Ntozake Shange

Betsey Brown

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Betsey Brown Summary

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Betsey Brown is a 1985 novel by Ntozake Shange. The novel is about the coming of age of one Betsey Brown, an upper-middle-class African American girl in the late 1950’s, who is part of the first generation to experience desegregation. The novel takes place in St. Louis, MO. It deals with issues of family dynamics, community dynamics (especially in regard to race), and Betsey’s developing sexuality.

The Brown family is comprised of Betsey; her parents Greer and Jane; grandmother Vida; her three siblings, Margot, Sharon, and Allard; and her cousin Charlie. They live in an old Victorian home in St. Louis. As the book opens, the family is getting ready for a new day; Betsey is memorizing a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar, in preparation for a school elocution contest. As the children head off to their school, which is all black, Vida notes how comfortable it is that they live in their own, isolated world – and expresses concern over the approach of desegregation.

When Betsey gets to school, she hears two girls talking about her crush, Eugene Boyd. Despite the butterflies stirring in her stomach, she takes part in and wins her school’s elocution competition. After school, she and some of her schoolmates go to the house of a friend of hers. Her friend is white, but poor. The girl’s racist mother doesn’t approve of her daughter having black friends, and her behavior causes one of the girls to leave. This prompts Betsey to think about racial integration, and particularly about the situation in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Later that day, Betsey’s mom Jane comes home to find her son, Allard, and Charlie being escorted by the police. They had been caught trespassing at a local Catholic school. Jane is angry that Greer isn’t around to help with the situation, which ends up provoking an argument between them. In the midst of the argument, a woman named Bernice arrives at the Brown’s home, soliciting housekeeping work. To win over Jane, she tells Jane of Betsey’s hiding place – a treetop. This angers Betsey, who, out of spite, organizes the other children into a tiny campaign of domestic terror the next morning. Bernice, unable to cope with the chaos, ends up fired.

At school, Betsey brags about her accomplishment. Her schoolmate Veejay takes offense, however, because her mother too is a nanny. Shamed, Betsey resolves to come clean back home, and accept blame for the raucous morning. But she’s too late, Bernice has already left. Saddened and shamed, Betsey retreats to her tree, where she falls asleep. She is awakened by a basketball hitting the tree – below is Charlie and her crush, Eugene. Eugene flirts with Betsey, leading, eventually, to her first kiss.

Soon integration comes, and the Brown children enter white schools. The transition is uneven for the children. Betsey’s first day goes relatively well, after she demonstrates her exceptional knowledge of African geography. Charlie, however, fares very poorly: he’s ambushed by a group of Italian boys, who give him a black eye. Greer vows to accompany Charlie to school the next day. Betsey can’t get fully comfortable in her new school, and misses her old friends. One evening, indignant, she scribbles racial slurs about whites on her new school’s grounds. When the vandalism is later discovered, it shocks and infuriates the neighborhood – but Betsey neither fesses up, nor is caught. On the contrary, acting the part of a good citizen, she volunteers to clean up the vandalism.

Betsey feels conflicted and confused about her racial identity, and her burgeoning sexuality. One night, she decides to run away from home. She ends up running to Mrs. Maureen’s popular hair salon. But she’s surprised to find, once she gets there, that the salon is also a brothel – and one of its working girls is a former nanny of Betsey’s named Regina. Regina has apparently been abandoned by her former boyfriend, and now works at the brothel. She comforts Betsey, and she and Mrs. Maureen do Betsey’s hair and makeup to make her feel better. Then they give her cab fare and send her home. But instead of going home, Betsey has her cab take her downtown.

Meanwhile, Betsey’s family is in knots over her disappearance. Her parents’ different approaches to the situation occasions another argument between them. When Greer stops by the hospital where he works to do his nightly rounds, there he finds his daughter. He brings her back home, and she is doted on by her relieved family. Greer is especially impressed with Betsey’s rising interest in Black culture, and resolves to bring his children to a civil rights march the next day. This upsets Jane terribly, who fears for their safety – and when Greer won’t relent, she leaves.

With Jane’s departure, the Browns’ hire yet another housekeeper, this one named Carrie. Carrie is a doughty country woman, and she and the family get on well. Everyone unites to keep their home in order in Jane’s absence. Carrie is courted by a neighbor, but Vida disapproves. Betsey comes home from school one day, upset that her teacher had never heard of several important black figures (like Paul Laurence Dunbar). Carrie, admitting that she too is unfamiliar with them, encourages Betsey to “call out” her teacher by not being afraid to contest her knowledge with Betsey’s own.

Jane eventually returns to her family, and there is much celebration. Jane does not agree with Carrie’s rustic ways, however. She advises her daughters to be modest – which causes Betsey to regret having kissed Eugene. But Carrie helps her to feel better over it, taking a much more casual approach to the topic, and encouraging her to have fun. Not long after, however, Carrie fails to show up for work one morning; the Browns nearly implode, having grown accustomed to Carrie’s excellent home management. She calls from jail, where she has been imprisoned for stabbing someone. Jane, outraged, fires her on the spot. Betsey is sad to see Carrie go, but has internalized both her house management skills and several important life lessons, which help her as she moves forward with her life.

Author Ntozake Shange has said that she drew upon experiences from her own life in writing Betsey Brown, but that the novel is not an autobiography. The novel is not an epic one: Betsey’s journey involves little true danger compared to many young adult novels; but what it does expertly capture are the dramas and anxieties of growing up young, female, middle-class, and black in a time of great social change. This is a slice of American history that is rarely represented in fiction.