Brown Girl Dreaming is largely about Jacqueline’s early impulse towards storytelling and narration. For Jacqueline, writing becomes a way of coming to terms with many of the painful aspects of her life; storytelling empowers her to change her relationship to her own memories, denying them their power to cause her pain.
In Jacqueline’s own life, other people’s capacity for storytelling soothes her and helps her find catharsis. She finds works that especially touch her, like poems by Robert Frost and Langston Hughes, a short story by Oscar Wilde, and MaryAnn’s recitation of bible stories. In showcasing these works, Woodson is perhaps nodding to their influence on Brown Girl Dreaming—Woodson’s choice to write in verse rather than prose, for example, might be reflected in Jacqueline’s early affinity for poems and oral storytelling.
Over the course of the book, Woodson tracks Jacqueline’s progress in acquiring language skills to show how Jacqueline becomes a storyteller herself. The reader observes as Jacqueline learns, with difficulty, to read and write by transcribing audio into her composition notebook. She desperately desires to be able to write her name “by [herself].” By emphasizing the individuality of this act, Woodson seems to imply that writing, identifying, and naming herself are key steps in Jacqueline’s quest for self-actualization and identity.
As Jacqueline learns to express herself through storytelling, her narrative style is sometimes questioned or policed. Other characters pay close attention to how Jacqueline speaks. Mama ensures that her children speak properly, avoiding words like “ma’am” and “ain’t.” Often, Jacqueline’s style of speaking reflects the fact that her family has moved around frequently. At points, Southern children make fun of her Northern accent. Later, after spending time in the South, the Northerners mock her Southern drawl. Jacqueline’s childhood dance between the North and the South causes her speech to be constantly scrutinized, provoking a narrative anxiety in Jacqueline.
By the end of the book, though, Jacqueline’s Greenville accent has mostly transformed into a Brooklyn one, and Jacqueline seems more comfortable with her style of narration. The multiplicity of her influences, rather than being a burden, becomes a boon. In the last poem, Jacqueline states that there are “many worlds” for her to choose from, which reconfigures her varied experiences as endless possibility rather than crisis. Jacqueline’s life as a writer allows her to think about her life in complex ways and find peace in contradictions.
In turn, Jacqueline’s rich childhood allows her to write. Despite her initial difficulties learning to write, Jacqueline has mastered reading and writing by the book’s end. When Ms. Vivo tells her “you’re a writer,” she validates one of Jacqueline’s biggest dreams; Woodson clearly draws attention to her success in achieving that dream with the title of the memoir itself. The existence of Woodson’s book is the clearest indication that Jacqueline has succeeded as a writer and storyteller.
Language and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Language and Storytelling Quotes in Brown Girl Dreaming
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
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.
In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out
Retelling each story.
Making up what I didn’t understand
or missed when voices dropped too low, I talk
until my sister and brother’s soft breaths tell me
Then I let the stories live
inside my head, again and again
until the real world fades back
into cricket lullabies
and my own dreams.
Sometimes, I lie about my father.
He died, I say, in a car wreck or…
He’s coming soon…
if my sister’s nearby she shakes her head. Says,
She’s making up stories again. Says,
We don’t have a father anymore.
Our grandfather’s our father now.
Sometimes, that’s the way things happen.
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
in some other way to me…!
Keep making up stories, my uncle says.
You’re lying, my mother says.
Is that what you want us to call you?
I want to say, No, my name is Jacqueline
but I am scared of that cursive q, know
I may never be able to connect it to c and u
so I nod even though
I am lying.
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.
If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed that someone who looked like me
could be in the pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story.
I love my friend,
and still do
when we play games
we laugh. I hope she never goes away from me
because I love my friend.
What’s wrong with you?
Have you lost your mind?
Don’t you know people get arrested
They’re just words, I whisper.
They’re not trying to hurt anybody!
Some evenings, I kneel toward Mecca with my uncle.
is the place Leftie goes to in his mind, when
the memory of losing his arm becomes too much. Maybe Mecca is
presents and stories and poetry and arroz con pollo
and family and friends…
And all the worlds you are—
Ohio and Greenville
Woodson and Irby
Gunnar’s child and Jack’s daughter
Jehovah’s Witness and nonbeliever
listener and writer
Jackie and Jacqueline
gather into one world
where You decide
what each world
and each story
and each ending
will finally be.