The Women of Brewster Place
The Women of Brewster PlaceGloria Naylor
For Further Study
The Women of Brewster Place depicts seven courageous black women struggling to survive life's harsh realities. Since the book was first published in 1982, critics have praised Gloria Naylor's characters. They contend that her vivid portrayal of the women, their relationships, and their battles represents the same intense struggle all human beings face in their quest for long, happy lives. For example, in a review published in Freedomways, Loyle Hairston says that the characters "… throb with vitality amid the shattering of their hopes and dreams." Many commentators have noted the same deft touch with the novel's supporting characters; in fact, Hairston also notes, "Other characters are … equally well-drawn."
Most critics consider Naylor one of America's most talented contemporary African-American authors. Her success probably stems from her exploration of the African-American experience, and her desire to "… help us celebrate voraciously that which is ours," as she tells Bellinelli in the interview series, In Black and White. She stresses that African Americans must maintain their identity in a world dominated by whites. Hairston, however, believes Naylor sidesteps the real racial issues. In his Freedomways review, he says of The Women of Brewster Place: "Naylor's first effort seems to fall in with most of the fiction being published today, which bypasses provocative social themes to play, instead, in the shallower waters of isolated personal relationships."
The oldest of three girls, Naylor was born in New York City on January 25, 1950. Her family moved several times during her childhood, living at different times in a housing project in upper Bronx, a Harlem apartment building, and in Queens. When Naylor graduated from high school in 1968, she became a minister for the Jehovah's Witnesses. To fund her work as a minister, she lived with her parents and worked as a switchboard operator. In 1974, Naylor moved first to North Carolina and then to Florida to practice full-time ministry, but had to work in fast-food restaurants and as a telephone operator to help support her religious work. She left the Jehovah's Witnesses in 1975 and moved back home; shortly after returning to New York, she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Later that year, Naylor began to study nursing at Medgar Evers College, then transferred to Brooklyn College of CUNY to study English. Two years later, she read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye; it was the first time she had read a novel written by a black woman. Dismayed to learn that there were very few books written by black women about black women, she began to believe that her education in northern integrated schools had deprived her of learning about the long tradition of black history and literature. She resolved to write about her heritage—the black woman in America. She completed The Women of Brewster Place in 1981, the same year she received her Bachelor of Arts degree.
Naylor earned a Master of Arts degree in Afro-American Studies from Yale University in 1983. That same year, she received the American Book Award for Best First Novel, served as writer-in-residence at Cummington Community of the Arts, and was a visiting lecturer at George Washington University. Since 1983, Naylor has continued to write, lecture, and receive awards for her writing.
Naylor attributes the success of The Women of Brewster Place as well as her other novels to her ability to infuse her work with personal experience. While Naylor's characters are fictional, they immortalize the spirit of her own grandmother, great aunt, and mother.
Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place is made up of seven stories of the women who live on Brewster Place, a dead end street cut off from the city by a wall.
Mattie's journey to Brewster Place begins in rural Tennessee, but when she becomes pregnant she leaves town to avoid her father's wrath. For a while she manages to earn just enough money to pay rent on the room she shares with her baby, Basil. One night a rat bites the baby while they are sleeping and Mattie begins to search for a better place to live. Just as she is about to give up, she meets Eva Turner, an old woman who lives with her granddaughter, Ciel. Eva invites Mattie in for dinner and offers her a place to stay. Years later when the old woman dies, Mattie has saved enough money to buy the house. Ciel's parents take her away, but Mattie stays on with Basil. She refuses to see any faults in him, and when he gets in trouble with the law she puts up her house to bail him out of jail. When he jumps bail, she loses the house she had worked thirty years to own, and her long journey from Tennessee finally ends in a small apartment on Brewster Place.
Etta Mae Johnson
Though Etta's journey starts in the same small town as Mattie's, the path she takes to Brewster Place is very different. Discovering early on that America is not yet ready for a bold, confident, intelligent black woman, she learns to survive by attaching herself "to any promising rising black star, and when he burnt out, she found another." She joins Mattie on Brewster Place after leaving the last in a long series of men. Attending church with Mattie, she stares enviously at the "respectable" wives of the deacons and wishes that she had taken a different path. Eyeing the attractive visiting preacher, she wonders if it is not still possible for her to change her lot in life. When Reverend Woods clearly returns her interest, Etta gladly accepts his invitation to go out for coffee, though Mattie expresses her concerns about his intentions. By the end of the evening Etta realizes that Mattie was right, and she walks up Brewster Street with a broken spirit. As she climbs the stairs to the apartment, however, she hears Mattie playing Etta's "loose life" records. With pleasure she realizes that someone is waiting up for her.
Kiswana is a young woman from a middle-class black family. Idealistic and yearning to help others, she dropped out of college and moved onto Brewster Place to live amongst other African-American people. She resents her conservative parents and their middle-class values and feels that her family has rejected their black heritage. When her mother comes to visit her they quarrel over Kiswana's choice of neighborhood and over her decision to leave school. Kiswana thinks that she is nothing like her mother, but when her mother's temper flares Kiswana has to admit that she admires her mother and that they are more alike that she had realized.
Lucielia Louise Turner
Ciel, the grandchild of Eva Turner, also ends up on Brewster Place. Her chapter begins with the return of the boyfriend who had left her eleven months before when their baby, Serena, was only a month old. She is relieved to have him back, and she is still in love with him, so she tries to ignore his irresponsible behavior and mean temper. When she becomes pregnant again, however, it becomes harder to deny the problems. He complains that he will never be able to get ahead with her and two babies to care for, and although she does not want to do it, she gets an abortion. When he leaves her anyway, she finally sees him for what he is, and only regrets that she had not had this realization before the abortion. As she is thinking this, they hear a scream from Serena, who had stuck a fork in an electrical outlet. After the child's death, Ciel nearly dies from grief. She stops eating and refuses to take care of herself, but Mattie will not let her die and finally gets Ciel to face her grief.
Cora Lee began life as a little girl who loved playing with new baby dolls. As a grown woman she continues to love the feel and smell of new babies, but once they grow into children she is frustrated with how difficult they are. She stops even trying to keep any one man around; she prefers the "shadows" who come in the night. With these anonymous men, she gets pregnant, but doesn't have to endure the beatings or disappointment intimacy might bring. To pacify Kiswana, Cora Lee agrees to take her children to a Shakespeare play in the local park. As she watches the actors on stage and her children in the audience she is filled with remorse for not having been a more responsible parent. She vows that she will start helping them with homework and walking them to school. She comes home that night filled with good intentions. She will encourage her children, and they can grow up to be important, talented people, like the actors on the stage. But when she finds another "shadow" in her bedroom, she sighs, and lets her cloths drop to the floor.
When Lorraine and Teresa first move onto Brewster street, the other women are relieved that they seem like nice girls who will not be after their husbands. But soon the neighbors start to notice the loving looks that pass between the two women, and soon the other women in the neighborhood reject Lorraine's gestures of friendship. Teresa, the bolder of the two, doesn't care what the neighbors think of them, and she doesn't understand why Lorraine does care. Feeling rejected both by her neighbors and by Teresa, Lorraine finds comfort in talking to Ben, the old alcoholic handyman of Brewster Place. Lorraine reminds Ben of his estranged daughter, and Lorraine finds in Ben a new father to replace the one who kicked her out when she refused to lie about being a lesbian. One night after an argument with Teresa, Lorraine decides to go visit Ben. As she passes through the alley near the wall, she is attacked by C.C. Baker and his friends, the teenage boys who terrorize Brewster Place. All six of the boys rape her, leaving her near death. In her delirium and pain she sees movement at the end of the alley, and she picks up a brick to protect herself from what she perceives as a possible threat. She beats the drunken and oblivious Ben to death before Mattie can reach her and stop her.
The Block Party
For a week after Ben's death it rains continuously, and although they will not admit it to each other, all the women dream of Lorraine that week. The sun comes out for the block party that Kiswana has been organizing to raise money to take the landlord to court. The party seems joyful and successful, and Ciel even returns to see Mattie. But even Ciel, who doesn't know what has happened by the wall, reports that she has been dreaming of Ben and Lorraine. The rain begins to fall again and Kiswana tries to get people to pack up, but they seem desperate to continue the party. Then Cora Lee notices that there is still blood on the bricks. In a frenzy the women begin tearing down the wall. Then suddenly Mattie awakes. It is morning and the sun is still shining; the wall is still standing, and everyone is getting ready for the block party.
Ben belongs to Brewster Place even before the seven women do. The first black on Brewster Place, he arrived in 1953, just prior to the Supreme Court's Brown vs. Topeka decision. The Mediterranean families knew him as the man who would quietly do repairs with alcohol on his breath. He bothered no one and was noticed only when he sang "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot."
As black families move onto the street, Ben remains on Brewster Place. He befriends Lorraine when no one else will. She reminds him of his daughter, and this friendship assuages the guilt he feels over his daughter's fate. When he share-cropped in the South, his crippled daughter was sexually abused by a white landowner, and Ben felt powerless to do anything about it. He lives with this pain until Lorraine mistakenly kills him in her pain and confusion after being raped.
