Women of Brewster Place
Gloria Naylor in her novel the Women of Brewster Place considers aspects of the black experience in American life in the persons of several women who live in a particular neighborhood, a neighborhood that is part of the black community and that is at the same time isolated from the white community. Brewster Place is not just the location for the stories in this book but also a character in its own right, and the other characters in the novel are affected in various ways by the neighborhood in which they live.
The route of assimilation of members of ethnic groups into mainstream American society can be a matter of individual choice, or it can be a matter of accident or forces outside the ability of the individual to choose. The ethnic enclaves started by different ethnic groups come about as immigrants from other areas come to the United States and want to feel comfortable with others of their background; the ghetto that developed for black citizens, however, is different in that these people are not immigrants (at least not in this generation) and at least at one time had little choice about where they could live, since neighborhoods were segregated. The Women of Brewster Place live in the area they do because black people historically have populated such neighborhoods and still do. These women have not been given a choice as to where they want to live. The neighborhood was once all white, and this changed with the arrival of one black man. As more blacks moved in, the whites moved out, another trend creating ghettoes in different inner-city neighborhoods.
For many blacks, remaining where they are allows them to remain comfortable. The older generation in Brewster Place is less eager to make a change, and even if the world outside has changed, they fear it has not. This fear affects them and keeps them in one place. The younger characters are kept in place by discrimination by the larger community, though they chafe at this more than do their elders. The community itself has a history, just as do the people who now live there. Naylor says that Brewster Place was conceived “in a damp, smoke-filled room” (Naylor 1) through the liaison of the alderman of the sixth district and the managing director of the Unico Realty Company, both of whom have personal desires in mind fired by their personal greed.
This “bastard child” (Naylor 1) of a community consists of four double-housing units and took three months to be born in the city legislature. It received a proper public “baptism” launched with champagne rather than holy water, by the very alderman whose cousin’s pockets were being lined by the new shopping center. However, because its sordid consummation remained in the shadows, the community applauded. This sorry history may be known now, and that colors the way the community views the housing and the people who live in that housing.
In its youth, Brewster Place seemed still to hold promise with its gray bricks “the color of dull silver” (Naylor 2) and with possibilities that it would prosper and be a part of the business district, though the eccentricities of the flow of traffic demanded that some streets be walled off and separated from commerce. The immigrant peoples of Brewster Place had no political clout, so Brewster Place found itself walled into a dead end street and rebaptized, this time with a smear of blood and vomit from Mrs. Colligan’s drunken son as he inadvertently ran into the new wall. In its middle years, Brewster Place, developed its own personality. Mostly Mediterraneans lived here at that time. The street was paved by the WPA and reflected its residents “language, and music and codes.” And took pride in its very differentness (Naylor 2). However, as the community grew older, its children failed to return due to war or changing fortunes.
Some residents did grow old with Brewster Place, and the neighborhood also found itself changing with age. Integration brought a new black janitor, and in its third generation, Brewster Place nudged away the last of the remaining Mediterraneans. This third generation was of multi-colored Afric’ children” who were as ambitious as the children of its youth, and as complicated with culture, music, and codes as the children of its middle age. These people, though, had a sense of having found this place forever, a sense that only a few would ever leave this place, that this was a place for forever and better than the “starving southern climates” they had fled.
Americans like to talk about everyone having the same opportunity, but that is an ideal that has never been reached, and it is a more elusive goal for some groups in society than for others. It is not only ethnic minorities who encounter discrimination but also women and homosexuals. Indeed, many elements in this country in recent years have demanded the right to discriminate against the latter group, and even as some localities have passed laws outlawing discrimination against homosexuals, others have sought to rescind such laws or even to introduce laws making it acceptable to discriminate against homosexuals. Those seeking to limit opportunity for women and ethnic minorities may not be so blatant today, but they are just as active. At the same time, the assumption that members of minority groups think of themselves as Americans first is sorely tested because of the discrimination that is often seen in American society. Such discrimination forces people to think of themselves as members of some minority group because they know that that is the reason they are not getting the opportunities they believe they should. The Women of Brewster Place necessarily think of themselves as black Americans because their blackness has more to do with their place in life than their being Americans.
Throughout the novel, Brewster Place interacts with its residents. The development itself is shaped by the music, the food, and the people there. The people create the music and listen to it and live with it, and this shapes the locale in a way that is so beautiful and expressive that it is painful: “It wasn’t the music or the words that took that room by the throat until it grasped for air — it was the pain” (Naylor 55).
