The Women of Brewster Place
Described on the cover as “a novel in seven stories,” The Women of Brewster Place chronicles the lives of seven black women as they struggle to survive in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood. Most of the women have arrived at the title setting as a result of influences beyond their control. The wall at the end of the street that prevents through traffic serves as a reminder that their lives here are restricted in ways that even they do not fully understand. As is true of her later novels, Naylor disregards the traditional linear structure. Instead of depending on a singular, easily measurable, plot development, Naylor uses several miniplots that highlight the lives of the individual women. In this way, Naylor focuses more directly on characterization than on narrative movement. She still spins an entertaining tale; her methods are less traditional but more compelling.
Each individual woman’s story provides the basis for a minimal plot. The novel opens with the story of Mattie Michael and how she came to live at Brewster Place. Mattie’s story also lays the foundation for some of the themes later developed in other chapters. As this first chapter begins, Mattie, forlorn and seemingly friendless, is moving to Brewster Place. Still somewhat shaken about why she has had to move, Mattie begins to reminisce and to chart the steps of her life that have led to this moment. The bulk of this chapter, then, is narrated via flashback. Covering a thirty-year period from the 1940s to the 1970s, this chapter tells of Mattie’s fall from grace and of her inability to forgive herself and lay the past to rest. The chapter opens in the 1970s, but as soon as Mattie begins to recall the past, the time period shifts to the 1940s. For the duration of the chapter, Mattie’s story is told chronologically, the chapter returning ultimately to the 1970s.
When Mattie is twenty and still living with her parents in rural Tennessee, she is seduced by notorious womanizer Butch Fuller. Soon finding herself pregnant, she confides in her parents, Sam and Fannie, but fearing a potentially violent reaction, she refuses to reveal to her father, “an old man with set and exacting ways” (19), the identity of the baby’s father. Realizing that she cannot make peace with her father, Mattie leaves home on the bus and travels east, soon arriving in a no-name city where her childhood friend Etta Mae Johnson resides.
After the baby (named Basil because he was conceived in an herb garden) arrives, Mattie struggles to work and care for him. Etta Mae, the eternal wanderer, leaves town once she is confident that Mattie and Basil are fine. Mattie soon discovers, however, that living in her present squalid circumstance is more than she can bear. Her frustrations intensify when she is startled one night from her sleep by the piercing screams of Basil who has been bitten by a rat. Deciding that she can no longer live in this place, Mattie packs up Basil and wanders the street in search of more suitable accommodations. Finding none and becoming increasingly tired and confused, Mattie finds herself lost and on the verge of tears.
Just as she is about to give up all hope, Mattie, lugging Basil through a strange neighborhood, is accosted by an equally strange woman. Mattie soon discovers, however, that the old woman, Miss Eva Turner, is a godsend. After learning of Mattie’s troubles, Miss Eva invites Mattie and Basil into her home, initially to rest and eat, but for the next thirty years, Mattie and Basil will live in Miss Eva’s house. A crafty old lady, both warm and ornery, Miss Eva refuses to accept payment from Mattie, telling Mattie instead to save her money, insisting that Mattie is doing her a favor by being good company while Basil serves as a compatible playmate for Miss Eva’s granddaughter Ciel, who also lives there. The two women run a fairly harmonious household; tensions mount only when Miss Eva suggests to Mattie that she is overprotective of Basil and implies that Mattie may live to regret these actions, whereupon Mattie always threatens to leave but never does.
A few years after Mattie and Basil move in, Miss Eva dies. And because Mattie has saved all the money that she would have spent on rent, she buys the house so that Basil will always have a place to live. After Ciel’s parents reclaim her, only Mattie and Basil are left. And without Miss Eva’s balancing discipline, Mattie spoils Basil incessantly so that by the time Basil is thirty, he has no sense of responsibility to himself, his mother, or society.
Basil soon finds himself accused of manslaughter, the result of a barroom brawl, and instead of letting him remain in jail until his trial as her attorney suggests, Mattie posts bail after offering up her house as collateral. Initially grateful to his mother, evidenced in his willingness to assist with household chores or to chauffeur his mother around town, Basil ultimately sours at the thought of having to endure a trial, even though the attorney assures both Basil and Mattie that Basil will be exonerated. Just days before he is to appear in court, Basil flees. Consequently, Mattie loses her house and is relegated to live in Brewster Place.
The second chapter presents the escapades of Etta Mae Johnson, Mattie Michael’s childhood friend from Tennessee. As this story opens, Etta is returning to Brewster Place, this time from Florida where she has stolen the car of her most recent paramour. When Mattie warns Etta that she is certainly being pursued by the law for stealing the man’s car keys, Etta, in inimitable Etta fashion, presents Mattie with a pair of men’s monogrammed underwear, stating, “I’d have to be a damned good pickpocket to get away with all this” (58). Completely unfazed by her own actions, Etta is always in pursuit of the next opportunity. Unlike Mattie, Etta leads life in the fast lane, and though she, like Mattie, is now in her fifties, Etta, to Mattie’s consternation, refuses to slow her pace and “act her age.”
Just hours after her arrival, Etta, at Mattie’s behest, reluctantly accompanies Mattie to church for evening services. Mattie hopes to encourage Etta to consider settling down, perhaps even finding a suitable mate among the church members. However, Etta sets her sights on the minister, Rev. Moreland T. Woods. Increasingly consumed with the possibilities of a life with a man like Woods, Etta begins to fantasize about being a preacher’s wife and finally garnering for herself the respectability that such a role affords. Of course, Etta is concerned more about the messenger than about the message. It is the Reverend’s style that excites Etta, one that Etta “had encountered…inpoolrooms, nightclubs, grimy second-floor insurance offices, numbers dens, and on a dozen street corners” (66).
While Etta has been sizing up the Reverend, he, too, has been estimating her body, noting that she “was still dripping with the juices of a full-fleshed life” (67). Instantly, he decides that he must meet her, in much the same way that Etta has set her sights on him. Insisting that Mattie introduce her to Reverend Woods after the service, Etta coquettishly follows Mattie toward the pulpit where Etta and the Reverend engage in a game of cat and mouse. Quickly understanding the game that is afoot, Mattie quietly cautions Etta to be careful, a show of concern that Etta mistakenly takes as a critique of her inadequacy to become the next Mrs. Woods. Mattie then realizes that, yet again, she must allow Etta to make her own mistakes and simply remain the true friend she has always been, picking up the broken pieces of Etta’s heart once this imminent fiasco has run its course.
