The Brown Girl of Bed-Stuys Brownstones
For me, Bedford-Stuyvesant is a Mecca, always calling me back, demanding of me a style and commitment that, try as I might, I never fully give her.
My mother, Marian Baker Howell, was born there in 1925, in the house on Throop Avenue that her grandparents owned. Going farther back, my mom’s mother, Irene Baker, was born several blocks down Fulton Street. That was in 1901, before the name Bedford-Stuyvesant entered the urban lexicon.
As for me, I was raised on Jefferson Avenue in a haunting three-story brownstone that was built in 1886 and that my mother and I now own. That house has been in my family for more than half its 126 years.
(For the record: My father, Wilfred Howell, rest in peace, grew up on Jefferson Avenue, a block to the west of my maternal home.)
My goal, I suppose, is to establish some cachet as I assert the following: That the deity of Bed-Stuy is a literary goddess by the name of Paule Marshall, author of the classic coming-of-age novel Brown Girl, Brownstones. This to me is undeniable, though I concede that I am biased in the assertion.
Brown Girl is set in Bedford-Stuyvesant of the 1930s, the time of the Great Depression, and its vignettes continue through the years leading to World War II. It is, taken as a whole, a tale of hope, deceit, personal renewal, racism, and the search for the American Dream.
It is also, at its core, a story about what happened to the first cohort of West Indians who came to Brooklyn a century ago. They were (nominally, at least) Black Britishers, their respective native islands not yet having achieved independence from England. That would come later in the 20th century. As a relatively small minority within the black community at the time, they laid the groundwork for the explosive immigration that has taken place since 1965, when the United States ended the effective restrictions on immigration from non-European countries.
This fairly recent influx has turned Black Brooklyn (once a roundish dot in the center of the borough) into an eastward and southward expanse known by many as the capital of the Black Diaspora, where the lilts of Jamaican patois are as common as the honking horns of the “dollar vans.”
In an almost literal way, Brown Girl was a novel before its time. Which is why, perhaps, its significance has escaped so many people.
I’ve found it noteworthy, if not curious, that when I mention Marshall’s name aloud, even to native Brooklynites, so many say they thought she was long dead.
This has a lot to do, of course, with Marshall herself. She is no Oprah Winfrey. Once, about 15 years ago, I had dinner at the home of Marshall’s literary agent, Faith Childs. Marshall was there. When the evening was over, it was agreed I would drop Marshall off at her place in the West Village, near N.Y.U. where she was then teaching creative writing.
I do not remember Marshall saying much in the car or, in fact, during the dinner earlier that evening. In my recounting of that night to friends over the years, I have portrayed myself as gushing and babbling about how much Marshall meant to me and to my mother (who read Brown Girl as soon as it came out, in 1959, before I was old enough to be interested).
In trying to understand Marshall, I now have the advantage of having read Triangular Road, the memoir she published in 2009. And taken together with Brown Girl, one learns of a child told far too often that she was ugly and awkward, a girl for whom, in real life, writing became an effective, if sometime tortuous, way of releasing inner turmoil—through the telling of stories.
Something else has increased my understanding this year. I have been in touch with Marshall by phone. She is living now in Richmond, Virginia (home of Virginia Commonwealth University where she taught after N.Y.U.). Now approaching her mid-80s, she confesses that she remembers very little about the people and places I mention, even Brooklyn College, from which she graduated in 1953 and where I now teach journalism.
“It’s been eons since I’ve been there,” she said of Brooklyn.
But Marshall does acknowledge, with a quickness that belies any doubt about the matter, that Bedford-Stuyvesant is the source of all she came from and all she became. “It was the place that had the greatest impression on me,” she said, the voice firm in assurance but soft in volume.
Given this, it is no surprise that there is one address that still travels easily from mind to tongue. “501 Hancock Street,” she said immediately after I asked about her childhood home.
I had first learned of 501 Hancock upon reading Triangular Road a couple of years ago. Out of curiosity, I took a walk over there and rang the bell. One of the residents, a gentleman, came out, and I introduced myself, asking if he by chance knew anything at all of Paule Marshall, or her book Brown Girl. The answer—that truthfully, I guess, I already knew—was no.
There was a sense of loss in that encounter, or perhaps better put, of something valuable not retained. I am therefore now trying in my little way to keep Paule Marshall’s name in the public yard, so that those organizing annual events or tributes will think of her when they are compiling lists of honorees.
