Betsey Brown

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Betsey Brown is as privileged as any thirteen-year-old black child can be, growing up in the 1950’s. Her father, Greer, is a respected physician. Her mother, Jane, is a psychiatric social worker. The Browns live in a mansion in the best black neighborhood in St. Louis. Greer rears his children to be proud of their race. Their mornings begin to the beat of the conga drum with a quiz on black culture, and the house echoes the sounds of jazz, soul, and the poetry of the great black poets.

When the Brown children are among the first to integrate the public schools, Betsey is catapulted out of her secure world and into one where she is a pariah. At the same time, she is beginning to realize that not all blacks are as fortunate as she. Yet this novel is much more than the story of one family’s experience with integration. It is rather the portrait of a loving family in transition: Betsey, growing up, involved in her first love as well as more sobering events; Jane, torn between her desire for equality and her desire to protect her children from the ugliness of the world; Greer, willing to die if it means a better life for his children; Grandmother Vida, trying to make sense of it all.

As in her previous novel SASSAFRASS, CYPRESS, AND INDIGO, Shange displays a remarkable facility for telling her story from various points of view, making each character come alive. The author is also a gifted playwright and is currently adapting BETSEY BROWN for the musical theater, where no doubt, it will be as joyous a celebration of the strengths of family life and love as is this wonderful novel.


Lester, Neal A. “Shange’s Men: for colored girls Revisited, and Movement Beyond.” African American Review 26, no. 2 (Summer, 1992): 319-328. Although this article deals specifically with Shange’s play, it offers useful insights that refute charges frequently made against Shange that her black male characters are stereotypical and...

(The entire section is 818 words.)