“Brown Girl Dreaming” Poetry

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While riding Megabus down to New York City I read Jacqueline Woodson’s memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming (which I describe briefly here and include a link to an interview with her). Two poems stood out to me in particular. These are the two moments in the book when I teared up. I think you can chalk this up to a few things. First, Woodson’s poetry is simple and simply beautiful, readable and relatable and revelatory. Second, as you’ll hear, these poems spoke to my condition and the condition of our world right now.

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The first poem, “South Carolina at War,” is set when Jackie is a child, living in South Carolina with her grandparents, mother, and siblings. Beyond the obvious connections to the recent act of terror perpetrated on the AME church in South Carolina, the last stanza makes me think about racist adjectives and the power words have in shaping ideas of ourselves and each other. What are the words my students would use to describe themselves?

The second poem, “Stevie and me,” takes place once her family has moved to New York City and she has enrolled in school. Reading is difficult for Jackie at first and she’s not nearly the reader her older sister, Dell, was at her age. This poem is a beautiful reminder of the power of literatures that reflect an array of races and human experiences. The world would be much poorer if Jackie hadn’t made her important realization. Are my students exposed to literature they can see themselves in? What role can I play (since I’m not their English Language Arts teacher) in helping to expose them to diverse literatures? One of my favorite books growing up was Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, about an African-American family in the sharecropping south. So my argument is not that students should read books that they can identify with explicitly but that students should understand that all people have a literature and can be in books — at no point in my life has a character’s existence been revelatory because I’ve always had books with lots of different kinds of people in them. How do we ensure this is true for all children? And beyond the diversity in literature argument, this poem gives beautiful imagery to the idea that we panic too much about reading levels and miss out on the individual development of students.

south carolina at war

Because we have a right, my grandfather tells us —

we are sitting at his feet and the story tonight is 

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why people are marching all over the South —

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to walk and sit and dream wherever we want.

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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.

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And that’s why people are so mad.

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And it’s true, we can’t turn on the radio without hearing about the marching.

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We can’t go to downtown Greenville without

seeing the teenagers walking into stores, sitting

where brown people still aren’t allowed to sit

and getting carried out, their bodies limp,

their faces calm.

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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.

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But be ready to die,

my grandfather says,

for what is right.

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Be ready to die, my grandfather says,

for everything you believe in. 

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And none of us can imagine death

but we try to imagine it anyway.

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Even my mother joins the fight.

When she thinks our grandmother

isn’t watching she sneaks out

to meet the cousins downtown, but just as

she’s stepping through the door,

her good dress and gloves on, my grandmother says,

Now don’t go getting arrested.

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And mama sounds like a little girl when she says,

I won’t.

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More than a hundred years, my grandfather says,

and we’re still fighting for the free life we’re supposed to be living.

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So there’s a war going on in South Carolina

and even as we play

and plant and preach and sleep, we are a part of it.

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Because you’re colored, my grandfather says.

and just as good and bright and beautiful and free

as anybody.

And nobody colored in the South is stopping,

my grandfather says,

until everybody knows what’s true. 

stevie and me

Every Monday, my mother takes us

to the library around the corner. We are allowed

to take out seven books each. On those days,

no one complains

that all I want are picture books.

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Those days, no one tells me to read faster

to read harder books

to read like Dell.

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No one is there to say, Not that book,

when I stop in front of the small paperback with a brown boy on the cover.

Stevie.

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I read:

One day my momma told me,

“You know you’re gonna have

a little friend come stay with you.”

And I said, “Who is it?”

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If someone had been fussing wiht me

to read like my sister, I might have missed

the picture book filled with brown people, more

brown people than I’d ever seen

in a book before.

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The little boy’s name was Steven but

his mother kept calling him Stevie.

My name is Robert but my momma don’t call me Robertie.

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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. 

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