Kiswana grew up in Linden Hills, a "rich" neighborhood not far from Brewster Place. She leaves her middle-class family, turning her back on an upbringing that, she feels, ignored her heritage. Light-skinned, with smooth hair, Kiswana wants desperately to feel a part of the black community and to help her fellow African Americans better their lives. After dropping out of college, Kiswana moves to Brewster Place to be a part of a predominantly African-American community. She becomes friends with Cora Lee and succeeds, for one night, in showing her a different life. In a ironic turn, Kiswana believes that her mother denies her heritage; during a confrontation, she is surprised when she learns that the two share a great deal.
See Kiswana Browne
Butch Fuller exudes charm. Built strong by his years as a field hand, and cinnamon skinned, Mattie finds him irresistible. Mattie's father, Samuel, despises him. He believes that Butch is worthless and warns Mattie to stay away from him. Butch succeeds in seducing Mattie and, unbeknownst to him, is the father of the baby she carries when she leaves Rock Vale, Tennessee.
- King Phoenix Entertainment produced The Women of Brewster Place as a made-for-TV drama in 1989. Directed by Donna Deitch, the movie starred Oprah Winfrey and Cicely Tyson.
- The Women of Brewster Place ran as a 30-minute weekly TV series during May and June of 1990. Oprah Winfrey starred as Mattie Michael and was the only cast member included from the original TV movie. The series was produced by Winfrey, Earl Hamner, and Donald Sipes.
- The Women of Brewster Place made-for-TV drama is available on home video distributed by J2 Communications.
Etta Mae Johnson
Etta Mae Johnson and Mattie Michael grew up together in Rock Vale, Tennessee. While they are complete opposites, they have remained friends throughout the years, providing comfort to one another at difficult times in their lives.
Etta Mae Johnson arrives at Brewster Place with style. Driving an apple-green Cadillac with a white vinyl top and Florida plates, Etta Mae causes quite a commotion when she arrives at Brewster Place. The children gather around the car, and the adults wait to see who will step out of it. She disappoints no one in her tight willow-green sundress and her large two-toned sunglasses.
Etta Mae has always lived a life very different from that of Mattie Michael. As a black girl growing up in a still-segregated South, Etta Mae broke all the rules. She did not believe in being submissive to whites, and she did not want to marry, be a mother, and remain with the same man for the rest of her life. She is a woman who knows her own mind. While the rest of her friends attended church, dated, and married the kinds of men they were expected to, Etta Mae kept Rock Vale in an uproar. "Rock Vale had no place for a black woman who was not only unwilling to play by the rules, but whose spirit challenged the very right of the game to exist." Etta Mae was always looking for something that was just out of her reach, attaching herself to "… any promising rising black star, and when he burnt out, she found another." As a result, Etta Mae spends her life moving from one man to the next, living a life about which her beloved Billie Holiday, a blues musician, sings.
Cora Lee loves making and having babies, even though she does not really like men. Her story starts with a description of her happy childhood. An obedient child, Cora Lee made good grades in school and loved playing with baby dolls. When Cora Lee turned thirteen, however, her parents felt that she was too old for baby dolls and gave her a Barbie. When she discovers that sex produces babies, she starts to have sex in order to get pregnant. Cora Lee has several young children when Kiswana discovers her and decides to help Cora Lee change her life. Only when Kiswana says that "babies grow up" does Cora Lee begin to question her life; she realizes that while she does like babies, she does not know what to do with children when they grow up. For one evening, Cora Lee envisions a new life for herself and her children. Yet, when she returns to her apartment, she climbs into bed with another man.
See The Two
Mattie names her son, Basil, for the pleasant memory of the afternoon he was conceived in a fragrant basil patch. Unfortunately, he causes Mattie nothing but heartache. He seldom works. He never helps his mother around the house. He associates with the wrong people. Much to his Mattie's dismay, he ends up in trouble and in jail. When he jumps bail, Mattie loses her house. Basil leaves Mattie without saying goodbye.
Fannie Michael is Mattie's mother. Fannie speaks her mind and often stands up to her husband, Samuel. She assures Mattie that carrying a baby is nothing to be ashamed about. She tries to protect Mattie from the brutal beating Samuel Michael gives her when she refuses to name her baby's father. Unable to stop him in any other way, Fannie cocks the shotgun against her husband's chest.
Mattie is the matriarch of Brewster Place; throughout the novel, she plays a motherly role for all of the characters. While the novel opens with Mattie as a woman in her 60s, it quickly flashes back to Mattie's teen years in Rock Vale, Tennessee, where Mattie lives a sheltered life with her over-protective father, Samuel, and her mother, Fannie. Mattie allows herself to be seduced by Butch Fuller, whom Samuel thinks is worthless. When Samuel discovers that Mattie is pregnant by Fuller, he goes into a rage and beats her. To escape her father, Mattie leaves Tennessee to stay with her friend, Etta Mae Johnson, in Asheville, North Carolina. Mattie's son, Basil, is born five months later. Etta Mae soon departs for New York, leaving Mattie to fend for herself. After a frightening episode with a rat in her apartment, Mattie looks for new housing. She meets Eva Turner and her grand-daughter, Lucielia (Ciel), and moves in with them. Later, when Turner passes away, Mattie buys Turner's house but loses it when she posts bail for her derelict son. Mattie is moving into Brewster Place when the novel opens. She renews ties here with both Etta Mae and Ciel. All of the Brewster Place women respect Mattie's strength, truthfulness, and morals as well as her ability to survive the abuse, loss, and betrayal she has suffered. Critic Jill Matus, in Black American Literature Forum, describes Mattie as "the community's best voice and sharpest eye."
Samuel Michael, a God-fearing man, is Mattie's father. Having her in his later years and already set in his ways, he tolerates little foolishness and no disobedience. He loves Mattie very much and blames himself for her pregnancy, until she tells him that the baby is not Fred Watson's—the man he had chosen for her. He loses control and beats Mattie in an attempt to get her to name the baby's father.
"The Two" are unique amongst the Brewster Place women because of their sexual relationship, as well as their relationship with their female neighbors. The other women do not view Theresa and Lorraine as separate individuals, but refer to them as "The Two." As lesbians, Lorraine and Theresa represent everything foreign to the other women. Lorraine feels the women's hostility and longs to be accepted. Theresa, on the other hand, makes no apologies for her lifestyle and gets angry with Lorraine for wanting to fit in with the women. Theresa wants Lorraine to toughen up—to accept who she is and not try to please other people. Lorraine turns to the janitor, Ben, for friendship. Ben relates to her because she reminds him of his daughter. Later in the novel, a street gang rapes Lorraine, and she kills Ben, mistaking him for her attackers. She dies, and Theresa regrets her final words to her.
See The Two
Ciel first appears in the story as Eva Turner's granddaughter. Early on, she lives with Turner and Mattie in North Carolina. When Mattie moves to Brewster Place, Ciel has grown up and has a child of her own. Ciel loves her husband, Eugene, even though he abuses her verbally and threatens physical harm. Her life revolves around her relationship with her husband and her desperate attempts to please him. After she aborts the child she knows Eugene does not want, she feels remorse and begins to understand the kind of person Eugene really is. Unfortunately, the realization comes too late for Ciel. She goes into a deep depression after her daughter's death, but Mattie succeeds in helping her recover.
Miss Eva Turner
Miss Eva opens her home to Mattie and her infant son, Basil. She shares her wisdom with Mattie, resulting from years of experience with men and children. Miss Eva warns Mattie to be stricter with Basil, believing that he will take advantage of her. She also encourages Mattie to save her money. When Miss Eva dies, her spirit lives on in the house that Mattie is able to buy from Miss Eva's estate.
See Ciel Turner
According to Webster, in The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, the word "community" means "the state of being held in common; common possession, enjoyment, liability, etc." Naylor uses Brewster Place to provide one commonality among the women who live there. The women all share the experience of living on the dead end street that the rest of the world has forgotten. It is on Brewster Place that the women encounter everyday problems, joys, and sorrows. In her interview with Carabi, Naylor maintains that community influences one's identity. While the women were not literally born within the community of Brewster Place, the community provides the backdrop for their lives.
Naylor captures the strength of ties among women. While these ties have always existed, the women's movement has brought them more recognition. According to Annie Gottlieb in Women Together, a review of The Women of Brewster Place,"… all our lives those relationships had been the backdrop, while the sexy, angry fireworks with men were the show … the bonds between women are the abiding ones. Most men are incalculable hunters who come and go." Throughout The Women of Brewster Place, the women support one another, counteracting the violence of their fathers, boyfriends, husbands, and sons. For example, while Mattie Michael loses her home as a result of her son's irresponsibility, the strength she gains enables her to care for the women whom she has known either since childhood and early adulthood or through her connection to Brewster Place. She provides shelter and a sense of freedom to her old friend, Etta Mae; also, she comes to the aid of Ciel when Ciel loses her desire to live. It is the bond among the women that supports the continuity of life on Brewster Place.
Violence Against Women
The novel begins with a flashback to Mattie's life as a typical young woman. But this ordinary life is brought to an abrupt halt by her father's brutal attack on her for refusing to divulge the name of her baby's father. From that episode on, Naylor portrays men as people who take advantage of others. The men in the story exhibit cowardice, alcoholism, violence, laziness, and dishonesty. The final act of violence, the gang rape of Lorraine, underscores men's violent tendencies, emphasizing the differences between the sexes.