The minister invites Etta out for a cup of coffee whereupon Mattie returns home to await Etta’s later return. Just as Mattie predicted, Reverend Woods wants Etta for only one purpose—sexual release. Finding herself later that evening in a cheap motel with Woods, Etta is forced to shatter the fantasy in which she allowed herself to wallow for a few hours. Ashamed of herself for thinking that she could outsmart a con artist like the Reverend, Etta returns to Mattie’s apartment defeated and tired. Nevertheless, Mattie awaits the arrival of her friend without a word of condemnation; instead, she offers only love and consolation.
The third chapter offers a topic and characters that differ from those in the first two chapters. Instead of focusing on women who have been mistreated by men, the next story depicts a young woman who, though legally defined as an adult, must live several more years before she can even begin to understand what being a mature woman entails. Kiswana (née Melanie) Browne is a twenty-three-year-old rebel manqué , eclipsed by any real revolution by at least five years. Still determined to find her cause, this would-be activist is one of three characters (the others are Theresa and Lorraine who appear in the sixth chapter) who live in Brewster Place by choice. Kiswana comes from a privileged middle-class family in Linden Hills (the upwardly mobile black community not far from Brewster Place and also the title setting of Naylor’s second novel).
As the story opens, Kiswana is sitting by the front window in her sixth-floor apartment daydreaming about imaginary tenants in the throes of escaping down fire escapes from an inferno. Her creative juices are flowing unheeded when suddenly Kiswana notices her mother’s fast approach to her building. Snatched from her mental wanderings, Kiswana must quickly prepare her apartment for her mother’s first, and unannounced, visit, a task made more burdensome by the fact that Kiswana is certain her mother will hate the apartment and the neighborhood.
In a climactic moment in the chapter, Mrs. Browne must correct Kiswana’s misguided notions about what Kiswana calls the Browne’s “terminal case of middle-class amnesia” (85). Mrs. Browne assures Kiswana that she and Kiswana’s father are as concerned about the poor as Kiswana is, though they do not need to live in Brewster Place to prove themselves. She cautions Kiswana that the long-awaited revolution will not materialize because society has moved to another phase. Instead, she admonishes Kiswana to work within the system by becoming an assemblywoman or a civil liberties lawyer or by opening a freedom school in the neighborhood. She provides Kiswana with various ways of using her talents instead of allowing them to waste away in dead-end jobs. Being a practical thinker, Mrs. Browne tries to provide Kiswana with a practical means of employing her radical ideas so that they yield some good. By the end of the chapter, Kiswana understands and appreciates her mother a bit more, though she is still reluctant to admit this truth.
The fourth chapter finds an adult Ciel (Miss Eva’s granddaughter) struggling to keep her common-law marriage intact and to maintain a semblance of a family life with “husband” Eugene and her baby daughter Serena. Throughout the course of their relationship Eugene has periodically abandoned his family, but this time when he returns, Ciel hopes that he will stay. Even though Mattie, now surrogate mother to Ciel, is skeptical that Eugene will fulfill his familial obligations, Ciel believes, tentatively at least, that he will stay. And all seems to progress rather smoothly—that is, until Ciel discovers that she is pregnant once again.
Soon she notices a transformation in Eugene. For weeks prior, he has come home from work and eagerly assisted in chores around the apartment, even painting and sprucing up the place a bit. But now that Ciel is pregnant, Eugene becomes sullen, distant, and mean. Ultimately he blames Ciel for their economic straits, and even though she offers to secure outside employment (still a problem since Eugene does not want Mattie caring for Serena), Eugene balks, bemoaning the fact that he will never get ahead with Ciel and babies only burdening him.
Finally believing that she has no alternative (if she wishes to salvage her marriage), Ciel terminates her pregnancy, and though the abortion causes her emotional strife, she willingly accepts the pain as long as Eugene remains in Brewster Place. Her optimism is short-lived, however, for soon after the abortion, Eugene comes home to announce that he has accepted a job in another state. As Ciel begins to question him on the details of this sudden decision, she finds inconsistencies in his story. Finally he tells her that he simply must go, but that he will send for her and Serena in a few months. Realizing that her supplications are going unheeded, Ciel seeks out her daughter for comfort at which exact time Ciel hears screams emanating from the kitchen.
While Ciel and Eugene have been arguing, Serena has been engaged in a hide-and-seek game with a roach. When the roach seeks safety in an electrical socket, Serena attempts to retrieve her new playmate with the tines of a fork, only to be electrocuted instantly. Ciel now finds herself all alone, grieving not only for Serena but also for the baby whom she lost trying to please Eugene. Lapsing into the deepest depression, Ciel, completely oblivious to her surroundings, tries to will herself to die in order to stop the pain. Upon realizing Ciel’s intentions, Mattie rushes to Ciel’s rescue in what is one of the most moving scenes in the novel. Carefully easing a frail (physically and emotionally) Ciel out of bed, Mattie places her in the bathtub, and using only her bare hands, proceeds to bathe Ciel in a symbolically charged scene. The ritual bathing not only cleanses Ciel’s body but also redeems her spirit.
In a unique structural twist, Naylor opens this story ostensibly at the end. As the chapter begins, Eugene, engaged in conversation with Ben, the building superintendent and neighborhood drunk, complains that he is misunderstood and mistreated. And as a consequence, he will not attend Serena’s funeral. Because he has been banned from any association with Ciel (by Mattie and other friends), Eugene refuses to pay his respects if he cannot “be there…with [his] woman in the limo and all, sittin’ up there, doin’ it right” (90). Eugene’s misguided male ego prevents him from honoring his responsibilities not just as a father, but as a human being. And although Eugene thinks he deserves a certain amount of respect, it is painfully apparent that he has not commanded respect in his most recent actions. He represents the kind of perverted manhood against which these women must try to function.
In the fifth chapter Naylor engages in a psychological critique of the title character, Cora Lee. A stereotypical tenant in this downtrodden neighborhood, Cora Lee is the single mother of seven children, most of whom have different fathers. From even the earliest moments in her own childhood, Cora Lee has been fascinated with babies. However, once they mature beyond infancy, she has little use for them. Cora Lee’s only concerns in the present moment are the care of the latest baby, which she performs with an almost religious zeal, and her daily attention to soap operas. Living in a fantasy world, Cora Lee has become inured to the squalor of her everyday existence. Only when the outside world intrudes upon her sanctuary (in the form of a disgruntled neighbor who threatens to call the police on Cora Lee’s undisciplined children, or in the form of an unruly child who has injured himself and requires medical attention) does Cora Lee suspend her fantasy life, but only to dispense with the unwelcome encroachment as quickly as possible.
