This is a unique and vividly told novel about a girl named Betsey Brown, an African American seventh-grader growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. While rendering a complete portrait of this girl, author Ntozake Shange also profiles her friends, her family, her home, her school, and her world. This world, though a work of fiction, is based closely and carefully on actual history, specifically on the nationwide school desegregation events of the Civil Rights movement in America’s recent past. As such, Betsey Brown is a historical novel that will speak to and broaden the perspectives of readers both familiar with and unaware of America’s domestic affairs of 1950s and 1960s.
Shange has set her story in the autumn of 1959, the year St. Louis started to desegregate its schools. In May of 1954, in its ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka--a verdict now seen by many as the origin of the Civil Rights movement--the United States Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. The novel is firmly located in the wake of this landmark ruling; the plot of Shange’s novel and the history of America’s quest for integration during the Civil Rights era are fundamentally entwined. Thus textual references abound to the watershed events at Little Rock’s Central High School in the September of 1957, for example, and to "fire-bombings and burningcrosses" in the South as well as "'battalions of police and crowds of crackers'" at a demonstration in St. Louis.
Betsey is the oldest child in a large, remarkable, and slightly eccentric African American family. Her father is a doctor who wakes his children each morning with point-blank questions about African history and Black culture while beating on a conga drum; her mother is a beautiful, refined, confident, and strong-willed social worker who is overwhelmed by the vast size of her young family and who cares very little for “all that nasty colored music.”
Indeed, Betsey’s whole existence can be seen as a perceptive, adventuresome, and still-developing hybrid of her parents’ most distinctive qualities. Her feelings of internal conflict are often clearer or easier to identify when seen as the collision of her father’s dreams and her mother’s manners, or her father’s music and her mother’s cosmetics. There are several fascinating characters in this novel—and encountering, describing, and trying to figure out these characters will appeal to students of all backgrounds—but the two characters who, after Betsey, most influence the directions, themes, and issues of this tale are Betsey’s mother and father, Jane and Greer. Their her parents' difficult marriage, like the difficult era of desegregation that has only begun in St. Louis and the rest of America, is the realistic, conflicted, yet ultimately hopeful backdrop before which Betsey’s lip-synching, poem-reciting, soul-searching, truth-seeking, tree-climbing, and fact-finding take place. In fact, her parents' stubborn disagreements, heartfelt reconciliations, past glories, and future worries are all, at various times in the book, anchored or else set adrift by the activities of theireldest daughter (and first teenager!). Betsey’s running away sends her parents into a vicious fight, while her subsequent return seems to bring them closer together (if only temporarily).
As a novel, Betsey Brown is panoramic yet personal. It tells us what being a Black student in the early days of American desegregation was like by showing us what being Betsey Brown is like. This is an episodic, character-driven saga of the Black experience in St. Louis at the end of the “Fabulous Fifties,” but it is also a story about the many and various—and basically familiar—growing pains of a precocious, passionate, spunky young protagonist. We see Betsey fall in love; make friends; say prayers; argue with, look after, inspire, and ignore her younger siblings; run away from home; return to those who love and value her above all else; and switch from a school she knows and enjoys to a school on the other side of town where she is a minority and an outcast. We see Betsey outside the very door of her womanhood, we are told all about the steps and path that have brought her to this door, and we are left to wonder at what she will find beyond it.
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Ntozake Shange is a renowned playwright, poet, and novelist. Her novels include Liliane and Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo, both of which are available from Picador. She lives in Philadelphia with her family.
