(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Shange’s intention in writing Betsey Brown was to provide a look at the adolescence of one black girl. In her own youth, Shange reports, she could find no books to help her sort out her own life: Books about young women were written by whites for whites, and most books by African Americans were by and about men. Betsey Brown presents Betsey’s struggles with gentle humor and love; for this book, Shange puts aside her own rage at sexism and racism to present a more reassuring view. The reader knows from the beginning that things will come out right in the end.

That is not to say that Shange does not take Betsey’s worries seriously. In one gentle comic scene, Betsey and her girlfriends retreat to Susan Linda’s bedroom to compare their developing breasts. Susan Linda is worried because one of her nipples is larger than the other. When they begin to touch them, and even to count their pubic hairs (Betsey has five), one of the girls runs away, fearing the wrath of God. Shange presents the girls’ reflections and comments in a serious, straightforward manner; there is no hint of her laughing at the girls. She knows that for girls (and her young readers) the issues are important, even though an older reader may smile at their innocence and ignorance.

Interestingly, Shange does not take the opportunity presented here to educate her young readers. She does not allow her narrator to comment on the relative sizes of women’s nipples, to reassure Susan Linda—and an inquiring young reader—that the supposed deformity is not a problem. Instead, she simply presents the scene as it happened, with no adults there to whisk worries away. Readers are meant to relate to the character of Betsey Brown, not to learn anatomy from her. By...

(The entire section is 722 words.)