On one of these fantasy-laden days, Kiswana intrudes on Cora Lee’s world to alert the irresponsible mother to the fact that one of her sons has been riffling through the garbage in search of food. Completely unfazed, Cora Lee is perturbed more by the interruption than by the information. Quickly understanding that these children need some kind of intervention, Kiswana pursues a protracted dialogue with Cora Lee so that she can observe more closely Cora Lee and her children.
After a few strained moments (with Cora Lee itching to return to her soap operas), Kiswana, ultimately deciding that the children need an outlet for their youthful energy and a cultural experience to satisfy their innate curiosity, invites Cora Lee to bring them to an Afrocentric performance of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, an adaptation for which Kiswana’s director boyfriend Abshu has secured a city grant. Initially, Cora Lee balks, fearful that the children, in their inability to comprehend, will embarrass her. However, Kiswana soon convinces her that the play has been adapted to suit and entertain children.
On the night of the performance, Cora Lee is surprised at the response of her children. Enamored with what they see, one of the sons even asks if Shakespeare is black, a question to which Cora Lee, in an effort to encourage his enthusiasm, offers, “Not yet” (127). During the fleeting moments when the play is being staged, Cora Lee engages in her own dream. For the first time since entering motherhood Cora Lee is consumed with new possibilities for her children, considering that they might even go to college. After all, Cora Lee’s own brother and sister are firmly entrenched in the middle class, her sister even owning a house in Linden Hills. This cultural experience broadens Cora Lee’s perspective. Instead of saying, “I just don’t know” (a comment that Cora Lee repeats throughout the chapter regardless of the topic at hand), Cora Lee thinks about not only what she can know but also what the children might come to know if their energies are channeled in a productive direction.
Unfortunately, just as the play must end, so does Cora Lee’s emergent transformation. After returning home and putting the children to bed, Cora Lee welcomes the nocturnal visit of yet another shadow (the narrative reference for the nameless men with whom Cora Lee engages in sexual activity). Cora Lee’s life returns to business as usual; once again she rejects her own promise and that of her children in trying to foster a better existence. While many of the other women in the text can attribute their hardships to the machinations of men, Cora Lee willingly allows herself to be used, ultimately deciding that she would rather live in a fatherless and husbandless house than suffer physical brutality at the hands of a would-be spouse, as if those are the only two alternatives.
While most of the previous chapters have focused on men’s oppression of women, the sixth chapter is concerned with women’s oppression of other women, in this case heterosexual women’s prejudice against lesbians. Here Naylor examines the concept of “the oppressed becoming the oppressor,” and what seems to be the need of all human beings to feel better than someone else.
Lorraine and Theresa are a lesbian couple who have moved to Brewster Place to escape possible persecution from residents of the more affluent neighborhoods where they can certainly afford to live. Lorraine, a timid and unassuming elementary school teacher, fears the wrath of her students’ parents if she is discovered to be a lesbian. And though Theresa, a personnel director at the board of education, is unfazed about the opinion of others, she moves to what she considers a godforsaken part of town to allay Lorraine’s apprehension. Nevertheless, within days of their arrival, gossip ensues and once again Lorraine begins to question the wisdom of this most recent move.
While the other women in the neighborhood are initially skeptical of Lorraine and Tee because of their youth and attractiveness and because of the possibility that the women’s husbands and boyfriends might show interest in the two newcomers, they soon breathe a sigh of relief when they notice Lorraine’s and Theresa’s indifference to the men. But after the women’s suspicions mount, their skepticism turns to muted anger once they determine that Lorraine’s and Theresa’s “friendly indifference [is simply] an insult to the women [and] a brazen flaunting of unnatural ways” (131).
Because the residents need proof for their suspicions, they appoint Sophie, gossipmonger, busybody, and closest neighbor to the couple, as watchdog, a responsibility that she assumes with an almost religious zeal. Riffling through garbage or trying to peek into the women’s shopping bags when they pass by, Sophie searches for any telltale sign of indiscretion. When Ben, building superintendent and resident alcoholic, returns from the couple’s apartment after making a minor repair, Sophie interrogates him, and even after he assures her that he witnessed only the horrors of a broken faucet, she, needing to imagine some evil-laden ritual, questions why they need to use so much water.
Sophie’s illogic exemplifies the continued idiocy that plagues the couple’s lives. Such a constant bombardment eventually takes a toll on their relationship. When Lorraine first mentions to Theresa that the other women are no longer friendly, Theresa immediately launches a verbal attack, stating to Lorraine that she need not broach this subject, because if Lorraine is leading up to a suggestion of moving again, she can simply abandon the thought. Quickly Lorraine is reminded that Theresa, sullen and detached, does not seek the approval or acceptance of people in the way that Lorraine does, and as a consequence Theresa is completely unconcerned about the thoughts, suspicions, or homophobic fears of her neighbors. Lorraine, on the other hand, yearns to trade makeup secrets and recipes with the other women. More gregarious than Theresa, she needs external validation.
Determined to secure herself a place in Brewster, Lorraine decides to become involved in the block association that Kiswana is trying to establish. Offering her services as association secretary, Lorraine is summarily rejected when Sophie begins to question the integrity of the appointment, given, at least in Sophie’s opinion, Lorraine’s moral degradation. When a heated discussion between Sophie and Etta (who rises to Lorraine’s defense) ensues, Lorraine rushes from the room visibly shaken, having confronted in its ultimate form the unbridled cruelty of human ignorance. Finding her efforts in forming a bond thwarted, Lorraine is left feeling alienated from and abused by the human chain. And fearing an “I told you so” from Theresa, she is left with no one to console her. Or so it seems.
Following on her heels after her abrupt departure is Ben, who offers Lorraine both comfort and sanctuary, inviting her to his humble but clean hovel of an apartment in the basement. Forging a bond with the most unlikely of residents, Lorraine soon learns that Ben has also been abandoned and rejected by society. That they are two human beings is enough for Ben and Lorraine to foster a friendship that offers each of them comfort and renewed hope. Social status gives way to emotional need as they replenish for each other the well of compassion, commitment, and consideration.
