The White Gaze in Brown Girl Dreaming

Brown Girl Dreaming is a children’s novel. It is written as a tribute to Langston Hughes, with a reference to “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and writing an imitation poem in the novel. It tells the story of Jacqueline Woodson’s childhood through her own memories and the memories of others. During her early years, she moves from her birth state of Ohio to Greenville, South Carolina and finally settles in Bushwick, Brooklyn. During this time she and siblings experience their parent’s separation, learning what it means to be considered a second class citizen in the South, and she finds her method of protest through writing.

The book details her families past and genealogical ancestry. She writes with pride about her family knowing who they were and where they come from. The novel, written in verse, gives a quick and condensed glimpse into not only her family history, but the black history of this nation, highlighting the efforts of Ruby Bridges, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and later Angela Davis. She questions what her form of protest will be in the novel and as her life is being told in a book, the reader can already surmise what she decided to become.

The book is easy to read, and it is geared toward children. It contains simple, Standard English and is comprised of short poems and several haiku’s dispersed throughout the novel. The problem with the book, is that it isn’t written for black children, it only features black children.

About a quarter of the way through reading the book, I started to feel a strange detachment from the characters. They were present, but it was as if I was reading something where black bodies were on display for other people to sift through and figure out. My suspicions about this “white gaze” were confirmed when I came to the poem where the oldest brother Hope get a whooping for saying “ain’t.” I laughed, because it was very ridiculous. It wasn’t that I questioned the validity of the whooping. Many black adults have stories of whoopings they may have felt were unjustified. No doubt that they were. However, after distancing myself from the text, I understood why she included this particular whooping (as I’m sure there were others she could have chosen from), to highlight the effects of oppression in the black household. However, the issue is how many nonblack readers are going to understand this? Or will they simply see a black mother beating her child and make the assumption that she is an abusive woman, who does not love her children?

I am not concerned with the portrayal of black women or mothers in this text. I am concerned that in a time where there is a lack of diversity, that a black author and publishing company would publish a book where black people are the subject, but not the intended audience. The poems carried an overall tone of hope, as did many of Langston Hughes poems. However, it is because of this tone of hope that the actual anger and pain of oppression becomes muddled and portrayed as being something less than it actually was.

There are stories of the grandfather coming home from having his authority undermined at work only for there to be limited or no emotional reaction on his part. There is a poem of the children in Bushwick being more concerned about the absence of Jackie’s father than she is herself. With the characters all cloaked in the tone of hope, they lose their individuality. They lose their anger, their passion, their frustration, and their desire which is something that all black children are entitled to have not only in books but in real life. Black children are also entitled to have books that are written for them, and not books that are explaining them to other children.

I didn’t have any preconceived notions when reading this book, but this is the first book that introduced me to the white gaze. I am disturbed and saddened that a black author would create a piece where they are not the inhabitants of the world but are distorting their truth and reality so that others may understand it.

I wouldn’t recommend this book for black children, because they weren’t in mind when the book was written.