Brown Girl Dreaming: Entering the Twilight Zone with Jacqueline Woodson and the Dalai Lama

by Sherri L. Smith
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline WoodsonA few nights ago, I lay awake thinking about Jacqueline Woodson and her memoir-in-verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, and for some reason was reminded of The Twilight Zone. There is a famous episode in which a neighborhood is beset by mysterious power outages, leading to the fear that we are under an alien attack. What’s worse, the aliens might already live among us. Neighbors abandon friendships for suspicion, camaraderie for hate, community for murder. The planet is revealed to be ripe for invasion because, given the slightest nudge, humanity will turn on itself. The episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” ends with writer Rod Serling’s terse warning, “The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices-- to be found only in the minds of men.”
This got me wondering, how do we combat fear in our society? How do keep every street from becoming Maple Street? The Dalai Lama says, “Because we all share an identical need for love, it is possible to feel that anybody we meet, in whatever circumstances, is a brother or sister.” He urges practicing empathy, and thus compassion for others. One technique outlined by Leo Babuta of Zenhabits.net, begins with commonality, the ability to recognize our own desires and struggles in others. We gain insight by saying simple sentences: “Just like me, this person is seeking happiness…Just like me, this person has known sadness and despair…Just like me, this person is learning about life.”

Woodson has always been a writer of note. Worlds like “nuanced” and “powerful” follow her like the trail of a comet. But the synthesis of her work lies here in this memoir, where art, artist and origin meet to light up the sky.

—Sherri L. Smith

In 2014, Jacqueline Woodson became the first African American to win the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature with Brown Girl Dreaming. Woodson has always been a writer of note. Worlds like “nuanced” and “powerful” follow her like the trail of a comet. But the synthesis of her work lies here in this memoir, where art, artist and origin meet to light up the sky.
Brown Girl Dreaming follows Woodson’s roots from Ohio to the South and north again. From wide-eyed little girl to poet, writer, woman. This is not a coming of age story, but a becoming of self story. And, while Brown Girl Dreaming might be the history of one individual, it is Woodson’s use of language that pulls us back to a place we can all remember, no matter how young or old we might be. Her imagery rings familiar even though the palette might be a different hue from our own. There is a rhythm to her poems that goes deeper than verse and meter. It drums out the tattoo of heavy rain on a hot porch above a scorched lawn. It taps out the sound of shoe heels on sidewalks and the soft slap-swish of the jump rope. The flicker of pages. The sound of adult voices, worrying, arguing, laughing from another room. These sounds are not exotic, nor are they necessarily universal. But they are archetypal, and that is where Woodson triumphs.
Just like us, she is seeking happiness.
Just like us, she has suffered.
Just like us, she is learning about life.
In her work we find commonality, which leads to compassion, which leads to empathy. And this is how we keep the monsters of Maple Street at bay.

 

Sherri L. Smith is the award-winning author of several YA novels including Flygirl and Orleans, as well as the bestselling middle grade historical fantasy, The Toymaker’s Apprentice (G.P. Putnam’s Sons). Her books have been listed as Amelia Bloomer, American Library Association Best Books for Young People, and Junior Library Guild selections and appear on multiple state reading lists. Flygirl was the 2009 California Book Awards Gold Medalist. Sherri was a 2014 National Book Awards judge in the Young People’s Literature category. She has worked in film, animation, comic books and construction. Currently, she is a faculty member in the MFAW program at Goddard College. She lives in Los Angeles, California with her clever husband and difficult cat.