Alienation and Loneliness
Victims of ignorance, violence, and prejudice, all of the women in the novel are alienated from their families, other people, and God. For example, when Mattie leaves her home after her father beats her, she never again sees her parents. Then her son, for whom she gave up her life, leaves without saying goodbye. Throughout the story, Naylor creates situations that stress the loneliness of the characters. Especially poignant is Lorraine's relationship with Ben. Having been rejected by people they love or want to love, Lorraine and Ben become friends. Lorraine's horrifying murder of Ben serves only to deepen the chasm of hopelessness felt at different times by all the characters in the story.
Topics For Further Stutdy
- In the book, Gloria Naylor: In Search Of Sanctuary, author Virginia Fowler contends that Naylor structured Mama Day after Faulkner's As I Lay Dying. Confirm or contradict this assertion with a detailed explanation supported by examples.
- One critic has said that the protagonist of The Women of Brewster Place is actually the street itself. The street undergoes birth, maturation, aging, and death. Create a visual that depicts the street as the protagonist. Be prepared to explain your visual, relating the specific ways that it represents the entire story.
- Research the music of Billie Holiday. Review the lyrics of several of her songs. Why do you think Etta Mae Johnson liked her music? Support your answer with details about Etta Mae's character as well as specific lyrics from three or more songs.
- Kiswana (Melanie) Browne denounces her parents' middle-class lifestyle, adopts an African name, drops out of college, and moves to Brewster Place to be close to those to whom she refers as "my people." One critic has said that her character may be modeled after adherents of the Black Power movement of the 1960s. Research the era to discover what the movement was, who was involved, and what the goals and achievements were.
- After Ciel underwent an abortion, she had difficulty returning to the daily routine of her life. Although eventually she did mend physically, there were signs that she had not come to terms with her feelings about the abortion. Give evidence from the story that supports this notion. Research the psychological effects of abortion, and relate the evidence from the story to the information you have discovered.
- When Naylor read Morrison's The Bluest Eye in 1977, she was appalled to find that there were few other books written by black women about black women. See how many books you can find that were available at that time, and create a bibliography for these books. Then, locate as many as you can find that are available now, and create a second bibliography.
- Why are there now more books written by black females about black females than there were twenty years ago? Explain. Provide detailed support for your answer drawing from various perspectives, including historical or sociological.
- Why were Lorraine and Theresa, "The Two," such a threat to the women who resided at Brewster Place? Give reasons. Support your reasons with evidence from the story.
Naylor wants people to understand the richness of the black heritage. She uses the community of women she has created in The Women of Brewster Place to demonstrate the love, trust, and hope that have always been the strong spirit of African-American women. Based on women Naylor has known in her life, the characters convincingly portray the struggle for survival that black women have shared throughout history. Like those before them, the women who live on Brewster Place overcome their difficulties through the support and wisdom of friends who have experienced their struggles. This bond is complex and lasting; for example, when Kiswana Browne and her mother specifically discuss their heritage, they find that while they may demonstrate their beliefs differently, they share the same pride in their race. As she explains to Bellinelli in an interview, Naylor strives in TheWomen of Brewster Place to "help us celebrate voraciously that which is ours."
Naylor uses each woman's sexuality to help define her character. Mattie's entire life changes when she allows her desire to overcome her better judgement, resulting in pregnancy. She spends her life loving and caring for her son and denies herself adult love. Etta Mae spends her life moving from one man to the next, searching for acceptance. She believes she must have a man to be happy. Ciel keeps taking Eugene back, even though he is verbally abusive and threatens her with physical abuse. She cannot admit that she craves his physical touch as a reminder of home. Cora Lee does not necessarily like men, but she likes having sex and the babies that result. Lorraine and Theresa love each other, and their homosexuality separates them from the other women.
Critics agree that one of Naylor's strongest accomplishments in The Women of Brewster Place is her use of the setting to frame the structure of the novel, and often compare it to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. Naylor sets the story within Brewster Place so that she can focus on telling each woman's story in relationship to her ties to the community. According to Fowler in Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary, Naylor believes that "individual identity is shaped within the matrix of a community." Thus, living in Brewster Place partly defines who the women are and becomes an important part of each woman's personal history.
Point of View
Naylor created seven female characters with seven individual voices. Naylor tells each woman's story through the woman's own voice. That is, Naylor writes from the first-person point of view, but she writes from the perspective of the character on whom the story is focusing at the time. In Bonetti's, An Interview with Gloria Naylor, Naylor said "one character, one female protagonist, could not even attempt to represent the riches and diversity of the black female experience." This technique works for Naylor because she has used the setting to provide the unity underlying the story. Brewster Place provides the connection among the seven very unique women with stories of their own to tell.
Naylor gives Brewster Place human characteristics, using a literary technique known as personification. In this case, Brewster Place undergoes life processes. Brewster Place is born, in Naylor's words, a "bastard child," mothers three generations, and "waits to die," having "watched its last generation of children torn away from it by court orders and eviction notices … too tired and sick to help them." Naylor tells the women's stories within the framework of the street's life—between its birth and its death.
The extended comparison between the street's "life" and the women's lives make the work an "allegory." All of the women, like the street, fully experience life with its high and low points. At the end of the story, the women continue to take care of one another and to hope for a better future, just as Brewster Place, in its final days, tries to sustain its final generations.
Naylor uses many symbols in The Women of Brewster Place. Both literally and figuratively, Brewster Place is a dead end street—that is, the street itself leads nowhere and the women who live there are trapped by their histories, hopes, and dreams. The brick wall symbolizes the differences between the residents of Brewster Place and their rich neighbors on the other side of the wall. It also stands for the oppression the women have endured in the forms of prejudice, violence, racism, shame, and sexism. Representing the drug-dealing street gangs who rape and kill without remorse, garbage litters the alley. A final symbol, in the form of toe-nail polish, stands for the deeper similarities that Kiswana and her mother discover.
Naylor creates two climaxes in The Women of Brewster Place. The first climax occurs when Mattie succeeds in her struggle to bring Ciel back to life after the death of her daughter. The scene evokes a sense of healing and rebirth, and reinforces the sense of community among the women. The second climax, as violent as Maggie's beating in the beginning of the novel, happens when Lorraine is raped. The women again pull together, overcoming their outrage over the destruction of one of their own.
Soon after Naylor introduces each of the women in their current situations at Brewster Place, she provides more information on them through the literary technique known as "flashback." In other words, she takes the characters back in time to show their backgrounds. For example, when the novel opens, Maggie smells something cooking, and it reminds her of sugar cane. At that point, Naylor returns Maggie to her teen years in Rock Vale, Tennessee, where Butch Fuller seduced her after sharing sugar cane with her.
The Northern States after World War II
While Naylor sets the birth of Brewster Place right after the end of World War I, she continues the story of Brewster for approximately thirty years. Many immigrants and Southern blacks arrived in New York after the War, searching for jobs. Like many of those people, Naylor's parents, Alberta McAlpin and Roosevelt Naylor, migrated to New York in 1949. Members of poor, sharecropping families, Alberta and Roosevelt felt that New York would provide their children with better opportunities than they had had as children growing up in a still-segregated South. The Naylors were disappointed to learn that segregation also existed in the North, although it was much less obvious. They did find, though, that their children could attend schools and had access to libraries, opportunities the Naylors had not enjoyed as black children.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s
The year the Naylors moved into their home in Queens stands as a significant year in the memories of most Americans. It was 1963, a turbulent year at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. Most Americans remember it as the year that Medgar Evers and President John F. Kennedy were assassinated. That year also marked the August March on Washington as well as the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Later in the decade, Martin Luther King was assassinated, the culmination of ten years of violence against blacks. Critics say that Naylor may have fashioned Kiswana's character after activists from the 60s, particularly those associated with the Black Power Movement. According to Bellinelli in A Conversation with Gloria Naylor, Naylor became aware of racism during the 60s: "That's when I first began to understand that I was different and that that difference meant something negative."
The Jehovah's Witnesses
Naylor was baptized into the Jehovah's Witnesses when she was eighteen years old. At that point in her life, she believed that after the turmoil of the 1960s, there was no hope for the world. Women and people of color comprise the majority of Jehovah's Witnesses, perhaps because, according to Harrison in Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses, "Their religion allows their voices … to emerge … People listen to them; they are valuable, bearers of a life-giving message." Jehovah's Witnesses spread their message through face-to-face contact with people, but more importantly, through written publications. Naylor's writing reflects her experiences with the Jehovah's Witnesses, according to Virginia Fowler in Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary. The Women of Brewster Place portrays a close-knit community of women, bound in sisterhood as a defense against a corrupt world. As the Jehovah's Witnesses preach destruction of the evil world, so, too, does Naylor with vivid portrayals of apocalyptic events. Two examples from The Women of Brewster Place are Lorraine's rape and the rains that come after it. When Naylor speaks of her first novel, she says that the work served to "exorcise … demons," according to Angels Carabi in Belles Lettres 7.
