Bryan Aubrey

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Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on literature. In this essay, he discusses “Brownies” in the context of modern racism in the United States.

“Brownies” is a story with a great deal of humor but a serious theme and purpose. No one who lives in the United States can be unaware that in the history of the nation, relations between black people and white people have been fraught with injustice and oppression. Although the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and later federal government policies, including equal opportunity laws and affirmative action, removed most of the egregious racist practices, racism continues to exist in the United States. This fact is plain from the story, not only in the words and actions of the little girls, but in a small but significant comment made by Laurel, the narrator, which gives a glimpse into the day-to-day world of the black girls’ parents in suburban Atlanta. Laurel states, “We had all been taught that adulthood was full of sorrow and pain, taxes and bills, dreaded work and dealings with whites, sickness and death.” There is an old saying that the two inevitable things in life are death and taxes, but these young girls have also learned that “dealings with whites” must be added to those unpleasant realities.

In addition to the theme of racial prejudice, ‘Brownies’ makes another serious point. It shows the power of group thinking and the pressure to go along with the actions of the group to which one belongs, even against one's wishes and better judgment.

Modern racism, according to James Waller in Face to Face, is more insidious, subtle, and covert than the old racism. It manifests in negative, stereotypical, mistrustful attitudes that many whites have towards African Americans and other people of color. It is compounded by the fact that many whites believe that racism no longer exists in the United States, which makes them resistant to the demands by minorities for equal and fair treatment. Modern racism has measurable effects on quality of life indicators such as economic status and educational attainment, as well as self-esteem and general well being. According to Waller, the effects of such racism are “cumulative, draining, energy consuming, and, ultimately, life consuming.”

Racism is not confined to adults; it can also be found in young children. Research in the late 1990s and early 2000s has shown that children develop an awareness of racial categories and society’s established racial hierarchies at a very early age. Previously it had been believed that young children were color blind in this respect, with no awareness of racial differences or the meanings applied to them by adults. But Debra van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin in The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism , using experimental data on fifty-eight preschool children from age three to six in an ethnically diverse urban day-care center, demonstrate how children of this age use awareness and knowledge of race in their social relationships. These children had already learned at an early age “the desirability of whiteness, of white identity and esteem”; they knew that “whiteness is privileged and darkness is not”; they had the ability to understand and use the power of racial insults to hurt other children and to reinforce the perceived superiority of whiteness over blackness. In some cases, white children had learned to exclude others from games based on racial identity, as with the four-year-old white girl who had been pulling a wagon across the floor and told an Asian girl that “Only white...

(This entire section contains 1586 words.)

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Americans can pull this wagon.” In another incident, a three-year-old white girl refused to let a three-year-old black boy get on a swing, telling him that “Black people are not allowed on the swing right now, especially Black boys.” The authors comment: “Children hold knowledge of the power and authority granted to whites and are not confused about the meanings of these harsh racial words and actions.” The children know where status and privilege lie. The authors further point out that “Black children, like Black adults, must constantly struggle to develop and maintain a healthy sense of themselves against the larger society that tells them in a legion of ways that they are inferior.”

If this is indeed so, the black girls in “Brownies” seem to have done extremely well. This is not a story about the struggles of these girls to establish self-esteem. On the contrary, whatever their parents may have told them, or what they may have overheard about the difficulties of “dealings with whites,” they are not suffering from any sense of inferiority. When they hear, or Arnetta thinks she hears, the offensive racial word used by a white girl, their reaction is not to go off into a corner and cry, but to fight back, to teach the white girls a painful lesson. These are tough, confident girls, especially Arnetta and Octavia.

The African American girls in “Brownies” also know how to use language to counter any negative names or labels that whites might try to impose on them. They simply do the same in reverse. Although none of them has directly encountered many white people—whites are largely objects of curiosity to them—they have adopted the term “Caucasian” as an all-round term of abuse and ridicule. When someone does something, or wears something, they do not approve of, or acts in a clumsy or incompetent manner, the response is, “What are you? Caucasian?” as Arnetta said to a black boy in school who was wearing jeans considered to be unfashionable.

