“How can I explain to anyone that stories are like air to me, I breathe them in and let them out over and over again.”
I wholeheartedly concur. And “Brown Girl Dreaming” is a warm summer breeze. Jacqueline Woodson’s autobiographical novel in verse is stirringly beautiful. Her words float and flow together with beauty and ease, taking the reader by the hand and refusing to let her go until the last page.
Woodson tells the story of a brown girl (Jackie) and her siblings growing up in the 1960s, with personal and often radically different experiences with race and prejudice in the old South and in New York City. Some march in protest while others rely on church and prayer, but all of Jackie’s family is firm in their philosophy of nonviolent resistance. The grandfather “Daddy”, to whom Jackie in particular is deeply attached, imparts his wisdom:
“This is the way brown people have to fight, / my grandfather says. / You can’t just put your fist up. You have to insist on something / gently. Walk toward a thing / slowly. / But be ready to die, / my grandfather says, / for what is right. / Be ready to die, my grandfather says, / for everything you believe in.”
For Jackie, what she most readily and passionately believes in is storytelling. From a young age, her family sees this gift in her, fighting to get out before she is even able to consciously form the words. Jackie is drawn to stories, inhabiting them until they inhabit her. When her choice of reading material is criticized, it is like a core part of herself is called into question.
“But I don’t want to read faster or older or / any way else that might / make the story disappear too quickly from where it’s settling / inside my brain, / slowly becoming a part of me. / A story I will remember / long after I’ve read it for the second, third, / tenth, hundredth time.”
As it turns out, Jaqueline Woodson, using herself as the protagonist, is the perfect spokesperson for the Year of Reading Women and why highlighting women’s voices is so important.
“If someone had taken / that book out of my hand / said, You’re too old for this / maybe / I’d never have believed / that someone who looked like me / could be in the pages of the book / that someone who looked like me / had a story.”
We NEED stories, to find ourselves and our place in the world and to experience a rich diversity of cultures, voices, and ideas. I am so grateful for Jacqueline Woodson for sharing hers.