Books and Breakfast: Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
On May 21st, 2016, The Desmond Tutu Center for Peace, Reconciliation, and Global Justice along with Dr. Terri Jett from Butler University, and the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center featured Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming, a book of free verse on race and childhood for this month’s Books and Breakfast. This month, 11 adults participated in topics related to Woodson’s written work about growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in the North and South. Guests appreciated the simplicity of Woodson’s verse- subtle in imagery and powerful in message—just enough description to provide insight into special, profound moments. “Like a drink of water,” one guest said. “It makes us feel how she feels,” another reflected. Crafts and games were also provided for five children ages three through nine who attended the event with their parents. The children were asked about their childhood and encouraged to draw images of what it’s like to be a kid.
Dreaming—What is the American Dream? In her verse, Woodson discusses her childhood experience growing up in different parts of the United States and how each affected her perception of self and shaped her dreams and wishes in America. Woodson writes in her poem American Dream, “We all have the same dream, my grandmother says./To live equal in a country that’s supposed to be/the land of the free./She lets out a long breath/deep remembering./When your mother was little/she wanted a dog. But I said no./Quick as you can blink, I told her,/a dog will turn on you.” The concept of the “American Dream” raised different issues with Books and Breakfast readers. We are not all treated equal, life is not always equitable and many times there are barriers that keep individuals from achieving their dreams, some guests said. Other guests mentioned, like Woodson, that creative dreaming can be taken to be simple stories, even lies, not a real possibility. The guests discussed however, that perhaps dreaming is about the human dream, the motivation and hope we all have to be the very best we can be wherever we are in life.
In her poem, Second Daughter’s Second Day on Earth, Woodson writes, “…. This is the way, my mother said,/of every baby’s hand./I do not know if these hands will become/Malcolm’s—raised and fisted/or Martin’s—open and asking/or James’s—curled around a pen./I do not know if these hands will be/Rosa’s/or Ruby’s/gently gloved/and fiercely folded/calmly in a lap,/on a desk/around a book,/ready/to change the world…” Guests discussed how this poem represents the need for a balance in social justice advocacy. There are different ways and philosophies through which social justice can be effective. “We each have different gifts in how we do things,” one guest said. Different practices should complement and not conflict in social justice advocacy.
Ohio is the hometown where several of Woodson’s early memories take place. While some guests could relate to her Midwestern recollections, others shared different experiences of how race affected their childhood. One guest grew up in Ohio around the same time as Woodson, yet her experience of segregation was very different. As a white woman from a farming family, she grew up being bussed into town with African-Americans, but never realized that they lived beyond the town by force, not choice. Another guest grew up in a poor home on the West Coast where her experience was racially inclusive. The group provided interesting reflections on the effect of segregation and integration in Indianapolis. A long-time resident remembered businesses and buildings of her youth which supported local African-American communities, but now only the Madame Walker Theatre remains in the city of her memories.
“When communities were segregated,” one guest commented, “we empowered each other.” While she is not supporting segregation, she felt that currently in Indianapolis we are no longer empowering our communities and wished that smaller communities could once again work together to achieve prosperity. One way the group felt they could foster community strength and unity is through the support of resources such as spending our money at local businesses, grocery stores, and shops; helping neighboring families and individuals; sharing services; participating in local organizations; and embracing inclusivity. For one guest, her race, gender, and religion have left her feeling as if she didn’t belong to any community. Similar to Woodson’s experience as a Jehovah’s Witness as written in the poems “Faith” and “Flag,” sometimes differences can exclude others from activities and be the target of judgement. As social beings, we naturally tend to categorize each other, but as our communities become increasingly diverse on multiple levels, (race, gender, religion, age, ethnicity, language, etc.) it can become difficult to find and/or be empowered by others to whom we can relate.
Issues of racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. are not issues limited to local communities, these are problems that affect people across the globe. One guest stated that we must advocate for solidarity on a universal scale as well as a local/particular scale. We must build our community while asking for global solidarity. “How can we do this?” the group asked. Suggestions ranged from educating others on all peoples’ unique contributions to our local and global societies, learning more about each other, and understanding that diversity is nothing without inclusivity. As Woodson writes, “When there are many worlds, love can wrap itself/around you, says Don’t cry. You are as good as anyone./Say Keep remembering me. And you know, even as the/world explodes/around you—that you are loved… /Each day a new world opens itself up to you. And all the worlds you are/…. Gather into one world/called You/where You decide/what each world/and each story/ and each ending/ will finally be.”
Woodson’s tender and thoughtful verse allowed Books and Breakfast guests to reflect on their own childhood backgrounds and experiences of racism, dreaming, and inclusivity (or lack thereof). We each have our own unique gifts that we can offer our communities. For Woodson, she always dreamt of being a writer and today she enlightens us with her literary works. For others, we have abilities of art, communication, design, technology, compassion, teaching, advocacy—all of which can complement each other to promote social justice. When we see our differences not as boundaries but as an opportunity, we can grow together in solidarity locally and globally. It won’t be without effort, but our dreams do not have to be simple stories. Our dreams, like Woodson’s, can become reality “…in this perfect moment called Now.”
Written by: Allison Troutner