The behavior of the African American girls in the story is a reverse image of the way in which some white people still use language that denigrates others because of their racial or ethnic identity. In “White Fright: Reproducing White Supremacy Through Casual Discourse,” Kristen Myers reports on her own experiment in tracking what she calls “casual racetalk” (talk that denigrates someone due to race or ethnicity or celebrates white supremacy) in the everyday encounters of a variety of mostly white people, including college students, family members, employers, coworkers, parishioners, and professors, as well as strangers. Myers used a covert approach because explicit racist expressions, since they are no longer considered socially acceptable, are not commonly used in public. Instead, Myers used informants to report on “casual racetalk” that occurs in contexts when people are with friends and others whom they believe think like they do. She found that the racetalk revealed whites’ belief that they form a “unified, superior group whose interests were threatened by the very presence of people of color.” Whites constructed language consisting of caricatures and slurs (including the word that incites the black girls to plan violence in “Brownies”) that delineated an us-against-them mentality. Certain negative qualities were attributed to black people and then applied also to whites who did something that fitted the negative stereotype, as in this example:

We sat around on Saturday night, and sometimes we called each other niggers because something stupid would happen. I guess we sometimes refer stupidity to black people. For example, we were playing a card game. . . . I did something wrong, and my friend asked me, “Why are you such a black person?”

In addition to the theme of racial prejudice, “Brownies” makes another serious point. It shows the power of group thinking and the pressure to go along with the actions of the group to which one belongs, even against one’s wishes and better judgment. People tend to do things when caught up in the pressures exerted by a group of peers, or even in a crowd of strangers, that they would not do if left to themselves. The example in the story is the narrator, Laurel. Laurel is more reflective than the other girls; she is the only one who questions whether the white girl actually made the insult, and she has no desire to fight. She wants to stay back with Daphne until Arnetta forces her to join in the planned assault. But then an interesting thing happens; as the girls approach the restrooms, Laurel finds that her thinking has changed: “Even though I didn’t want to fight, was afraid of fighting, I felt I was part of the rest of the troop; like I was defending something.” It should be noted that Laurel does not define what she is defending; it seems to be only a vague feeling, induced by her membership of a group that has collectively decided on a certain course of action. Had the fight broken out, no doubt the normally quiet, nonviolent Laurel would have done what was expected of her.

This small example serves as a kind of inverse parable of race relations between blacks and whites up to the later twentieth century: many African Americans, especially in the South, have had good reason to fear the violence of an unthinking white mob, ready to beat and even lynch a man whose skin happened to be a different color than theirs because of some perceived racial insult. “Brownies” offers no comforting conclusion that this deep-seated racism, that has existed for centuries, may by overcome. Laurel’s remark, that “there was something mean in the world that [she] could not stop” is a sobering reminder from a young girl of the enduring weight of racial prejudice and the pain it continues to cause.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on “Brownies,” in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.

Thomson Gale

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Thomson Gale

In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Z.Z. Packer’s work.

ZZ Packer’s debut short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, has collected consistently high praise from readers, reviewers, and prominent literary figures such as John Updike. The eight ‘‘finely crafted tales’’ in the book make up ‘‘a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop,’’ wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic. Updike chose the book as the June, 2003, Today Book Club selection on the NBC network’s Today show. Packer has converted skeptical reviewers, such as Evette Porter, who observed on the Africana Web site, ‘‘ZZ Packer’s Drinking Coffee Elsewhere lives up to its billing. More impressively, Packer handles the burden of being the next big thing by exceeding expectations.’’

