Praised as "exuberantly engaging" by the Los Angeles Times and a "beautiful, beautiful piece of writing" by the Houston Post, acclaimed artist Ntozake Shange brings to life the story of a young girl's awakening amidst her country's seismic growing pains. Set in St. Louis in 1957, the year of the Little Rock Nine, Shange's story reveals the prismatic effect of racism on an American child and her family. Seamlessly woven into this masterful portrait of an extended family is the story of Betsey's adolescence, the rush of first romance, and the sobering responsibilities of approaching adulthood.
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Ntozake Shange (1948-2018) was a renowned playwright, poet, and novelist. Her works include the Tony Award-nominated and Obie Award-winning for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, as well as Some Sing, Some Cry (written with her sister Ifa Bayeza), Sassafrass, Cypress & Indigo and Liliane.
Among her honors and awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and a Pushcart Prize. She was a graduate of Barnard and recipient of a Masters in American Studies from University of Southern California.
Read an Excerpt
THE SUN HOVERED BEHIND A PINK HAZE THAT ENgulfed all of St. Louis that Indian summer of 1959. Th e sun was a singular preoccupation with Betsey. She rose with it at least once a week. She'd shake Sharon or Margot outta they beds and run to the back porch on the second floor to watch the horizon set a soft blaze to the city. Their house allowed for innumerable perspectives of the sun. From the terrace off Betsey's room, where she was not 'sposed to stand, she could see the sun catty-cornered over the Victorian houses that dotted the street, behind maples and oaks grown way over the roofs of the sleeping families. On her street you could name the families without children in one breath. Why, one reason to live there was cause there were so many children. Only the Blackmans directly cross from Betsey with their pillars and potted dwarf plants didn't like children, which must be why they didn't have any. In the wintertime Mrs. Blackman would come running out in her furs, shouting for everybody to get off her lawn, even though it was the best one for sledding cause there were two slopes. Whatta shame she couldn't understand that. Yet seen from the terrace, when the dawn came in the winter, Mrs. Blackman's dwarfed plants wrapped in shields of ice glistened like rainbows. Betsey never told Mrs. Blackman that. She didn't mention the shadows of the nuns dressing in the convents, either. There was a preciousness to St. Louis at dawn or dusk that was settling to the child in the midst of a city that rankled with poverty, meanness, and shootings Betsey was only vaguely aware of.
The sun and the stairways protected her, gave her a freedom that was short-lived but never failing. Her house sat on a small hill and there were stairs that went to the front door, but you could use the same stairs to go anywhere around the house cause the stairs also led to a porch that went all the way round the side of the house. That's how come nobody could ever tell exactly where Grandma was. She could be anywhere on that porch just watching you do wrong. Then there were the back stairs, only three of them: one, two, three wooden ones, all creaky and needing paint. Underneath those stairs Betsey helped a stray cat have babies. She lined up worms and rocks. She lay flat on her back sometimes, being quiet and unseen, while everybody went looking for her or while everybody was coming up the steps. She heard a lot of secrets lying under the back stairs. Heard a lot of kissing. Now, kissing is hard to hear, but Charlie kissed back there sometimes. Jane and Greer were always kissing. The stairs to the basement were magnificently narrow, like a dungeon the basement was. In the summer it was ever so cool and in the winter it was warm. Betsey didn't know why more of the family didn't covet the basement. Maybe it was on account of the dark and the smell. It smelled funny down there. Jane said that white folks usedta make the colored help sleep down there. Now that Jane would never do, put a Negro in the basement.
But the best stairs were the back stairs that went all the way to the third floor. These stairs turned this way and then that. Why, a body would hide in a cranny on those stairs and never be found. They were dark, too, a blackish wood gainst blackish walls like servants should never see the light of day. Betsey loved the back stairs that led to the littlest porch on the third floor, which Jane never warned her about, cause Jane'd never seen it, Betsey 'sposed. From there, on fall mornings, in her pajamas and overcoat, Betsey watched the dawn come up over the steeple of the church way down Union Boulevard, past Soldan and the YMHA. The bells would cling a holy cling that no one in the house could hear. They used alarm clocks.
So Betsey had fashioned parameters of her own for the house she shared with everyone else. The only real problem was doors. Every room was connected to another room by a door and Jane forbade anyone to lock the doors. The second floor was a pathway of bedrooms with a hallway right next to it. Only Charlie's room wasn't connected to anything and that was because he was in high school. Betsey didn't see what kinda reason that was to have a room that wasn't connected to everybody else's. That's why Betsey liked to be up before everyone else, out on one of her porches, taking in the world all on her own. There she made up stories or just stayed out of the fracas Sharon, Margot, and Allard would be making all the time. Sound traveled uncannily in this house and everybody was always yelling to everybody else. Arguing all the time. Howdy-Doody or American Bandstand, Little Rock or Amos and Andy.
Alone on her balcony, Betsey luxuriated in the quietness, letting her thoughts ramble.
“Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f,” Betsey murmured, remembering yesterday afternoon on Union Boulevard when Willetta and Susan Ann had ripped into each other over that basketball champ with the good hair, Benny. Betsey kept trying to remember how Willetta's bra looked and how Susan Ann had scratched Willetta's face with the longest red nails. She was certain that the black-laced bra and the red nails had something to do with the way Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar wanted her to say, “Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f.” Some sultry willing- to- fight- over- you,- if- you- give- me- a-chance way of saying the line. Today Mrs. Mitchell was having the elocution contest for Class 7B, Betsey's class, with the kids from cross the tracks and the kids from the right side of em too. Willetta and Susan Ann had gathered such a crowd round em, tearing at each other that way. And Benny, he just went on to the game gainst Sumner, like he didn't know nothin bout all this blood and swearing and cussing going on in his name. It was evil and wicked to fight, but Betsey wanted the grown woman bit of it to rub off on her today when she said, “Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f.”
“I told you, you had to be out of the bathroom in five minutes! What do you think I'm gonna do? Go to school stink on accounta you take so long, Margot,” Sharon was screaming round the corner from Betsey's room. How could she become a great anything with all this foolishness going on around her?
“Listen here, heifer. I'm gonna be in that bathroom in three minutes or you never gonna play with my jacks and I'ma tell Jeannie not to speak to you ever again. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?”
Sharon was kicking the bathroom door with her saddles making black streaks long the sideboard when Jane rolled over in her bed to touch Greer, just once more before her hellish day began. Where was Betsey with her coffee? Why was Sharon shouting the devil out in the hall? How could all this be happening to her?
“Sharon, I am going to whip you good, if I hear you call your sister or anybody else a heifer. Do you hear me? Just wait your turn. The boys are finished and you'll have plenty of time.” Jane managed to raise her voice, if not her body. Something had to be done with all these children. “Greer, please, let's not have any more children. But can we make a little bitty bit of love?” Jane was tustled in a mass of auburn hair. Somehow her lavender nightgown was entwined in her arms beneath the pillows. She rolled toward her husband, who, as always when in a good mood, grabbed her reddish ringlets and pulled her mouth to his. The answer was yes, a long and sweet yes.
“Betsey, Betsey, where's my coffee?” Jane breathed deep, longing for more of her Greer and that caffeine. She could smell the coffee perking downstairs, which meant that Mama was up and about, making lunches for all the children. “Betsey, where is my coffee?” Greer nuzzled a little closer and Jane simmered down and was all purr and open. She forgot about coffee.
Betsey wasn't even dressed, and she hadn't gotten her mama's coffee or her lines right yet. She ran like the Holy Ghost down the back stairs to set up Jane's cup and saucer before Grandma had to do it and broke something. “Speak up Ike, an’ 'spress yo'se'f” rambling through her mind, her little girl hips twitched the way she imagined Susan Ann's had after she left Willetta in the street with nothing but her panties on. Not even a ponytail clasp was on that child once Susan Ann was done. Grandma sure enough had the coffee done.
“Seems to me a child could make an effort to take her hardworking mother a teeny ol’ cup of coffee,” Grandma murmured in her Carolinian drawl. There was a way about Vida that was so lilting yet direct that Betsey sometimes thought her grandma had a bloodline connection to Scarlett O'Hara.
“I'm sorry, Grandma, but I was practicing my elocution.”
“You should have practiced your elocution last evening, instead of jumping all that colored double roping with those trashy gals from round the way.”
Grandma poured her daughter's coffee, knowing full well what was goin on upstairs. Her daughter didn't have no common sense, that was the problem. Awready there was a house fulla chirren and she wouldn't stop messin’ with that Greer. Jane was lucky, Grandma thought. None of the chirren looked like him, all dark and kinky-headed. Now it was true that Betsey had a full mouth. Margot was chocolate brown. Sharon had a head fulla nappy hair. Allard was on the flat-nosed side. But in Grandma's mind Jane had been blessed, cause each of the chirren was sprightly and handsome on a Geechee scale, not them island ones but the Charlestonians who'd been light or white since slavery. But Grandma didn't like to think bout slavery. She was most white. Slaves and alla that had nothing to do with her family, until Jane insisted on bringing this Greer into the family and he kept making family. Lord knows who could help her.
“Here, Betsey, you carry this on up to your mama, and tell her I said that Allard needs to be looked at for the ringworm and Charlie needs a whipping for calling Sharon out of her name and all the lunches are packed, but I do feel a mite weak and need to rest my bones. I do wish she would quit that old job social-workering and mind you chirren more. I surely do.”
Betsey took the coffee from Grandma ever so carefully. She was running late. Her teeth weren't even brushed yet and Charlie was in the bathroom for the second time. Mama still didn't have her coffee, and wouldn't have it when she imagined, cause Betsey drank the whole cup by the time she reached the top of the back stairs that twisted this way and that, leaving a girl time to dream of things to come and womanish ways.
When Betsey reached the top of the winding stairs with the empty cup, she quickly swallowed the little bit that had dropped into the saucer and with military precision made an about face, balancing her mother's wedding china in one hand, feigning a fan in the other, whispering, “Speak up Ike, 'spress yo'se'f.” She could hear Charlie and Sharon arguing about how long was the circumference of the world. Margot adding, “As big as your head.” Betsey almost dropped the delicate flowered cup rimmed with gold, seemingly atop a throne of its own. Jane was strolling down the hall, shouting the other way, “Betsey, where's my coffee?”
