On this blog, when I asked readers to recommend a book for a school-age audience that is something Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is not — a book by a person of color about a person of color — more than one person suggested Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.*
I’ve finally read it, and so have my 9-year-old twins.
This captivating memoir, written in verse, is better for a slightly younger audience than To Kill a Mockingbird is. In my opinion, based on what my kids read, Brown Girl Dreaming will likely appeal to kids in 4th through 6th grade, while To Kill a Mockingbird is probably best for kids in 7th through 9th.
Brown Girl Dreaming focuses on the author’s life as she grows up in the 1960s and 1970s in Ohio, South Carolina, and New York. We meet her family, her teachers, and her friends. We learn about her hopes and dreams. While To Kill a Mockingbird is a sensational portrayal of overt injustice against African Americans seen through the eyes of a white child, Brown Girl Dreaming conveys the daily reality of racism, often subtle, seen through the eyes of a black child. It’s a poignant and powerful book that children should read. I’m glad my twins have.
Woodson was born in Ohio with roots in South Carolina during a time of profound societal change. Near the beginning of the book, she writes:
I am born as the South explodes,
Too many people too many years
enslaved, then emancipated
but not free, the people
who look like me
and getting killed
so that today—
February 12, 1963
and every day from this moment on,
brown children like me can grow up
free. Can grow up
learning and voting and walking and riding
wherever we want.
That last part is the promise of the laws passed during Woodson’s childhood, particularly the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But for many people, that promise is broken, thanks to our court system, which, for example, invalidated an important part of the Voting Rights Act only a few years ago.
Our highest court is poised to hear another important voting rights case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, et al, which stems from Ohio, where Woodson’s memoir begins. As I discussed in Will the Supreme Court Allow States To Penalize Americans Who Don’t Vote?, the case focuses on Ohio’s suspicious process of purging infrequent voters from its rolls. The process assumes that infrequent voters have moved, a faulty assumption that (1) ignores the fact that the right to vote includes the right not to vote, and (2) ultimately strips a fundamental right from people who haven’t voted because of obstacles to voting.
Voting isn’t easy. I say that as a local judge of election in a state that neighbors Ohio (and may employ a similar purging process). In my state, we have limited voting hours, no early voting (other than limited absentee ballots), long lines in many precincts, improperly printed poll books, and unresponsive voter services on the county level.
Those lucky enough to receive a “voter ready” slip then have to read the tiny print on the machine, navigate the confusing ballot design, figure out which buttons to push, and then how to exit. Every election, there are some people who continue to stand in the booth after they’ve cast their ballot, waiting for the curtains to open, which doesn’t happen automatically in my county. Do you know how embarrassed they are when they finally leave? They remind me of how awkward and alienating voting often is, and that’s the case even for those who are able to access the polling place and afford the time off from work and the transportation required to get there to wait in line.
As the National Disability Rights Network, et al wrote in their amicus brief (PDF) in this case:
[T]he burdens of long lines do not fall evenly on all voters. … Recent research shows that wait times in minority neighborhoods, which are also disproportionately poor, are about twice the length of wait times in mostly white neighborhoods… [The] increased obstacles to voting… fall doubly hard on low-income voters because ‘they possess few of the resources needed to overcome those costs.’ The natural result of the foregoing is dramatically lower turnout among low-income voters.
Thus, infrequent voting is not necessarily an indication that someone has moved and is therefore ineligible to vote in that location. Ohio is simply using that excuse to make it even harder for people to vote. It’s a voter suppression scheme that will only further ensure that one of the dreams in Brown Girl Dreaming — that “brown children… [c]an grow up learning and voting and walking and riding wherever we want” — will never become a reality for many people.
The Supreme Court was scheduled to hear arguments in this case on November 8th, but that date has been postponed. [Update: The court heard arguments in this case on January 10, 2018]
*Thank you to Laila @ Big Reading Life & Peggy Adams for recommending Brown Girl Dreaming to me!