Monday, February 2, 2015

A paper on Women of Brewster Place

The title of my paper is “Plight of a Black Woman: A Critical Study of The Women of Brewster Place”.

“They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place. They came, they went, grew up, and grew old beyond their years. Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story.”

“When you’re a black woman, you seldom get to do what you just want to do; you always do what you have to do.”

Born in 1950, Gloria Naylor had witnessed her parents migrating from rural southern communities to large, industrial northern cities, during the Great Migration of African-Americans. The Women of Brewster Place, which is her first novel, reflects this dual cultural inheritance. The stories that reflected her own experiences as an African-American woman also influenced some parts of it.

Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye published in 1965, which received widespread critical acclaim, had a profound effect on Naylor. It gave her the confidence and authority she needed to write about the places and people she knew.

The Women of Brewster Place was published in 1982 after Naylor completed a master’s degree in African-American studies at Yale. The novel got many appreciations from the critics and authors for its lyrical prose style and its frank yet hopeful portrayal of an African-American community struggling to survive in a depressed landscape. Through this work, Naylor tried to present the ideas that comprised of mainly the experiences of African-Americans, especially those of black women.

The Women of Brewster Place reflects on many ideas including class, gender, color, sexuality, and general reflections on the African-American experience in the United States, from the legacy of the Civil Rights Era to the importance of faith and religion.

Women, who came to Brewster Place in search of a home, form the basis of this novel. The concept of home is well explored in the novel, it is a place where relationships flower and breathe. Brewster Place is a housing development in an unnamed city, a poor neighbourhood on a dead-end street. It seems destined to be an unfortunate place since the people linked to its creation are all corrupt. In words of Naylor, I quote, “Brewster Place was the bastard child of several clandestine meetings between the alderman of the sixth district and the managing director of Unico Realty Company”, I unquote.

The Women of Brewster Place is a fictional portrayal of events that occur during the challenging times of several women’s lives - Mattie Michael, Etta Mae Johnson, Kiswana Browne, Lucielia Louise Turner, Cora Lee, Lorraine, and Theresa. The male characters merely play the roles of antagonists for the women who are the central concern in the novel. Men are used as dramatic devices to bring conflict, of some sort, into the lives of the women residing in Brewster Place. The novel further consists of a second person omniscient view, allowing the reader to gain insight of the characters thoughts and feelings.

Naylor has efficiently used ‘Personification’ from beginning till the end, giving voices to the mute objects. It starts with Personification of The Brewster Place as a character itself, how it was born and how it looked during its youth. As described in the novel, I quote, “The gray bricks of the buildings were the color of dull silver during Brewster Place’s youth”, I unquote. As we further move deeper into one of the stories in the novel, we find instances when even the church is personified. “Canaan Baptist Church, a brooding, ashen giant, sat in the middle of a block of rundown private homes. Its multi-colored, dome-shaped eyes glowered into the darkness.”

Towards the end, there is another more prominent example, where blood oozes out of the bricks of the wall of the Brewster Place, aptly symbolizing the unending plight of the residents and the death of the dead-end street.

Throughout The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor emphasized the importance of sister hood by showing how the women are strengthened by their relationships with one another and proving that men are not necessary to their survival or happiness. 

In one of the recent Bollywood Films, ‘Queen’ directed by Vikas Bahl, a similar theme has been taken up. Women don’t need to depend on men for happiness. 

Surviving racism, rape, war, childhood neglect, and poverty, the women in this novel pull together and share a sense of sisterhood. They are all joined in their community by loss and all have a real sense, which the reader can relate to. Naylor's people are real, touchable, and tragically elegant. 

The Women of Brewster Place, attempts to trace Black women’s migration from slavery to freedom and submissiveness to self-assertion. All the women characters in the novel are exemplary of many African American women who still struggle to find a place of their own.

Each character comes as a ray of hope in the otherwise dark world. Kiswana Browne is introduced as a young revolutionist, who is determined to bring a change in the living conditions of her people. She is born in a family that can offer her a comfortable life and yet she does not want to lose her identity as a Black. So she leaves Linden Hills and resolves to stay at Brewster Place where she would be able to lead a life with her people. She is so proud to be a Black that she even adopts an African name; she becomes Kiswana instead of Melanie. She fights with her mother for remarking the black as ‘them’. In her own words, I quote, “What do you mean, these people. They’re my people and yours, too, Mama - we’re all black. But maybe you’ve forgotten that over in Linden Hills”, I unquote.

