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.)