At the 2016 College Language Association (CLA) conference in Houston, TX, I went to a panel organized by the Langston Hughes Society, and I heard Sharon Lynette Jones present on Jacqueline Woodson’s literary relationship to Hughes in her book brown girl dreaming (2014). Jones spoke on the textual interplay between Hughes and Woodson, specifically focusing on Hughes’s “Dreams” and Woodson’s “learning from langston.” Jones’s presentation made me want to read brown girl dreaming, and when I picked up Woodson’s books, the similarities to Hughes and other authors stuck out to me.
Amidst the free-verse poems that make up brown girl dreaming, I continually thought about Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Ernest J. Gaines, and others. As the story of Jacqueline Woodson moved from Ohio to Sorth Carolina to New York, and everywhere in between, I saw correlations between her own writing, in free verse, and those who preceded her. In the “second daughter’s second day on earth,” Woodson invokes authors and activists, commenting on what they are doing as she remains in the hospital, only a day old. Woodson mentions Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, and most notably James Baldwin, writing.
and somewhere else, James Baldwin
is writing about injustice, each novel,
each essay, changing the world. (4)
Woodson’s references to these individuals, and specifically to a writer like Baldwin, sets the stage for a book that will trace how the author starts to see writing as a tool for change as she comes of age during the 1960s and early 1970s. I cannot point out all of the ways that Woodson does this throughout brown girl dreaming, but I want to focus on at least two aspects that stuck out to me on my initial reading.
Most obviously, as Jones noted in her CLA presentation, Woodson echoes Hughes throughout the book Most notably, this occurs when she uses “Dreams” as the epigraph and when she writes back to Hughes in “learning from langston.” However, there is more here than the obvious references. Continually, I could not help but think about one of Hughes’s most famous poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers
,” as read about Woodson’s family history and the way she describes that history, and the movement of her family, as a river. Part II, when Woodson, her mother, and her siblings, leave Ohio to return to her mother’s family in South Carolina, carries the title “the stories of South Carolina run like rivers.” In this section, Woodson recounts her aunt’s involvement with Civil Rights demonstrations, her grandparents telling her stories on the porch, her first experiences with writing, and the incidents that occurred during her time the South.
Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” written as the young poet was taking a train to visit his father in Mexico, presents rivers as ancestral streams. Presenting rivers from Africa (Congo and Nile) and America (Mississippi), Hughes traces African American history from Africa to America through the image of rivers. From the very beginning, Hughes shows that these rivers contain stories, memories, that need to be retold:
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins. (4)
Likewise, Woodson uses the image of the river to show a connected past, a past where stories exist that need to be retold. These are the stories she hears from her grandfather Gunnar in South Carolina, and these are the stories she tells about New York in “bushwick history lesson.” Most importantly, she notes the significance of rivers in a poem right before Part II.
In “rivers,” Woodson speaks about the trip from Columbus, Ohio, to South Carolina. Here, the influence of Hughes can be seen. Using the Hocking River, a river in Ohio, as a metaphor, Woodson relates that each place that the river touches contains a story, just like the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi in Hughes’s poem.
Each town the Hocking touches tells a story:
waits for the Hocking water to wash through. (38)
The stories are there, to be pulled out and told. After going through the towns, the river circles back to join the Ohio, as if to say, “I’m home again” (39). Like Woodson, the Hocking moves, from town to town, eventually returning to its home, the Ohio River. Throughout brown girl dreaming, Woodson struggles to find where home actually is: Ohio, South Carolina, New York. This struggle eventually leads her to realize that home is everywhere she has been and who she has spent her life with, causing her soul to grow “deep like the rivers” (Hughes 4).
Along with the connection between Hughes and Woodson, another relationship stuck out for me. Woodson does not mention, or even directly reference Enrnest J. Gaines in the book, and I am not sure if he has influenced her at all. However, as I read “stevie and me” I could not help but think about Gaines and his early experiences as reader and writer in the late 1940s in California. In “stevie and me,” Woodson writes about her trips to the library with her mother, in New York, during the late 1960s or early 1970s. Each week, her and her siblings could go to the library and check out seven books apiece. As she browses the shelves, Woodson finds John Steptoe’s Stevie (1969). The Illustartion of “a brown boy on the cover” caught her attention, causing her to pick up the book and read it (227). Thankfully, no one took the book away from her, claiming she should read something harder. Woodson concludes the poem with,
If someone had taken
that book out of my hand
said, You’re too old for this
I’d never have believed
that someone who looked like me
could be in he pages of the book
that someone who looked like me
had a story. (228)
As I read this, I could not help but think about Gaines who, when he entered the library in California for the first time in 1948, did not find books by African American authors. Instead, he found books by white Russian, Irish, and American writers who wrote about the land and its people. He did not, however, find his own people within those pages. For Gaines, not seeing “his people” in the books provided him with the motivation to write. For Woodson, seeing Stevie and his brother on the cover, told her that she had a story to write. Even though these events occurred about twenty or so years apart and had different outcomes, they both highlight the power of reading and writing in the telling of stories and in the preservation of the past of those who were typically invisible in texts and history. Gaines does this through his work, and even though I have only read Woodson’s brown girl dreaming, I see that she strives to do the same thing.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below.
Hughes, Langston. Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. New York: Vintage Books, 1987.
Woodson, Jacqueline. brown girl dreaming. New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.