them. On Sunday, they study Watchtower, a religious magazine.
Jacqueline, as she lists her weekly schedule, shows the reader the enormous amount of time that she and her siblings spend in religious environments or studying religious texts. Again, Jacqueline does not describe her immersion in Jehovah’s Witness theology as a positive influence or a particularly spiritually meaningful experience. In this poem, it seems to structure her life practically rather than morally. This makes Jacqueline’s evangelizing come across as ironic— at her grandmother’s urging, Jacqueline walks around town trying to convert people, despite the fact that she shows little faith in the religion she peddles. In exposing the hypocrisy of this paradox, Woodson indicates her skepticism towards forcing religion upon children.
ribbons. Jacqueline and Odella wear ribbons in their hair every day except Saturdays, when they wash the ribbons. The girls wish their grandmother would declare them too old for the ribbons. They wish the ribbons would blow away when hung to dry after the wash.
Like with the list of her weekly schedule, the intensity and strictness of Jacqueline’s routine is daunting. When considered with the preceding poem, Woodson seems to be drawing a parallel between the religion that structures Jacqueline’s life and the ribbons she must wear every day: both, for Jacqueline, are things that style and control her life without carrying important personal meaning.
two gods, two worlds. One Sunday morning, Jacqueline awakens and listens to her grandfather coughing. Despite his bad lungs, he has not stopped smoking. Gunnar will not go to Kingdom Hall with them, as he is not religious, in part because he wants to continue smoking and drinking. Jacqueline wishes he would stop smoking and join them at church. She notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that anyone who doesn’t go to church will be unable to go to paradise. Jacqueline, however, says she would not want to live anywhere, even paradise, without her grandfather, and she doesn’t understand why God would make her “have to choose.”
Jacqueline again confronts her vexed relationship with religion when she contemplates Gunnar’s lifestyle and illness, as well as his apparent condemnation by the church. Thinking through this problem, Jacqueline does not find herself wanting to convert her grandfather—instead, she begins to doubt the morality of her religion. She does not understand the idea of a God who would punish Gunnar, and cannot stomach the possibility of a paradise without him. Essentially, Woodson shows religion to be a force that Jacqueline confronts, rather than embraces. It’s a set of rules that seem unfair but that, as a child, she cannot change or remove herself from.
what god knows. MaryAnn and the children pray for Gunnar, since he is a non-believer. Gunnar, however, thinks they don’t need to; he thinks that it’s enough to be a good person, which he knows he is.
Gunnar’s insistence that his own individual morality is sufficient and that he does not need organized religion offers Jacqueline a different perspective on religion from the one that her grandmother drills into her. Woodson shows Jacqueline struggling between these two very different conceptions of morality and religion.
new playmates. Mama sends Jacqueline and Odella dolls from New York and writes about the city’s architecture, the ocean, the toy stores, and the hair salons. The children, however, focus only on the dolls, pretending to be their mothers. They tell them “we will never leave you.”
Mama uses her lush descriptions of the city to try to instill in the children an excitement about their move to New York . Instead, Jacqueline and Odella focus on their dolls, pretending to be mothers to them that, unlike their own mother, will never leave. Woodson again shows Jacqueline’s life as torn between the South, where she lives, and the North, where her mother is.
down the road. MaryAnn warns the children to not exert themselves when playing with the boy who has a hole in his heart. The boy asks them lots of questions about their mother and New York City, and expresses his own desire to go there.
Woodson describes the ideas that people in Greenville have about New York, and this confirms Jacqueline’s sense that economic prosperity is practically inevitable there. These stories appeal to Jacqueline, but later, once she moves to New York, they turn out to be false.
god’s promise. It is almost Christmas, and Christmas paraphernalia is everywhere. Cora and her sisters play on the swings behind the house while the Woodson children have to do Bible study. This infuriates the siblings.
Again, being a Jehovah’s Witness seems like a burden to Jacqueline rather than a benefit.
the other infinity. MaryAnn tells her grandchildren that they are the “chosen people.” They do not understand what she means when she attributes their possessions, like the swings in the backyard, to God. Still, Jacqueline, Odella, and Hope continue their Bible study, hoping for the “eternity” promised by the Church. The empty swing set reminds them of this bargain.
The children fail to grasp the significance of their religious study and they do not understand the way that MaryAnn and other Jehovah’s Witnesses imagine God to work. Despite their lack of genuine belief in their religion, they abstractly believe MaryAnn and Kingdom Hall when they promise paradise and eternity in return for devotion.
sometimes, no words are needed. Jacqueline sits on the porch swing on a winter night with Gunnar, quietly enjoying the company, the view of the stars, and “the silent promise that the world as we know it will always be here”.
The title of this poem, “sometimes, no words are needed,” suggests that Jacqueline is experimenting not only with effusive narration, but also with the power of silence. Sometimes, she understands, silences can be appropriate and productive, and language can sometimes be unnecessary or insufficient to describe feeling.
the letter. On Sunday, a letter arrives from Mama. Odella reads it aloud after breakfast, and they all learn the news that Mama is coming to take them back to New York with her. The news is bittersweet– the children are happy to be rejoining their mother, but sad to be leaving Greenville and their grandparents. The letter also carries the news that their mother is pregnant with her fourth child.
This poem serves primarily to forward the memoir’s plot, as the big change Jacqueline anticipated is finally going to happen: the family is officially moving to New York. Likewise, the news of Mama’s pregnancy marks a big change in Jacqueline’s life. The fact that the news is delivered in the form of a letter, rather than a phone call, perhaps foreshadows the fact that, in the third part of the memoir, it’s writing (rather than speaking) that will take precedence as Jacqueline’s primary mode of storytelling.
one morning, late winter. Gunnar is so sick with his cough one day that he misses work and stays in bed. Jacqueline cares for him, wiping his head with a cool rag and telling him stories to distract him from his discomfort.
Jacqueline begins to use her skills as a storyteller, not only to bring herself comfort, but also to comfort others. Here, Woodson shows Jacqueline successfully comforting her grandfather in his illness by distracting him with stories of her own invention, which marks her progress as a storyteller over the course of the book.
new york baby. As Jacqueline sits on her lap, 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 family.
Jacqueline struggles with the idea of her role in the family changing, which challenges her identity as the youngest child. Not only will Jacqueline be moving to the North, but she will also have a slightly different role in the family; the title of the poem suggests that Jacqueline connects the two changes.
leaving greenville. Mama arrives back in Greenville late at night. She lies down with the girls in their room while the cool winter air streams through the open window. She tells them they have a home in New York now, and Jacqueline is too tired to tell Mama that Greenville is her home. Mama promises they will meet their baby brother in the morning, and Jacqueline falls back asleep.
When Mama arrives in Greenville at last, Jacqueline takes in some of her last breaths of Greenville air, which represents the South to her. Jacqueline, though comforted to be back with her mother, clearly worries about the impending move. When Mama tells them they have a new home in New York, Jacqueline wants to reply that Greenville is their home—this shows Jacqueline’s deep ties to Greenville.
roman. The next morning, Jacqueline meets her baby brother, Roman. Hope is happy to have another boy in the family. Jacqueline, however, resents the new baby, and she pinches him, making him cry. Odella scolds her and picks Roman up, hugging him until he calms down.
Jacqueline, feeling that her role in the family is threatened, resents Roman and pinches him. Given Jacqueline’s earlier sense that Roman is a “new york baby,” Jacqueline seems to be taking out her anxiety, both about her familial role and about the move North, on Roman.