Sharon was trying to comb Margot's head a hair with a brush that looked like it was only big enough for Betsy Wetsy. “I can't help it. It's the only one I could find.” Margot was tying Allard's shoes as he looked around the ceilings for shadows where the spooks that swept down on him in his dreams must live. “I know they're up there, Sharon. Let's getta broom and beat em to the death. Okay?” Sharon had Margot making faces verging on distortion; that hair, that hair had to be combed or Mama was gonna have a fit. “Well, we could tie it with a shoestring in a ponytail,” Sharon conceded. Margot smiled so much she cried one big tear. Allard kept trying to get their attention: “Listen, if you all don't help me beat out them spooks, I'm gonna burn em up.”
Together Sharon and Margot shouted, “Allard, keep your hands off them matches, do you hear?” Jane heard. Greer was apparently downstairs, already strains of Charlie Parker waft ed through the house. Jane was powdering herself by her vanity in a gleam of nostalgia by her wedding photo. Oh that day had been so perfect, so soft and white. Whatta night they had at the Savoy. Why, she danced until she most fainted. Jane giggled and then regained her more official “mother's” stance as Betsey entered the room.
“Well, Betsey, I thought you must have gone all the way to Guatemala to get my coffee.”
“No, Mommy, I just was practicing my elocution, when the kids were making all this noise and you wanted your coffee and Grandma insisted on telling me how lucky we look the way we look because of Daddy. There was an awful lot goin on, Mama, honest.”
Jane smiled at her miracle child. The baby she thought she couldn't have. What an error of judgment that had been. Still and all, Betsey was her first baby and close to her heart in a peculiar way, as if some real part of her walked out the door every time Betsey went down the front stairs or leaned gossiping, girl-like, over the back porch. Jane pulled Betsey to her, then took a few sips of coffee made exactly how she liked, milk in first, two sugars. And plenty of coffee. Jane still insisted on having her good china and cloth napkins for her coffee upstairs. “There's no reason to give up everything gracious on account of a few moments of hardship” was what she always said if Betsey brought a paper napkin or a mug to her room.
“Mama, you wanna listen to a little bit of my elocution preparation? I'm doing Mr. Paul Laurence Dunbar.”
Jane thought, taking her time mischievously, and then shook her head yes.
“Betsey, of course I want to hear your interpretation of Dunbar, but hurry. You know your daddy's getting the morning quiz ready.”
Betsey ran to her mama's closet and grabbed the first red womany thing she saw, a scarlet slip she draped round her hips. Jane's eyebrows rose, but she contained herself. After all, elocution was close to theater. Betsey stationed herself by her mother in front of the vanity, wanting to watch her every gesture and facial expression. Mama knew this poem awready, so she had to be good, or at least that's what she thought.
Jane thought anything her little girl did was just fine, but it pleased her that Betsey wanted to impress her.
“Who dat knockin’ at de do’?
Why, Ike Johnson, yes, fu’ sho!
Come in, Ike. I's mighty glad
You come down. I t'ought you's mad
At me 'bout de othah night,
An was stayin’ 'way fu’ spite.
Say, now, was you mad fu’ true
W'en I kin’ o’ laughed at you?
Speak up, Ike, an 'spress yo'se'f.”
Betsey sashayed and threw her teeny hips, glinted her eyes, and coyly demonstrated her newly learned skills as coquette, much to her mother's delight. Jane hugged her girl and was about to offer some dramatic advice, when the morning rituals, authorized and unauthorized, overshadowed them and inter rupted that very special moment they'd shared.
“Who's got my geography book?”
“Come on, tie my shoes.”
“That dress is not yours. Give it here.”
“Lord, Lord, please help me with these chirren.”
“I'ma tell Daddy you took my books.”
“I bet you won't have no backside side, if he gets holdt to ya.”
“Come tie my shoes, please.”
“For God's sake, somebody tie Allard's shoes.”
“Margot, you better do something with that mess you call hair.”
“You said you would comb it for me.”
“She sure 'nough did.”
“Where's my geography book?”
“Somebody tie Allard's shoes, fore he trips over himself.”
“I'ma tell Daddy.” The refrain arose from everyone's lips.
No one could find Allard to tie his shoes. Meanwhile Greer had strapped his conga drum round his shoulder. It was the one he'd brought from Cuba where Sharon was conceived under a sky of shooting stars, or so the story went. As if he were a southern Mongo Santamaria, Greer mamboed up the back stairs, through the halls, and down the front steps, gathering the mass of family he called his own, chanting all the while.
“The Negro race is a mighty one
The work of the Negro is never done
Muscle, brains, and courage galore
Negroes in this house
Meet me at the back door
Oh! the Negro race is a mighty one
Excerpted from Betsey Brown: A Novel by Ntozake Shange.
Copyright © 1985 by Ntozake Shange.
Published in 1985 by St. Martin's Griffin
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Reading Group Guide
Questions on Comprehension
1. Who is Betsey Brown? How old is she, where does she live, and who are the people she lives with? Consider the role, or roles, Betsey plays in her family in chapter one. Where does she rank in terms of the ages and responsibilities of the Brown children? What does she bring to her mother every morning? And why does her mother think of Betsey as a "miracle child"?
2. On pages 22 and 23, we encounter two poems. One is a verse by Paul Laurence Dunbar that Betsey has memorized as a school assignment; the other, a chant that Greer, Betsey's father, has taught his children to sing with him each morning. Look again at these poems. What are their meanings and purposes? Why has Betsey been asked to recite this particular poem in class? Why has Greer instructed his children to perform alongside him in this particular sing-a-long?