The music that reflects a pain so deep could be captured on a record, a record that brought the sounds of the soul to Brewster Place. Still, like a living being, Brewster Place’s summer heat brought folks out to their stoops like the beads of perspiration that were drawn out from their brows in the heat itself (Naylor 56). The heat affects the housing, and the heat affects the people, both in similar ways. Again and again, Naylor describes Brewster Place in a way that she would also describe the human beings who live there: “The sunlight was still watery as Ben trudged into Brewster Place, and the street had just begun to yawn and stretch itself” (Naylor 89). The elements act on the site just as they would on humans left out in the weather: “Spring was beginning to announce itself at Brewster Place. The arthritic cold was seeping out of the worn, gray bricks” (Naylor 96).
The people come to Brewster Place and are received because they belong. Naylor writes that people would come and go at Brewster Place at all hours to avoid eviction notices and prying eyes as “Brewster waited, cautiously prepared to claim them” (Naylor 129). The milieu affects these people, impinging on their senses and shaping the way they react to the site itself: “They could almost feel the odor moving about in their mouths, and they slowly knotted themselves together and let it out into the air like a yellow mist that began to cling to the bricks on Brewster” (Naylor 131).
The street is given a life, and it is a life that must end: “No one cries when a street dies… No is there when a street dies” (Naylor 191-192).
In this novel, the author tells seven stories. The first six feature individual characters, and the last story is about the entire community as a unit. The women of the housing development might seem to be tainted from the start given that the housing development itself was born in a corrupt way, but in fact these women transcend their milieu for the most part and so are affected by the development in a way that makes them better and stronger. The current residents came to Brewster Place after the start of the Civil Rights Movement and notably after Brown v. Board of Education, in which the Supreme Court offered further hope by striking down the “separate but equal” doctrine in 1954. This major decision was supposed to be implemented “with all deliberate speed,” according to the decision itself, but even ten years later little had been done. Such delays fueled the frustration felt in the black community and contributed to the development of the Civil Rights Movement (Zinn 435-440). Brewster Place in these stories thus stands at a point when change is taking place but has not yet been as thorough as it would be later.
The African-Americans now living in Brewster Place have largely migrated from the South. Indeed, Mattie Michael and several other characters arrive in Brewster Place from her parents’ home in the South. When Mattie leaves her parents’ home, she is pregnant by a disreputable man named Butch Fuller. Mattie is part of the move to the North known as the Great Migration. There is no doubt that having children out of wedlock is a major cause of problems for minority women, however, as can be seen in this reference from the Women of Brewster Place:
She had gone to school until her sophomore year, when she had her first baby. And in those days you had to leave high school if you were pregnant. (Naylor 113)
Mattie lives at Brewster Place with her new baby and works on an assembly line. Mattie’s home is decaying and rat-infested, and a rat bites Mattie’s child.
Mattie has to find a new home, and she meets Mrs. Turner, who insists on taking her and her child into her home and refuses to let them pay rent. When Mrs. Turner dies, Mattie buys the house. Her son Basil grows to be a troubled young man who never takes any responsibility for his actions. He kills a man in a bar fight and gets arrested. Mattie uses her house for collateral to bail him out, but he runs off so that she forfeits her house and has to move to Brewster Place.
For Mattie, Brewster Place is a new beginning, as it is for her friend, Etta. The two women take care of one another, and when Etta is despondent about her relationship with Reverend Woods, Mattie makes her feel better about herself. The two women represent the major strain of people at Brewster Place, people who end up living in this decrepit structure because they have no choice. Brewster Place is a site that has persisted but that has seen its best days some time ago. Etta also ends up at Brewster Place because she has failed in the outside world. By contrast, Kiswana Browne lives at Brewster Place by her own choice. She was raised in a more affluent community, then dropped out of college to live in Brewster Place. She wants to bring about real social change in the black community. Her mother visits, generating a good deal of anger between the two as they argue about Kiswana’s life. Kiswana’s life is also defined by Brewster Place, for that location is seen by her as a target for her social activism, a place in need of the change she thinks she can bring. Her mother sums up a view of the nature of her daughter’s social activism and the degree to which it has failed to change the world. As her mother says,
But you kids thought you were going to turn the world upside down, and it just wasn’t so. When all the smoke had cleared, you found yourself with a fistful of new federal laws and a country still full of obstacles for black people to fight their way over — just because they’re black. (Naylor 84)
This emphasizes that the black person is still separated from the white majority, and Brewster Place itself serves as an example of this fact, standing as an isolated area enclosing these particular women and in essence walling them off from much contract with the white community elsewhere in the city.
