Study Guide

Betsey Brown

by Ntozake Shange

Betsey Brown Summary

Summary (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Betsey Brown explores the interior workings of an upper-middle-class African American family in 1959 St. Louis. The family’s dynamic structure is juxtaposed against a changing social climate, particularly desegregation of the schools, and the changing and growth of Betsey. Betsey and her siblings are reared in a household of privilege. Shange pays especial attention to the rendering of upper-middle-class African American family life as she presents the unfolding of the title character.

The novel, as a bildungsroman, traces Betsey’s progressive awareness of herself and her community as she interacts with characters who offer other attitudes than her parents and her grandmother do or who support some of the basic assumptions by which she has been reared. Several of Betsey’s friends present her with other ways of seeing the world. Her classmates at the black school, Liliana and Mavis, introduce her to sexual vocabulary and innuendo that give concrete expression to some of Betsey’s feelings. Betsey and three of her friends, including a poor white, Susan Linda, talk about their bodies’ physical changes. With Eugene, a high school basketball player, Betsey experiences the joys and frustrations of young romantic love: the pleasures of kissing, holding hands, and feeling special. Through the three housekeepers who, at different times, try to sustain order in the Brown household, Betsey is introduced to lower-class African Americans, those who...

(The entire section is 555 words.)

Betsey Brown Summary (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Betsey Brown tells the story of its thirteen-year-old title character’s struggles with adolescence, with discovering who she is and who she might become. Ntozake Shange wrote the novel specifically to provide reading matter for adolescent African American girls. In her own youth, Shange could find no books to help her sort out her life: Books about young women were written by whites for whites, and most books by blacks were by and about men.

Betsey Brown is the oldest of five unruly children in a middle-class family. Like most adolescent girls, she feels separated from the rest of her family: They do not understand her; they do not appreciate her. Betsey’s father wants her to grow up to lead her people to freedom. He wakes the children every morning with a conga drum and chanting and then leads them through a quiz on black history. All of the children can recite poetry by Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countée Cullen; they know the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Chuck Berry, and Duke Ellington. Betsey herself was once rocked to sleep by W. E. B. Du Bois. Betsey’s mother fears that this exposure will limit her children instead of expanding them. She would like the children to grow up with nice middle-class manners and tastes. In many ways, she has denied her own heritage, her own identity. Eventually, she leaves the family for a time.

The story is firmly rooted in its specific time and place. In 1959, St. Louis took its first steps toward...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Betsey Brown Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Betsey Brown is at the awkward junction between childhood and womanhood, torn between the everyday life of home and school and her dreams of romance and accomplishment. Often drawn into the schemes of her contentious younger siblings, she is also becoming aware of the complexities of the adult world, but not yet sure how to sort these realities out. The Brown’s rambling Victorian home is full of nooks and hideaways, and Betsey often retreats to one of them to think, and to observe the neighborhood’s activities unseen.

On a typical weekday morning, Betsey stands on a terrace watching the sun rise over the city’s rooftops. Soon the rest of the family is stirring, with the children squabbling over bathroom access, mother Jane and father Greer claiming a brief respite for lovemaking before the day’s duties set in, and Grandma Vida Murray, Jane’s mother, brewing coffee and checking out the children’s school gear. Betsey reluctantly comes inside, practicing a selection by composer Paul Laurence Dunbar that she is scheduled to recite in school today. Dr. Greer, an early advocate of African American pride, lines the children up and conducts a daily quiz. Each child fields a question on black leaders, culture, or geography. A correct answer wins them an extra nickel. They start for school as the parents leave for work. The neighborhood falls quiet. Vida goes outside to admire her beloved flower beds.

Despite the comforting routine of daily life, both Betsey and her world are on the cusp of change. Her mother feels overwhelmed by the multiple demands of her own life: raising five spirited children, working with crazy patients at the “colored” hospital, and Greer’s loud and heartfelt advocacy of African American music and causes.

One day, a weirdly dressed woman named Bernice Calhoun comes to the door, looking for work. Jane hires her and hopes Bernice will be a big help with the children. Vida, however, deplores her uncouth speech and manner. Betsey is hiding in her favorite retreat—the big oak tree in the front yard—when her mother calls the children to come meet their new nanny. No one before has discovered Betsey’s tree perch, but Bernice spots her there and reveals Betsey’s secret to the whole family. Betsey is quietly furious at having her hideaway revealed. It does not take much persuasion to organize her siblings into staging an especially chaotic morning for the next day. The morning includes widespread damage from spilled grease and from swinging on the curtains. Bernice quits her job on the spot....

(The entire section is 1045 words.)

Betsey Brown Summary (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Although all of Shange’s works contain elements of autobiography, Betsey Brown is the most overtly autobiographical, clearly deriving from Shange’s own experiences as a young teenager in St. Louis during the 1950’s. Like Shange, Betsey is a member of an upper-middle-class black family originally from the North. Her father, Greer, is a physician, while her mother, Jane, is a social worker. Many of the book’s episodes describe universal adolescent experiences: Betsey contends with her physical maturation, her desire for a boyfriend, and her need for privacy and a sense of her own identity. She also, however, confronts issues that are specific to the African American experience.

Stylistically, Betsey Brown is more conventional than Sassafrass, Cypress, and Indigo. The narrative follows Betsey through a series of experiences from an omniscient third-person point of view that makes the reader privy to Betsey’s thoughts and emotions in addition to her behavior. The point of view shifts periodically, so that the thoughts and motivations of the adults in Betsey’s life (her parents and her grandmother, for example) are made available to the reader as well. In this way, the reader is able to share Betsey’s adolescent perspective on the world around her while also gaining some perspective on her through the thoughts of those responsible for her environment.

The Brown household is distinctive. Greer, who is intensely concerned that his children grow up with an appreciation of African American culture, wakes...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Betsey Brown Summary

Set in 1959, Betsey Brown tells the story of a black thirteen-year-old as she confronts racial identity and inequality, developing...

(The entire section is 1303 words.)