Vermont Reads: 'Brown Girl Dreaming'

Oct 20, 2017

It's been called a memoir in verse, a collection of vignettes about time, place, family and race. The book Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson defies convention and can be read in any number of ways, as it will be for this year's Vermont Reads, a statewide reading project presented by the Vermont Humanities Council. 

In Brown Girl Dreaming Jacqueline Woodson chronicles a life of stories culled from memories spent growing up as an African-American girl first in the American South, and then in New York City.

"I think a lot of them were stories I never forgot even though I didn't write them down until I started the process of writing Brown Girl Dreaming. You just hold on and compartmentalize and when you need access to them they come back," Woodson said.  "So I had to do a lot of research. Of course I went back down south and talked to cousins and aunts and uncles and I went back and researched news articles in terms of what was happening because that also helped shape my memory, or spark it, because there was so much I realized I did remember and stuff I didn't know."

Until Woodson started her research, she didn't know that her family was part of the "great migration" from the early 1900s to about the middle of the 1970s of African-American families from the American south to the north.

"The great migration began because of the poor treatment of African-Americans in the American South and really took a hard turn with the Jim Crow Laws because, you know Plessy vs. Ferguson, and this idea that we were separate and considered unequal from white people and that was the reason to escape a really oppressive environment," she said.  

Vermonters are reading Brown Girl Dreaming as part of a statewide reading project. Woodson says the stories in the book are universal to all students.

"So much of the feedback I've gotten on Brown Girl Dreaming has been from white kids especially young white boys, which has surprised me," she said. "I think in terms of childhood, the essence of childhood is universal. We know what it's like to not belong someplace. We know what it's like to miss someone. We know what it's like to search for a home. I mean you look at Vermont and its poverty rate, a lot of people know what it's like to be poor. A lot of people know what it's like to have a single mom. So if the writer is responsible and if the book is well written is going to touch a lot of people across lines of economic class, across lines of race and gender and sexuality and all the ways that books can touch people. "

And Woodson says in mostly white communities like Vermont, the book can help open up needed conversations about race. "I think one thing that happens especially in homogenous communities is people don't know how to talk about race," she said. "They don't know how to talk to their children about race. They don't know how to talk about the history of our country because the history of our country is kind of a raggedy history at the hands of white people. And I think one thing that can help begin that narrative is reading books like Brown Girl Dreaming, and Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World and Me and Mildred Taylor's Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry. I mean there are so many books that are out there that are talking about race and that in a way that's not scary, in a way that connects us rather than divides us. And I think that's the beginning of the conversation is being able to say you know what, white people have done some really jacked up stuff and and now we need to begin to heal from it."

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of Brown Girl Dreaming, which is this year's pick for the is Vermont Reads, state-wide reading project. She'll be speaking at the Burlington High School on Monday, October 23, at 6:00 p.m.