- Black Girlhood, Representation, Place, and Relationships in Jacqueline Woodson's Work
In the concluding lines of "february 12, 1963," the poem that begins Jacqueline Woodson's National Book Award-winning memoir in verse Brown Girl Dreaming, she meditates on her experience growing up in different parts of the United States in the midst of the American civil rights movement:
I am born in Ohio butthe stories of South Carolina already runlike riversthrough my veins.(2)
The final lines of this poem speak not only to the importance of memory and storytelling as it relates to personal, familial, and national history, but also to the influence of other writers, such as Langston Hughes, on her body of work. In her author's note at the end of Brown Girl Dreaming, Woodson explains: "And that's what this book is—my past, my people, my memories, my story" (323). Rooted in realism, much of Woodson's writing focuses on reflecting and magnifying marginalized voices by grappling with issues such as race, class, sexuality, immigration, teen pregnancy, and trauma. Here, I map Woodson's history and development as a writer, survey the significant thematic threads that are woven throughout her collected works, and discuss the ways in which her work magnifies Black girlhood through her varied depiction of voices and experiences.
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Becoming a Brown Girl Dreaming
Woodson is a celebrated and prolific writer. During the past thirty years, she has published over thirty works for young readers and adults and has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2006 Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Poetry Foundation's 2015 [End Page 3] Young People's Poet Laureate, the 2018 Children's Literature Legacy Award, the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the Library of Congress's 2018–19 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, and finally the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award, among many others. Woodson has also been a four-time Coretta Scott King Award honoree and a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, a four-time Newbery Award honoree, a four-time National Book Award finalist, and a National Book Award winner. Among Woodson's most celebrated works are her poetry, Brown Girl Dreaming (2014) and Locomotion (2010); novels for young readers, After Tupac and D Foster (2008) and Miracle's Boys (2000); and picturebooks, Each Kindness (2012), Show Way (2006), and The Other Side (2001).
In addition to Locomotion and Brown Girl Dreaming, which take the form of narratives in verse, Woodson has also made use of poetry as a formal device in many of her works. In her own writing and interviews, she emphasizes the importance of African American poets (such as Hughes, Countee Cullen, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Nick Flynn) and her elementary and high school teachers in igniting a passion for and understanding of poetry. On her website, Woodson explains how her various works contain and convey meaning as poetry, noting that Brown Girl Dreaming is "poetry as memoir," Locomotion is "poetry as fiction," The Other Side is "poetry as picture book," Show Way is "poetry as history," and Each Kindness is "poetry as empathy." Additionally, many of her works that are not written as poetry begin with an epigraph from a poem that influenced the content and title of the work, such as Feathers (2007), which includes as an epigraph the lines from Emily Dickinson's poem, "Hope is a thing with feathers / that perches in the soul, / And sings the tune without words / And never stops at all," and depicts its protagonist exploring the meaning of this poem, as well as If You Come Softly (1998), which takes its title from and includes an epigraph referencing lines from Audre Lorde's poem, "If you come softly / as the wind within the trees / You may hear what I hear / See what sorrow sees." This framing of poetry as a formal device, but also as a way to evoke emotion and thematic understanding, outlines a unique model for thinking about poetry's uses and value for young readers.
In an interview with Stacey Lynn Brown, Woodson notes that "one...