Critics have praised Naylor's style since The Women of Brewster Place was published in 1982. They agree that Naylor's clear, yet often brash, language creates images both believable and consistent. The story's seven main characters speak to one another with undisguised affection through their humor and even their insults. Naylor places her characters in situations that evoke strong feelings, and she succeeds in making her characters come alive with realistic emotions, actions, and words. For example, Deirdre Donahue, a reviewer for the Washington Post, says of Naylor, "Naylor is not afraid to grapple with life's big subjects: sex, birth, love, death, grief. Her women feel deeply, and she unflinchingly transcribes their emotions … Naylor's potency wells up from her language. With prose as rich as poetry, a passage will suddenly take off and sing like a spiritual … Vibrating with undisguised emotion, The Women of Brewster Place springs from the same roots that produced the blues. Like them, her books sing of sorrows proudly borne by black women in America."
Critics also recognize Naylor's ability to make history come alive. She sets the beginning of The Women of Brewster Place at the end of World War I and brings it forward thirty years. The story traces the development of the civil rights movement, from a time when segregation was the norm through the beginnings of integration. The changing ethnicity of the neighborhood reflects the changing demographics of society. The women who have settled on Brewster Place exist as products of their Southern rural upbringing. Their ability to transform their lives and to stand strong against the difficulties that face them in their new environment and circumstances rings true with the spirit of black women in American today. Linda Labin asserts in Masterpieces of Women's Literature, "In many ways, The Women of Brewster Place may prove to be as significant in its way as Southern writer William Faulkner's mythic Yoknapatawpha County or Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio. It provides a realistic vision of black urban women's lives and inspires readers with the courage and spirit of black women in America."
Critic Loyle Hairston readily agrees with the favorable analysis of Naylor's language, characterization, and story-telling. Yet, he remains more critical of her ability to make historical connections—to explore the depths of the human experience. In other words, he contends in a review in Freedomways that Naylor limits the concerns of Brewster Place to the "warts and cankers of individual personality, neglecting to delineate the origins of those social conditions which so strongly affect personality and behavior." Furthermore, he contends that he would have liked to see her provide some insight into those conditions that would enable the characters to envision hope of better times.
Hairston says that none of the characters, except for Kiswana Browne, can see beyond their current despair to brighter futures. He implies that the story has a hopeless ending. Yet other critics applaud the ending for its very reassurance that the characters will not only survive but prosper. Christine H. King asserts in Identities and Issues in Literature, "The ambiguity of the ending gives the story a mythic quality by stressing the continual possibility of dreams and the results of their deferral." Referring to Mattie' s dream of tearing the wall down together with the women of Brewster Place, Linda Labin contends in Masterpieces of Women's Literature: "It is this remarkable, hope-filled ending that impresses the majority of scholars." In Magill's Literary Annual, Rae Stoll concurs: "Ultimately then, The Women of Brewster Place is an optimistic work, offering the hope for a redemptive community of love as a counterforce to isolation and violence."
While critics may have differing opinions regarding Naylor's intentions for her characters' future circumstances, they agree that Naylor successfully presents the themes of The Women of Brewster Place. The "community among women" stands out as the book's most obvious theme. Each of the women in the story unconditionally loves at least one other woman. This selfless love carries the women through betrayal, loss, and violence. For example, when one of the women faces the loss of a child, the others join together to offer themselves in any way that they can. This unmovable and soothing will represents the historically strong communal spirit among all women, but especially African-American women. The second theme, violence that men enact on women, connects with and strengthens the first. The men Naylor depicts in her novel are mean, cowardly, and lawless. As a result of their offenses toward the women in the story, the women are drawn together. Many male critics complain about the negative images of black men in the story.
In summary, the general consensus of critics is that Naylor possesses a talent that is seldom seen in new writers. Critics like her style and appreciate her efforts to deal with societal issues and psychological themes. According to Stoll in Magill's Literary Annual, "Gloria Naylor … is already numbered … among the freshest and most vital voices in contemporary American literature."
Woodford is a doctoral candidate at Washington University and has written for a wide variety of academic journals and educational publishers. In the following essay, she discusses how the dream motif in The Women of Brewster Place connects the seven stories, forming them into a coherent novel.
Gloria Naylor's novel, The Women of Brewster Place, is, as its subtitle suggests, "a novel in seven stories"; but these stories are unified by more than the street on which the characters live. The interactions of the characters and the similar struggles they live through connect the stories, as do the recurring themes and motifs. Of these unifying elements, the most notable is the dream motif, for though these women are living a nightmarish existence, they are united by their common dreams.
The novel begins with Langston Hughes's poem, "Harlem," which asks "what happens to a dream deferred?" And just as the poem suggests many answers to that question, so the novel explores many stories of deferred dreams. Each woman in the book has her own dream.
As a young, single mother, Mattie places all of her dreams on her son. She leaves her boarding house room after a rat bites him because she cannot stay "another night in that place without nightmares about things that would creep out of the walls to attack her child." She continues to protect him from harm and nightmares until he jumps bail and abandons her to her own nightmare.
Etta Mae dreams of a man who can "move her … off of Brewster Place for good," but she, too, has her dream deferred each time that a man disappoints her.
Kiswana, an outsider on Brewster Place, is constantly dreaming of ways in which she can organize the residents and enact social reform. Even as she looks out her window at the wall that separates Brewster Place from the heart of the city, she is daydreaming: "she placed her dreams on the back of the bird and fantasized that it would glide forever in transparent silver circles until it ascended to the center of the universe and was swallowed up." But just as the pigeon she watches fails to ascend gracefully and instead lands on a fire escape "with awkward, frantic movements," so Kiswana's dreams of a revolution will be frustrated by the grim realities of Brewster Place and the awkward, frantic movements of people who are busy merely trying to survive.
Ciel dreams of love, from her boyfriend and from her daughter and unborn child, but an unwanted abortion, the death of her daughter, and the abandonment by her boyfriend cruelly frustrates these hopes. She is left dreaming only of death, a suicidal nightmare from which only Mattie's nurturing love can awaken her.
What Do I Read Next?
- Naylor's second novel, Linden Hills, takes place in Linden Hills, a wealthy and privileged neighborhood; it is familiar because it is the place Kiswana Browne—a character from The Women of Brewster Place—left. Published by Ticknor in 1985, Linden Hills reminds some critics of Dante's Inferno. The story revolves around two young men and their observations of the effects of black aspirations in contemporary America.
- Mama Day is Naylor's third novel. The setting is far removed from those in the first two stories. Willow Springs, an all-black island community off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, is home to Cocoa and Mama Day, characters that appeared briefly in Linden Hills. Descendants of an African slave and sorceress, Cocoa and Mama Day lead disparate lives until Cocoa becomes desperately ill. Ticknor published Mama Day in 1988.
- Naylor depicts the lives of 1940s blacks living in New York City in her next novel, Bailey's Cafe, published by Harcourt in 1992. Set in a Brooklyn diner, the story relates the lives of the diner's varied and interesting patrons who overcome hardship to survive.
- The focus on the relationships among women in The Women of Brewster Place presents feminist ideals similar to those about which Amy Tan writes in The Joy Luck Club. Published by G. Putnam's Sons in 1989, The Joy Luck Club features the bonds between mothers and daughters and the strength that women share in good times and in bad.
- While love and politics link the lives of the two women in Blood Sisters: An Examination of Conscience, the stronger tie between them is the bond joining grandmother, mothers, and daughters. Published by St. Martin's Press, and written by Valerie Miner, this story portrays three generations of an Irish clan and the struggles among its men and women.
- Critics have compared the theme of familial and African-American women in The Women of Brewster Place to the same theme in The Color Purple, published in 1992 by Harcourt and Brace. Author Alice Walker writes a story of two sisters that vividly portrays the bonds between black women.
Lorraine dreams of acceptance and a place where she doesn't "feel any different from anybody else in the world." She finds this place, temporarily, with Ben, and he finds in her a reminder of the lost daughter who haunts his own dreams. But their dreams will be ended brutally with her rape and his death, and the image of Lorraine will later haunt the dreams of all the women on Brewster Place. But perhaps the most revealing stories about dreams are those told in "Cora Lee" and "The Block Party."
Cora Lee's story opens with a quotation from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream:'True, I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain / begot of nothing but vain fantasy." The quotation is appropriate to Cora Lee's story not only because Cora and her children will attend the play but also because Cora's chapter will explore the connection between the begetting of children and the begetting of dreams. It will also examine the point at which dreams become "vain fantasy."
As a child Cora dreams of new baby dolls. When her parents refuse to give her another for her thirteenth Christmas, she is heartbroken. Her mother tries to console her by telling her that she still has all her old dolls, but Cora plaintively says, "But they don't smell and feel the same as the new ones." As an adult, she continues to prefer the smell and feel of her new babies to the trials and hassles of her growing children. Her babies "just seemed to keep coming—always welcome until they changed, and then she just didn't understand them." Once they grow beyond infancy she finds them "wild and disgusting" and she makes little attempt to understand or parent them. They no longer fit into her dream of a sweet, dependent baby who needs no one but her.