And it is that level of quality that Packer consistently strives to maintain, or exceed. ‘‘Packer writes nearly every day and sets herself page number goals instead of time requirements,’’ wrote Kim Curtis in a profile of Packer on the Monterey Herald Web site. ‘‘You have to nurture your talent or it’s going to lie fallow,’’ Packer said in the profile. On those infrequent days when Packer doesn’t practice her craft, ‘‘the guilt of not doing so gets her to write the next day,’’ Curtis remarked.

She was born Zuwena Packer; ‘‘ZZ’’ is a family nickname that evolved into Packer’s professional name. ‘‘I didn’t come up with that [nickname],’’ she said in an interview on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site. ‘‘My first name is Zuwena and my family nickname has been ZZ for ages. People say it’s such a clever pen name since it’s so memorable, but I’ve been ZZ since middle school.’’

Packer spent her childhood in areas around Appalachia, Atlanta, and Baltimore. She graduated from Yale and the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and always considered herself ‘‘bookishly uncool,’’ she said in a profile in Book. She is a Jones lecturer at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, and despite her success and critical acclaim, still considers herself an apprentice in the literary world, still in awe of writers she admires. ‘‘I have not achieved what I want, but maybe I will someday,’’ she said in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile. In an interview on the Barnes & Noble Web site, she named Toni Morrison’s Beloved as the book that most influenced her life. ‘‘Beloved is a reflection of how our most horrid actions are wedded to our most noble desires,’’ Packer remarked. ‘‘Few living authors are able to write in such a way as to give me the shivers,’’ she commented. ‘‘I loved The Bluest Eye, but it was only while reading Beloved that I knew without a doubt that I was in the presence of greatness.’’ Among other books she named as influences are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain.

In the title story of Packer’s collection, Dina, a young black woman from Baltimore, is newly arrived at Yale University and is undergoing mandatory orientation games, trust-building exercises, and other trite and bland activities required of freshmen. When one such game requires Dina to decide which inanimate object she’d like to be, she chooses a revolver, a choice that guarantees her psychological counseling and status as a loner and outcast. A relationship begins to bloom between Dina and Heather, a fellow freshman who is Caucasian and unsure of herself. When Heather declares herself a lesbian, Dina flees from the relationship and the characterization it would impose on her. Dina’s carefully maintained walls may be her way of coping with her mother’s recent death, or they may be her way of dealing with the world when she can’t escape by pretending she’s drinking coffee elsewhere. Jean Thompson, writing in New York Times Book Review, called ‘‘Drinking Coffee Elsewhere’’ a ‘‘superb story, its wry and mournful tones bound together by a complex psychological portrait.’’ Laurie Meunier Graves, writing on the Wolf Moon Press Web site, remarked that the story ‘‘is as close to perfect as a short story can be, and perfection is a rare thing.’’

Linnea Davis, the main character of ‘‘Our Lady of Peace,’’ is a teacher struggling to reach her students in a rough Baltimore public school. She sees her job as teacher as little more than a way to make a living, ‘‘but finds herself drowning amid a chaotic classroom filled with angry, disruptive, and violent inner-city students,’’ Porter wrote. Her rescuer arrives in the unlikely form of a burly student transferred from another district. The characters in ‘‘Geese,’’ a group of young American students abroad in Japan, are unable to find work or sustenance, and slowly and bitterly lose ‘‘the all-knowing arrogance of youth’’ as they spiral into frustration and desperation. In ‘‘Speaking in Tongues,’’ teenage Tia resists all attempts by her sternly religious aunt to ‘‘get saved.’’ One day she is locked in a church closet for the dubious sin of laughing in Sunday school. Packing her clarinet, Tia heads to Atlanta to search for her mother, a drug addict who abandoned her years before. Tia fails to find her mother, but becomes involved with Marie and Dezi, a streetwise hustler. ‘‘Packer knows how to turn up the volume and invest a narrative with shocking turns of events,’’ Thompson remarked. ‘‘Ironically, it is a sexual experience with Dezi that brings Tia a moment of ecstatic, visionary feeling that she’s been unable to achieve in church,’’ Thompson wrote. Tia emerges from the experience the type of person who won’t be locked in a closet by anyone again. In ‘‘Brownies,’’ a troop of black brownie scouts plots revenge against a perceived racial insult committed by a fellow group of white brownie scouts. Bookish Laurel watches the self-appointed leaders of the troop, Arnetta and Octavia, plan retaliation, but it turns out that neither the alleged insult, nor the hated rival troop, may actually be what they seem.

