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Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange
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Betsey Brown

by Ntozake Shange

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193561,408 (3.82)1
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My thoughts:
• This is a another book that I wondered why it has taken me so long to read as it has been sitting on my shelf unread for so so long – maybe it is because I knew my granddaughter would love this book and was waiting on until she became of age to highly recommend to her.
• Though I am not a big fan of coming-of-age stories or YA stories – I was immediately engaged from the first chapter and became invested in the characters so much that I quickly read this book over two nights.
• Shange is a consummate storyteller whose ability to address issues relating to Black women is uncannily good and so her characters come across as relatable and heartfelt.
• Betsey Brown was written in 1985 and Shange wrote this book because she wanted to provide reading material for adolescent African American girls. And does an excellent job of creating scenes/situations that are universal to adolescents; bodily changes, first budding love interests, the need for privacy and getting a sense of who they are and who they want to be as adults and into this mix Shange also confronts issues specific to the AA experience.
• Enjoyed how Betsey’s journey is paralleling the changes/journey of AAs in the beginning age of the Civil Rights Movement, especially after the Brown vs The Board of Education decision. Loved how the family name is Brown to help solidify the journey.
• Betsey Brown’s story is about being 13 years old, being black, and being female in 1959 St. Louis as they decided to ‘desegregate the schools.
• I liked how this storyline explored the tensions that Betsey, her mother and grandmother has as a “privileged” member of a doubly oppressed group – black women and how each was a product of their time and class.
• Riveting storyline, engaging characters, enthralling look at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, and beautifully rendered writing made Betsey Brown a highly satisfying captivating read for me. Highly recommend this book be part of school and public libraries and is certainly a must read for lovers of coming-of-age stories and African American life.
• While I have read other works by Ntozake Shange and I once again reminded of her contributions to the writings of the black woman’s aesthetic and am motivated to reading more of her work. ( )
  bookmuse56 | May 26, 2014 |
coming of age story of a black girl in St. Louis in the 50s. really good portrayal of a black family with color, class, gender, and political differences. read it about six times as a young girl and got something new every time.
  ah425 | Mar 11, 2008 |
My wife and I once reviewed “books for young adults.” I always found the term confusing. Our readers were mostly high-school English teachers. Most adolescent novels, labeled by the publishers as “young adult,” were really addressed to younger adolescents, “tween-agers.” Most high-school students, if they read at all (!), read whatever other adults were reading: best sellers, science fiction, mysteries, romances, popular adult fiction, and a few (very few) old favorites. But every now and then, a book would come along, usually published for an adult market, but dealing with growing up/becoming an adult. Those addressed to women and girls, or told from a female point of view, my wife usually reviewed. But somehow I happened to draw Ntozake Shange’s Betsey Brown. It fit the term “young adult” and the audience perfectly.

Set in my beloved St. Louis, not far from Soldan High School, in 1959, the year of school integration, it is the story of the daily lives of an extended black family, centering on Betsey’s adolescent awakening in counterpoint with her social worker mother Jane and an opinionated Charlestonian grandmother Vida as well as with her father Greer, a dedicated doctor and an apostle of black pride and jazz, a teenage cousin Charlie she eavesdrops on in the back stairway—and her grandmother’s memories of her Frank, “sucha gentle man and couldn’t nobody tell he was a Negro, not even when he opened his mouth.” Indeed, as the blurb on the dust jacket promises, it is a story that “traces the stress lines created in black families not only by racism and court-ordered integration, but also by the class conflict and cultural estrangement found within the black community itself.” But, at heart, it is a story of a family being a family, and proud of it. Greer and I knew that, and we were glad.

Now, understand, not all black families in St. Louis in 1959 lived on a tree-lined street in an old house of fifteen or twenty rooms, with three floors, cupolas, balconies, a porch that went almost all the way around, and (if I counted ’em right) four stairways, an elegant front one and three at the back of the house that once served as the servants’ quarters. Betsey knew every inch of the house; she found places to hide out, to explore, to day-dream, to look out on her city from sunrise to sunset: “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.” (p. 4)

One has a sense that Betsey, who wants to be a writer, is really Ntozake Shange, and that this is her city and her family. But all the other characters have their say, too: her quarrelsome sisters; her little brother Allard, who likes to play with matches; lissome, compassionate, responsible Jane; Greer, who marches the kids around and quizzes them on Black culture (“The Negro race is a mighty one / The work of the Negro is never done”); even Grandma, who has her own views but keeps some of them to herself.