While the kindness that Ben bestows upon Lorraine is due in part to his amiable nature, he is also trying to right a wrong that has plagued him for a while. Several years earlier Ben and his former wife Elvira worked as sharecroppers in rural Tennessee, along with their slightly crippled (and unnamed) daughter. On weekends the daughter performed housework for the landowner Mr. Clyde, who insisted that she stay overnight. Ultimately, the daughter relates to Ben and Elvira that she is being molested, and though Ben wants to question Mr. Clyde about the accusation, Elvira cautions him not to, angrily criticizing Ben for believing the daughter, for not providing the family with better circumstances, and for being a poor excuse of a man.
Unable to cope with his wife’s shrewish ways, yet unable to avenge the offense against his daughter, Ben begins to drink heavily as a means of numbing his emotional pain. Now, living in Brewster Place, he still needs intoxication in order to keep the ghosts of the past at bay. However, when he meets Lorraine, he is reminded of his helpless daughter, and the pain from his sharecropping days resurfaces. Still, he wants to protect Lorraine as a means of redeeming his past inaction in regard to his daughter. Consequently, he informs Lorraine that she is welcome to visit him at any time.
On one fateful evening Lorraine decides to go to a nightclub without Theresa, a previously unheard-of act. Upon returning to the Brewster neighborhood, Lorraine is accosted and then brutally raped by C. C. Baker, the neighborhood gang leader, and his minions, who then leave her in an alley to die. Early the next morning Ben staggers into the alley on his way home to sleep off one of his binges, when he suddenly sees Lorraine sprawled on the ground, bloody and disheveled. When he approaches her, Lorraine, now completely disoriented, starts attacking him with a brick, ultimately bludgeoning him to death, not only ending her relationship with Theresa and her life in Brewster Place, but also snuffing out her chances for continued emotional growth.
The seventh and final chapter of the novel is narrated as a dream. Mattie Michael dreams about a neighborhood block party that the tenants’ association is sponsoring in order to raise money for a lawyer. At Kiswana’s urging, the association has decided to threaten the landlord with a suit if he refuses to make certain environmental improvements. The chapter serves as a finale to the previous chapters. Ciel even returns in this chapter, happier and more self-assured than she has ever been. Announcing that she now lives in San Francisco and that she is engaged, she expresses to Mattie her appreciation for all that Mattie tried to do for her during her bereavement. The scene also witnesses Etta, to Mattie’s consternation, vigorously trying to retain her youth, dancing to the music with the energy and animation of a teenager. Unfortunately, this chapter also finds Cora Lee pregnant yet again and still ignoring her older children. Nevertheless, it is Cora Lee who prompts the women’s final defiant gesture, which serves as the climactic ending to the chapter and to the novel. Upon noticing a blood spot on the wall at the end of the street, Cora Lee calls to the other women that “It ain’t right; it just ain’t right. It shouldn’t still be here” (185), at which point the women proceed to dismantle the wall brick by brick. And even though a rainstorm ensues, the women remain steadfast in their effort to remove not only the bloody bricks, but also the imprisoning wall that has kept them trapped in so many ways. Even Theresa assists in the effort though she is still burdened by recent events with Lorraine.
Just before the chapter ends, Mattie wakes from her dream, a narrative development that reminds the reader that recent events are mere imaginings. Nonetheless, the novel still ends with hope. In the final words of the text, Etta calls up to Mattie from outside, “Woman, you still in bed? Don’t you know what day it is? We’re gonna have a party” (189). Obviously, then, the women are taking matters into their own hands, determined to remove—slowly, methodically, and consistently—the various obstacles that have impeded their progress in life.
Even though the overall structure of the novel allows the reader only a mere sketch of the lives of the women, Naylor still does a convincing job of developing her characters completely. While each woman is showcased in her own individual chapter, some of them also appear in other chapters. And with each appearance the reader is afforded yet another insight into the particular identity of the character.
The one character whose presence unifies the text is Mattie Michael, as she appears more often than any other character, and she is developed more fully than all others. Appearing in Etta’s story, in Ciel’s story, in Cora Lee’s story, in “The Two” chapter, and in “The Block Party” chapter, Mattie serves the function of surrogate mother and spiritual guide. Nonjudgmental in her approach, Mattie understands completely her role as friend and confidante to others. While she realizes that Etta Mae is once again hurling herself into disaster, Mattie knows she cannot stop her. She can only be there for her “to pick up the pieces when it’s all over” (70). Because she has learned from her own mistakes with Butch Fuller and with her son Basil, Mattie understands that people with the best intentions sometimes make the most egregious errors. And though she was abandoned by Butch and by her own father (in his reaction to her pregnancy), Mattie is determined to support those in her life, even when they err. Though Mattie is equipped with a sustaining compassion for others, she is not perfect, as is evident in her emotional scars. While Mattie has accepted the loss of her house at the hands of Basil, and has accepted her fate in Brewster Place, she refuses to discuss the circumstances that have led to her move. Indeed, she is a woman who offers comfort to others, but she is still a human being who suffers quietly with her own psychological pain.
Mattie’s greatest service is done for the adult Ciel, granddaughter of Miss Eva. When Ciel’s daughter Serena dies suddenly, and only days after Ciel is compelled by her “husband” to have an abortion, Ciel also seems to die. Upon realizing that Ciel intends to will herself to death, Mattie rushes to the rescue. Because she understands women’s emotional lives, with the attendant frustrations and disappointments, Mattie is sensitive to Ciel’s plight. Her past experiences have afforded her insight, if not into Ciel’s immediate circumstances then certainly into the depths of Ciel’s pain. It is important to note as well that the Ciel chapter, according to Naylor, spawned the entire novel, not the Mattie Michael chapter as readers often think.
To some degree when Mattie saves Ciel, she also saves herself, and the ritual bathing that she performs on Ciel becomes a testament to the healing powers of sisterly love and bonding, particularly in the face of a chauvinistic, male-centered world. Mattie, then, becomes a catalyst for possible change. And though to some degree Mattie wallows in the past (when she refuses to discuss her life with Basil, or when she refuses ever to seek the love of a man), when she “baptizes” Ciel, Mattie is also cleansing her own spirit and forgiving herself for her past indiscretions.