Kiswana finds one of these wild children eating out of a dumpster, and soon Kiswana and Cora become friends. Confiding to Cora, Kiswana talks about her dreams of reform and revolution. Excitedly she tells Cora, "if we really pull together, we can put pressure on [the landlord] to start fixing this place up." She is similarly convinced that it will be easy to change Cora's relationship with her children, and she eagerly invites them to her boyfriend's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Cora is skeptical, but to pacify Kiswana she agrees to go.
It is at the performance of Shakespeare's play where the dreams of the two women temporarily merge. The production, sponsored by a grant from the city, does indeed inspire Cora to dream for her older children. She imagines that her daughter Maybelline "could be doing something like this some day—standing on a stage, wearing pretty clothes and saying fine things .… Maybelline could go to college—she liked school." When she remembers with guilt that her children no longer like school and are often truant, she resolves to change her behavior in order to ensure them brighter futures:
"Junior high; high school; college—none of them stayed little forever. And then on to good jobs in insurance companies and the post office, even doctors and lawyers. Yes, that's what would happen to her babies."
Her new dream of maternal devotion continues as they arrive home and prepare for bed. She tucks them in and the children do not question her unusual attention because it has been "a night for wonders."
At this point it seems that Cora's story is out of place in the novel, a mistake by an otherwise meticulous author. Amid Naylor's painfully accurate depictions of real women and their real struggles, Cora's instant transformation into a devoted and responsible mother seems a "vain fantasy."
In the last paragraph of Cora's story, however, we find that the fantasy has been Cora's. After kissing her children good night, she returns to her bedroom and finds one of her shadow-like lovers waiting in her bed, and she folds "her evening like gold and lavender gauze deep within the creases of her dreams" and lets her clothes drop to the floor. She will not change her actions and become a devoted mother, and her dreams for her children will be deferred. They were, after all, only fantasies, and real dreams take more than one night to achieve.
"The Block Party" tells the story of another deferred dream, this one literally dreamt by Mattie the night before the real Block Party. The chapter begins with a mention of the troubling dreams that haunt all the women and girls of Brewster Place during the week after Ben's death and Lorraine's rape. They will not talk about these dreams; only a few of them will even admit to having them, but every one of them dreams of Lorraine, finally recognizing the bond they share with the woman they had shunned as "different." Sadly, Lorraine's dream of not being "any different from anybody else in the world" is only fulfilled when her rape forces the other women to recognize the victimization and vulnerability that they share with her.
In Mattie's dream of the block party, even Ciel, who knows nothing of Lorraine, admits that she has dreamed of "a woman who was supposed to be me … She didn't look exactly like me, but inside I felt it was me."
In a novel full of unfulfilled and constantly deferred dreams, the only the dream that is fully realized is Lorraine's dream of being recognized as "a lousy human being who's somebody's daughter or somebody's friend or even somebody's enemy." In dreaming of Lorraine the women acknowledge that she represents every one of them: she is their daughter, their friend, their enemy, and her brutal rape is the fulfillment of their own nightmares.
Mattie's dream presents an empowering response to this nightmare of disempowerment. When she dreams of the women joining together to tear down the wall that has separated them from the rest of the city, she is dreaming of a way for all of them to achieve Lorraine's dream of acceptance. They will tear down that which has separated them and made them "different" from the other inhabitants of the city. They will tear down the wall which is stained with blood, and which has come to symbolize their dead end existence on Brewster Place. As Jill Matus notes in "Dream, Deferral, and Closure in The Women of Brewster Place," "Tearing at the very bricks of Brewster's walls is an act of resistance against the conditions that prevail within it."
But the group effort at tearing down the wall is only a dream—Mattie's dream-and just as the rain is pouring down, baptizing the women and their dream work, the dream ends. Mattie awakes to discover that it is still morning, the wall is still standing, and the block party still looms in the future.
Nevertheless, this is not the same sort of disappointing deferral as in Cora Lee's story. Though Mattie's dream has not yet been fulfilled, there are hints that it will be. She awakes to find the sun shining for the first time in a week, just like in her dream. They are still "gonna have a party," and the rain in Mattie's dream foreshadows the "the stormy clouds that had formed on the horizon and were silently moving toward Brewster Place." Mattie's dream has not been fulfilled yet, but neither is it folded and put away like Cora's; a storm is heading toward Brewster Place, and the women are "gonna have a party."
The book ends with one final mention of dreams. In the epilogue we are told that Brewster Place is abandoned, but does not die, because the dreams of the women keep it alive:
But the colored daughters of Brewster, spread over the canvas of time, still wake up with their dreams misted on the edge of a yawn. They get up and pin those dreams to wet laundry hung out to dry, they're mixed with a pinch of salt and thrown into pots of soup, and they're diapered around babies.
Brewster Place lives on because the women whose dreams it has been a part of live on and continue to dream. Their dreams, even those that are continually deferred, are what keep them alive, continuing to sleep, cook, and care for their children. Dreams keep the street alive as well, if only in the minds of its former inhabitants whose stories the dream motif unites into a coherent novel.
Source: Donna Woodford, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Jill L. Matus
In the following excerpt, Matus discusses the final chapter of The Women of Brewster Place and the effect of deferring or postponing closure.
After presenting a loose community of six stories, each focusing on a particular character, Gloria Naylor constructs a seventh, ostensibly designed to draw discrete elements together, to "round off" the collection. As its name suggests, "The Block Party" is a vision of community effort, everyone's story. We discover after a first reading, however, that the narrative of the party is in fact Mattie's dream vision, from which she awakens perspiring in her bed. The "real" party for which Etta is rousing her has yet to take place, and we never get to hear how it turns out. Authorial sleight of hand in offering Mattie's dream as reality is quite deliberate, since the narrative counts on the reader's credulity and encourages the reader to take as narrative "presence" the "elsewhere" of dream, thereby calling into question the apparently choric and unifying status of the last chapter. The displacement of reality into dream defers closure, even though the chapter appears shaped to make an end. Far from having had it, the last words remind us that we are still "gonna have a party."
The inconclusive last chapter opens into an epilogue that too teases the reader with the sense of an ending by appearing to be talking about the death of the street, Brewster Place. The epilogue itself is not unexpected, since the novel opens with a prologue describing the birth of the street. So why not a last word on how it died? Again, expectations are subverted and closure is subtly deferred. Although the epilogue begins with a meditation on how a street dies and tells us that Brewster Place is waiting to die, waiting is a present participle that never becomes past. "Dawn" (the prologue) is coupled neither with death nor darkness, but with "dusk," a condition whose half-light underscores the half-life of the street. Despite the fact that in the epilogue Brewster Place is abandoned, its daughters still get up elsewhere and go about their daily activities. In a reiteration of the domestic routines that are always carefully attended to in the novel—the making of soup, the hanging of laundry, the diapering of babies—, Brewster's death is forestalled and postponed. More importantly, the narrator emphasizes that the dreams of Brewster's inhabitants are what keep them alive. "They get up and pin those dreams to wet laundry hung out to dry, they're mixed with a pinch of salt and thrown into pots of soup, and they're diapered around babies. They ebb and flow, ebb and flow, but never disappear." They refers initially to the "colored daughters" but thereafter repeatedly to the dreams. The end of the novel raises questions about the relation of dreams to the persistence of life, since the capacity of Brewster's women to dream on is identified as their capacity to live on. The street continues to exist marginally, on the edge of death; it is the "end of the line" for most of its inhabitants. Like the street, the novel hovers, moving toward the end of its line, but deferring. What prolongs both the text and the lives of Brewster's inhabitants is dream; in the same way that Mattie's dream of destruction postpones the end of the novel, the narrator's last words identify dream as that which affirms and perpetuates the life of the street.