3. Explain the "morning quiz" practice that we are introduced to in the book's opening pages. Whose idea is this? Who gives the quiz, who takes it, and what is the reason for it to begin with? What does the quiz tell us about Betsey's family, about her own unique background? Why does Jane, Betsey's mother, dislike the morning quiz? Why does her father seem to find it absolutely necessary?
4. We are introduced to many different characters in chapter one, different individuals with different personalities. Who are they? Identify the main characters in this novel, explaining how they think and feel about one another. Although the book focuses on Betsey, and is named after her, we read and learn a great deal about several other persons. Why do you think this is the case?
1. What purpose does St. Louis, Missouri, serve in this narrative? How is it described in chapter two, in the beginning sentences and throughout the chapter? How does Betsey fit into St. Louis? Where does she attend school? What does she like about school, and what does she dislike? Is Betsey from St. Louis originally? What about the rest of her family?
2. After school, Betsey enjoys an ice cream soda with her good friends Veejay and Charlotte Ann. The three of them then decide to pay a visit to the home of their friend Susan Linda. How is Susan Linda different from the rest of the girls, and how is she the same? What happens when Susan Linda asks the girls to leave, and why does Betsey agree with Veejay that "they should 'boycott' Susan Linda for a while"?
3. Re-read the thoughts and reflections had by Betsey on pages 42 and 43, while she is relaxing in her secret hiding place, the oak tree. How does she feel about segregation? About "the true crackers down there in the South"? About the recent attempts to integrate Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas? What does Betsey think of her father's claim that "a struggle makes you not afraid"--and what exactly does her father mean by this remark?
4. Describe in detail what happens to Charlie and Allard in this chapter. How does this event highlight the outlooks and dispositions of--and the relationship between-- Jane (Betsey's mother) and Vida (Betsey's grandmother)? Where does Betsey stand in relation to these opposing viewpoints?
1. What do Betsey's parents do for a living? What are their professional lives like? How do their jobs influence their performances as parents? And why are they arguing when chapter three begins? On page 50, we read: "Betsey thought she understood it. She thought she knew that the problem was there were too many of them. Too many children. Too wild. Too much noise. . . . Then there was the problem of the white people and money. White folks and money seemed to go hand in hand. Whenever a Negro mentioned one, he mentioned the other." How accurate is Betsey's take on her parents' rocky marriage? Defend your answer.
2. On page 53, Betsey considers returning to her secret place, her gigantic yet private oak, to briefly escape from her noisy siblings: "If she climbed out to the middle of the tree, Betsey thought, she'd be a bird and sing a colored child's bird song, a colored child's blues song or a hot jump and rag song. From the middle of her tree, where she was sure she was not supposed to be, Betsey listened real close for her city to sing to her so she could respond." Often in literature, in ancient poems as well as modern novels, birds are symbols for the human spirit. Is Betsey presented here in such a way? Explain. What is she be thinking or wondering about, or looking or hoping for, as she sits in her tree?
3. Who is Bernice Calhoun? Where does she come from, and what brings her to the Brown household? What do we learn about Bernice from the blues she sings to herself when Betsey first spots her? Describe Bernice's appearance, personality, background, and manner with children. Why does she have such a terribly difficult time at the Brown home?
4. Consider the mistaken impression Jane has of her oldest daughter at the closing of chapter three. On page 64, Jane thinks: "There was no way in the world she could go to work today. Thank God for Betsey. There was one child with a head on her shoulders. Jane tried to think of what might have happened if Betsey hadn't been there. . . ." Explain why these thoughts are so sharply ironic. How did you feel about Betsey when you finished reading this chapter? How did you feel about Bernice? With whom did you finally place your sympathy?
1. When Betsey goes to school and tells her friend Veejay about Bernice's abrupt departure, how does Veejay react? Why does Veejay react so strongly? And how does Veejay's reaction make Betsey feel? Explain why their friendship is so seriously threatened. What does Betsey learn about herself--and about her friend Veejay-- from the Bernice episode?
2. Define the character of Eugene Boyd. Who is he? How does he relate to the story of Betsey and her family? Where does he come from, what is he known for, and how does Betsey feel about him? Explain the significance of how Betsey and Eugene first meet. What activity is Eugene engaged in, and where is Betsey situated?
3. What do Betsey and Eugene learn about each other in chapter four, and what do we as readers learn about these two characters? Why does Betsey tell Eugene that she already has a boyfriend? And why does she suddenly decide to put on her Sunday- school dress?
4. What impression are we given of Vida (Betsey's grandmother) in this chapter? What does she think of Eugene? When Betsey says, "'Oh Grandma, you don't understand,'" Vida answers: "'That's what you think.'" How would you characterize the relationship Vida has with her grandchildren? What role does Vida play in the Brown home? How do her authority and influence over the children differ from Jane's? Or Greer's? What does Vida mean when she says of Betsey's fancy outfit: "'That dress does more telling than your mouth'll ever do'"? Compare and contrast the bond Betsey has with Vida to that which she has with Jane.
1. At the outset of the fifth chapter, we are introduced to Regina. Describe this character. What job does she do for the Brown family? Does she do her job well? Explain why or why not. How does each of the children feel about Regina, and what does their grandmother think of her?
