Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Paule Marshall--Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)

This bildungsroman of sorts follows Selina, American daughter of Barbadoan immigrants, as she grows up in Brooklyn during the 1930s and 1940s.  Throughout most of her childhood, she worships her father and feels anger toward her mother—to the point that her mother is often referred to as “the mother” throughout the text.  Her parents represent two very different immigrant positions in American: her father, who left Barbados for what he thought would be the promised land of America, has been disillusioned by the racism he’s experienced in America, and has given up, only coming up with schemes to try to get back to Barbados.  Her mother works several jobs and keeps tenants, in an attempt to buy the brownstone they rent to try to establish a foothold of success.  Over the course of the novel, her mother becomes more and more involved in the Barbadoan community in Brooklyn, made up of those who similarly sacrifice and at times run roughshod over others in order to try to make it in the face of American racism.
It really isn’t until Selina leaves her immediate community and goes to college that she really starts to understand what has motivated her mother for so long.  Though she still believes in her father’s dream of Barbados, her exposure to the wider world of racism in college toward the novel’s end finally allows her to wake up, somewhat, to the nature of the struggles which she has witnessed—but never completely understood—her entire life.  Dissatisfied with the various solutions she encounters—career ambition, acquisition of money, sex, marriage, art—at the novel’s end, she has decided to go to Barbados alone.  Though on the surface it represents her father’s dream, she realizes that it in fact shows her to be her mother’s child, telling her mother: “Everybody used to call me Deighton’s Selina but they were wrong.  Because you see I’m truly your child.  Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was your own woman?  I used to lave hearing that.  And that’s what I want.  I want it!” (265).
An interesting element of the novel is of the Barbadoan immigrant experience in America.  Not only is there prejudice within the community toward not only other marginalized communities—such as against their Jewish bosses—but also against other blacks in America as well, whom many of the Barbadoans look down on.  Also interesting are the assumptions made by the whites Selina encounter, many of whom assume Selina must be from the South.  Regardless of these assumptions, though, as Selina’s circle expands, she realizes that many are only able to see her skin color, and are incapable of seeing any aspect of her humanity.

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