Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Betsey Brown has a prominent place in Ntozake Shange’s canon of plays, poems, and other novels. In this novel, she carries forward a number of issues and themes that appear in earlier works. For example, her attention to the black woman’s story was first announced in the critically acclaimed for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1976). In that book, Shange focused on adult women and their problems with African American men, with their roles as mothers, and with racism, sexism, and discrimination. In Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo (1982), three sisters and their relationships with one another and with their maternal history is explored. Betsey Brown revisits these works, as Shange looks closely at the development of a middle-class African American girl and some of the forces and conditions that make her transition to adulthood potentially difficult.

Betsey Brown joins several works in the black women’s literary tradition that give expression to the growing up of black girls: Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig (1859), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953), Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Sula (1974), Alice Walker’s Meridian (1976) and The Color Purple (1982), and Joyce Carol Thomas’s Marked by Fire (1982), to mention a few. Betsey Brown explores authentically the life of an upper-middle-class African American girl and her family.