2. Who is Roscoe? What role does he play in Regina's decision to leave the Brown household? Look again at the quarrel Regina has with Vida on pages 86 through 88. What are the two opposing viewpoints of this quarrel? How do Regina and Vida feel about one another, and why? Why does there seem to be no common ground between them?
3. Consider the ideas and illustrations of "love" that we are given in chapter five. How would you say love is defined by the various characters (such as Regina, Roscoe, Betsey, and Eugene)? Why does the phrase, "When you're really in love, there's never enough to go around" appear so many times, and what do you think it means?
4. On page 90, we encounter one of this book's primary themes: the integration of America's public schools. Consider what the idea of scholastic integration means to the Browns--as a family, as African American individuals, and as Black schoolchildren. How does Jane feel about sending her children to predominantly white schools on the other side of town? How does Greer feel about it? How do the parents' feelings about this issue reflect on their marriage more generally? Compare and contrast the issue of integration--as it is understood in the Brown home, that is-- to the "morning quiz" that we learned about in chapter one.
1. At the beginning of this chapter, the children are getting ready to depart for their first day of integrated education. Describe the atmosphere of the Brown's busy kitchen during this scene. Jane tells her husband (on page 97), "'Dammit, Greer, between you, the Supreme Court, the buses, and the boys, I think I might die. I swear, I think I just might die.'" What do you think Jane is nervous about or afraid of? Compare and contrast her outlook with that of her husband, who has stated earlier (on page 95) that "'separate and equal [is] not separate and equal, just separate.'" What differences between Jane and Greer are brought to the forefront by the prospect of integration?
2. Think back on the impression you had of Vida, Betsey's grandmother, while reading chapter six. What does she think of desegregation? How does she regard the matter as it relates to the children? On page 95, she keeps saying, "'I don't understand this. I just don't understand this.'" Then, on page 98, after the kids have gone off to catch their respective buses, she thinks to herself: "They got some nerve, those foolish urchins. They've got the honor of being Americans. They free and smart. They got good blood." Explain Vida's thoughts about what her grandchildren are faced with. Why are her emotions so paradoxical?
3. Allard is the youngest of the Brown children. One aspect of his being so young is that he always plays with matches. Another is that he cannot yet tie his shoes. Still another, more general aspect is how impressionable he is. Charlie, for example, opts to include Allard in his own troublemaking actions on more than one occasion. Identify at least two such instances, in this chapter and elsewhere. What impact does Charlie's schoolyard brawl with five boys of Italian descent have on Allard?
4. On page 95, Allard corrects a joking remark made by his father as if by rote: "'Daddy, I am not colored. I am a Negro.'" Later, Allard returns from school to announce (on page 106): "'Look, Grandma, the white folks didn't kill me.'" Vida's reply is delivered honestly, directly, and immediately: "'Of course not, Allard. They only kill little boys who don't mind.'" What is Jane's reaction to this exchange? How are Allard's ideas and feelings concerning white people influenced--both positively and negatively--by his elders? What about the other Brown children?
1. What does Betsey think of her new school? How does she like being around so many white kids? In the last chapter (on page 102), she admits to her boyfriend: "'They weren't nearly as bad as I thought they'd be, Eugene. Honest. Why I even made one friend. . . . But they're not like us. . . . It's almost like going to another country.'" Yet, as chapter seven begins, her perspective has clearly changed. Explain how it has changed, and why. What does it mean when Betsey realizes (on page 110), "[N]ow she was competing with the white children--as if that hadn't been the case in the beginning"?
2. Describe the hop-scotch game Betsey plays by herself on page 112. What does she write on the sidewalk? Why does she feel the need to write such things? And why does she run away from home, later in this chapter? How would you describe her behavior--is it mischievous, rebellious, adventuresome, or otherwise? Defend your answer with quotations from the novel.
3. Why does Greer say to Jane, on page 114: "'I'm going to learn how to play cards, so I could see you sometimes'"? What are the public and private reasons for Greer and Jane's troubled relationship? How do the increasingly apparent tensions and increasingly serious problems of their marriage affect their children, especially Betsey?
4. Consider the crucial function of music in this chapter. On page 114, Betsey turns the radio up loud while listening to Bessie Smith sing the blues, but her mother yells at her to turn it off and go to bed. "If it wasn't for Greer these children would have some sense," thinks Jane. "All that nasty colored music." But why is the music so important to Betsey? And why can't Jane recognize this? What does the music do to Betsey? What does it mean to her? And what about Vida? What are the special effects-- as detailed on page 115--that this music has on Betsey's grandmother? Finally, recall how Betsey is teased by her sisters Margot and Sharon for liking this "niggah noise" so much. What role does music play in Betsey's decision to run away? Does the music she hears in chapter seven symbolize, or stand for, anything other than itself? If so, what? What about elsewhere in the novel?
1. Where is Betsey headed when she runs away from home? And why has she chosen this particular destination? What does she hope to find there, and why does she consider this place preferable to her home? Also, describe the characters we meet in this chapter. What is Mrs. Maureen like? Describe her personality. What sort of business does she run--in public and in private? Why does Betsey look up to her? And who is Mr. Tavaneer?