‘‘The Ant of the Self,’’ featuring the collection’s only male protagonist, puts Spurgeon into conflict with his ne’er-do-well father, who browbeats Spurgeon into driving him to the Million Man March in Washington. Tensions erupt in a fistfight between Spurgeon and his father. The boy is left abandoned in an unfamiliar city, where a sermon from the Million Man March urges him to cast off the ant of the self, ‘‘that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves,’’ and rise up to greater things.

Packer ‘‘has distilled her writing so that in its 100-proof potency, it goes right to the back of the throat,’’ wrote David Abrams on the January Magazine Web site. Ann H. Fisher, writing in Library Journal, called the collection ‘‘bright, sharp, promising, and recommended,’’ while Allison Lynn, writing in People, declared it ‘‘a bottomless cup of longing, loneliness, and real, vital literature.’’ Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is ‘‘truly a stunning debut,’’ wrote Toni Fitzgerald on the Book Reporter Web site. ‘‘Here’s hoping that Packer’s next work, be it more stories or a novel, comes quickly.’’

‘‘Remarkably, in the eight stories that make up Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Packer manages to capture the complexity of what it is to be black in a world where race, gender, sexuality, and class are all mutable,’’ Porter observed. For Thompson, ‘‘Packer’s collection reminds us that no stylistic tour de force—or authorial gamesmanship, or flights of language—can ground a story like a well-realized character. This is the old-time religion of storytelling, although Packer’s prose supplies plenty of the edge and energy we expect from contemporary fiction. The people in the eight stories here form a constellation of young, black experience.’’

Source: Thomson Gale, ‘‘Z.Z. Packer,’’ in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.

David Wiegand

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David Wiegand

In the following review, Wiegand notes that Packer’s writing is resolute on moralizing ‘‘issues of race and black identity.’’ He commends her on this, calling her ‘‘courageous,’’ and praises her stories as ‘‘beautifully crafted.’’

Do writers create for readers of their own race? Do readers of races or ethnicities different from the writer’s have similar experiences with their work as do readers of the same race or ethnicity?

Some might think those are dangerous questions even to ask, but they will become unavoidable to anyone reading ZZ Packer’s extraordinary first collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. All eight stories here are about African Americans, but what provokes the questions of audience is that Packer doesn’t merely tell stories brilliantly, but she also packs each one with a right-betweenthe- eyes moral about issues of race and black identity. And that makes it inevitable that African American readers will have a different experience reading Packer’s work than white readers, in particular.

What is also true is that the experiences will be provocative and rewarding for any category of reader, because Packer, a Jones Lecturer at Stanford whose title story here was included in the New Yorker’s debut fiction issue in 2000, has a commanding sense of character and setting, a captivating eye for detail and, most of all, a bold and often thrilling use of language and style. Consider a few random quotes from some of the stories: ‘‘We’d seen them, but from afar, never within their orbit enough to see whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV—ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money.’’ ‘‘(S)he imagined her uterus, that Texas-shaped organ, the Rio Grande of her monthly womanly troubles, flushing out to the Gulf.’’ ‘‘The sunset has ignited the bellies of clouds; the mirrored windows of downtown buildings distort the flame-colored city into a funhouse.’’

But a story needs more than style to make it successful, and most of Packer’s stories have all the right stuff. ‘‘The Ant of the Self,’’ possibly the best story in the book, finds a somewhat estranged father and son driving to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., because the old man, Roy Bivens Jr., just out of jail on another DUI charge, has an idea that they can clean up by selling exotic birds at the march. His son, Spurgeon, knows that the idea is lame, but it’s just another part of the burden he has to bear as the son of Roy Bivens Jr., a terminal loser who claims to have been part of the Black Panther movement.

