The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Betsey Brown, as the oldest child, feels a sense of responsibility to her younger siblings, and yet she is desperately seeking to find her place in the changing world of her family and St. Louis of 1959.

Shange unfolds Betsey’s character through a series of major and minor crises that Betsey must confront. Her parents’ troubled marriage is one event that takes its toll on Betsey, even more so when her mother, Jane, actually leaves the family. In her mother’s absence, Betsey exhibits a variety of behaviors that demonstrate her coping. She is at first rebellious, especially when her father employs a series of housekeepers. Betsey does not like most of the housekeepers and finds ways to make them quit or get fired.

Beyond her rebellion, she feels the changing family circumstances are preventing her from doing the things she most likes. Because she does not want an outsider to take her mother’s place, she tries to take on more of those responsibilities herself, and she is often frustrated not only in her attempts to do so but also by the time and effort it takes from her other normal adolescent pursuits. For example, she is intelligent, makes good grades in school, and loves to recite African American poetry, and she has several secretive and private places in and around her family’s home where she likes to go to fantasize about romance and adventure.

Her mother’s continued absence and Betsey’s feeling that no one understands her is punctuated in her character development as a series of mood swings that increasingly become more pronounced. Betsey’s final way to cope with her problems is to run away. It is when she runs away to a poorer section of the black community, where she sees firsthand what real struggle is about, that she begins to reassess her situation at home and finds the balance that marks her growing up.

In a family of spunky people, Betsey has the most spirit. She has a sharp tongue and a quick...

(The entire section is 804 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Betsey Brown

Betsey Brown, the thirteen-year-old protagonist. the oldest child in a black middle-class family, Betsey struggles with the frustrations and fears of adolescence, compounded by attending a mostly white school. Because she is the oldest child, her parents have given her much of the responsibility for controlling the chaos created by her three siblings and younger cousin. This sets her apart from the other children, yet she knows she is not like her parents, and they do not understand her. Her most comforting moments are in the early morning, which she has claimed as her own. Frequently, she awakes before anyone else, seeks out one of the porches on the family’s large house, and watches the sunrise. During the daytime, she finds peace and quiet by climbing a large tree in her yard. In this solitude, she is most at ease.

Greer Brown

Greer Brown, Betsey’s father, a physician. Greer wants his children to grow up proud, so he begins every morning with African drumming and chanting about black heritage, followed by a quiz about black history and culture. Under Greer’s influence, Betsey comes to appreciate the blues and other styles of music that her mother considers unsuitable for people of their social class. When Greer announces his plans to involve the children in a civil rights demonstration, then further refuses to join the family in prayer, he precipitates a crisis in his marriage.


(The entire section is 516 words.)