At the outset of the novel, Woodson constructs her own existence—her own birth—in the context of the narrative of racial injustice. Black historical figures like Rosa Parks, the Freedom Singers, James Baldwin, and Ruby Bridges emerge as characters who have fought for justice in the ongoing struggle to overcome white...
At the outset of the novel, Woodson constructs her own existence—her own birth—in the context of the narrative of racial injustice. Black historical figures like Rosa Parks, the Freedom Singers, James Baldwin, and Ruby Bridges emerge as characters who have fought for justice in the ongoing struggle to overcome white oppression and finally “grow up free.” The narrator asks how her own fist will unfold itself, wondering whether her hands will be like those of Malcom X or Martin Luther King Jr. Her role as storyteller is foreshadowed when she asks whether her hands will wrap themselves around a pen, like those of James Baldwin.
The theme of storytelling is primarily evident in the different “histories” that serve as shifting backdrops to the memoir’s plot. Collective, family, and personal histories are interwoven throughout. Author Jacqueline Woodson exists as a character in the trajectory of stories that come down in history through time. In this way, the entire novel is structured as the telling of the “long, long story” of the Woodson family. Inside the Nelsonville house, where the Woodsons have lived for generations, photos tell their own story of the passage of time and the creation of individual and collective memory.
As the novel continues, the arc of time bends back to the 1830s and the stories of Woodson’s great-great-grandfather, who fought for the union in the Civil War. Time then moves forward to stories of Woodson’s own father’s dreams and aspirations. She weaves in the memories of other people, including her grandmother, to tell her own story. In this way, the memoir explores the theme of storytelling through memory. The author’s autobiography is told in poetic fragments of memory, pieces of the story that are woven together by the storyteller to construct a cohesive narrative.
Parts of the story are also composed of the things that change us, like the death of Woodson’s uncle, her mother’s brother. Woodson’s mother learns of her brother’s death as she stares out on the gray Ohio March day, developing a “hollowness” where she was once whole. Good news as well as bad travels through the telephone, another way that stories are told in the novel. Other stories are revealed in the silences of the novel—what is not spoken about—and the tragedies endured and accepted with quiet resignation.
Setting in the novel, in particular the North and South of the United States, is also embedded in the history of place that is told through storytelling. While Woodson’s mother yearns for the deep green of the South, her father embraces the narrative of freedom offered by the North. For him, the South represents sitting in the back of the bus, the stripping away of freedom as well as dignity. For her mother, the South is a place of reverie and longing—azaleas blooming, light filtering through pine trees. It is a place called home: a place of belonging. Just as North and South have their own histories, so do the towns in the novel. Towns possess their own stories. Rivers run through them and flow home.
Storytelling is also used in Brown Girl Dreaming to evoke private stories, even matters left unsaid. In this way, the storyteller documents what was not photographed. The author connects to the reader’s own histories through the use of sparse language and strong images. These images remain: her mother walking away down the cold street with a baby in her arms, the father waving a weak goodbye. The novel moves on to tell the stories of South Carolina, where Jacqueline lives with her mother and grandparents. Although they are living in the house where her mother grew up, this is a place of uncertainty. It is a place where her mother once belonged—a place that was once home but isn’t anymore.
Another aspect of the storyteller in the novel is the telling of truth, explaining the realities of continuing racial injustice in the South. Although the South is changing and moving toward integration, there are still white people—like the men who work with Jacqueline’s grandfather at the printing press—who continue to express prejudice toward their black foreman. Although the town’s newspaper is printed with stories for everyone, the town remains racially divided. Jacqueline’s grandmother works as a day worker, traveling by bus from Nicholtown to Greenville, where the white people live. When she returns from working, the grandchildren comfort her in the hopes that she will tell them stories when she feels rested. Like the grandfather, who tells his stories through song, the grandmother uses storytelling to build a common knowledge, the thread that connects family members.
An added layer of storytelling comes in the stories from the Bible that Jacqueline’s grandmother reads and retells. The stories fill the children with awe and longing; they intrigue and fascinate, filling the house with warmth against the cold. We can see that different characters continue to adopt different aspects of the storytelling process. Jacqueline’s sister is “the reader,” while Jacqueline herself is the emerging writer. Even the desire to write her own name without her sister’s hand over hers is something that burns inside her. This is her deepest dream.
When Jacqueline’s mother leaves for New York City, she sends letters that contain stories of another world filled with elevators and train stations, toy stores filled with dolls of every color, and the ocean stretching out of view. But to Jacqueline, only the dolls her mother sends are real. We see here that her mother’s stories are fragile, fading into dust, into a broken promise that she may not return for her children. In this manner, the story is an antidote to reality. Later in the novel, we see that the function of storytelling may be to construct a reality better than the one that is being lived. In this fashion, Jacqueline makes up stories about her the real reason for her father’s absence.
When the family moves to New York City, the author portrays the stark reality of this new life, sharply contrasted against the comforts of home in the South, the smell of grass and honeysuckle. In this harsh new landscape, Jacqueline discovers her first composition notebook. The bright clean paper of the pages brings her joy and confirms her role as storyteller. In the dreariness of the Brooklyn rain, Jacquline creates stories as an escape from her current reality. The story opens the door to a dream of a better place to be, a place far away from where we are.
Above all, Brown Girl Dreaming uses storytelling to convey the collective dream of unity. As Jacqueline’s grandmother states,
We all have the same dream. ...
To live equal in a country that’s supposed to be
the land of the free.
This is the dream and hope that is passed down through storytelling. Even in the face of grave injustices, it is the story that keeps the dream alive. The novel also imparts that the function of the story is not just to provide a happy ending but for the storyteller to write their own story. As Jacqueline realizes,
Then I let the stories live
inside my head, again and again
until the real world fades back
into cricket lullabies
and my own dreams.
With increasing confidence in herself as a storyteller, the young Jacqueline Woodson takes on the powerful and inspiring role of being the protagonist in her own life.