THE SUN HOVERED BEHIND A PINK HAZE THAT ENgulfed all of St. Louis that Indian summer of 1959. Th e sun was a singular preoccupation with Betsey. She rose with it at least once a week. She'd shake Sharon or Margot outta they beds and run to the back porch on the second floor to watch the horizon set a soft blaze to the city. Their house allowed for innumerable perspectives of the sun. From the terrace off Betsey's room, where she was not 'sposed to stand, she could see the sun catty-cornered over the Victorian houses that dotted the street, behind maples and oaks grown way over the roofs of the sleeping families. On her street you could name the families without children in one breath. Why, one reason to live there was cause there were so many children. Only the Blackmans directly cross from Betsey with their pillars and potted dwarf plants didn't like children, which must be why they didn't have any. In the wintertime Mrs. Blackman would come running out in her furs, shouting for everybody to get off her lawn, even though it was the best one for sledding cause there were two slopes. Whatta shame she couldn't understand that. Yet seen from the terrace, when the dawn came in the winter, Mrs. Blackman's dwarfed plants wrapped in shields of ice glistened like rainbows. Betsey never told Mrs. Blackman that. She didn't mention the shadows of the nuns dressing in the convents, either. There was a preciousness to St. Louis at dawn or dusk that was settling to the child in the midst of a city that rankled with poverty, meanness, and shootings Betsey was only vaguely aware of.
The sun and the stairways protected her, gave her a freedom that was short-lived but never failing. Her house sat on a small hill and there were stairs that went to the front door, but you could use the same stairs to go anywhere around the house cause the stairs also led to a porch that went all the way round the side of the house. That's how come nobody could ever tell exactly where Grandma was. She could be anywhere on that porch just watching you do wrong. Then there were the back stairs, only three of them: one, two, three wooden ones, all creaky and needing paint. Underneath those stairs Betsey helped a stray cat have babies. She lined up worms and rocks. She lay flat on her back sometimes, being quiet and unseen, while everybody went looking for her or while everybody was coming up the steps. She heard a lot of secrets lying under the back stairs. Heard a lot of kissing. Now, kissing is hard to hear, but Charlie kissed back there sometimes. Jane and Greer were always kissing. The stairs to the basement were magnificently narrow, like a dungeon the basement was. In the summer it was ever so cool and in the winter it was warm. Betsey didn't know why more of the family didn't covet the basement. Maybe it was on account of the dark and the smell. It smelled funny down there. Jane said that white folks usedta make the colored help sleep down there. Now that Jane would never do, put a Negro in the basement.
But the best stairs were the back stairs that went all the way to the third floor. These stairs turned this way and then that. Why, a body would hide in a cranny on those stairs and never be found. They were dark, too, a blackish wood gainst blackish walls like servants should never see the light of day. Betsey loved the back stairs that led to the littlest porch on the third floor, which Jane never warned her about, cause Jane'd never seen it, Betsey 'sposed. From there, on fall mornings, in her pajamas and overcoat, Betsey watched the dawn come up over the steeple of the church way down Union Boulevard, past Soldan and the YMHA. The bells would cling a holy cling that no one in the house could hear. They used alarm clocks.
So Betsey had fashioned parameters of her own for the house she shared with everyone else. The only real problem was doors. Every room was connected to another room by a door and Jane forbade anyone to lock the doors. The second floor was a pathway of bedrooms with a hallway right next to it. Only Charlie's room wasn't connected to anything and that was because he was in high school. Betsey didn't see what kinda reason that was to have a room that wasn't connected to everybody else's. That's why Betsey liked to be up before everyone else, out on one of her porches, taking in the world all on her own. There she made up stories or just stayed out of the fracas Sharon, Margot, and Allard would be making all the time. Sound traveled uncannily in this house and everybody was always yelling to everybody else. Arguing all the time. Howdy-Doody or American Bandstand, Little Rock or Amos and Andy.
Alone on her balcony, Betsey luxuriated in the quietness, letting her thoughts ramble.
“Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f,” Betsey murmured, remembering yesterday afternoon on Union Boulevard when Willetta and Susan Ann had ripped into each other over that basketball champ with the good hair, Benny. Betsey kept trying to remember how Willetta's bra looked and how Susan Ann had scratched Willetta's face with the longest red nails. She was certain that the black-laced bra and the red nails had something to do with the way Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar wanted her to say, “Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f.” Some sultry willing- to- fight- over- you,- if- you- give- me- a-chance way of saying the line. Today Mrs. Mitchell was having the elocution contest for Class 7B, Betsey's class, with the kids from cross the tracks and the kids from the right side of em too. Willetta and Susan Ann had gathered such a crowd round em, tearing at each other that way. And Benny, he just went on to the game gainst Sumner, like he didn't know nothin bout all this blood and swearing and cussing going on in his name. It was evil and wicked to fight, but Betsey wanted the grown woman bit of it to rub off on her today when she said, “Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f.”
