Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

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Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915

Brown Girl, Brownstones features two interrelated story lines. The main plot traces Selina’s development from a ten-year-old girl who takes her beloved father’s side in the family quarrels into a mature young woman who comes to appreciate her mother’s power and self-sacrifice. This story line plays out in the context of her parents’ ongoing conflict over their competing visions and values as Barbadian (Bajan) immigrants in America.

After establishing the relationship between Selina’s parents, Paule Marshall turns to Selina’s friendship with Beryl and to the intimacy they share as prepubescent girls trying to understand their changing bodies and lives. The novel also sets up a contrast between Selina and her older, less rebellious sister, who will grow up and marry a nice, young Bajan man exactly as her family and community expect her to do.

The major theme of Brown Girl, Brownstones is the American Dream and the price immigrants pay when they pursue it single-mindedly or get caught up in its easy seductions. Silla Boyce, as she sits alone at night running her sewing machine because she cannot sleep, is an impressive, almost tragic figure who sacrifices love and happiness for material success. Deighton Boyce, in contrast, wants to get ahead without cost or effort. Typically, he skips practicing his musical scales and the introductory chapters of his accounting book in the mistaken belief that success is his for the asking. The novel, while critiquing American capitalism, expresses admiration for the successes of the hardworking West Indian community.

Community is itself a significant theme in the novel. The Bajan community is portrayed as a nurturing and supportive one despite Selina’s rebellion against its conservative values and narrow-mindedness. Above all, it is a wonderfully vital linguistic community. Marshall has often spoken of growing up listening to her mother’s friends, these “kitchen poets” cursing and commenting on the world around them in voices rich with metaphors culled from their earlier lives in Barbados. She has described their special idiom as a blend of the standard British English taught in West Indian schools, Bajan rhythms and syntax, and favorite biblical and African sayings.

Selina’s coming-of-age story seems almost secondary given Marshall’s powerful rendering of the above themes. Nonetheless, Selina’s struggles to establish her own identity frame the novel’s opening and closing sections. Some female readers respond powerfully to the psychological analysis of her sexual awakening; her rebellion against inherited values; her movement from a simplistic to a more complex understanding of her parents, friends, and community; and the maturation of her sense of self and agency. On the novel’s last page, as she sets out on her unknown journey, Selina throws off some but not all of the bangles that would define her as a Bajan young woman and restrict her freedom to reinvent herself.

Finally, the novel is about time and place. Marshall’s Brooklyn is vividly rendered with recognizable landmarks and streets. The historical context, including the opportunities that emerged during World War II for members of immigrant communities, is accurately established. The novel also deals with ethnicity and race. For example, it contrasts the experiences of African Americans and West Indians, as well as contrasting the overt and violent acts of racism experienced by older characters with the subtler prejudices encountered by Selina and her friends. Selina ultimately must learn firsthand that race trumps ethnicity in the eyes of white Americans, that the color of her skin masks her individuality behind a veil of blackness she cannot escape.

Brown Girl, Brownstones was a critical success but a commercial failure when it was first published in 1959. The novel was highly praised for its rich and colorful language and the complexity of Marshall’s characterizations, especially those of Silla and Deighton Boyce. The novel may not have received the full attention it merited partly because it was ahead of its time—the Civil Rights movement was in its infancy, and minority and women writers remained largely invisible to the literary establishment. The year 1959 did see the highly acclaimed Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (pr., pb. 1959), which has important thematic similarities to Marshall’s novel but with the important difference that its protagonist is an adult African American male rather than a young West Indian girl.

It was also not clear where the novel belonged within the literary marketplace—was it an immigrant novel, a feminist novel, an African American novel, or a classic bildungsroman, albeit with a black, female protagonist? When reissued by the Feminist Press in 1981, Brown Girl, Brownstones was immediately embraced by the feminist literary community, and it continued to be this press’s best-selling novel.

In 1999, on the fortieth anniversary of the novel’s original publication, Howard University dedicated its annual literary conference to Brown Girl, Brownstones. The conference celebrated the work’s pioneering role in the history of African American and Caribbean writing and its important position as a link between an earlier generation of women writers—including Zora Neale Hurston, Ann Petry, and Gwendolyn Brooks—and the later generation that included Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Jamaica Kincaid, and Audre Lorde, women whose work Marshall seemed to prefigure. Though still less well known than those later writers, Marshall won her fair share of literary honors, and in 1992 she received a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award. She has published several additional novels and collections of short stories, as well as a memoir, Triangular Road (2009).

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Critical Context (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Literature Series)