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 classrelated, but race-related. She believes that true black people have been forced into lowerclass 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 complicated. 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 < ResourceGuide%2001.22.2003.pdf>. Whitt, Margaret. “Charles E. Wilson, Jr. Gloria Naylor: A Critical Companion”. African American Review. Summer 2002 v36 i2 p337.