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 do not speak “correct” English, who do not own their homes, and who may not have the nicest clothes to wear. Betsey’s knowledge of the black lower class has been limited to stories she hears, and she does not think that she has daily interactions with them. One day in school, Betsey brags to her friends, Veejay and Charlotte Ann, how she made it so difficult for the Browns’ housekeeper Bernice that Bernice was fired. Veejay tells Betsey that her own mother is a housekeeper, that she thinks Betsey’s behavior was intolerable, and that she does not want to be Betsey’s friend anymore. Betsey learns from her mistreatment of Bernice and vows to “do her best not to hurt or embarrass another Negro as long as she lived.” She gives the housekeepers who come after Bernice a fair chance, develops great friendships with Regina and Carrie, and learns much about black people, black culture, and the complexities of being human.
When she must attend the predominantly white public school, Betsey also learns. Her biggest lesson is that most of the white children and teachers refuse to see her. Her difficulties in adjusting to her new school, coupled with her parents’ marital troubles and the fact that Eugene does not seem to be paying enough attention to her, convince Betsey that she must run away to a place (the beauty shop in the black neighborhood) where she will be understood. When she returns, after a day, and sees just how much she was missed by every member of her family, Betsey realizes that even if she is not always understood, she is absolutely loved.
Betsey’s enlarging sense of what a family is helps to explain why she is so eager to help the new housekeeper who comes when her mother leaves. She wants her mother’s house to run smoothly so as to be a refuge when Jane returns. From these experiences, Betsey grows toward maturity.
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....
(The entire section is 2,280 words.)