If the epilogue recalls the prologue, so the final emphasis on dreams postponed yet persistent recalls the poem by Langston Hughes with which Naylor begins the book: "What happens to a dream deferred? " In a catalog of similes, Hughes evokes the fate of dreams unfulfilled: They dry up like raisins in the sun, fester like sores, stink like rotten meat, crust over like syrupy sweets: They become burdensome, or possibly explosive. The poem suggests that to defer one's dreams, desires, hopes is life-denying. Images of shriveling, putrefaction, and hardening dominate the poem. Despair and destruction are the alternatives to decay. My interest here is to look at the way in which Naylor rethinks the poem in her novel's attention to dreams and desires and deferral.…
The dream of the last chapter is a way of deferring closure, but this deferral is not evidence of the author's self-indulgent reluctance to make an end. Rather, it is an enactment of the novel's revision of Hughes's poem. Yet the substance of the dream itself and the significance of the dreamer raise some further questions. Why is the anger and frustration that the women feel after the rape of Lorraine displaced into dream? There are many readers who feel cheated and betrayed to discover that the apocalyptic destruction of Brewster's wall never takes place. Are we to take it that Ciel never really returns from San Francisco and Cora is not taking an interest in the community effort to raise funds for tenants' rights? All that the dream has promised is undercut, it seems. And yet, the placement of explosion and destruction in the realm of fantasy or dream that is a "false" ending marks Naylor's suggestion that there are many ways to dream and alternative interpretations of what happens to the dream deferred.…
The chapter begins with a description of the continuous rain that follows the death of Ben. Stultifying and confining, the rain prevents the inhabitants of Brewster's community from meeting to talk about the tragedy; instead they are faced with clogged gutters, debris, trapped odors in their apartments, and listless children. Men stay away from home, become aggressive, and drink too much. In their separate spaces the women dream of a tall yellow woman in a bloody green and black dress— Lorraine. Mattie's dream expresses the communal guilt, complicity, and anger that the women of Brewster Place feel about Lorraine. Ciel is present in Mattie's dream because she herself has dreamed about the ghastly rape and mutilation with such identification and urgency that she obeys the impulse to return to Brewster Place: " 'And she had on a green dress with like black trimming, and there were red designs or red flowers or something on the front.' Ciel's eyes began to cloud. 'And something bad had happened to me by the wall—I mean her—something bad had happened to her'." The presence of Ciel in Mattie's dream expresses the elder woman's wish that Ciel be returned to her and the desire that Ciel's wounds and flight be redeemed. Mattie's son Basil, who has also fled from Brewster Place, is contrastingly absent. He is beyond hope, and Mattie does not dream of his return. For many of the women who have lived there, Brewster Place is an anchor as well as a confinement and a burden; it is the social network that, like a web, both sustains and entraps. Mattie's dream scripts important changes for Ciel: She works for an insurance company (good pay, independence, and status above the domestic), is ready to start another family, and is now connected to a good man. Ciel hesitantly acknowledges that he is not black. Middle-class status and a white husband offer one alternative in the vision of escape from Brewster Place; the novel does not criticize Ciel's choices so much as suggest, by implication, the difficulty of envisioning alternatives to Brewster's black world of poverty, insecurity, and male inadequacy. Yet Ciel's dream identifies her with Lorraine, whom she has never met and of whose rape she knows nothing. It is a sign that she is tied to Brewster Place, carries it within her, and shares its tragedies.…
Everyone in the community knows that this block party is significant and important because it is a way of moving forward after the terrible tragedy of Lorraine and Ben. As it begins to rain, the women continue desperately to solicit community involvement. A man who is going to buy a sandwich turns away; it is more important that he stay and eat the sandwich than that he pay for it. As the rain comes down, hopes for a community effort are scotched and frustration reaches an intolerable level. The dream of the collective party explodes in nightmarish destruction. Poking at a blood-stained brick with a popsicle stick, Cora says, " 'Blood ain't got no right still being here'." Like the blood that runs down the palace walls in Blake's "London," this reminder of Ben and Lorrin e blights the block party. Tearing at the very bricks of Brewster's walls is an act of resistance against the conditions that prevail within it. The more strongly each woman feels about her past in Brewster Place, the more determinedly the bricks are hurled. Ciel, for example, is not unwilling to cast the first brick and urges the rational Kiswana to join this "destruction of the temple." Kiswana cannot see the blood; there is only rain. "Does it matter?" asks Ciel. "Does it really matter?" Frustrated with perpetual pregnancy and the burdens of poverty and single parenting, Cora joins in readily, and Theresa, about to quit Brewster Place in a cab, vents her pain at the fate of her lover and her fury with the submissiveness that breeds victimization. The women have different reasons, each her own story, but they unite in hurling bricks and breaking down boundaries. The dismal, incessant rain becomes cleansing, and the water is described as beating down in unison with the beating of the women's hearts. Despite the inclination toward overwriting here, Naylor captures the cathartic and purgative aspects of resistance and aggression. Demonic imagery, which accompanies the venting of desire that exceeds known limits, becomes apocalyptic. As the dream ends, we are left to wonder what sort of register the "actual" block party would occupy. The sun is shining when Mattie gets up: It is as if she has done the work of collective destruction in her dream, and now a sunny party can take place. But perhaps the mode of the party about to take place will be neither demonic nor apocalyptic. The close of the novel turns away from the intensity of the dream, and the satisfaction of violent protest, insisting rather on prolonged yearning and dreaming amid conditions which do not magically transform. The collective dream of the last chapter constitutes a "symbolic act" which, as Frederic Jameson puts it, enables "real social contradictions, insurmountable in their own terms, [to] find a purely formal resolution in the aesthetic realm." …
Not only does Langston Hughes's poem speak generally about the nature of deferral and dreams unsatisfied, but in the historical context that Naylor evokes it also calls attention implicitly to the sixties' dream of racial equality and the "I have a dream" speech of Martin Luther King, Jr.…
The sermon's movement is … from disappointment, through a recognition of deferral and persistence, to a reiteration of vision and hope:
Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can't give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you to go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.
The remainder of the sermon goes on to celebrate the resurrection of the dream—"I still have a dream" is repeated some eight times in the next paragraph. Naylor's novel is not exhortatory or rousing in the same way; her response to the fracture of the collective dream is an affirmation of persistence rather than a song of culmination and apocalypse. King's sermon culminates in the language of apocalypse, a register which, as I have already suggested, Naylor's epilogue avoids: "I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low …, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed …" Hughes's poem and King's sermon can thus be seen as two poles between which Naylor steers. The novel recognizes the precise political and social consequences of the cracked dream in the community it deals with, but asserts the vitality and life that persist even when faith in a particular dream has been disrupted. Although remarkably similar to Dr. King's sermon in the recognition of blasted hopes and dreams deferred, The Women of Brewster Place does not reassert its faith in the dream of harmony and equality: It stops short of apocalypse in its affirmation of persistence. Further, Naylor suggests that the shape and content of the dream should be capable of flexibility and may change in response to changing needs and times. What the women of Brewster Place dream is not so important as that they dream.…
Brewster's women live within the failure of the sixties' dreams, and there is no doubt a dimension of the novel that reflects on the shortfall. But its reflection is subtle, achieved through the novel's concern with specific women and an individualized neighborhood and the way in which fiction, with its attention focused on the particular, can be made to reveal the play of large historical determinants and forces. There is an attempt on Naylor's part to invoke the wide context of Brewster's particular moment in time and to blend this with her focus on the individual dreams and psychologies of the women in the stories. Perhaps because her emphasis is on the timeless nature of dreams and the private mythology of each "ebony phoenix," the specifics of history are not foregrounded. Even though the link between this neighborhood and the particular social, economic, and political realities of the sixties is muted rather than emphatic, defining characteristics are discernible. In Brewster Place there is no upward mobility; and by conventional evaluation there are no stable family structures. Brewster is a place for women who have no realistic expectations of revising their marginality, most of whom have "come down" in the world. The exception is Kiswana, from Linden Hills, who is deliberately downwardly mobile.…
As presented, Brewster Place is largely a community of women; men are mostly absent or itinerant, drifting in and out of their women's lives, and leaving behind them pregnancies and unpaid bills. It would be simple to make a case for the unflattering portrayal of men in this novel; in fact Naylor was concerned that her work would be seen as deliberately slighting of men:
…there was something that I was very self-conscious about with my first novel; I bent over backwards not to have a negative message come through about the men. My emotional energy was spent in creating a woman's world, telling her side of it because I knew it hadn't been done enough in literature. But I worried about whether or not the problems that were being caused by the men in the women's lives would be interpreted as some bitter statement I had to make about black men. ("Conversation")
Bearing in mind the kind of hostile criticism that Alice Walker's The Color Purple evoked, one can understand Naylor's concern, since male sins in her novel are not insignificant. Mattie is a resident of Brewster partly because of the failings of the men in her life: the shiftless Butch, who is sexually irresistible; her father, whose outraged assault on her prompts his wife to pull a gun on him; and her son, whom she has spoiled to the extent that he one day jumps bail on her money, costing her her home and sending her to Brewster Place. There is also the damning portrait of a minister on the make in Etta Mae's story, the abandonment of Ciel by Eugene, and the scathing presentation of the young male rapists in "The Two."
"The enemy wasn't Black men," Joyce Ladner contends, " 'but oppressive forces in the larger society' " [When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America, 1984], and Naylor's presentation of men implies agreement. But while she is aware that there is nothing enviable about the pressures, incapacities, and frustrations men absorb in a system they can neither beat nor truly join, her interest lies in evoking the lives of women, not men. Their aggression, part-time presence, avoidance of commitment, and sense of dislocation renders them alien and other in the community of Brewster Place. Basil and Eugene are forever on the run; other men in the stories (Kiswana's boyfriend Abshu, Cora Lee's shadowy lovers) are narrative ciphers. Mostly marginal and spectral in Brewster Place, the men reflect the nightmarish world they inhabit by appearing as if they were characters in a dream.…
"The Block Party" is a crucial chapter of the book because it explores the attempts to experience a version of community and neighborhood. People know each other in Brewster Place, and as imperfect and damaging as their involvement with each other may be, they still represent a community. As the title suggests, this is a novel about women and place. Brewster Place names the women, houses them, and defines their underprivileged status. Although they come to it by very different routes, Brewster is a reality that they are "obliged to share" [as Smith States in "Toward a Black Feminist Criticism," Conditions, 1977.] Obliged comes from the political, social, and economic realities of post-sixties' America—a world in which the women are largely disentitled. Share directs emphasis to what they have in common: They are women, they are black, and they are almost invariably poor. Among the women there is both commonality and difference: "Like an ebony phoenix, each in her own time and with her own season had a story. "
Naylor's novel does not offer itself as a definitive treatment of black women or community, but it reflects a reality that a great many black women share; it is at the same time an indictment of oppressive social forces and a celebration of courage and persistence. By considering the nature of personal and collective dreams within a context of specific social, political, and economic determinants, Naylor inscribes an ideology that affirms deferral; the capacity to defer and to dream is endorsed as life-availing. Like Martin Luther King, Naylor resists a history that seeks to impose closure on black American dreams, recording also in her deferred ending a reluctance to see "community" as a static or finished work. There are countless slum streets like Brewster; streets will continue to be condemned and to die, but there will be other streets to whose decay the women of Brewster will cling. The image of the ebony phoenix developed in the introduction to the novel is instructive: The women rise, as from the ashes, and continue to live. Although the idea of miraculous transformation associated with the phoenix is undercut by the starkness of slum and the perpetuation of poverty, the notion of regeneration also associated with the phoenix is supported by the quiet persistence of women who continue to dream on. While acknowledging the shriveling, death-bound images of Hughes's poem, Naylor invests with value the essence of deferral—it resists finality.
