Book Review - Brown Girl Dreaming - New York Times

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Book Review - Brown Girl Dreaming - New York Times

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Where We Enter
By Veronica Chambers – 8/22/2014

I was 14 years old when I first read Nikki Giovanni’s masterly collection of poetry, “Cotton Candy on a Rainy Day.” As with most everything I read between the ages of 12 and 16, there was so much I didn’t understand. I was the first-¬generation daughter of people who came from a small country, a country so small that I had yet to meet someone from there who could not connect the dots to my family in five seconds flat. I didn’t know a thing about Jim Crow, the American South, soul food or classic rhythm and blues. Yet like most kids who love to read, I understood the feeling behind the words, if not all of the meaning of the words. So when Giovanni wrote:

We are consumed by people who sing
the same old song stay:
as sweet as you are
in my corner
Or perhaps just a little bit longer
But whatever you do don’t change baby baby don’t change

I didn’t really know what old song she was referring to, but the rhythm of her words drew me in. And because I was a teenage girl, I was fairly confident I knew exactly what Giovanni meant when she wrote:

If loneliness were a grape
the wine would be vintage
If it were a wood
the furniture would be mahogany
But since it is life it is
Cotton Candy
on a rainy day
The sweet soft essence
of possibility
Never quite maturing

I thought of Nikki Giovanni and the teenage girl I was, almost constantly, as I read Jacqueline Woodson’s wonderful memoir in verse, “Brown Girl Dreaming,” because I suspect this book will be to a generation of girls what Giovanni’s book was to mine: a history lesson, a mash note passed in class, a book to read burrowed underneath the bed covers and a life raft during long car rides when you want to float far from wherever you are, and wherever you’re going, toward the person you feel destined to be.

I will say first that the title seems to confine the book in too narrow a box. I wondered if the author and publishers, by calling the book “Brown Girl Dreaming,” were limiting its audience or, at the very least, the audience of girls who would pick it up right away. Why not call it “Home Girl Dreaming” or “Tall Girl Dreaming” or even just “Girl Dreaming”? I believe strongly in the words of that most expert of brown girl writers, Lorraine Hansberry, who said, “To create the universal, you must pay very great attention to the specific.” But I worry that such a specific title might lead a reader — especially a teenage reader — to miss what a big tent Woodson is pitching. Will girls who aren’t brown know, without prompting, that they too are invited to this party?

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.

You can read “Brown Girl Dreaming” in one sitting, but it is as rich a spread as the potluck table at a family reunion. Sure, you can plow through the pages, grabbing everything you can in one go, like piling a plate high with fried chicken and ribs, potato salad and corn bread. And yes, it’s entirely possible to hold that plate with one hand while balancing a bowl of gumbo and a cup of sweet tea with the other. But since the food isn’t going anywhere, you’ll make out just as well, maybe even a little better, if you pace yourself. If you know Woodson’s work (which includes “Hush” and “This Is the Rope: A Story From the Great Migration”), read for her life story first:

Good enough name for me, my father said
the day I was born.
Don’t see why
she can’t have it, too.

But the women said no.
My mother first.
Then each aunt, pulling my pink blanket back
patting the crop of thick curls
tugging at my new toes
touching my cheeks.

We won’t have a girl named Jack, my mother said.

For young readers in the process of discovering what Anna Julia Cooper so beautifully called “when and where I ¬enter,” there are poems galore. Poems about sibling rivalry, poems about parents who don’t take no mess, poems about grown-ups who make a mess of things and, most poignantly, poems about the friends who help see you through. Such as this one, in “Maria.”

Late August now
home from Greenville and ready
for what the last of the summer brings me.
All the dreams this city holds
right outside — just step through the door and walk
two doors down to where
my new best friend, Maria, lives. Every morning,
I call up to her window, Come outside
or she rings our bell, Come outside.
Her hair is crazily curling down past her back,
the Spanish she speaks like a song
I am learning to sing.
Mi amiga, Maria.
Maria, my friend.

The short poems are a gift too and made me think of April when the Academy of American Poets leads a nationwide celebration called Poem in Your Pocket Day. There are plenty of candidates for poems you can keep in your pocket in “Brown Girl Dreaming.” I especially loved the series of numbered short poems, threaded throughout the book, called “How to Listen.” This is No. 8:

Do you remember . . . ?
someone’s always asking and
someone else, always does.

In “Possession,” A. S. Byatt wrote about how we are transformed by the act of memorizing poetry “by heart . . . as though poems were stored in the bloodstream.” Jacqueline Woodson’s writing can seem so spare, so effortless, that it is easy to overlook the wonder and magic of her words. The triumph of “Brown Girl Dreaming” is not just in how well Woodson tells us the story of her life, but in how elegantly she writes words that make us want to hold those carefully crafted poems close, apply them to our lives, reach into the mirror she holds up and make the words and the worlds she explores our own.

This is a book full of poems that cry out to be learned by heart. These are poems that will, for years to come, be stored in our bloodstream.

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