Brown Girl, Brownstones and Blackness in Bed Stuy

By on April 4th, 2018 in Black Listed Authors, Blog Posts

 

When I started Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones I was astounded by how close I lived to locations mentioned in the book. I live in Bed-Stuy, where the book takes place, and I decided that as I read the book, I would make an effort to visit as many of the places mentioned in the book as I could. In theory, this was a cute idea but in practice I really only ended up visiting – and walking through – Fulton Park.

In the winter, there isn’t much to it. There are many benches for people to sit on and a lot of space of people to inhabit, but because of the cold and the snow, it was rare to see people idling in the space. There was definitely motion in the park, but only because of its proximity to the Utica A/C train stop. In the summer, I know this to not be the case. Children and families are always present – playing and biking – in this narrow but long and winding park. Regardless of the seasons, the park tends to maintain its green foliage.

I investigated Paule Marshall and her life and found out that she grew up (link) about a block away from where I currently live. Curiosity getting the better of me, I decided to visit her childhood home – and by visit, I mean of course that I stood outside of the home and (briefly) gawked.

Brown Girl, Brownstones is a testament to Claudia Jones’s (and others) concept of Triple Oppression. Immigration status figures heavily in the novel, especially in Deighton’s case, but only slightly. The black immigrant experience in Bed Stuy is relegated to the margins after being pitted against American assimilation. I keep returning to this phrase “the absented presence of blackness” because it is so relevant. My impression of Bed Stuy has never really been immigrant community, per se. Sure, maybe in  recent history I could have imagined this but not in the 20s and 30s. Bed Stuy is Black definitely, but rarely does this identity intersect with that of immigrant. Paule Marshall is no stranger to this concept. In her 1983 piece From poets in the kitchen she describes how her mother and her friends “were after all the female counterpart of Ralph Ellison’s invisible man. Indeed, you might say they suffered a triple invisibility being black, female and foreigners.”

A stone’s throw away from Paule Marshall’s childhood home there exists a small “bare-bones corner joint” called Ma-n-Pop Soul Food – Ma-n-Pa’s for short – that serves some of the most delicious soul food (and breakfast) out there. I have been frequenting this spot for the past 5 years and it is only recently that I have started to realize how important Ma-n-Pa’s truly is. Ma-n-Pa’s walls are lined with images and items of blackness through the years. Truly a gallery and archive of blackness in America, juxtaposed against those eras when “America was [supposedly] Great” and when blackness was denied representation. Here images of Josephine Baker and Grace Jones are flush against Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, among others. Here, blackness is ever-present, and rightfully so, in gentrifying Bed Stuy.

Ma-N-Pop Soul Food

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2 Comments

  1. Pedro, I love this. I was also very struck by the familiarity of the geography, as I once lived quite close to the Utica Avenue station. Your articulation of the invisibility of individuals of triply-oppressed positions is expertly juxtaposed with the archive of black history at Ma-n-Pa’s and readily speaks to the imperative felt by brown and black communities to be their own historians.

    • Also, if you ever get a chance, I recommend a visit to the Tip Top Bar and Grill on Franklin Avenue, as the owners have committed themselves to chronicling and archiving the community efforts of Bed-Stuy and Clinton Hill while framing them within the context of black leadership locally and nationally.

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