Brown Girl Dreaming focuses on the experience of growing up as an African-American child during the 1960s and early 1970s, a period of intense energy and organization surrounding questions of race and racial justice. The 60s were a turning point for race in America thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, which advocated for an end to Jim Crow Laws (laws that legalized segregation and racial discrimination) through nonviolent protest. The late 60s and early 70s also brought forth the Black Power Movement, which grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, but focused more on black pride, strengthening black communities, and socialist politics. Unlike the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power Movement was not specifically nonviolent. Through the work done during these two movements, America took major steps towards racial justice.
Jacqueline grows up in the middle of these two movements, and her life is profoundly shaped by race— mostly negatively. Racial prejudice constantly infiltrates Jacqueline’s life and the lives of people she loves. It determines the space she and her family are allowed to occupy in stores and restaurants. It decides the streets she lives on and in what parts of town she is not welcome. It affects aspects of Jacqueline’s self-image. Even after the success of the Civil Rights Movement and the fall of legalized segregation, racism still persists; for example, Jacqueline notices how, after the end of Jim Crow Laws, Mama still sits in the back of the now-desegregated bus. Mama does this because, despite the change in laws, she fears violence from the white people on the bus.
Racial prejudice not only hinders Jacqueline and her family by dictating which spaces they are allowed to occupy: racial prejudice and the legacy of slavery also result in economic disadvantages for Woodson’s family. For example, when MaryAnn must go back to work, the only job available to her as a black woman is housework for white families, which is hard work that is not especially well paid.
Since Jacqueline’s daily life is so affected by race, her sense of her own existence is inseparable, not only from race, but also from her connections to the social movements attempting to change racist policy and mindsets. For example, as Woodson describes Jacqueline’s birth, she announces the birth and the state of civil rights in the same breath, saying that the United States is “a country caught between black and white.” In this beginning section of the book, Woodson also discusses Jacqueline’s family’s generational proximity to slavery, and lists some specific actors of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements (Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, etc.). By emphasizing the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements in the story of Jacqueline’s birth, Woodson firmly anchors her story, and the racial conditions she experiences as she grows up, within the context of a greater African-American history and struggle.
At the same time, by linking the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements to Jacqueline’s life, Woodson shows this pivotal moment to be more than just an abstract period in the timeline of American History; this was a time of revolutionary change for the better in the lives of real people. Woodson shows these changes by tracking the desegregation of stores and buses in the South and by showing the rise of Black Power while Jacqueline lives in New York. Thanks to desegregation and Black Power initiatives, Jacqueline’s race can finally be a positive aspect of her identity, rather than simply a burden to bear.
Through her examination of activism as a part of people’s daily lives, Woodson also shows that the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements did not have a monopoly on activism; while these movements created masterfully organized and publicized marches and protests, they were also bolstered by small, sometimes invisible gestures of defiance. Jacqueline, for example, refuses to shop at Woolworth’s in New York because of their poor treatment of black customers in the South.
Woodson also shows how individuals’ private obligations and constraints sometimes force them to submit to the racist status quo, arguably contradicting the activism they support. An example of this is when Mama sits in the back of the bus for fear of violence against her children. Although Mama strongly supports the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, she does not want to jeopardize her children’s safety. Likewise, Gunnar and MaryAnn’s neighbor, Ms. Bell, hosts secret meetings in her house and wants to do more for the cause, but fears losing her job. Effectively, Woodson shows the reader a vision of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements that highlights the movements’ effects on individuals, rather than just giving an abstracted, idealized history of it.
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements ThemeTracker
Racism, Activism, and the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements Quotes in Brown Girl Dreaming
I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital
a country caught
between Black and White.
My birth certificate says: Female Negro
Mother: Mary Anne Irby, 22, Negro
Father: Jack Austin Woodson, 25, Negro
You can keep your South…
The way they treated us down there,
I got your mama out as quick as I could…
Told her there’s never gonna be a Woodson
that sits in the back of a bus.
I’m not ashamed…cleaning is what I know. I’m not ashamed if it feeds my children.
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.
At the fabric store, we are not Colored
or Negro. We are not thieves or shameful
or something to be hidden away.
At the fabric store, we’re just people.
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
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.
It’s hard not to see the moment—
my grandmother in her Sunday clothes, a hat
with a flower pinned to it
neatly on her head, her patent-leather purse,
between her gloved hands—waiting quietly
long past her turn.
We take our food out to her stoop just as the grown-ups
start dancing merengue, the women lifting their long dresses
to show off their fast-moving feet,
the men clapping and yelling,
Baila! Baila! until the living room floor disappears.
When I ask Maria where Diana is she says,
They’re coming later. This part is just for my family.
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!
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.