2. Another character we meet in this chapter is one we have met before: Regina. What has happened to Regina since Betsey last saw her? What is she doing at Mrs. Maureen's beauty parlor? Betsey and Regina (or "Gina") obviously care about one another a great deal, yet they are very different people with very different backgrounds. Explain these differences. What does Gina mean when she tells Betsey (on page 136): "'[T]here's all different kinds of colored folks. You're one kind and I'm another, that's all.'" And explain why Gina wonders to herself, on the following page: "How could she ever have a child like Betsey, who heard the word colored and thought of something good?"
3. While being pampered by Mrs. Maureen on page 138, Betsey all of a sudden starts laughing--a loud and "inappropriate" laugh. What is Betsey laughing at? What is the vital realization that she has suddenly come to? Describe the epiphany Betsey has just experienced, and describe how it fits into the larger themes of this novel. Why is it so important that Betsey had this realization while away from home, on her own, and--given that her head is under a dryer and she cannot hear what anyone is saying--relatively by herself?
4. Describe the scene that chapter eight ends on. How does Betsey decide to conclude her personal quest? Why does she go to so much trouble to crown herself "Queen of the Negro Veiled Prophet"? What does it mean, this title she creates for herself? And how is Betsey able to claim, on page 140, with such confidence: "She wasn't afraid anymore. The city was hers." Explain in detail what the hero of this novel has conquered. Explain what it is that Betsey no longer fears.
1. Chapter nine opens with a prayer being spoken aloud. Who is saying this prayer, and why? Describe how the various members of the Brown family understand and practice their religious faith, in this chapter and elsewhere. How do Jane and Vida feel about religion? And how do the children feel? What about Greer? Explain the following passage, which appears on page 143: "Greer had faith in his people, not in Jesus, not in the police, not in the pastor called to comfort Vida, already mildly sedated to prevent aggravation of her heart."
2. Once Betsey has gone missing, how do the differing religious convictions of Jane and Greer further complicate their already volatile marriage? On page 145, Jane tells him: "'If you can't pray for your own daughter, maybe you don't belong in this house.'" Then Greer, who has decided to go look for his daughter by car, wonders how in the world "could he explain to Jane that Betsey wanted to be an Ikette." How are Jane and Greer's disagreements about religion related to, or indicative of, their disagreements about how to raise their children? And, after all, what does Betsey's desire to be an "Ikette" singer actually mean--both literally and figuratively?
3. When Betsey encounters her father at the hospital, she tells him (on page 149) why she ran away, admitting, among other things: "'I want my nappy hair to be pretty like Mommy's and refined like she is. And I just can't do it.'" So Greer tells her a secret: "'[Y]our mother's got a head full of nappy hair. She gets something done to it.'" Why does this superficial personal grooming habit, this rather trivial beauty-parlor detail, make Betsey feel much closer to her mother?
4. Upon her daughter's safe return, why does Jane identify with Betsey so strongly? Why does she think to herself, on page 153: "Maybe Betsey's excursion wasn't just a child's first itch to be in the world. Maybe Betsey's flight offered Jane a glimpse of herself fifteen years ago, when she wasn't always shouting 'no' or figuring what was for dinner"? And how does this bond that the mother feels for her daughter agree with, or stem from, the idea expressed in chapter nine's last sentence ("Jane was still becoming herself ")?
1. Look again at the first few pages of this chapter. What are Jane and Greer fighting about? What is the main point each parent is trying to make in this heated exchange?
2. As the fight continues for a couple of pages, what is each parent effectively arguing for? Explain why both Jane and Greer are so adamantly clinging to their convictions? Finally, why does Jane decide to go "'away for a while,'" slamming the front door behind her on page 160?
3. When Jane leaves, Greer immediately starts to pray that his wife will return to him. But, as we have seen already, Greer is not a religious person. Explain this conflicted behavior, and then explain how (on page 161) Greer can say to himself both "he didn't know how to go on without her" and "a man had to stand for something." What are the responsibilities that Greer has assigned for himself as a husband, father, doctor, and responsible African-American citizen? What are the conflicts inherent in these responsibilities?
4. How do the children react to Jane's departure? How do Greer and Vida react? What similarities and differences do you see in Jane's decision to leave home and Betsey's earlier decision to do the same?
1. Who is Carrie? Where did this vivid new character come from? Why is she now living and working in the Brown residence? Describe her background, physical appearance, personal attire, and manner of speaking and thinking. Does she have any family of her own? If so, where are they? Why does she refuse to use any of the bathrooms in the Browns' home? Compare and contrast Carrie to the other ladies who have looked after the Brown children thus far in the novel, including Bernice, Regina, Vida, and Jane. What qualities set Carrie apart? Has Carrie obtained results that the other women were incapable of? If so, what are they?
2. Consider the children's relations with Carrie. What do they think of her? Do they listen to her, obey her, and respect her? Support your answer by citing certain scenes or dialogue. Look again at the household chores that Carrie assigns and delegates to the children on pages 172 and 173. What sorts of things does Carrie teach the Brown children that their currently absent mother could not, or would not, have taught them before?
3. What does Vida think of Carrie, and what are her impressions based on? How does Mr. Jeff, the local gardener, feel about Carrie? What do we come to learn about Carrie and Mr. Jeff 's friendship? And why does Vida have a problem with this friendship?