Source: Jill L. Matus, "Dream, Deferral, and Closure in The Women of Brewster Place" in Black American Literature Forum, spring, 1990, pp. 49–64.
Laura E. Tanner
Tanner examines the reader as voyeur and participant in the rape scene at the end of The Women of Brewster Place.
The rape scene in The Women of Brewster Place occurs in "The Two," one of the seven short stories that make up the novel. This story explores the relationship between Theresa and Lorraine, two lesbians who move into the run-down complex of apartments that make up "Brewster Place." Lorraine's decision to return home through the shortcut of an alley late one night leads her into an ambush in which the anger of seven teenage boys erupts into violence:
Lorraine saw a pair of suede sneakers flying down behind the face in front of hers and they hit the cement with a dead thump.… [C.C. and the boys] had been hiding up on the wall, watching her come up that back street, and they had waited. The face pushed itself so close to hers that she could look into the flared nostrils and smell the decomposing food in its teeth.…
[C.C.] slammed his kneecap into her spine and her body arched up, causing his nails to cut into the side of her mouth to stifle her cry. He pushed her arched body down onto the cement. Two of the boys pinned her arms, two wrenched open her legs, while C.C. knelt between them and pushed up her dress and tore at the top of her pantyhose. Lorraine's body was twisting in convulsions of fear that they mistook for resistance, and C.C. brought his fist down into her stomach.
Better lay the fuck still, cunt, or I'll rip open your guts.
The impact of his fist forced air into her constricted throat, and she worked her sore mouth, trying to form the one word that had been clawing inside of her— "Please." It squeezed through her paralyzed vocal cords and fell lifelessly at their feet. Lorraine clamped her eyes shut and, using all of the strength left within her, willed it to rise again.
The sixth boy took a dirty paper bag lying on the ground and stuffed it into her mouth. She felt a weight drop on her spread body. Then she opened her eyes and they screamed and screamed into the face above hers—the face that was pushing this tearing pain inside of her body.
In Naylor's representation of rape, the victim ceases to be an erotic object subjected to the control of the reader's gaze. Instead, that gaze, like Lorraine's, is directed outward; it is the violator upon whom the reader focuses, the violator's body that becomes detached and objectified before the reader's eyes as it is reduced to "a pair of suede sneakers," a "face" with "decomposing food in its teeth." As the look of the audience ceases to perpetuate the victimizing stance of the rapists, the subject/object locations of violator and victim are reversed. Although the reader's gaze is directed at a body that is, in Mulvey's terms, "stylised and fragmented by close-ups," the body that is dissected by that gaze is the body of the violator and not his victim.
The limitations of narrative render any disruption of the violator/spectator affiliation difficult to achieve; while sadism, in Mulvey's words, "demands a story," pain destroys narrative, shatters referential realities, and challenges the very power of language. The attempt to translate violence into narrative, therefore, very easily lapses into a choreography of bodily positions and angles of assault that serves as a transcription of the violator's story. In the case of rape, where a violator frequently co-opts not only the victim's physical form but her power of speech, the external manifestations that make up a visual narrative of violence are anything but objective. To provide an "external" perspective on rape is to represent the story that the violator has created, to ignore the resistance of the victim whose body has been appropriated within the rapist's rhythms and whose enforced silence disguises the enormity of her pain. In The Accused, a 1988 film in which Jody Foster gives an Oscar-winning performance as a rape victim, the problematics of transforming the victim's experience into visualizable form are addressed, at least in part, through the use of flashback; the rape on which the film centers is represented only at the end of the film, after the viewer has followed the trail of the victim's humiliation and pain. Because the victim's story cannot be told in the representation itself, it is told first; in the representation that follows, that story lingers in the viewer's mind, qualifying the victim's inability to express herself and providing, in essence, a counter-text to the story of violation that the camera provides.
While Naylor's novel portrays the victim's silence in its narrative of rape, it, too, probes beneath the surface of the violator's story to reveal the struggle beneath that enforced silence. Naylor represents Lorraine's silence not as a passive absence of speech but as a desperate struggle to regain the voice stolen from her through violence. "Power and violence," in Hannah Arendt's words, "are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent" [On Violence, 1970]. The nicety of the polite word of social discourse that Lorraine frantically attempts to articulate—"please"—emphasizes the brute terrorism of the boys' act of rape and exposes the desperate means by which they rule. "Woman," Mulvey observes, "stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his phantasies and obsessions through linguistic control by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning." In Naylor's description of Lorraine's rape "the silent image of woman" is haunted by the power of a thousand suppressed screams; that image comes to testify not to the woman's feeble acquiescence to male signification but to the brute force of the violence required to "tie" the woman to her place as "bearer of meaning."…
Rather than watching a distant action unfold from the anonymity of the darkened theater or reading about an illicit act from the safety of an arm-chair, Naylor's audience is thrust into the middle of a rape the representation of which subverts the very "sense of separation" upon which voyeurism depends. The "imagised, eroticized concept of the world that … makes a mockery of empirical objectivity" is here replaced by the discomforting proximity of two human faces locked in violent struggle and defined not by eroticism but by the pain inflicted by one and borne by the other:
Then she opened her eyes and they screamed and screamed into the face above hers—the face that was pushing this tearing pain inside of her body. The screams tried to break through her corneas out into the air, but the tough rubbery flesh sent them vibrating back into her brain, first shaking lifeless the cells that nurtured her memory. Then the cells went that contained her powers of taste and smell. The last that were screamed to death were those that supplied her with the ability to love—or hate.
The gaze that in Mulvey reduces woman to erotic object is here centered within that woman herself and projected outward. The reader is locked into the victim's body, positioned behind Lorraine's corneas along with the screams that try to break out into the air. By manipulating the reader's placement within the scene of violence, Naylor subverts the objectifying power of the gaze; as the gaze is trapped within the erotic object, the necessary distance between the voyeur and the object of voyeuristic pleasure is collapsed. The detachment that authorizes the process of imaginative identification with the rapist is withdrawn, forcing the reader within the confines of the victim's world.
Situated within the margins of the violator's story of rape, the reader is able to read beneath the bodily configurations that make up its text, to experience the world-destroying violence required to appropriate the victim's body as a sign of the violator's power. Lurking beneath the image of woman as passive signifier is the fact of a body turned traitor against the consciousness that no longer rules it, a body made, by sheer virtue of physiology, to encircle and in a sense embrace its violator. In Naylor's representation, Lorraine's pain and not the rapist's body becomes the agent of violation, the force of her own destruction: "The screams tried to break through her corneas out into the air, but the tough rubbery flesh sent them vibrating back into her brain, first shaking lifeless the cells that nurtured her memory." Lorraine's inability to express her own pain forces her to absorb not only the shock of bodily violation but the sudden rupture of her mental and psychological autonomy. As the body of the victim is forced to tell the rapist's story, that body turns against Lorraine's consciousness and begins to destroy itself, cell by cell. In all physical pain, Elaine Scarry observes, "suicide and murder converge, for one feels acted upon, annihilated, by inside and outside alike." Naylor succeeds in communicating the victim's experience of rape exactly because her representation documents not only the violation of Lorraine's body from without but the resulting assault on her consciousness from within.
In order to capture the victim's pain in words, to contain it within a narrative unable to account for its intangibility, Naylor turns referentiality against itself. In her representation of violence, the victim's pain is defined only through negation, her agony experienced only in the reader's imagination:
Lorraine was no longer conscious of the pain in her spine or stomach. She couldn't feel the skin that was rubbing off of her arms from being pressed against the rough cement. What was left of her mind was centered around the pounding motion that was ripping her insides apart. She couldn't tell when they changed places and the second weight, then the third and fourth, dropped on her—it was all one continuous hacksawing of torment that kept her eyes screaming the only word she was fated to utter again and again for the rest of her life. Please.
Her thighs and stomach had become so slimy from her blood and their semen that the last two boys didn't want to touch her, so they turned her over, propped her head and shoulders against the wall, and took her from behind. When they had finished and stopped holding her up, her body fell over like an unstringed puppet. She didn't feel her split rectum or the patches in her skull where her hair had been torn off by grating against the bricks. Lorraine lay in that alley only screaming at the moving pain inside of her that refused to come to rest.