“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. . . . 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.”

Oh, there are tensions all right, and quarrels that become Quarrels. Betsey likes music and dancing that Jane and Vida don’t approve of. Betsey would like to be an Ikette, joining Ike and Tina Turner. Greer understands; not Jane. Greer wants them all to protest at a posh, white folks’ hotel, to be activists. “Not my babies,” Jane pronounces. Betsey retreats to her poetry, Paul Laurence Dunbar and Countee Cullen. (“Speak up Ike, an’ ’spress yo’self.”) Then she’s insulted by a white teacher in a newly integrated school who doesn’t even know that Paul Laurence Dunbar is an American or that colored folks can write poetry. Betsey runs away from school.

And that’s just one running away in the book. First one family member, then another, decides to take “a vacation” from the rest.

And then there’s Eugene Boyd. And kissing. And the all efficient housekeeper Carrie and her illicit trysts with Mr. Jeff Fields, the gardener.

Tension and attention. The rhythms of family life and the cacophony of family discord. And Vida has to go outdoors and look after her zinnias and dahlias.

This is about a city and a year; it is about a family under stress. They survive. Do they overcome?

“Betsey lingered over her city making decisions and discoveries that would change the world.”
  bfrank | Aug 5, 2007 |
Written in such a way that the reader is able to see the lost of innocence and the awakening of racial realities through the thoughts of a child. A highly suggested read. ( )
  awhayouseh | May 13, 2007 |
Bestey Brown is the oldest daughter in a socially aware and relatively privileged African American family in 1960s St. Louis. The novel focuses on Betsey's family life, her path into adolescence, and her and her family's experience of life during the introduction of school desegregation in their city.

Betsey takes her place in the world from the foundation of her family -- Betsey's parents and grandmother have each instilled in her generation a variety of different kinds of faith in the essential glory of their ethnic history. In the Brown household, being Black is something to be proud of, and the achievements and experiments of Africans and members of the African diaspora are daily acknowledged, explored, and celebrated. For example, Betsey's father wakes the family up each morning with the beat of a conga drum and a quick question for each child about African, Caribbean, or African American history, current events, or culture:

"Betsey, what's the most standard of blues forms?"
"Twelve-bar blues, Daddy."
"Charlie, who invented the banjo?"
"Africans who called it a banjar, Uncle Greer."
"Sharon, what is the name of the President of Ghana?"
"Um. . . Nkrumah, I think."
"Thinking's not good enough, a Negro has got to know. Besides, it's Kwame Nkrumah. Margot, where is Trinidad?"
"Off the coast of Venezuela, but it's English-speaking."

This embracing of Blackness as something to be take pride in and familiar with doesn't happen without conflict, though. Betsey's parents have many differences of opinion, about lofty concerns (how to actively live out a commitment to equality without endangering the safety of their children), and everyday things (when is jazz a great art form, and when is it low-class "jungle music"?)

And, even though Betsey's family is a place of strength for its members, the introduction of school integration in St. Louis tests that strength. All the children are bussed to faraway schools, and the family is under greater than average pressure as the grownups consider history, progress, and the state of the race; while each child deals with the stress of additional travel, isolation, and the anxieties of trying to learn among all those unfriendly white people.

Betsey Brown is not a tragedy, or a thriller. There's tension and conflict, anxiety and reconciliation -- plenty of high emotion. But essentially it is a sensitive novel about a child who is ready to begin becoming a woman, and the circumstances of her life.

