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.”
Memory Quotes in Brown Girl Dreaming
My time of birth wasn’t listed
on the certificate, then got lost again
amid other people’s bad memory.
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.
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.
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.
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…