4. Describe the bond that develops between Carrie and Betsey in this chapter. Why does their relationship become closer--more honest or tender perhaps--when Carrie tells Betsey (on page 171) about her own mother? What do we find out about Carrie's mother? How are Betsey's feelings about Carrie similar to--and different from--her feelings about Jane? In what ways is Carrie acting as a replacement mother-figure to Betsey and the other children? Describe the lecture that Carrie is planning to give Betsey as this chapter comes to an end. Why does Carrie think such a lecture is now required?
1. "'She works roots. I'm sure of it,'" is what Vida says to herself (on page 175) about Carrie. What does Vida mean by this? What does she fear Carrie is up to? Also, can you identify other examples of figurative language in Betsey Brown, as used by Vida or anyone else?
2. Look again at Vida's interior monologue on page 176. Why is she so suspicious of Carrie, and what are her other reasons for disliking Carrie so much? Explain the irony of Carrie's getting the whole house in order--and getting all of the children to not only behave but help out with the chores--during Jane's absence from the Brown home.
3. On page 180, Carrie tells the children about her deeply troubled past--and about her children, whom she has not seen in years. What has become of Carrie's past husbands, and where her children now? What sort of mother was Carrie? Why are the Brown children not bothered by the many unsettling skeletons in her closet? As a reader, did your view of Carrie change when you learned these things about her? Explain why or why not.
4. At the end of this chapter, after she has had an important conversation with Betsey, Carrie whispers a quotation to herself. Who and what is she quoting? What is the significance of this quote? Where have we seen it before, and what does it mean in the context of Betsey's crisis at school (that is, the problem she'd been discussing with Carrie in the first place)? Also, how does this quote apply to the larger themes and ideas of this novel?
1. What are we told about Jane's return, and what are we not told? Why do you think she has chosen to return to her family and her home? Support your answer with textual references.
2. Has Jane changed since her departure? How so? What aspects of her personal outlook and her feelings about her family seem fundamentally different? In particular, how has Jane's view of her husband changed?
3. Look again at the "short talk" Jane has with Carrie on page 193. Why is Jane so upset with her? What are the complaints that Jane is making, and do all of these issues seem justified to you? Explain your answer by citing the book as much as possible. And how does Carrie defend herself? Describe the touchy if not difficult relationship these two women have. Was such an uneasy relationship inevitable, given the circumstances of the novel? Explain why or why not.
4. Compare and contrast the "facts of female life" speeches delivered to the Betsey and the other Brown girls in this chapter. One is given by Jane; the other, by Carrie. What do Jane and Carrie's presentations tell us about the backgrounds, personalities, values, and priorities of their respective selves? How, especially, does Betsey react to these two short lectures? Given that she laughs during each conversation, how and why does Betsey's laughter differ from one to the next?
1. On page 200, we read that Jane thinks of her recent flight from both house and family as a "vacation." What does this term tell us about how she thinks of what she has done? Does she feel guilty for leaving? Or should she feel guilty in the first place? Does Jane seem likely to ever do something like this again? Explain why or why not. How does Greer feel about Jane's "vacation"? What is the state of their relationship-- or, how healthy does their marriage seem--as the book comes to a close?
2. When Carrie does not show up for duty come Monday morning (page 204), Betsey decides to cover for her. But, as we read: "Everything went haywire." All the other children start making one mess after another. The kitchen starts to fall to pieces. Compare and contrast this hectic scene to the one that begins the novel (wherein Betsey is getting coffee for her mother and trying to memorize a poem for school). What has changed? What has stayed the same? Do the characters seem more familiar to you? Or more real, or more important? Or are they every bit as unpredictable as they were when we first met them? Explain your answers.
3. What is the purpose of Carrie's urgent phone call, and what is the result? What has happened to Carrie? Why is it significant that we only hear one side of this phone call--that is, Jane's side? What are we told about Carrie's predicament, and what are we not told? Explain why the author may have wanted to leave the details of Carrie's problem to our imagination. Also, look back to pages 179 and 180, where Carrie tells Betsey: "I aint goin nowhere. Don't you worry bout a thing. I'm gointa stay right here with you. I've made enough mistakes in my life awready." In light of this exchange, were you surprised to see Carrie make a "mistake" that caused her to leave the Brown family? Explain why or why not.
4. How does Betsey react to Carrie's leaving? Is she really depressed by this event, or merely disappointed? How did you feel, as a reader, seeing Carrie go? Did her departure make for a happier or sadder ending? Does Jane's return to the Brown family lessen the impact of Carrie's exit? Explain why you do or do not think so. Finally, at the end of the novel, Betsey realizes that Carrie would have said there is "nothing dishonorable about being an Ikette." What is Betsey telling us, in sum, with this all-important last thought? What do we learn from her "Ikette dream" about Betsey's relationships with her mother, with her friend Carrie, and with the world that she sees from the tree outside her bedroom terrace?
Questions for Discussion
1. Think for a moment about the setting of Betsey Brown, the world in which the novel takes place. How familiar does this world seem? When is this novel set, and where, exactly? On page 16, we read: "Sound traveled uncannily in this house and everybody was always yelling to everybody else. Arguing all the time. Howdy-Doody or American Bandstand, Little Rock or Amos and Andy." Can you identify these images? What do they suggest to you? What are the historical and personal contexts of Betsey Brown? Discuss the conflicts, differences, and struggles at the heart of this story.
