Brown Girl, Brownstones Reflection by Damele Elliott Collier

By on March 16th, 2018 in Blog Posts


In Brown Girl, Brownstones, Paule Marshall depicts feminist characters who embody bravery, anguish, and the unbending determination to strain past their circumstances, demanding to be heard and to be visible. Claudia Jones would undoubtedly identify with Silla, the mother of the story, who is headstrong, ambitious, and who is a first-generation immigrant to America. Silla posits that in the, “White man world you got to take yah mouth and make a gun.” Just as Claudia Jones spoke at a time when her words would earn her scorn, jailing, and eventually banishment, Silla speaks her mind in the often hostile presence of her “beautiful-ugly” husband Deighton, and to the other people who dare enter her presence. Silla does not shy away from what she sees as the oppression of her people in many ways. She declares, “The rum shop and the church join together to keep we pacify in ignorance.” She refuses to just accept her circumstances, and rails against her husband, who is a dreamer and does not have the fire, determination, or seemingly the foresight of his wife.

Yet, the consequences for Silla’s determination is steep. Driven by the hardship she faced as a child, and in her efforts to keep poverty at bay, she secretly sells the land her husband inherited. Deighton is a troubled character, with very little self-esteem. In retaliation for Silla’s treacherous act, he takes the money she received from the sale of the land and buys expensive and useless Christmas presents. It is a powerful scene in the novel. He inexplicably wants his family to be happy with the purchases he spent 900 dollars on, money that could have been a down payment on a home. Marshall writes, “The mother heard and lifted her head. A mist covered her eyes, and her lids were puffed as though she were crying without tears. “Yes, nuh,” she whispered, “take it all out my sight, do! Over nine . . . hundred odd dollars . . . cash throw . . . ’way. . .”    While she wept without tears, without even a tremor, Selina gathered up the wreckage of the day.”  Judged by his family and his community for his “900 dollar cash throw away” he eventually commits suicide. This devastates Silla’s family. Was Silla wrong for wanting something more for herself, for her daughters, and even for her husband, who relentlessly cheated on her? Was it a betrayal to desire homeownership, a thing she could not have even imagined when she was a little girl, living in poverty and considered to be in Third Class? I believe that Claudia Jones would have applauded her ambitions, if not her direct efforts, and would have understood the gnawing desire to own something, when you come from so little.

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  1. Hi Damele,
    Thanks for post. I was initially more sympathetic towards Deighton in my reading, probably because of the way he was cheated out of his inheritance, and then betrayed to immigration, etc. But you made me consider something that, I’m embarrassed to say, I did not really fully appreciate about Silla–she was cheated on by him at the same time that she was the real support for him and the children. Despite the tragic loss she endures at end, she survives. Had to be a strong woman.


  2. Damele,

    You wrote that:

    Claudia Jones would undoubtedly identify with Silla, the mother of the story, who is headstrong, ambitious, and who is a first-generation immigrant to America.

    I’m not sure I would agree. Silla was capitalist in her desire to maintain land, and she did so without regard for the ways in which her exploitation of other black women impacted the community’s struggles at large. She exploited those around her with the classic American Dream mentality of getting ahead, despite the costs. I think Claudia Jones would have been appalled by her actions and lack of class or race consciousness that led her to exploit others without regards for the impact on her community.

    She may have been headstrong and ambitious and a feminist in her own right, but I think she was no Claudia Jones.

  3. This is an incredibly interesting conversation across all of you–and exactly what these blogs and discussions are intended to do. Since we only meet for two hours, this allows us to explore pedagogical active learning methods in class and supplement those with more focused, detailed attentive readings out of class. The best of the blogs and discussions also provide a “rough draft” for a possible final paper.

    Damele, if you were interested in this topic, you could apply Black feminist theory to this book and think about the roles of power and powerlessness and how they intertwine with immigrant status, gender (the different kinds of power of male and female, affectively and institutionally), capital (does it make you more powerful? or reduce you to acquisitiveness by any means–definitely not a means to true self-empowerment in this book), sexuality (the array of sexual expression in this book is like nothing else I know in literature of this era), education, labor, and so forth. Each identitarian quality shifts in relation to the other. So even a term like “intersectionality” and “Black feminism” changes: is Silla a “Black feminist”? Is Serena? Why? Why not? What is brilliant in the novel is, among other things, how much it moves us beyond categories to different individual and institutional and social conditions that inflect or even alter each term “Black” “feminist” “middle class” “male” “worker” “manager” “student” “lover”: a brilliant book. Think about this as a possible final paper. You have a good starting point here.

  4. When you ask, “Was Silla wrong for wanting something more for herself, for her daughters, and even for her husband, who relentlessly cheated on her?” I must say it may have been. Now hear me out. I say that because in a family, it isn’t just what you want, right? It should include what your family wants. Silla’s problem is that much of what she wanted was what SHE WANTED. She was like a racing horse with blinders. She didn’t pay attention to the others around her. Blame is not only on her, of course, but it plays an important role in her family’s deterioration.

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