Indeed, Brewster Place separates these women from the larger community in a way mirroring their place in society as a whole, for they experience a double dose of discrimination both as black Americans and as women. Gender has long been a component of stratification in the workplace, with women finding that they are paid less than men for the same work and that they do not have the same chance at advancement. Even after attitudes changed to a degree, women encountered a “glass ceiling” that allowed them to advance so far and no farther in most organizations. Stratification on the basis of race has a long history as well, and it has long been noted that black women suffer a double-dose of discrimination and marginalization, shunted aside both form race and for gender.
For the most part, birth does not determine social position in America, and social class is more associated with economic level. Mantsios notes that the “distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. is grossly unequal and becomes increasingly more so with time” (Mantsios 99).
Mantsios further points to the primary source of social differences in American society — economic advancement based on education and jobs. America is proud of its educational system and sees it as offering opportunity to all, though Mantsios finds this is an illusion:
For while we have made great strides in opening the doors of academe, the system of education in the United States leaves much to be desired and is anything but egalitarian. (Mantsios 100)
The quality of education is as important as its availability, and the quality is determined by funding and the tax base that supports it: “Schools in poorer districts are just not as likely to provide a high-quality education” (Mantsios 100).
The latter fact is more likely to affect blacks than women, since more blacks are found in the lower economic strata. Women have been affected over the years by programs diverting women into “women’s careers” rather than careers dominated by men. Women also were under-represented in higher education, and while this is not necessarily true any longer, there remains an attitude that women will get married and not work while men will have to work to support their families.
In bell hooks’ book Talking Back, the author discusses feminism as a mode of change, and she sees a dichotomy in the women’s movement between white women and black women based on the nature of the element they desire to eradicate. She finds that both groups take their cue from the fact that we live in a world governed by the politics of domination, and they further see that the root of this problem is the prevalence of patriarchal domination on the planet. This has fostered the idea that eradicating sexist oppression would lead to the eradication of all forms of domination. White women thus tend to suggest that racism and class exploitation are only the offspring of the patriarchal system and so that resisting patriarchal domination is more legitimate for feminists than resisting racism or other forms of domination. Hooks disagrees and finds that following such a course may blind feminists to other forms of domination, including the fact that women as well dominate just as they are dominated.
It is clear that what hooks would want is an attack by everyone on the politics of domination and on the different forms that domination may take. She does not see women as totally innocent in this, whether they are white or black, and recognizing this fact is the one means by which blacks, whites, men and women can be brought together to effect real change that goes beyond addressing only one aspect of the much larger problem.
Hooks cites the suggestion that much of the solidarity claimed for women is an illusion and that class and race divide women more than they are bound together by being women. For example, she notes that it is perceived that black communities are more homophobic than other communities, and she addresses this issue and finds some doubt that it is true. She notes how some blacks from the South report that gay people were able to express themselves openly, while others dispute this. Homophobia directed at lesbians was bound with deep religious and moral belief that women defined their femaleness by bearing children, and being a lesbian was thus “unnatural” because this was not possible. Yet, hooks finds that the possibility exists that blacks are seen as more homophobic not because they are but because those who are tend to express themselves in a more outspoken way then similarly minded people in other communities do. Hooks also points out how attitudes toward homosexuals in the black community can be affected by outside factors, and one such is the positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship in the Color Purple, which contrarily produced a belief that lesbian relationships threatened heterosexual relationships in the black community (Hooks 120-23).
Of course, there is a biological basis for both some sex differences and some racial differences, though we tend to over-emphasize both. Science has discovered that there is little genetic difference between the races, and most physical racial differences developed over time in response to different environmental influences. Many people confuse ethnic and cultural differences with racial differences. Different groups today identify themselves on the basis of either racial distinctions (black and Asian political groups) or ethnic differences (Latino groups, Italian-American societies). Even racial distinctions divide into ethnic distinctions for numerous groups (Asians divided into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean groups, for instance).
