(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.)


(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.)