Sie sind auf Seite 1von 7

Brian Jones

Unity in Brewster Place and Passing

The subject of African-American women is one in which unity plays an important

part. Unity for what some have labeled a “double minority” is necessary for the

individuals in question to maintain pride in their heritage, as well as lobby for their own

dignified position in society. Literature on this subject, then, is often concerned with the

idea of unity; because African-American women’s literature is such a prevalent form of

media, several authors have voiced their opinion on how to unite this people. Gloria

Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place and Nella Larsen’s Passing both send the

message of using common ground as a means to unite individuals. However, whereas

Brewster Place displays examples of working relationship, Passing sends the same

message through relationships that fail.

Brewster Place is very clearly portrayed as a run-down, lower-class

neighborhood. Naturally, nearly all of the residents are considered lower-class – perhaps

even below the poverty line. A lack of money is one of the most literal obstacles in the

way of leaving Brewster Place. Some of the residents try to fight their poverty, and

actually do escape. Others, however, were willing to cling “to the street with a desperate

acceptance that whatever was here was better than the starving southern climates they

had fled from.” (Naylor 4) This latter category describes the majority of Brewster locals.

Through an awareness of their shared struggles, these residents can find unity with one

another, as they all do what they can to survive.

Several examples may be drawn of characters using poverty as common ground.

Perhaps the literal status of being poor, in and of itself, is not necessarily mentioned; but
the symptoms that typically follow poverty are shared by nearly every character in the

book. It is no coincidence that most of their tales end in heartbreak; often when one is

poor, tragedy and loss – at least in the case of these stories – are rather common. One

particular unnamed woman tries to use this as a way to empathize and connect with

Lucielia, shortly after Ciel loses her baby: “Child, I know how you feel, but don’t do this

to yourself. I lost one too.” (Naylor 102) Despite the fact that the emotionally shattered

Ciel pushes her away, the point should still be made that the woman believed that sharing

a loss could bring people together. It can safely be assumed that this sort of experience

had occurred many times after other tragic events in Brewster Place.

Kiswana Browne is an exception to the poverty rule in the neighborhood. Rather

than being forced into a poor area, Kiswana has intentionally sacrificed her birth-given

middle-class status. Wishing to connect to the inner-city black community, she has

overlooked the class barrier; in fact, she has gone beyond that, and has actually removed

the barrier. Instead of simply accepting what common ground she already had with the

community, she has created even more commonality with Brewster Place. This is a

commendable feat, but the downside of this is the barrier which now divides Kiswana

and the rest of her family. Before the meeting with her mother which is described in the

book, Kiswana is actually rather annoyed by her mother’s presence, and believes Mrs.

Browne to be another unknowing victim of the white government. By taking such an

active stance against the upper- and middle-class, Kiswana denies herself the ability to

make a difference for her beloved lower-class people – until, of course, Mrs. Browne

shows her what kind of power she can have as a middle-class citizen.
It should, of course, be recognized that Kiswana’s struggle is not only class-

related, but race-related. She believes that true black people have been forced into lower-

class lives; by moving into Brewster Place, then, she can connect with her race. One

should note that the term “race,” in this sense, is referring to the cultural construct

supposedly believed to exist by the general public. However, even if race is a false

concept, African-Americans do have a shared history and heritage, and Kiswana wishes

to embrace such roots. Judging from the way Kiswana seems to have little conflict with

her neighbors, it seems as though she fits in with them. She has made it so that she

belongs with what she considers to be her people.

Again, Brewster Place is a predominantly black neighborhood. Whereas the skin

color itself does not tie people together, the cultural effects can be seen in their various

relationships. For instance, Mattie and Etta enjoy listening to their Billie Holiday records.

They also attend a black church featuring gospel music and a charismatic preacher. At the

time of this book’s setting, these were considered to be features of only African-American

culture. Such culturally shared hobbies and interests can enhance the relationships of the

individuals in the same culture.

Mattie and Etta, however, have more of a foundation in their relationship than

simply their class and color. They also are women, and share countless experiences and

problems that men do not. In fact, one of the most common problems in the lives of these

particular women is the men in their lives. Mattie is heartbroken by her son when he is

convicted for murder and never seen again. The experience is one of learning for her, and

she uses it later to aid her friends. Etta is used by Reverend Woods as nothing more than a

sexual object. When Etta comes home from the encounter, however, Mattie is waiting for
her and ready to be whatever kind of support her friend might need. Mattie knows what it

is like to be hurt by a man, and is therefore more than willing to take care of other women

who undergo similar experiences. This is partially why she is also very passionate in her

care for Ciel, after Ciel’s husband, Eugene, walks out of her life. Eugene, being an

antagonist, allows gender to be a barrier between himself and women such as Mattie;

however, he simultaneously uses it as common ground to establish a relationship with

Ben, the one regular male in Brewster Place.