There’s not much to like about Roy, but is Spurgeon the real loser here? Feeling oppressed as the only black kid in his class is about as far as his African American identity seems to go.When he and his father get to Washington, they load up the birdcages and head toward the march. ‘‘Quite a few whites stop to look as if to see what this thing is all about, and their hard, nervous hard smiles fit into two categories: the ‘don’t mug me!’ smile, or the ‘Gee, aren’t black folks something!’ smile. It occurs to me that I can stay here on the sidelines for the entire march.’’

That final line is telling. In his effort to distance himself from his no-account father, Spurgeon has distanced himself from his own identity and is doomed to a life on the sidelines of being black.

Like ‘‘Ant of the Self,’’ many of the stories are set in the past, such as ‘‘Doris Is Coming,’’ in which a young girl stages a one-person sit-in at a soda fountain in the South. That’s the simple plot summary. What enriches the story is that Doris is the only black girl in her class. Her mother cleans house for a well-to-do Jewish family whose daughter, Livia, pushes her friendship on Doris. Doris isn’t really interested in being friends, but gives in, perhaps out of loneliness. She is always reminded that she is different from the other girls, however: At one point, one of Livia’s friends tells them about her new ‘‘flesh-colored’’ prom dress.

‘‘‘You mean, the color of your flesh?’ Doris said . . .

‘‘‘Well, how should I say it? What should I say when describing it? Say, ‘‘Oh, I bought a dress the color of everybody else’s skin except Doris’s?’’’’’

Although the story, like others here, is about events and racial attitudes of the past, it is part of Packer’s gift that she’s able to make even ‘‘ancient history’’ credibly relevant to contemporary readers.

But what about those morals? What about the lessons Packer is clearly intent on teaching through her fiction? There are moments when the didacticism seems slightly forced. In ‘‘Doris Is Coming,’’ for example, the young girl hears a news report about a racial demonstration that ends with the white commentator expressing hope that there will soon be an end to the ‘‘tumult.’’ ‘‘She could not forget the radio show she’d heard earlier, how the announcer seemed to loathe the colored people of Albany when all they’d wanted was to march for decent sewage disposal without being stoned for it.’’

In ‘‘Brownies,’’ in which a troop of African American Brownies encounters its white counterpart at Camp Crescendo, a dispute arises over whether one of the white girls used the ‘‘n’’ word. But their troop leader explains that her charges, who have what we’d call learning disabilities today, ‘‘are echolalic. . . . That means they will say whatever they hear, like an echo—that’s where the words comes from. . . . (N)ot all of them have the most progressive of parents, so if they heard a bad word, they might have repeated it. But I guarantee it would not have been intentional.’’

It’s Packer’s way of reminding us, unnecessarily, that prejudice is learned. On the other hand, consider the substrata of meaning in the fact that these girls are all ‘‘Brownies’’ and you can easily overlook a bit of obviousness here and there.

Packer’s stories are, in a sense, political, in that, collectively and individually, they are all meant to make a point. Some might criticize the writer for preaching and for not merely telling stories. But the obviously conscious decision to write from a soapbox is just as bold as Packer’s style and character development, perhaps even courageous.

And that’s why the issue of audience becomes interesting. Of course, the experience of reading is always individual and subjective, but when a writer makes such a point of preaching in her work, you have to ponder who her audience is. Nonblack readers might seem at first to be the target for Packer’s sermons, but, in fact, African Americans will learn something from her work as well.

But don’t let all this talk of preaching put you off. The fact is, Packer’s stories also just happen to be beautifully crafted.

Source: DavidWiegand, ‘‘Packer BlendsRace, Lessons and Craft,’’ in San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2003, p. M1.


Critical Overview