Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Naylor’s novel begins with a prologue, “Dawn.” It is a short introduction to Brewster Place, which she personifies so that it almost becomes a character, an antagonist as well as the setting. Brewster Place is the “bastard child” of politicians and realtors, who “conceive it” in a “damp smoke-filled room.” It is born just three months later (Naylor implies that its premature birth has malign long-term results), and its “baptism” occurs two years later. Cut off from the rest of the unidentified city by a wall, it “became a dead-end street.” Both the wall and Ben, its first African American resident, become “fixtures,” so that when Ben dies, the wall’s destruction almost inevitably follows in Mattie’s dream.

In the cramped space between the last building on Brewster Place and the brick wall is the alley that C. C. Baker and his gang consider to be their territory, their “stateroom, armored tank, and executioner’s chamber.” There Lorraine is brutally raped. Naylor’s description of the gang implies that the rape, terrible as it is, pales in comparison to the violations perpetrated by a patriarchal political system. The gang will not be asked to bayonet Asian farmers, “scatter their iron seed from a B-52,” or “stick a pole in the moon.” All these images involve penetration, and one concerns ejaculation.

The women of Brewster Place are driven into a “dead end.” There is no further refuge, so survival in the decaying neighborhood is the only viable course of action. People cannot endure passively forever, and Lorraine’s death serves as the catalyst for Mattie’s dream of retribution and revenge. In her dream, only the women participate in tearing down the wall, which has come, through the bloodstains, to represent violence against women. The likelihood of such action occurring other than in a dream is small. Etta’s last words, “We’re gonna have a party,” may be an affirmation, but Naylor’s epilogue, “Dusk,” describes the abandonment of Brewster Place.