“Betsey Brown” (1985) is a coming-of-age story by Ntozake Shange, who is best known for writing “for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf” (1975). This book is based loosely on Shange’s own experiences as a 13-year-old black girl growing up in the middle of America in St Louis in 1959. That is just when the city started to send black children to white schools. Shange was one of them.
Betsey is like how I was at that age: reading books, her head in the clouds, full of wonder, feeling different from everyone else, being told how she should or should not be and, of course, wondering about the opposite sex. She feels inside more like me than the people I know. I felt that way when I was 13 and, to tell you the truth, I still feel that way. All of it.
So I had to read it.
The whites at school call her a nigger and keep away from her like there is something wrong with her, her mother asks why she has to like the most niggerish people, why she has to let everyone know what a niggah she is – when she is just being herself.
If she listened to all these people she would begin to believe there is something wrong with her. They want to shame her out of who she is deep down - which is far more beautiful than anything in their narrow, little minds. But when you are young it is hard to see that. The world is run by such people.
Betsey stays true to herself. She does not let the names get to her.
Shange makes this point by the English she wrote the book in.
She writes not in that particular kind of English you see in books that we all learned in school, what Shange has called White English, but in the English that blacks in St Louis in those days spoke and thought in. And there is not just one sort of Black English, but maybe four or five.
Her mother was careful to speak in White English but thought in an English that was blacker – but still much whiter than Betsey’s own English.
You are used to seeing Black English presented as bad and unlettered, close to broken. Shange presents it as something beautiful, almost like music, something more wonderful than White English, which by comparison seems stiff and ugly, like an old block of wood.
There is this particularly terrible form of White English that is the enemy of all thought and beauty, but if you do not write in it some important white people will think you lack intelligence and education. I have to hold my nose and write in it sometimes to be taken seriously. In fact, I am avoiding just such an unpleasant task right now.
Sorry, I just had to say that, but it is something this book made me see more clearly.