“I told you, you had to be out of the bathroom in five minutes! What do you think I'm gonna do? Go to school stink on accounta you take so long, Margot,” Sharon was screaming round the corner from Betsey's room. How could she become a great anything with all this foolishness going on around her?
“Listen here, heifer. I'm gonna be in that bathroom in three minutes or you never gonna play with my jacks and I'ma tell Jeannie not to speak to you ever again. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?”
Sharon was kicking the bathroom door with her saddles making black streaks long the sideboard when Jane rolled over in her bed to touch Greer, just once more before her hellish day began. Where was Betsey with her coffee? Why was Sharon shouting the devil out in the hall? How could all this be happening to her?
“Sharon, I am going to whip you good, if I hear you call your sister or anybody else a heifer. Do you hear me? Just wait your turn. The boys are finished and you'll have plenty of time.” Jane managed to raise her voice, if not her body. Something had to be done with all these children. “Greer, please, let's not have any more children. But can we make a little bitty bit of love?” Jane was tustled in a mass of auburn hair. Somehow her lavender nightgown was entwined in her arms beneath the pillows. She rolled toward her husband, who, as always when in a good mood, grabbed her reddish ringlets and pulled her mouth to his. The answer was yes, a long and sweet yes.
“Betsey, Betsey, where's my coffee?” Jane breathed deep, longing for more of her Greer and that caffeine. She could smell the coffee perking downstairs, which meant that Mama was up and about, making lunches for all the children. “Betsey, where is my coffee?” Greer nuzzled a little closer and Jane simmered down and was all purr and open. She forgot about coffee.
Betsey wasn't even dressed, and she hadn't gotten her mama's coffee or her lines right yet. She ran like the Holy Ghost down the back stairs to set up Jane's cup and saucer before Grandma had to do it and broke something. “Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f” rambling through her mind, her little girl hips twitched the way she imagined Susan Ann's had after she left Willetta in the street with nothing but her panties on. Not even a ponytail clasp was on that child once Susan Ann was done. Grandma sure enough had the coffee done.
“Seems to me a child could make an effort to take her hardworking mother a teeny ol’ cup of coffee,” Grandma murmured in her Carolinian drawl. There was a way about Vida that was so lilting yet direct that Betsey sometimes thought her grandma had a bloodline connection to Scarlett O'Hara.
“I'm sorry, Grandma, but I was practicing my elocution.”
“You should have practiced your elocution last evening, instead of jumping all that colored double roping with those trashy gals from round the way.”
Grandma poured her daughter's coffee, knowing full well what was goin on upstairs. Her daughter didn't have no common sense, that was the problem. Awready there was a house fulla chirren and she wouldn't stop messin’ with that Greer. Jane was lucky, Grandma thought. None of the chirren looked like him, all dark and kinky-headed. Now it was true that Betsey had a full mouth. Margot was chocolate brown. Sharon had a head fulla nappy hair. Allard was on the flat-nosed side. But in Grandma's mind Jane had been blessed, cause each of the chirren was sprightly and handsome on a Geechee scale, not them island ones but the Charlestonians who'd been light or white since slavery. But Grandma didn't like to think bout slavery. She was most white. Slaves and alla that had nothing to do with her family, until Jane insisted on bringing this Greer into the family and he kept making family. Lord knows who could help her.
“Here, Betsey, you carry this on up to your mama, and tell her I said that Allard needs to be looked at for the ringworm and Charlie needs a whipping for calling Sharon out of her name and all the lunches are packed, but I do feel a mite weak and need to rest m...
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