The

Mick

Sinclair

Archive

Ntozake Shange

November

1985

NME

book review

 
 
BETSEY BROWN

Ntozake Shange

BETSEY BROWN is an ambitious work. Its intention is to weave the stories of several people of the same family together around a time and place crucial in shaping their ideas and destinies.

The novel unfolds through the growing pains of Betsey Brown (aged 13 3/4), the eldest female child in a brood belonging to Jane and Greer and living in a big old house in St Louis, USA. The family are black and they live between (in several senses) the rundown black section of town and the affluent white neighbourhoods. They are on the right side of the tracks but are the wrong colour. The year is 1959.

Greer is one of the USA's few black surgeons. He is determined to make his young family aware and proud of their Negro identity. He rouses them each morning with a conga drum strapped to his back and quizzes them on "what is the most standard form of the blues? Who is President of Ghana? A Negro's got to know."

Betsey bares the brunt of the adult world's legal solution to racial problems. She is unhappily bussed to a (previously) white school. She was upset enough when her secret hiding place was discovered and when her father failed to smuggle her in to an Ike & Tina Turner show. Plus, she's reeling from the taste of her first kiss. The answer (inevitably) is to run away. She ponders her future: "I could marry the President, or maybe even Duke Ellington."

Betsey's disappearance, although brief, brings to a head the conflicts simmering within the household and constitutes the book's most compelling section.

In attempting to convey the contrasting strands of thought within the black community on the eve of America's great civil rights era, Betsey Brown is successful in a literary if not always sociological manner. The narrative is nicely understated, a style well suited to describing the casually accepted racism (such as the black children only going swimming once a week, on the day the pool is cleaned) of the time in St Louis – itself a city poised between the relatively "enlightened" North and the KKK extremism of the South.

The uneasy moments occur when the characters slip from being genuine people and become too overtly representations of type.

A black feminist Cider With Rosie? Well er ... ultimately it is Betsey we're left really caring about. What, I wonder, is to happen to her?

 

mick sinclair

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