Duck Duck Book

24 – betsey brown
09.7.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: fiction

Betsey Brown : a novel / Ntozake Shange.
New York : Picador USA ; St. Martin’s press, 1995, 1985.
[MCL call number: FICTION SHANGE; eight copies, no holds] 

Bestey Brown is the oldest daughter in a socially aware and relatively privileged African American family in 1960s St. Louis. The novel focuses on Betsey’s family life, her path into adolescence, and her and her family’s experience of life during the introduction of school desegregation in their city.

Betsey takes her place in the world from the foundation of her family — Betsey’s parents and grandmother have each instilled in her generation a variety of different kinds of faith in the essential glory of their ethnic history. In the Brown household, being Black is something to be proud of, and the achievements and experiments of Africans and members of the African diaspora are daily acknowledged, explored, and celebrated. For example, Betsey’s father wakes the family up each morning with the beat of a conga drum and a quick question for each child about African, Caribbean, or African American history, current events, or culture:

“Betsey, what’s the most standard of blues forms?”
“Twelve-bar blues, Daddy.”
“Charlie, who invented the banjo?”
“Africans who called it a banjar, Uncle Greer.”
“Sharon, what is the name of the President of Ghana?”
“Um. . . Nkrumah, I think.”
“Thinking’s not good enough, a Negro has got to know. Besides, it’s Kwame Nkrumah. Margot, where is Trinidad?”
“Off the coast of Venezuela, but it’s English-speaking.”

This embracing of Blackness as something to be take pride in and familiar with doesn’t happen without conflict, though. Betsey’s parents have many differences of opinion, about lofty concerns (how to actively live out a commitment to equality without endangering the safety of their children), and everyday things (when is jazz a great art form, and when is it low-class “jungle music”?)

And, even though Betsey’s family is a place of strength for its members, the introduction of school integration in St. Louis tests that strength. All the children are bussed to faraway schools, and the family is under greater than average pressure as the grownups consider history, progress, and the state of the race; while each child deals with the stress of additional travel, isolation, and the anxieties of trying to learn among all those unfriendly white people.

Betsey Brown is not a tragedy, or a thriller. There’s tension and conflict, anxiety and reconciliation — plenty of high emotion. But essentially it is a sensitive novel about a child who is ready to begin becoming a woman, and the circumstances of her life.

I first read the book when it was relatively new, and I was a teenager myself. That first reading was the famous magical experience that literature is often advertised as providing — it drew me into a world I would never experience in my own life, it challenged my way of thinking, and gave me the opportunity to have emotions specific to the experience of reading the book. Betsey Brown reads just as true to me now as it did twenty years ago, and it is well worth your time. I would especially recommend sharing the book with any 10-15 year olds you know who are looking for some interesting leisure reading.


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