2. Look again at the epigraph that begins Betsey Brown, the poem by Jessica Hagedorn. Describe how it relates to the novel in general, and how it relates to the character of Betsey in particular.
3. Although this novel is entitled Betsey Brown, Betsey is not actually the narrator. Who is telling this story? Think about how the thoughts and feelings of the various characters are communicated to us, the readers. Is there any character we encounter whose thoughts and feelings we are not privy to, or is our third-person narrator also an omniscient one? How does the author of this book put us into the minds of her characters? Compare and contrast the voices, speech patterns, thought processes, and overall perspectives of any two of the main characters. How and why did these qualities seem so different as you were reading the book? How does the author achieve this? Does one character's voice or perspective carry more weight or have more authority in the novel, or are the personalities of the characters treated equally? Why do some characters in Betsey Brown use the words "ain't" and "colored" while other use the words "isn't" and "Negro?" Explain how real--or how true, credible, or believable--this story seemed to you, in light of how its characters were portrayed.
4. This is a passage from page 43: "Betsey always felt better when Papa came home. Then he'd play Machito or Lee Morgan. Sometimes he'd put on the colored radio and listen to the blues or turn Bo Diddley way up high. Betsey loved Jackie Wilson. She couldn't wait to see Jackie Wilson in person." Identify a few other passages where Betsey truly connects with those around her--friends, relatives, or strangers--through music. What does this novel tell us about the role played by popular culture in the formation of a young child's identity? Has your own experience with music resembled Betsey's in any way? Explain how, if so.
5. The historical figure of Emmet Till is mentioned at least twice in this novel, on pages 45 and 96. Who was this person, and what happened to him? Discuss other instances in this book where the story of our nation's Civil Rights movement collides with the story of Betsey and her friends and family. Since this is, among other things, a historical novel, what did it teach you about the history of race and racism in America? Do you feel in any way closer to history, having read Betsey Brown, or more sensitive to the experiences of those in the past? If so, identify specific passages in the text that explain why you feel this way. Also, did you find that you could personally identify with any of the characters in Betsey Brown? If so, say whom and explain why.
6. At the end of chapter five, Betsey once again climbs her favorite tree in order to peacefully and privately reflect on the world around her--and the world inside her. We read: "Through her tree she could see the stars and clouds that were so lithe the moon shone through them. She wondered if the white children saw things like that. Did they search the skies at night for beauty and answers to wishes? The darkness was a comfort to her. . . . This was one night she would see all the stars and the moon as the sun rose, when there was that peculiar mingling of past and tomorrows, when the sun glanced cross the sky to the moon hoverin over the telephone wires, and everyone else was ignorant of the powers of light and the dark." Night and day, darkness and light, and Black children and white children: what do these images seem to symbolize to Betsey? Discuss the symbolic importance of this passage. Identify other instances of symbolism in Betsey Brown.
7. Think about how St. Louis is portrayed in this book. What do we learn about the social, geographical, historical, and racial characteristics that it possessed in 1959? We know, of course, that it is a big city, yet it also seems like a small town sometimes. Where in the narrative do you get this impression, and what do you suppose is the cause of it? Who are Mrs. Blackman, Mr. Robinson, Mr. Tavaneer, Mrs. Maureen, and Mr. Jeff, and how do they contribute to the intimacy or closeness that Betsey seems to feel with regard to St. Louis? Near the end of the story, on page 207, we read: "Betsey lingered over her city making decisions and discoveries about herself that would change the world." Why is St. Louis "her city" by the end of the story, and what are important things that Betsey's is learning about herself? Is there any connection between Betsey's "decisions and discoveries" and the ownership or fond possession she seems to feel about St. Louis? Explain your answer by looking back on Betsey's many adventures in the city.
8. Considering such key issues as personal growth, intimate relationships, personality, familial responsibility, and one's perspectives of other people and the world at large, describe the changes that Jane and her daughter Betsey go through over the course of the novel. They both seem to be making a journey of self-discovery in the pages of this book, but what are they learning about themselves? How are the paths that they travel similar? How are they different?
9. Throughout the course of Betsey Brown, Vida spends a lot of time remembering the joy and laughter she once knew alongside her dear departed Frank. Jane spends a lot of time remembering the carefree days and love-struck happiness she used to know with Greer, before they had several children to look after and a gigantic house to take care of. Comment on the role that past plays in Betsey Brown, not just the personal reflections of the characters but also larger issues like slavery. What does Vida mean when she refers to something that happened before she was born by saying (on page 105), "'There's some things you never forget, Jane. It runs in you blood memory. That's what it does'"? What are the themes that "run in the blood memory" of Ntozake Shange's novel?
10. On several occasions in this story, we learn what a character is thinking or feeling by witnessing him or her sing an improvised song, whether it is a blues sung on a sidewalk, a jump-rope chant done at recess, or something else entirely. As an exercise in creative writing and creative thinking, take one of the songs you have read in this novel and turn it into your own. Substitute all the words however you would like to, but try to keep the very same rhythm as the song you have chosen. Change one of the songs in Betsey Brown into a tune about how your felt when you woke up this morning, for example. Share your own song with your class, if so inclined and inspired, and then compare communicating in song to communicating with just words. Which form do you think Betsey would prefer, and why?