Betsey Brown

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Betsey Brown, Ntozake Shange’s second novel, is a major literary achievement. A gifted and prolific writer of poetry, drama, fiction, and nonfiction, Shange is widely known for her critically acclaimed choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf (1977). In Betsey Brown, Shange displays the same impressive capacity for developing characters from the inside out, for creating characters readers care about, that marks her choreopoem as a contemporary masterpiece. This is not to suggest that Betsey Brown is a drama masquerading as a novel. On the contrary, Shange shapes her material with the care and skill of a writer who appreciates the particular requirements and possibilities of the form.

Loosely structured and conventional in design, Betsey Brown turns on a simple, straightforward plot. The central focus of the book is the title character’s painful struggle to cope with the anxieties and frustrations associated with the transition from childhood to adolescence. Betsey is the thirteen-year-old daughter of black, middle-class parents who live in Saint Louis, Missouri, in 1959. Court-ordered school integration has created new challenges and fears for black youngsters and their parents, and the Brown family, consisting of Betsey, her three siblings, her maternal grandmother, an adolescent cousin, and her parents, confront the issue boldly. Betsey and her family, however, also face internal conflicts which contribute to her confusion and her sense of alienation. Through a series of carefully crafted scenes, the author explores Betsey’s response to society and to her family. In each of the key episodes, Betsey is forced to confront a reality that enables her to learn about herself and others.

In the opening scenes of the novel, a lack of order and discipline prevails in the Brown household as the children get ready for school. Annoyed by the uproar, Betsey wonders how she could become “a great anything with all this foolishness going on around her.” Betsey’s parents and her grandmother seem powerless to impose order on this chaos. Indeed, Jane Brown seems overwhelmed by the responsibilities of managing a household with five children; ironically, Jane depends upon Betsey to help her cope with the morning madness. Jane’s mother, Vida, lacks the physical stamina to maintain order in the household, and Greer seems to enjoy the raw vitality and energy that his children display. Because the adults have failed to provide a structured, disciplined home environment, the family’s well-being is jeopardized. The danger is suggested symbolically by the frequent references to the youngest child’s habit of playing with matches. Significantly, this threat of tragedy remains menacingly in the background until Carrie, the housekeeper, takes firm control of the children and the household. Not only does she break the child of his fascination with matches, but she also assists Betsey in her personal struggle to understand her place in the family.

Although he is not a disciplinarian, Greer has a major influence on Betsey’s development of a strong sense of self. From her father, Betsey learns to appreciate her black heritage. Beating on his conga drum and chanting, “We goin to show the world/ What can be done/ Cause the Negro race is a mighty one,” Greer calls the children together for their morning drill. He asks them questions about black history and culture. Betsey’s awareness of her black cultural heritage prompts her to select a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar to recite in her English class, while many of her black classmates choose poems by white poets. Greer’s influence on Betsey also enhances her appreciation of the broad spectrum of black life, without regard for class distinctions. Consequently, Betsey enjoys blues and other styles of black music, and...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Betsey Brown tells the story of one thirteen-year-old African American girl’s struggles with adolescence. Although the issues of growing up would resonate for any young girl, Ntozake Shange wrote the novel specifically to provide reading matter for adolescent black girls—the literature that she could not find in her own youth. Betsey Brown is the oldest of five unruly children in a middle-class family. Like all adolescent girls, she feels estranged from her family: They do not understand or appreciate her. Jane, Betsey’s mother, wants her to start acting like a young lady, to stop climbing trees, to be careful around boys, to take more responsibility for her siblings and young cousin, and to have refined tastes. Betsey’s father, Greer, wants her to grow up to lead her people to freedom. He teaches the children about black history and culture, beating on his conga drum, chanting, and taking the children to march in demonstrations. Betsey’s only release from the pressures put upon her is to get away by herself, up her special tree or on one of the house’s many porches. When she is alone, watching the sunrise, Betsey is at peace.

The story moves forward in a straightforward chronological manner, and it is firmly rooted in its specific time and place. In 1959, St. Louis took its first steps toward integrating the public schools, and the Brown children are among that first cadre of children bused to formerly all-white schools. Greer has...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like other novels by African American women writers of the late twentieth century, Betsey Brown is concerned with how a young black girl can find her way through a world filled with meddling parents, racist whites, and ever-expanding dreams. Unlike Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970) and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), however, Betsey Brown gives an important look at the black middle class. Betsey lives in a large comfortable home with two loving parents. Whatever difficulties Betsey faces with growing up, and with growing up in a society struggling through integration, she is free to think about them and work through them, unhindered by hunger, crime, or violence. This setting allows Shange to focus on Betsey’s inner world, because her outer world is relatively safe.

Betsey Brown is also different from many other late twentieth century novels about adolescent girls in its depictions of men. Betsey’s father is kind, if somewhat detached; her boyfriend, Eugene, is nearly as innocent as she is; her brothers and cousin are wild but sweet children; and Mr. Jeff the gardener nurtures Carrie and his flowers. Shange is a committed feminist. Some of her other work, most notably the play for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf (1976), have drawn charges that she presents unfairly negative male characters (charges that she disputes). In this novel, men are incidental or benign. Shange chooses instead to focus on the power that women draw from one another, the wisdom that they hand down to one another. In Betsey’s world, sisterhood is powerful.

Shange has said repeatedly that she thinks of herself as a poet first and a playwright second. Betsey Brown received generally favorable reviews, but it has attracted scant serious critical analysis. Shange wrote the novel for an adolescent audience, and it is among those readers where the impact of the novel has been most strongly felt. To give young African American girls a novel about girls like them was Shange’s noble purpose, and Betsey Brown is found on secondary school suggested reading lists across the United States.

It is interesting to note that Shange continued to work with the idea of Betsey Brown long after its publication. A rhythm and blues musical based on the novel has been produced in different versions beginning in 1989. These versions have adapted the story for an adult audience.

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

Race Relations in the 1950s
Though Shange wrote Betsey Brown in 1985, she set the book in 1959, during the period of her...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Point of View
The novel is narrated using an omniscient third-person narrator, one that is not a participant in the events...

(The entire section is 756 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1950s: There are a series of legal decisions regarding equal access to educational opportunities for blacks, including the landmark...

(The entire section is 713 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research how different communities around the country dealt with the crisis brought on by the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Betsey Brown was adapted for the stage as an operetta in a production by Joseph Papp’s Public Theater in 1986.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

For colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf (1975), Shange’s groundbreaking “choreopoem” play,...

(The entire section is 253 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Anderlini, Serena, “An Interview with Ntozake Shange,” in Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, Vol. 6,...

(The entire section is 278 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Martin, Reginald. Ntozake Shange’s First Novel: In the Beginning Was the Word. Fredericksburg, Va.: Mary Washington College, 1984. Discusses Sassafras, Cypress & Indigo and introduces Shange’s use of active voice, inverted word order, and metaphorical language as a way of showing stylistic techniques she uses in her first novel.

Ryan, Judylyn S. Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005. Includes a chapter comparing Shange’s use of spirituality to that of Zora Neale Hurston and Ama Ata Aidoo.

Schindehette, Susan....

(The entire section is 299 words.)