Thursday, January 8, 2015

Jacqueline Woodson and Words

This is what comes up when I Google image search Brown Girl Dreaming

From a young age, Jacqueline Woodson is attuned to the pleasures and powers of words. She loves the sound of the ones “that make me laugh / when I say them”: everything from the word “funk” on the radio to the funny-sounding names of her great aunts and uncles—Levonia, Montague, Iellus, Hallique, Valie Mae—and the plants in her grandmother’s garden: “pole beans and tomatoes, okra and corn, / sweet peas and sugar snaps, / lettuce and squash,” “an autumn’s worth of crazy words.” She loves the “smell and feel and sight” and even sound of fresh paper and newly sharpened pencil, which delight her senses before she can read or write. And she loves the shapes of words, the way the J in her name, “top[ped] with a straight hat,” “curves into a hook,” and the promise inherent in that curve—the promise of a full name, and then another word, and another, and another. “Will the words end, I ask / whenever I remember to. / Nope, my sister says, all of five years old now, / and promising me / infinity.”

And Jacqueline loves that infinity. Words can take you away from where you are. Every Saturday night, her grandmother wields what might as well be torture implements (“hot comb, Dixie Peach hair grease, / horsehair brush, parting stick”) as Jacqueline’s sister Dell distracts her with books: Hans Brinker or The Silver Skates, The House at Pooh Corner, Swiss Family Robinson.
Read to me, I say, my eyes and scalp already stinging
from the tug of the brush through my hair.
And while my grandmother sets the hot comb
on the flame, heats it just enough to pull
my tight curls straighter, my sister’s voice
wafts over the kitchen,
past the smell of hair and oil and flame, settles
like a hand on my shoulder and holds me there.
But it doesn’t just hold her there; as the “pictures come slowly at me / Deep. Infinite . . . My sister’s soft clear voice opens up the world to me.” As Jacqueline’s grandmother warns her to “Hold still now,” she sits on her hands “to keep my mind / off my hurting head, and my whole body still. / But the rest of me is already leaving, / the rest of me is already gone.” Dell’s books, their grandmother’s Bible stories of Moses and Salomé, plus the neighborhood gossip of her grandmother’s friends—hearing all of these gives Jacqueline a glimpse of the "infinite"—a word that reoccurs over and over again.

And it isn’t long before Jacqueline graduates from listener to speaker. She retells the older women’s stories to her brother and sister, “making up what I didn’t understand / or missed when voices dropped too low,” taking others’ words and making them her own. Jacqueline’s earliest stories take many forms: often, a form others might call “lies.” When her uncle Robert gives her academically gifted sister Dell silver earrings, Jacqueline blurts out that “I know a girl ten times smarter than her. She gets / diamonds every time she gets a hundred on a test.” Asked to write about her summer vacation at school, she makes up stories of “Africa / Hawaii / Chicago” and Long Island. Though other adults chastise Jacqueline, her uncle Robert understands that the part of her that tells such tall tales is the same part that will write books someday. When her mother says “You’re lying,” Uncle Robert says “Keep making up stories.” Perhaps he understands that there is not only pleasure in stories, but power—a power Jacqueline herself can wield.

And she has an early experience of that power when she does for her grandfather what Dell did for her on hair night, as he lies in his bed racked with coughing. “This I can do—find him another place to be / when this world is choking him.” Give him a glimpse of infinity.


Brown Girl Dreaming is the story of its own creation—as Woodson herself puts it, a way of “making sense of herself as a writer.” Her uncle Robert once told her that “If you catch a dandelion puff, you can make a wish. / Anything you want will come true.” Jacqueline wants to “catch words one day. I want to hold them / then blow gently, / watch them float / right out of my hands.” She and her siblings “close our eyes tight, whisper our dream / then set it floating out into the universe.” Jacqueline dreamed of being a writer—and when you pick up Brown Girl Dreaming, you're literally holding a dream come true in your hands. That's a powerful thing.

Stray Observations:

  • I realize I didn’t talk too much about Woodson’s style. (Sometimes I think the actual good posts are somewhere in these “stray observations” and the post itself is just a warmup.) Woodson is a master economist. Toni Morrison did more with the 206 pages of Sula than a lesser writer could do with 2,006; Jacqueline Woodson only needs seven lines. In downtown Greenville, the “WHITE ONLY” signs were painted over, “except on the bathroom doors, / they didn’t use a lot of paint / so you can still see the words, right there.” She doesn’t even need the next two lines (“like a ghost standing in front / still keeping you out”) to make her point. (Maybe in a book for adults she wouldn’t have written them.) In an earlier poem, Woodson’s grandfather explains the Civil Rights Movement—why people are marching, “why people are so mad.” “First they brought us here. / Then we worked for free. Then it was 1863, / and we were supposed to be free but we weren’t.” With the poorly painted “WHITE ONLY” sign, Woodson condenses hundreds of years of history in a single unforgettable image.
  • I also didn’t talk at all about Woodson’s relationship with God. Despite—or perhaps because of—her religious upbringing, she does not find him in religion. Jacqueline’s grandmother is a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and her grandchildren spend Greenville weekends at the Kingdom Hall or out pounding the pavement, spreading the Good Word. Woodson treads carefully here. Jacqueline is frustrated by the many rules she must follow, longs for the birthday cupcakes she’s forbidden to eat. Woodson tells us everything about how her childhood self felt about the religion she was forced to practice—but nothing of what her adult self feels now about having been forced to practice it. (She probably wouldn’t use the word “forced.”) She does, though, in a single word—that economy again—tell us where she did find God, and it wasn’t in the Kingdom Hall. As her teacher reads Robert Frost’s “Birches” aloud to the class, some choke back tears at the combined beauty of her voice and the poem. They’ve never seen an ice storm like the one Frost describes, but now they “can imagine / everything we need to imagine / forever and ever / infinity / amen.”

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