Despite most of the women using their shared gender as fuel for their

relationships, they overlook such common ground when judging the Two. Without even

speaking to the girls about their sexual preferences, the locals immediately begin

gossiping and turning their backs to the newcomers. These women perform the opposite

of Kiswana’s aforementioned decisions; not only do they choose to not ignore their

differences with the Two, but the women allow the differences to become a barrier. It

should be clear by reading the text alone that Naylor believes that this is not the proper

course of action. As an illustration of her beliefs, she once noted that she has no

“tolerance for human stupidity, which she defines as ‘the refusal to look beyond one’s

tiny horizons and to interpret the world only from one’s small point of view.’” (Whitt

337) The closed-mindedness in this case of the residents is an obvious example of such

“human stupidity”. Naylor must understand that the differences between individuals

should not push them away from each other; if the differences can not be used to enhance

the relationship, then they should at least be ignored. Unity is not created by barriers.

The same principle is applied in Passing. When Irene and Clare have passed to the

white color, they remove the barriers between themselves and true white characters.
Obviously, this is the intent behind the passing. The two women can now socialize with

the “upper crust” white characters like Hugh Wentworth, and even the obscenely racist

John Bellew. It is as if these women have carried out yet another opposite of Kiswana’s

lifestyle changes: Because they do not seem to appreciate their roots, they choose to find

common ground with people of a different race, as opposed to their own. The degree of

morality in such a decision is subjective. Is it acceptable to falsely destroy the differences

within a relationship with someone else, as long as it brings unity? It is difficult to answer

that question in general. In the case of this story, though, the situation is more


In becoming a white woman, Irene disconnects herself from her heritage and

people. She has no problem with watching other black people dance, as she stands

alongside her new white friends; they watch for their own racist amusement. Irene also

denies the racism that exists in the outside world, and the danger that goes along with it.

When telling Brian that their children should not hear about lynching, her explanation is

that she wants “their childhood to be happy and as free from the knowledge of such

things as it possibly can be.” (Larsen 170). The irony of this, of course, is that Irene is

trying to keep herself happy and from such knowledge, despite being a grown woman. By

letting herself fall into this state of mind, this scene illustrates how her passing has

become a barrier between herself and her black husband. It is a complicated issue for

both Irene and Clare, because it is as if they are of two races; but at the same time, it is

like they are of neither. This racial ambiguity should be assumed to illustrated well,

because it is similar to the way Larsen felt growing up. Larsen was “the mixed-race child
of immigrant parents. Reared in a visibly ‘white’ family, she was a lonely child whose

racial identity separated her from both parents and sibling.” (Proctor 1)

With such a feeling of disconnectedness, one would imagine that Irene and Clare

would have a strong relationship with each other. After all, they are common in nearly

every way: They are both upper class, passing women. One could argue that conflict

appears in the relationship because they are too similar. Irene grows a hatred for Clare

because she believes Clare is stealing her life away from her. Clare supposedly steals

Irene’s friends and even her husband. The disunity in the relationship, therefore, is caused

by the common ground becoming an obstacle.

Whereas Brewster Place illustrates how to properly maintain a relationship,

Passing shows what can make a relationship crumble. When two individuals have a

shared status or experience, it should be used to bind them together. Conversely, when

they have differences, it should not be reason enough to prevent or end a relationship. In

the end, it comes down to how much effort a person is willing to make. If one does not

care about unity, then unity may not be achieved.

Works Cited

Larsen, Nella. "Passing." The Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Women's

Literature. Ed. Valerie Lee. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc., 2006.

Naylor, Gloria. The Women of Brewster Place. New York: Penguin Books, 1983.

Proctor, Angela V.. "Nella Larsen Resource Guide." John B. Cade Library. 22 01 2003.

Southern University and A&M College. 24 Jul 2006



Whitt, Margaret. “Charles E. Wilson, Jr. Gloria Naylor: A Critical Companion”. African

American Review. Summer 2002 v36 i2 p337.