Historical Context of ‘The Women of Brewster Place’

The novel spans the period of thirty years that is the time of Basil’s birth till Ben’s death. This covers the period from the early 1940s to the mid 1970s, a time of significant political and social change for African Americans. It was a period of post World War II witnessing the Second Great Migration, the first followed by World War I. It was during this period there was a mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North with the hope of employment and gaining economic benefits. Unfortunately Blacks were disheartened by the squalid conditions found in the North. In the North they were not accepted by the whites. Even if they could afford better circumstances, they were denied access. Or as blacks moved into certain areas, whites soon moved elsewhere, and these abandoned neighborhoods, without a substantial tax base because jobs and economic prosperity followed the whites to suburbia, soon deteriorated to slums. When the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the modern Civil Rights Movement was ushered in, but years would pass before any significant inroads toward social equality would be made. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the passage of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, poor African Americans, in both the North and the South, found their conditions largely unchanged.

It is within this social context that Gloria Naylor writes The Women of Brewster Place, the place full of bastard child. Brewster Place originated, soon after World War I, as a locus for the oppression of already oppressed people. The buildings constructed at this place were in depleted condition. Mismanagement and neglection completes the task of dehumanization. Naylor reminds the reader of this economic reality when she describes the wall that blocks off Brewster Place from a major thoroughfare. Naylor thus succeeds to highlight the conditions of the inhabitants who are left to lead lonely life and die. Most die, if not physically, then emotionally, because the coping skills they have cultivated were designed for a more agrarian existence with its emphasis on open spaces, nature, and the solace offered in extended families. Many of the characters hail from the South. For Ben, Mattie, Etta Mae, and Ciel, Tennessee is their place of origin; for Theresa, Georgia. And though each of them has come to the North for different reasons, each has come to escape some perceived ill suffered in the south. The irony, of course, rests in the fact that their present conditions have brought new ills in their life.

As a means of counteracting some of these problems, Naylor advances the philosophy of certain characters, and in so doing, nods to a significant literary development: the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Coalescing in 1965, soon after the assassination of Malcolm X, it insisted upon “social engagement” (the sustained and pointed critique of the white establishment) as a prerequisite of its aesthetic function. This movement disregarded white literary forms and perceived white sensibility. In short, the Movement challenged white mainstream notions of good, normal, and standard, much like Equiano does in his slave narrative. Black power (if necessary, armed self-defense) and pride in black identity were staples of the organization. Kiswana Browne, though somewhat misguided in her zeal, emerges as the representative of this movement. Arguing with her mother that the family (her mother, father, and brother) has acquiesced willingly to white notions of superiority, Kiswana espouses a revolutionary agenda, even though Mrs. Browne reminds Kiswana that all of her former college “revolution” friends are now a part of the establishment. Naylor, however, uses Kiswana to voice some important concepts, radical though they may be, about black racial pride, lest they be forgotten. Kiswana’s boyfriend, Abshu, maintaining only a minor role, also embodies the best of revolutionary ideals at work. Instead of merely protesting and ridiculing social norms, he is involved in reshaping the community and advancing the intellectual and artistic capacity of the residents. It is his Afrocentric (using African-inspired costumes, language, and humor) rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Kiswana takes Cora Lee’s children to see. As a result of his efforts, children in the community are exposed to art forms they otherwise might never see. And he imbues these productions with black identity so that the children can relate to the art.

Perhaps Naylor’s most radical use of the often radical Black Arts Movement is evident in Lorraine and Theresa, and ironically so. Frequently criticized as homophobic and chauvinistic, the Black Arts Movement often relegated women to an inferior status and either ignored the contributions of gays or denigrated them for being emasculated, willingly, by a sexually perverse white establishment. Naylor, however, invokes the spirit of the Movement in her development of these two lesbian characters, and in so doing, makes them mouthpieces for the Movement. Each woman argues from a different perspective, but each is quite radical in her assessment. Lorraine, initially shy and unassuming, wants to be accepted for who she is, insisting that the larger community see her as being no different from other women/people there. After all, she maintains, she is no different today than she was on the day before she realized she was/is a lesbian. On the other hand, argues Theresa, the world, homophobic and heterosexist as it is, is ruled (in sheer numbers) by persons who despise gays and lesbians. And while Theresa could not care less what others think, she realizes that she must function in a world controlled by others. Each woman is quite passionate in her appraisal, and with this passion, each woman plants the novel firmly in the tradition of Black Arts radicalism.

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