Whether she is inclined to accept these, my educated guess is that, yes, she would.
Each time I’ve tried to get her reaction to an honorary this or that, she effectively says: Well, you try, dear friend, and we’ll talk after that.
There is much to learn about Brooklyn in the writings of Paule Marshall. For those who would understand the Caribbean American experience, as it’s played out in Brooklyn, her writings are a point at which to start and even to end.
As Marshall points out in her many books, so many of the first Caribbean immigrants to Brooklyn were from Barbados, the Caribbean island that had virtually unbroken historical ties to England (unlike other islands where the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish fought for control over the centuries). In fact, Barbados was commonly known as Little England.
The family of central Brooklynite Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman elected to the U.S. Congress) was from Barbados, as was my paternal family. Bajans, as they are colloquially known, were always said to have placed money at the top of their list of things to achieve in life, even as so many of them saw, with painful clarity, the racism that limited their choices of where to work and live in pre-civil rights Brooklyn.
Using transcripts from talks she has given over the years, Marshall, in Triangular Road, described the attitudes of Bajan immigrants who were her parents’ friends and neighbors in Bed-Stuy:
Bajans seldom socialized with the other islanders who had also immigrated to Brooklyn. Trinidadians were considered too frivolous, a people who lived only for their yearly carnival. Jamaicans in their view were a rough lot who disgraced the King’s English by dropping their “h’s” (’im dis and ’im dat). Those from the lesser-known islands such as St. Vincent, Grenada, St. Lucia, and the like were dismissed as “low-islanders,” meaning small, insignificant. As for American black people, they needed to stand up more to the white man. Bajans, meanwhile, had no objection to being called “the Jews of the West Indies” by the other islanders—the term based on their perceived ability “to squeeze a penny till it cried ‘Murder! Murder!’” And “to turn a dime into a dollar overnight.”
We should point out that young Selina Boyce in Brown Girl, just like the actual Paule Marshall, lived a life of frustrated expectation, not of wealth or even true middle-class comfort. Their respective Bajan parents trekked, out of step with each other, along the path to the American Dream, but it was a path that was blocked by obstacles of their own making, as well as society’s.
I think that my maternal grandparents, bless them both, would have laughed at Marshall’s description of how Bajans thought of other blacks. It would have been laughter of recognition, not necessarily agreement.
When my grandmother Irene Baker was born here in 1901, her parents had arrived just several months before, by boat. They had been born and raised on the island of Nevis, a patch in the ocean so small that it didn’t rate mention by Marshall, as she mentioned the Caribbean immigrants from the “small, insignificant” islands. My grandmother’s husband, granddad Bertram Baker, came from Nevis in 1915. (In 1948 he became the first black person ever elected to public office in Brooklyn. He served in the New York State Assembly till his retirement in 1970, and died in our family home, on Jefferson Avenue, in 1985.)
Let’s be clear about something, as I know Paule Marshall would agree. It’s easy to pit Nevisians against Bajans, and both against Jamaicans. But in the late 1990s Harvard sociologist Mary Waters documented a truth that Caribbean Brooklynites have known for a long time: All it takes is one generation in the United States, and the offspring of the black immigrants become, not upwardly mobile melting-pot Americans, but African Americans, with all the baggage that the designation entails.
As I ponder all this, I think how marvelous it would be to ride around Bedford-Stuyvesant now with my late grandmother and grandfather, and watch them as they behold the new Bed-Stuy residents, young white and Asian men and women, walking from the subway stations late at night. They would be at least momentarily speechless, I am sure.
It’s true that the seasons go round and round, and that nothing stays the same. But we can look back, just as we can dream forward.
How wonderful it would be to someday take a ride through the old neighborhood with Paule Marshall, stopping at the newly renovated Lewis Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, where Marshall (like me and others after her) spent so many of her days. And what would it be like for her seeing the West Indian Day parade on Labor Day, as hundreds of thousands with roots in the Caribbean traverse the streets of Crown Heights.
There are some things, I know, that will not have changed very much for Marshall, or for my grandparents. They are to be found along Hancock Street and Jefferson Avenue and Bedford Avenue and Stuyvesant Avenue.
Those would be the looming brownstone houses that embrace the past, with a tender warmth that even a parent cannot always muster.
RON HOWELL is an associate professor of journalism at Brooklyn College.