Naylor gives a graphic picture of Kiswana’s efforts to unite the women of Brewster Place to find solutions for their common problems. Kiswana also goes out of her way to help Cora Lee deal with her children. She compelled them to attend the production of a Shakespeare play being staged in the park. Cora Lee’s life takes a turn by Kiswana’s brief appearance and she starts taking interest in her children. She changes her ways and cleans the house and the children, dresses them up for the play. The performance at the play, further moves Cora Lee and by the end, she begins to imagine a better future for her children.

Kiswana Browne is thus, the representative of the young population of black women in America. The day women unite and fight for themselves; all kind of discrimination will come to an end, be it Gender Discrimination or Color Discrimination.

Another central character, Mattie Michael, had to leave her parent’s home when she got pregnant with the child of Butch Fuller. Miss Eva Turner plays a vital role in Mattie's life by taking her in during her loneliness and destitution and treating Mattie and her child, as if they are her own family. Mattie struggled to give her child utmost care yet he grew up to be as mischievous as he could be. He got into further trouble when he killed a man and was jailed. But here too as an epitome of an ever loving mother, Mattie fights for him. But Basil flees and Mattie is stuck with no son and no home. Instead of her just dwelling on the situation she moves forward and moves to Brewster Place. When she reaches there she ends up becoming a mentor to the other women who were having a hard time at the Brewster Place.

Naylor uses Mattie to portray the strengthening of women through other women. Mattie plays the role of a daughter to Miss Eva, a sister to Etta Mae, and a mother to Lucielia, thereby providing a support to them. 

The sisterhood between Mattie and Etta Mae Johnson is illustrated by each woman's willingness to help the other in their most trying times.  Etta’s long lasting struggle, in search of a dignified life and a decent life partner, highlights one of the common problems of most of the black women.

Lorraine and Theresa come as the lesbian couple introduced towards the end of the novel. They together raise the issue of sexuality. Lorraine as opposed to Theresa cares about how people see and think about her. She tries her best to fit in the Brewster Place with the rest of the women but a woman named Sophie gives Lorraine a hard time about her sexuality and taunts her.

Ben is the only one who befriends Lorraine as he had lost his crippled daughter and claims to see her in Lorraine. Ironically, Lorraine kills Ben in her frenzied efforts to save herself against her attackers. Here Naylor shows us one of the cruelest realities of the society we live in. Black women are not only prey for white men; but also for their own men. The gang rape of Lorraine brings this horrible reality to the center. Lorraine’s rape at the dead end wall shows a helpless state of women in African - American Community. She is attacked by a gang of teenagers. After the boy leaves her batter and bloody, the other one mercilessly sponges her. A black woman is smashed by her own men. Clearly, a black woman is not only exploited by whites, but within her own community, she is rendered unsafe. What can be a more brutal picture!

With whatever little strength that she had, she drags a loose brick towards the figure and bashes the person in the face, without knowing it is Ben and not the gang men who destroyed her completely.

Ben happens to be the first black resident of Brewster Place, and thus his death at the wall of Brewster Place is symbolic. It signifies the death of a community, of its inability to hold together for long. In the last scene, when the women gather to chip away at the wall that imprisons them, we are aware of the fact that the community rebellion has finally taken place. In one of the related critical essays, titled, ‘New Black Feminist Criticism (1985-2000) Barbara Christian mentions, “Brewster Place residents are displaced again, just as they had been before. They are as powerless as they were when they first came to Brewster Place.”

Thus, The Women of Brewster Place becomes a narrative of sexism and racism. It is a reflection of the pain and suffering of women who have been oppressed and discriminated against on the score of race and sex. Women like Mattie, Luciela and Cora Lee are all at Brewster Place because they have nowhere else to go; they have reached the end of the road, a dead-end because of their racial and sexual identity. They have been abandoned by their men and have to look after themselves and their children single-handedly. Traumatized and economically vulnerable, these poor women cannot survive in the white world. Brewster Place echoes with the blues, but there are glimpses of a subdued joy also. Black women are tough and enduring; they are the survivors as well as the victims.

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