I first read the book when it was relatively new, and I was a teenager myself. That first reading was the famous magical experience that literature is often advertised as providing -- it drew me into a world I would never experience in my own life, it challenged my way of thinking, and gave me the opportunity to have emotions specific to the experience of reading the book. Betsey Brown reads just as true to me now as it did twenty years ago, and it is well worth your time. I would especially recommend sharing the book with any 10-15 year olds you know who are looking for some interesting leisure reading.
  ruby | Nov 14, 2005 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312134347, Paperback)

This is a unique and vividly told novel about a girl named Betsey Brown, an African American seventh-grader growing up in St. Louis, Missouri. While rendering a complete portrait of this girl, author Ntozake Shange also profiles her friends, her family, her home, her school, and her world. This world, though a work of fiction, is based closely and carefully on actual history, specifically on the nationwide school desegregation events of the Civil Rights movement in America’s recent past. As such, Betsey Brown is a historical novel that will speak to and broaden the perspectives of readers both familiar with and unaware of America’s domestic affairs of 1950s and 1960s.

Shange has set her story in the autumn of 1959, the year St. Louis started to desegregate its schools. In May of 1954, in its ruling on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka--a verdict now seen by many as the origin of the Civil Rights movement--the United States Supreme Court outlawed school segregation. The novel is firmly located in the wake of this landmark ruling; the plot of Shange’s novel and the history of America’s quest for integration during the Civil Rights era are fundamentally entwined. Thus textual references abound to the watershed events at Little Rock’s Central High School in the September of 1957, for example, and to "fire-bombings and burningcrosses" in the South as well as "'battalions of police and crowds of crackers'" at a demonstration in St. Louis.

Betsey is the oldest child in a large, remarkable, and slightly eccentric African American family. Her father is a doctor who wakes his children each morning with point-blank questions about African history and Black culture while beating on a conga drum; her mother is a beautiful, refined, confident, and strong-willed social worker who is overwhelmed by the vast size of her young family and who cares very little for “all that nasty colored music.”

Indeed, Betsey’s whole existence can be seen as a perceptive, adventuresome, and still-developing hybrid of her parents’ most distinctive qualities. Her feelings of internal conflict are often clearer or easier to identify when seen as the collision of her father’s dreams and her mother’s manners, or her father’s music and her mother’s cosmetics. There are several fascinating characters in this novel—and encountering, describing, and trying to figure out these characters will appeal to students of all backgrounds—but the two characters who, after Betsey, most influence the directions, themes, and issues of this tale are Betsey’s mother and father, Jane and Greer. Their her parents' difficult marriage, like the difficult era of desegregation that has only begun in St. Louis and the rest of America, is the realistic, conflicted, yet ultimately hopeful backdrop before which Betsey’s lip-synching, poem-reciting, soul-searching, truth-seeking, tree-climbing, and fact-finding take place. In fact, her parents' stubborn disagreements, heartfelt reconciliations, past glories, and future worries are all, at various times in the book, anchored or else set adrift by the activities of theireldest daughter (and first teenager!). Betsey’s running away sends her parents into a vicious fight, while her subsequent return seems to bring them closer together (if only temporarily).

As a novel, Betsey Brown is panoramic yet personal. It tells us what being a Black student in the early days of American desegregation was like by showing us what being Betsey Brown is like. This is an episodic, character-driven saga of the Black experience in St. Louis at the end of the “Fabulous Fifties,” but it is also a story about the many and various—and basically familiar—growing pains of a precocious, passionate, spunky young protagonist. We see Betsey fall in love; make friends; say prayers; argue with, look after, inspire, and ignore her younger siblings; run away from home; return to those who love and value her above all else; and switch from a school she knows and enjoys to a school on the other side of town where she is a minority and an outcast. We see Betsey outside the very door of her womanhood, we are told all about the steps and path that have brought her to this door, and we are left to wonder at what she will find beyond it.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 11:17:55 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

In 1957--the year in which school integration stirred both Blacks and whites--in St. Louis, thirteen-year-old Betsey Brown encounters the awkwardness, responsibilities, and the elusive promise of romance of adolescence. The portrait of an extended black family where the thirteen-year-old daughter is striving to be grown up while facing prejudice and school busing pressures outside the family.… (more)

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