Sex differences are real — women have babies, for instance, while men do not — but gender is a social construct and not a scientific difference. Fausto-Sterling notes how scientific research into sex differences may produce uncertain results based on definitions and sources — he notes that sex differences in spatial visualization to sometimes exist but that they may be due to learned skills, with society deciding which sex learns which skills (Fausto-Sterling 33-34). Such ideas then become ingrained, as if gender differences had a biological basis. Women have been relegated to the home by society, not by biology alone, and children learn their roles through play, emulation of adults, and observation of what society does and does not accept. We all gain some sense of our identity from these sources, but we do not always recognize that this is why we view ourselves in a certain way. Blacks at one time may have come to believe that they were truly a lazy race because white society said they were. We see this today in the way black children in school live down to what white teachers seem to expect of them — they fail because they are expected to fail and learn that lesson early. Many racial groups today formed specifically to counter such views and to assert for members that there are no such differences between themselves and other groups.
Even more marginalized than those who are simply black, those who area women, and those who are black women are those who are also lesbian, as with Lorraine and Theresa, the only lesbian residents of Brewster Place. The other residents tend to fear Lorraine and Theresa, though in fact they are a loving and kindly couple. Sophie in fact watches everything they do with great suspicion, spreading rumors throughout the neighborhood. Lorraine is hurt by the way her neighbors react, while Theresa says she does not care what people think. Lorraine tries to become part of the community by going to the tenants’ association meeting, but Sophie attacks her at that meeting for being a lesbian. Loraine leaves in tears. The oldest resident in the complex is the janitor, Ben, and she and Ben become friends, which gives her some consolation. After a party, after a fight with Theresa, Lorraine finds herself in a dark alley where she is attacked by a group of young thugs and raped. Lorraine gets up just as the sun is rising, stumbles down the alley, and sees Ben. She uses a brick to crush his skull.
The death of Ben is really the end of Brewster Place. There is something mystical about the way the women of Brewster Place are connected at times, as when they all dream about Lorraine in her bloody dress. They would like to get near the wall where Ben was killed to “keep up a requiem of the why’s and how’s of his dying” (Naylor 175), but because of the rains that week, they cannot. The rain separates the complex from the rest of the city even more effectively than has geography or race or any other element, and all are turned inward to consider these events alone because they cannot do so as a community. A block party has been planned and seems impossible now, but the rain stops just in time.
The rain does come back during the party, but the women stay in the rain and tear down the wall where Ben was murdered, pulling out each brick. The next day is a bright, sunny day, but Brewster Place is really at an end now. All of the residents are forced out as the whole block is condemned, and Brewster Place is abandoned. The complex has had an effect on the women who lived there, and it is an effect that persists:
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 a pot of soup, and they’re diapered around babies. They ebb and flow, ebb and flow, but never disappear. So Brewster Place still waits to die. (Naylor 192)
The women of Brewster Place have shard with that site as if it were a living entity, and the life of that entity has come to an end. The women were isolated from white society to a great extent, and they remain so, now on the basis of memories only they share. In this novel, the conditions facing African-Americans in the early period of the Civil Rights Movement shapes the way these women live, the dreams they have, and the degree to which those dreams can and cannot be fulfilled. Change has come, but it is not great enough to overcome the isolation and discrimination already experienced by these women and still part of their lives. The women are isolated for different reasons, but the factors in their lives all tend to keep them separate from the larger society and unable to overcome the forces that keep them separate. Even when Brewster Place is no more, these women carry many of these factors with them and remain separate. When they are together in Brewster Place, though, they have a certain strength as a unit, though not enough strength to keep the complex together or to overcome the effects of a rape and murder in their midst. What they achieve as a community also seems to be transient, though one might like to believe that they are able to do better once they are separate because of what they learned and achieved when they were together. The dissolution of the community is still the end of an era, and for all the bad elements that are part of living in Brewster Place, there were strengths and benefits as well. The characters react differently, just as they have different backgrounds, and the place itself gained character from the people who lived in the complex.
Works Cited hooks, bell. Talking Back. South End Press, 1989.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Myths of Gender. New York: Basic Books, 1985.
Mantsios, Gregory. The politics and economics of class in the U.S. In the meaning of difference, K.E. Rosenblum & T.M.C. Travis (eds.), 97-103. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996.
Naylor, Gloria. The Women of Brewster Place. New York: Penguin, 1982.
Zinn, Howard, a People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper Perennial, 1980.
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