Mattie’s ultimate contribution to the story, however, is her willingness to think through certain controversial issues and, without falling victim to irrational outbursts, offer a reasonable assessment of the circumstances. Such behavior is best exemplified in a crucial conversation between Mattie and Etta Mae. Discussing their concerns/reservations about the lesbian couple, Mattie and Etta strive to be fair and open-minded as they embark upon an intellectual critique of the gay couple. That they are willing to expend such energy is to their credit. And when Mattie finally states that perhaps the emotional bond the lesbians feels for each other is not radically different from the emotional bond of two longtime friends like Etta Mae and Mattie, she reveals a notable level of intellectual and emotional development. To be sure, she has made significant strides from her fundamentalist rural Tennessee beginnings, symbolized in the behavior of her father upon learning of her pregnancy. Instead of judging, Mattie struggles to understand.
That Mattie Michael is a central character is made evident in the last chapter, “The Block Party,” wherein the story is told in a dream sequence, Mattie’s dream. Since Naylor chose Mattie to have a dream about hope and the future, the reader must acknowledge Mattie’s significance and her relative transformation from one who seems stagnant (as she wallows in the past) to one who emerges as a vehicle for change in the other women.
Because Etta serves as a foil character (one who highlights the qualities of another character by contrast and/or similarity) to Mattie and as a dynamic character (one who exhibits psychological, emotional, and/or intellectual depth), Etta is also significant in Mattie’s development. Never shying away from fun or from confrontation, Etta has always challenged the status quo, whether that meant defying white authority in the 1930s’ South or simply ignoring social mores in the present day. In her unrestrained lust for life she seems to be very much in control of her destiny. However, Etta also divulges an emotional vulnerability (thus, depth) in her interaction with Reverend Woods. In the past Etta was always confident and self-assured, and although she spent much of her early life chasing dreams and men, she seemed oblivious to validation from men. Nevertheless, when she actually ponders the possibility of marrying Woods, she reveals a yearning to be respectable and middle-class. Such desire exposes an emotional capacity that both softens and humanizes Etta.
Second to Mattie, in terms of character development and frequency of appearance, is Kiswana Browne, the young woman who lives at Brewster Place by choice. Perhaps because she is the youngest of the seven main characters she has the greatest potential for growth and change. Though somewhat naive, Kiswana, with her energy and focus, is determined to improve the lives of the Brewster Place tenants. And while her initial strategies may seem flighty to more seasoned and practical minds, Kiswana is to be commended for her tenacity and for her sensitivity to those less economically privileged than she.
A college dropout (not from a lack of ability, but of motivation and focus), Kiswana has spent the past several months assuming one job after another only to find herself unemployed yet again. She has now decided to save the tenants of Brewster Place by organizing the residents to rally against their uncaring slumlord. While her effort is commendable, her unwieldy sense of righteousness is misguided. Oftentimes, Kiswana’s expectations are not grounded in reality; rather, she allows her imagination to run unchecked. Soon she will discover, however, that an untamed imagination and an untempered ego can prove to be a volatile combination.
Kiswana is challenged by her mother to put her talents to good use. Her mother would prefer that Kiswana return to college and pursue a lucrative career, although Mrs. Browne realizes that such will not occur. Instead, then, she encourages her daughter to fulfill her wishes to improve the conditions of Brewster Place, but by working within the social/ political system, not by haphazardly criticizing it. Described as “a tall copper-skinned woman” (76), Mrs. Browne moves with a confident stride. Clearly, she is a woman who has lived long and experienced much, and when she and her daughter clash, it is obvious that the mother emerges as victor because her genuine sense of self infuses her with poise and correctness. Although Kiswana sees her mother as only a bourgeois (plagued by superficial middle-class values) imitation white woman who has abandoned her roots, Mrs. Browne is simply a product of civil rights successes and a sheer determination to fight for and then accept the fruits of her labors. While Kiswana rebukes her parents’ success in an effort to prove how sympathetic she is to the plight of the poor, Mrs. Browne identifies her personal success as an example of the rewards that any black person can achieve. For Kiswana, capitalist successes define what is wrong with society; for Mrs. Browne, they define the infinite possibilities for all.
Kiswana does not want to admit the validity of her mother’s comments because in doing so she would be tacitly acknowledging her mother’s intelligence, a gesture that would completely alter the dynamics of their relationship and would force Kiswana to see herself differently. For so long she has defined herself in opposition to her mother, but now she must view herself in alliance with her mother. As the narrative reveals, “She…suddenly realized that her mother had trod through the same universe that she herself was now traveling” (87).
Kiswana’s further development is highlighted in “The Two” chapter when she hosts a block association meeting. Taking her mother’s words to heart, Kiswana has found a practical solution to some of the community’s problems. By convincing the residents to band together, Kiswana realizes that as a unified group they can challenge the slumlord more forcefully and perhaps make some inroad toward improvement. And by the end of the novel, within Mattie’s dream and in the postdream conclusion, the community has rallied together to raise funds to hire an attorney so that their demands are heard within the system, just as Mrs. Browne suggested to Kiswana earlier in the story. That she ultimately listens to her mother, while still maintaining her core desires, serves as a testament to Kiswana’s growth, not only as an activist but also as a mature woman.
Besides Mattie, Etta, and Kiswana, of the seven main characters, the other women who exhibit a notable level of change are Lorraine and Theresa. As the narrative charts their relationship, the reader witnesses role reversals for the two characters. Interestingly enough, after Lorraine starts visiting with Ben, she gains a level of confidence that she has never before exhibited. Even Theresa notices certain changes; Lorraine now speaks up for herself, and she no longer defers to Theresa’s opinion as often as she once did. And though Theresa has always wanted a more forceful Lorraine, she is still perturbed that an alcoholic Ben is able to do for Lorraine in a few days what Theresa has not done in a few years. And as Lorraine’s strengths become more pronounced, Theresa’s vulnerabilities emerge, and latent tensions in their relationship mount.
Their heated debates about the role of sexual orientation in defining one’s identity provide some of the most compelling scenes in the novel. And as a means of making them both dynamic characters, Naylor showcases the validity of both women’s point of view. Lorraine believes that she should not have to live in a world where her every move is suspect simply because she is a lesbian (after all, she asserts, on the day after she discovered she was a lesbian she was no different than she was on the day before). Yet Theresa argues that they, as lesbians, are very different, mainly because those who define difference are the ones who are in power: socially, politically, and economically. Each woman is correct in her assessment. Lorraine simply speaks from the perspective of the individual (lesbian), while Theresa argues with the acknowledgment that the individual is still susceptible to society’s standards, right or wrong. These two characters’ development is shaped by the intensity of their commitment to their respective beliefs.