Recognizing that pain defies representation, Naylor invokes a referential system that focuses on the bodily manifestations of pain—skinned arms, a split rectum, a bloody skull—only to reject it as ineffective. Lorraine, we are told, "was no longer conscious of the pain in her spine or stomach. She couldn't feel the skin that was rubbing off of her arms.… She couldn't tell when they changed places.… She didn't feel her split rectum or the patches in her skull where her hair had been torn off." Naylor piles pain upon pain—each one an experience of agony that the reader may compare to his or her own experience—only to define the total of all these experiences as insignificant, incomparable to the "pounding motion that was ripping [Lorraine's] insides apart." Naylor … brings the reader to the edge of experience only to abandon him or her to the power of the imagination; in this case, however, the structured blanks that the novel asks the reader to fill in demand the imaginative construction of the victim's pain rather than the violator's pleasure.…
As Naylor disentangles the reader from the victim's consciousness at the end of her representation, the radical dynamics of a female-gendered reader are thrown into relief by the momentary reintroduction of a distanced perspective on violence: "Lorraine lay pushed up against the wall on the cold ground with her eyes staring straight up into the sky. When the sun began to warm the air and the horizon brightened, she still lay there, her mouth crammed with paper bag, her dress pushed up under her breasts, her bloody pantyhose hanging from her thighs." In this one sentence, Naylor pushes the reader back into the safety of a world of artistic mediation and restores the reader's freedom to navigate safely through the details of the text. Under the pressure of the reader's controlling gaze, Lorraine is immediately reduced to the status of an object—part mouth, part breasts, part thighs—subject to the viewer's scrutiny. In the last sentence of the chapter, as in this culminating description of the rape, Naylor deliberately jerks the reader back into the distanced perspective that authorizes scopophilia; the final image that she leaves us with is an image not of Lorraine's pain but of "a tall yellow woman in a bloody green and black dress, scraping at the air, crying, 'Please. Please.' " This sudden shift of perspective unveils the connection between the scopophilic gaze and the objectifying force of violence. The power of the gaze to master and control is forced to its inevitable culmination as the body that was the object of erotic pleasure becomes the object of violence.… By framing her own representation of rape with an "objective" description that promotes the violator's story of rape, Naylor exposes not only the connection between violation and objectification but the ease with which the reader may be persuaded to accept both. As the object of the reader's gaze is suddenly shifted, that reader is thrust into an understanding of the way in which his or her own look may perpetuate the violence of rape.
In that violence, the erotic object is not only transformed into the object of violence but is made to testify to the suitability of the object status projected upon it. Co-opted by the rapist's story, the victim's body—violated, damaged and discarded— is introduced as authorization for the very brutality that has destroyed it. The sudden interjection of an "objective" perspective into Naylor's representation traces that process of authorization as the narrative pulls back from the subtext of the victim's pain to focus the reader's gaze on the "object" status of the victim's body. Empowered by the distanced dynamics of a gaze that authorizes not only scopophilia but its inevitable culmination in violence, the reader who responds uncritically to the violator's story of rape comes to see the victim not as a human being, not as an object of violence, but as the object itself.
The "objective" picture of a battered woman scraping at the air in a bloody green and black dress is shocking exactly because it seems to have so little to do with the woman whose pain the reader has just experienced. Having recognized Lorraine as a human being who becomes a victim of violence, the reader recoils from the unfamiliar picture of a creature who seems less human than animal, less subject than object. As Naylor's representation retreats for even a moment to the distanced perspective … the objectifying pressure of the reader's gaze allows that reader to see not the brutality of the act of violation but the brute-like characteristics of its victim. To see Lorraine scraping at the air in her bloody garment is to see not only the horror of what happened to her but the horror that is her. The violation of her personhood that is initiated with the rapist's objectifying look becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy borne out by the literal destruction of her body; rape reduces its victim to the status of an animal and then flaunts as authorization the very body that it has mutilated. Insofar as the reader's gaze perpetuates the process of objectification, the reader, too, becomes a violator.
Naylor's temporary restoration of the objectifying gaze only emphasizes the extent to which her representation of violence subverts the conventional dynamics of the reading and viewing processes. By denying the reader the freedom to observe the victim of violence from behind the wall of aesthetic convention, to manipulate that victim as an object of imaginative play, Naylor disrupts the connection between violator and viewer that Mulvey emphasizes in her discussion of cinematic convention.… Inviting the viewer to enter the world of violence that lurks just beyond the wall of art, Naylor traps the reader behind that wall. As the reader's gaze is centered within the victim's body, the reader,… is stripped of the safety of aesthetic distance and the freedom of artistic response. In Naylor's representation of rape, the power of the gaze is turned against itself; the aesthetic observer is forced to watch powerlessly as the violator steps up to the wall to stare with detached pleasure at an exhibit in which the reader, as well as the victim of violence, is on display.
Source: Laura E. Tanner, "Reading Rape: Sanctuary and The Women of Brewster Place" in American Literature, Vol. 62, No. 4, December, 1990, pp. 559–82.
Bellinelli, director, RTSJ-Swiss Television, producer, A Conversation with Gloria Naylor on In Black and White: Six Profiles of African American Authors, (videotape), California Newsreel, 1992. http://www.newsreel.org/films/inblack.htm.
Kay Bonetti, "An Interview with Gloria Naylor" (audiotape), American Prose Library, 1988.
Angels Carabi, in an interview with Gloria Naylor, Belles Lettres 7, spring, 1992, pp. 36–42.
Anne Gottlieb, "Women Together," The New York Times, August 22, 1982, p. 11.
Loyle Hairston, a review in Freedomways, Vol. 23, No. 4, 1983, pp. 282-85.
Barbara Harrison, Visions of Glory: A History and a Memory of Jehovah's Witnesses, Simon & Schuster, 1975.
Joel Hughes, "Naylor Discusses Race Myths and Life," Yale Daily News, March 2, 1995. http://www.cis.yale.edu/ydn/paper.
Christine King, Identities and Issues in Literature, Vol. 3, edited by David Peck and Eric Howard, Salem Press, 1997, pp. 1004-5.
Linda Labin, Masterpieces of Women's Literature, edited by Frank Magill, HarperCollins, 1996, pp. 571-73.
The Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary of the English Language, The English Language Institute of America, 1975.
Jill Matus, "Dream, Deferral, and Closure in The Women of Brewster Place." Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 24, No. 1, spring, 1990, pp. 49-64.
Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place, Penguin, 1983.
Rae Stoll, Magill's Literary Annual, Vol. Two, edited by Frank Magill, Salem Press, 1983, pp. 918-22.
Michael Awkward, "Authorial Dreams of Wholeness: (Dis)Unity, (Literary) Parentage, and The Women of Brewster Place," in Gloria Naylor: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K.A. Appiah, Amistad Press, 1993, pp. 37-70.
Discusses Naylor's literary heritage and her use of and divergence from her literary roots.
Julia Boyd, In the Company of My Sisters: Black Women and Self Esteem, Plume, 1997.
Explores interracial relationships, bi-and gay sexuality in the black community, and black women's lives through a study of the roles played by both black and white families. Boyd offers guidelines for growth in a difficult world.
Children of the Night: The Best Short Stories by Black Writers, 1967 to the Present, edited by Gloria Naylor and Bill Phillips, Little Brown, 1997.
An anthology of stories that relate to the black experience. The four sections cover such subjects as slavery, changing times, family, faith, "them and us," and the future.
The Critical Response to Gloria Naylor (Critical Responses in Arts and Letters, No. 29), edited by Sharon Felton and Michelle C. Loris, Greenwood, 1997.
A comprehensive compilation of critical responses to Naylor's works, including: sections devoted to her novels, essays and seminal articles relating feminist perspectives, and comparisons of Naylor's novels to classical authors.
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying, Cape and Smith, 1930.
This is a story that depicts a family's struggle with grieving and community as they prepare to bury their dead mother. Faulkner uses fifteen different voices to tell the story.
Virginia C. Fowler, "'Ebony Phoenixes': The Women of Brewster Place," in Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary, edited by Frank Day, Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 21-58.
Offers a general analysis of the structure, characters, and themes of the novel.
——, Gloria Naylor: In Search of Sanctuary, Twayne, 1996.
Biographical and critical study. Fowler tries to place Naylor's work within the context of African-American female writers since the 1960s.
Annie Gottlieb, a review in The New York Times Book Review, August 22, 1982, p. 11.
Praises Naylor's treatment of women and relationships.
Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith, Naiad, 1989.
A collection of works by noted authors such as Alice Walker, June Jordan, and others. Essays, poetry, and prose on the black feminist experience.
bell hooks, Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism, South End, 1981.
A nonfiction theoretical work concerning the rights of black women and the need to work for change relating to the issues of racism, sexism, and societal oppression.
Kate Rushin, Black Back-ups, Firebrand Books, 1993.
The author captures the faces, voices, feelings, words, and stories of an African-American family in the neighborhood and town where she grew up.
Sapphire, American Dreams, Vintage, 1996.
Through prose and poetry, the author addresses issues of family violence, urban decay, spiritual renewal, and others, yet rises above the grim realism to find hope and inspiration.
Dorothy Wickenden, a review in The New Republic, September 6, 1982, p. 37.
Observes that Naylor's "knowing portrayal" of Mattie unites the seven stories that form the novel.