The only male character significantly developed is building superintendent Ben. While one might initially dismiss Ben as a wayward drunk, the reader soon discovers that Ben is possessed of a human depth that surpasses the would-be humanity of many of the women. Once the reader is made privy to Ben’s former life, she or he better understands Ben’s present circumstances. Had Ben been given a fair chance in life, he might have turned out differently. But when he fails (either by inaction or by social oppression) to protect his daughter, he loses his sense of manhood, succumbing instead to a weaker form of self. He is an alcoholic in the present moment because he does not want to remember the circumstances that brought him to this point. In an ironic twist, then, Ben’s drunkenness (a seemingly unmanly, weak act) is the result of his wanting so desperately to be a man and to forget his inability to be such. Perhaps in his intoxication, he can fantasize about being a fully realized man. On the day of Serena’s funeral, in conversation with Eugene who cannot bring himself to attend because he wants to avoid the wrath of the women (as their wrath would diminish his manhood), Ben echoes Eugene’s sentiment: “Yeah, a man’s gotta be a man” (90). Immediately after, the narrative reveals, “Ben felt the need to wet his reply with another sip” (90). That Ben would speak of manhood in tandem with taking another sip of alcohol supports this point.
Significant minor characters include Miss Eva, the busybody Sophie, and Ben’s wife Elvira. Miss Eva serves not only as a surrogate mother to Mattie when she welcomes Mattie and the baby Basil into her home but also as a foil character to Mattie. When Miss Eva sees Mattie coddling Basil and excusing his mischievous ways, she warns Mattie to be stricter with him, warning Mattie that if she places all of her energies on Basil, she will have nothing left for herself. Of course, her words will ultimately ring true. Miss Eva serves, as well, as a contrast to Mattie in regard to her feelings for men. While Mattie has decided to forgo men for the remainder of her life, Miss Eva, though much older, still has a healthy regard for the opposite sex, revealing to Mattie that she likes all men, regardless of physical attributes. And though Miss Eva encourages Mattie to pursue a relationship with someone, Mattie demurs, stating instead that her only concern is in raising Basil. When the adult Basil betrays Mattie at the end of the first chapter, Miss Eva, though now dead, through her prophecy and wisdom lives on and maintains an important place in the novel.
An equally important minor character, Sophie serves as resident gossipmonger and hypocrite. She assumes a self-righteous air, but Sophie is not quite as religious and God-fearing as she would have the community to believe. In the sixth chapter, “The Two,” Sophie, assuming a pseudo-Christian posture, challenges Lorraine’s and Theresa’s right to live in Brewster Place, suggesting that she wishes to protect the moral integrity of the neighborhood. However, the reader recalls the narrative introduction to Sophie, albeit brief and subtle, in Cora Lee’s (the fifth) chapter. In this chapter, Sophie yells obscenities up and down the corridor about Cora Lee’s unruly children. To be sure, Sophie is a fickle character who serves to remind the reader of the danger of extreme behaviors. Antagonistic in her approach, Sophie forces the other characters and the reader to defend their more reasonable positions.
More despicable than Sophie in her minor role is Ben’s wife Elvira, whose insensitivity and unchecked selfishness serve, ironically, to balance the scales of female goodness/victimization versus male evil that the novel seems to uphold. That a mother would ignore the pleas for intervention of a crippled daughter regularly molested is beyond rational thought. And when Elvira exacerbates the problem by attacking Ben’s manhood (suggesting that if he were half a man, he would have given her more babies instead of this useless disabled daughter), she becomes, ironically, for the reader a catalyst for empathy with the plight of black men like Ben. With the Elvira and Ben story, the reader is alerted to the fact that the larger Brewster community, regardless of gender, is susceptible to the machinations of a racist, class-struck society. As with all significant minor characters, Elvira adds a dimension to the intellectual discussion that would otherwise be lost.
The Women of Brewster Place critiques the concept of human survival in all of its manifestations: the strategies human beings adopt to survive, the mistakes made, and the lessons learned. As part of this investigation, the novel focuses in part on parent-child relationships. Because parents want so desperately for their children to enjoy a life better than the one they have endured (in the face of racism, economic oppression, and/or political machination), they often overindulge their children materially or overprotect them in compensation for voids imposed by society. When Sam Michael discovers that daughter Mattie is pregnant, he is highly disappointed in part because he had cherished such high hopes for her and in part because he blames himself for having protected her so tightly from interaction with other young people, especially boys. He believes that Mattie succumbed so easily to physical temptation because she had been allowed practically no latitude for social interaction. Racked with guilt, Sam thinks now that he should have been more lenient with Mattie. The added irony to this particular story is that Mattie, responding to her own upbringing, becomes too lenient as a mother and, as a result, helps to create a disastrous situation with an adult Basil. Partly in defiance of her father (she must prove that she can survive without his authority) and partly in need to prove something to herself, Mattie sacrifices herself, effacing her complete identity, in exchange for Basil’s welfare: in short, she spoils him miserably. Both Sam and Mattie sacrifice for the betterment of their children, but their efforts go awry.
Human survival is also addressed thematically by highlighting the oftentimes stifling effects of the past on the present. So often characters are waylaid by life circumstances that all but stunt their continued emotional growth. Mattie is stunted sexually because she refuses to seek the love of a man, mainly because she feels guilty for her past action. Instead of forgiving herself and moving to fulfill herself with other opportunities, Mattie snuffs out any hope of a rewarding marriage or relationship. Rather, these energies are devoted solely to Basil. Likewise, Ben, wallowing in despair and guilt about the wrongs done to his daughter, allows the past to sap any possibility for growth and change. Even Kiswana, in her zeal to fight a revolutionary war in the interest of black people, lives in a past replete with Afros, raised fists, and marches. Her mother informs her that while those former efforts yielded some good, it is now time to employ different strategies instead of waiting for a revolution that will never occur. Mrs. Browne insists that Kiswana dispense with issues that, in Mrs. Browne’s estimation, are no longer relevant. In a conversation about the definition of blackness, Mrs. Browne alerts Kiswana to the fact that blackness has no specific criteria, that Kiswana is no blacker for living in Brewster Place and the Brownes are no less black for living in Linden Hills. Mrs. Browne, quite proud of her heritage, insists that “black isn’t beautiful and it isn’t ugly—black is! It’s not kinky hair and it’s not straight hair—it just is” (86). To limit blackness to a narrow definition, according to Mrs. Browne, is to live in the past.
The concept of collective support, or interdependence, functions as the ultimate theme to be developed. Instead of individuals struggling to survive alone or instead of allowing the past to circumscribe even their modest efforts, by the end of the novel, key characters are working together in a countermaneuver against the various obstacles that impede their progress. And even though this theme is pursued in a dream sequence, the narrative point is clear: inroads into societal improvement are made more easily and more permanently with communal support. When the women decide to dismantle the wall at the end of their dead-end street, they are working collectively to liberate themselves, both physically and mentally. Ironically it is Cora Lee, seemingly the least likely to initiate any positive change, who begins removing the bricks. Formerly passive and rather complaisant, she now feels equipped to take action as a result of the bond forged among the women.
The issue of racism is presented in the novel, but it does not take center stage. Since the informed reader is well aware of its pervasiveness, Naylor resists the temptation to overexpose race. And to some degree, she preserves for her characters some sense of agency. Had Naylor made race a major focal point, she would have run the risk of objectifying and thus perverting the characters. That these economically disadvantaged blacks live on a dead-end street within a stone’s throw of a major thriving thoroughfare is proof enough of the prevalence of institutionalized racism. But instead of focusing on the sources of such bias, Naylor attends to the black response to these circumstances. Again, black resistance and survival (mere survival is an act of resistance) are the focus.
The novel spans the thirty-year period from the early 1940s (the time of Basil’s birth) to the mid-1970s (upon Ben’s death), a time of significant political and social change for African Americans. The post-World War II period witnessed the second Great Migration…(the movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North in the hope of gaining economic advancement while escaping bigotry and violence; the first Migration had occurred following World War I). Scores of blacks left the South to seek employment in northern factories and to benefit from the postwar economic boom. While looking to the North as some kind of Promised Land, many blacks became disheartened by the squalid conditions they found there. Urban poverty was more pronounced than the conditions they had known in the South where even under the sharecropping system, they could plant and grow food. Moreover, blacks found that their living arrangements were just as circumscribed as they were in the South. Even if they could afford better circumstances, they were denied access. Or as blacks moved into certain areas, whites soon moved elsewhere, and these abandoned neighborhoods, without a substantial tax base because jobs and economic prosperity followed the whites to suburbia, soon deteriorated to slums. When the Supreme Court rendered its decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the modern Civil Rights Movement was ushered in, but years would pass before any significant inroads toward social equality would be made. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the passage of the Voting Rights Bill of 1965, poor African Americans, in both the North and the South, found their conditions largely unchanged.
It is within this social context that Gloria Naylor writes The Women of Brewster Place. Described as “the bastard child of several clandestine meetings” (1), Brewster Place originated, soon after World War I, as a locus for the oppression of already oppressed people. Shoddy materials were used in the erection of buildings, while mismanagement and neglect completed the task of dehumanization. Naylor reminds the reader of this economic reality when she describes the wall that blocks off Brewster Place from a major thoroughfare. Clearly, Naylor suggests that the lifeblood of the neighborhood has been stanched, and the inhabitants have been left to fend for themselves or to die. Most die, if not physically, then emotionally, because the coping skills they have cultivated were designed for a more agrarian existence with its emphasis on open spaces, nature, and the solace offered in extended families. Many of the characters hail from the South. For Ben, Mattie, Etta Mae, and Ciel, Tennessee is their place of origin; for Theresa, Georgia. And though each of them has come to the North for different reasons, each has come to escape some perceived ill in their southern environs. The irony, of course, rests in the fact that their present conditions have brought new ills.
As a means of counteracting some of these problems, Naylor advances the philosophy of certain characters, and in so doing, nods to a significant literary development: the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. Coalescing in 1965, soon after the assassination of Malcolm X, it insisted upon “social engagement” (the sustained and pointed critique of the white establishment) as a prerequisite of its aesthetic function. This movement disregarded white literary forms and perceived white sensibility. In short, the Movement challenged white mainstream notions of good, normal, and standard, much like Equiano does in his slave narrative. (See Literary Heritage chapter.) Black power (if necessary, armed self-defense) and pride in black identity were staples of the organization. Kiswana Browne, though somewhat misguided in her zeal, emerges as the representative of this movement. Arguing with her mother that the family (her mother, father, and brother) has acquiesced willingly to white notions of superiority, Kiswana espouses a revolutionary agenda, even though Mrs. Browne reminds Kiswana that all of her former college “revolution” friends are now a part of the establishment. Naylor, however, uses Kiswana to voice some important concepts, radical though they may be, about black racial pride, lest they be forgotten. Kiswana’s boyfriend, Abshu, maintaining only a minor role, also embodies the best of revolutionary ideals at work. Instead of merely protesting and ridiculing social norms, he is involved in reshaping the community and advancing the intellectual and artistic capacity of the residents. It is his Afrocentric (using African-inspired costumes, language, and humor) rendition of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that Kiswana takes Cora Lee’s children to see. As a result of his efforts, children in the community are exposed to art forms they otherwise might never see. And he imbues these productions with black identity so that the children can relate to the art.
Perhaps Naylor’s most radical use of the often radical Black Arts Movement is evident in Lorraine and Theresa, and ironically so. Frequently criticized as homophobic and chauvinistic, the Black Arts Movement often relegated women to an inferior status and either ignored the contributions of gays or denigrated them for being emasculated, willingly, by a sexually perverse white establishment. Naylor, however, invokes the spirit of the Movement in her development of these two lesbian characters, and in so doing, makes them mouthpieces for the Movement. Each woman argues from a different perspective, but each is quite radical in her assessment. Lorraine, initially shy and unassuming, wants to be accepted for who she is, insisting that the larger community see her as being no different from other women/people there. After all, she maintains, she is no different today than she was on the day before she realized she was/is a lesbian. On the other hand, argues Theresa, the world, homophobic and heterosexist as it is, is ruled (in sheer numbers) by persons who despise gays and lesbians. And while Theresa could not care less what others think, she realizes that she must function in a world controlled by others. Each woman is quite passionate in her appraisal, and with this passion, each woman plants the novel firmly in the tradition of Black Arts radicalism.
Naylor’s reluctance to adopt a linear structure in this first novel anticipates what will become a recurring technique in her other novels. The author enjoys testing the boundaries of reality while exploring various possibilities for the imagination. A more fluid structure allows her latitude to present all these possibilities. While each story in The Women of Brewster Place is captivating in its own right, and each story is only tangentially connected to any other story, Naylor still provides an overall unity that sustains the novel.
The Women of Brewster Place shows in poignant detail the detrimental effects of men’s emotional and physical violence on women, and in more subtle detail the ill effects of racism on black lives. Nevertheless, these potential victims are determined to survive despite their inhuman treatment in a world that would rather see them demonized and defeated. The women’s repeated attempts at resilience culminate in a final chapter of communal resolve when they decide to demolish the wall at the end of the block in a symbolic move to reject the machinations of men and whites to keep them caged, both metaphorically and in actuality.
Each story/chapter is presented by a third-person omniscient narrator. An omniscient narrator, in addition to providing details about the action in a story, knows the thoughts and feelings of the characters and reveals this information to the reader. As stated above, the novel does not tell one specific story; rather it tells several distinct stories. Nonetheless, Naylor still manages to craft a cohesive work that moves toward a recognizable resolution. The unity is maintained with the recurring appearances of key characters in various stories. Because the novel opens with the Mattie Michael story, the reader automatically embraces Mattie as the protagonist. Capitalizing on this response, while still creating enough narrative space for other characters, Naylor uses Mattie in the other stories as a unifying thread.
The chapters are also connected thematically. Issues discussed in one chapter are presented in later chapters, though in altered forms. For example, the “Mattie Michael” chapter, in addition to other issues presented, focuses in part on dysfunctional parent-child relationships. Later, in the “Cora Lee” chapter, this topic is rendered more perversely. Cora Lee reproduces incessantly, only to ignore the children once they pass infancy. Her obsession is with newborns, and once she can no longer nourish them directly from her body, she abandons them emotionally, and they are left to fend for themselves.
Though defined as a novel, The Women of Brewster Place comprises seven distinct stories/chapters. This structure underscores Naylor’s thematic and character components. In the individual stories, each woman is presented with her own unique personality, one that is finely crafted so that she is both memorable and forceful. Each chapter is complete in terms of the character sketch and plot movement. There is a discernible conflict and a resolution, at least temporarily, of that conflict. Even though Mattie Michael, for example, never forgives herself for past mistakes (and thus her chapter might seem incomplete because of a lack of closure), she has reconciled herself to her present circumstances and moves forward with her life, which is evident in her rescue of Ciel. By having each woman involved in what becomes a complete story, Naylor showcases the fact that inasmuch as black women’s lives, particularly during this period, are fraught with frustrations and painful moments, these same lives are punctuated with minor victories that ultimately lead to a life well lived. Each story reveals a moment, or a few moments, in time when the women arrive at a new revelation, one that will redirect them on a slightly different path. Without this narrative technique, the novel would perhaps lapse into a sketchy hodge-podge that merely exploits the woes of weak victims.
Inasmuch as the work must be considered in light of the individual stories, one must still attend to the novel as a whole. Each woman is an integral part of a cohesive group whose success or failure as an interdependent body depends on the collective efforts of its members. Naylor convincingly echoes this fact by placing certain characters in recurring roles. The interdependent nature of the relationships is highlighted in the casual way that the characters impact each other’s lives. For example, Mattie Michael appears in the “Etta Mae” chapter to salve Etta’s emotional scars and to provide hope. She appears again in Ciel’s chapter for the same purpose. Kiswana Browne, after yielding to some of her mother’s advice in her own chapter, serves as a role model in the “Cora Lee” and “The Two” chapters. Likewise, Etta Mae, who has risen from the defeat suffered in her own chapter, advances as a voice of reason in “The Two” chapter. In their recurring roles, these women reveal how even the slightest action taken can have a definite impact on another life. And the reciprocal interactions create a strong bond among the women that becomes their most vital weapon when, at the end of the novel, they combine their efforts to dismantle the political and social impediments to their success.
Naylor also relies on key images or concepts to connect the various chapters. In this way, each life story, while maintaining its unique quality, functions in relation to another life story. For example, at the beginning of Mattie’s chapter, when she is moving into Brewster Place, the moving van is described as creeping along “like a huge green slug” (7). Then, at the beginning of the next chapter, Etta Mae’s method of transportation, an “apple-green Cadillac,” is described as moving “like a greased cobra” (56). From these descriptions the reader learns that both women are threatened by a slow-moving, yet methodical and deliberate nemesis. The concept of spirituality, or reverence, also serves as a connecting vehicle. When Mattie, in a baptism ritual, bathes Ciel back to health, her action is ironically linked to Sophie’s maintaining a “religious vigil” (131) over Lorraine’s and Theresa’s apartment, or to Cora Lee’s “reverently” (107) handling her newborns or “religiously” (112) dusting and mopping their sleeping areas. It is with these subtle links that Naylor makes her most impressive aesthetic gestures. As different as each of these women may be, there is still maintained an ineradicable bond.
A FEMINIST READING
Feminist criticism has emerged out of an effort to identify, expose, and then dismantle (or deconstruct) the various ways women are excluded, exploited, suppressed, and oppressed. Feminist critics examine images of women in literature by both women and men in an effort to challenge the representations of women as “other,” as less than or inferior to men. The critics, who themselves can be women or men, question literature’s perpetuation of stereotypes about women. They ponder, for example, whether women and men are essentially different biologically or if they are socially constructed as different. For instance, the feminist critic, whose very political and social critique considers all fixed definitions of identity as tools of a dominant patriarchal structure, would be quick to point out that, even as society tries to define a man as strong, aggressive, and focused and a woman as passive, compassionate, and sensitive, examples abound that undermine this assessment: sensitive men and self-assured, demanding women. Feminist criticism asks, then, “What is a woman?” or “What is feminine?” and more importantly, “Who is crafting the definition and for what sociopolitical purpose?”
Some feminist criticism may examine language and its collusion in the attempted dehumanization of women. Or it may assess the role of social institutions in the continued breach of individual women’s rights. Feminist criticism may also investigate the function of race, class, and general social standing in one’s exploited circumstance. In short, the feminist critic examines power relations in texts in order to expose such relations in life with the intent of razing patriarchal structures of inequality. For the feminist, reading (and critiquing) is always a political act.
Clearly, The Women of Brewster Place provides a perfect model for exploring some of the concepts of feminist theory and criticism. In every chapter, Naylor addresses women’s sexuality and questions the role of this sexuality in defining the person/woman. Mattie Michael snuffs out her sexuality and is thus defined by sexual denial. Etta Mae is defined by sexual pursuit (she equates sex with love and never finds a suitable mate). Miss Eva has enjoyed many men, but only within the confines of marriage; hers is a healthy regard for sexuality, because she has always retained sexual control over her life. Sex has caused Ciel to suffer because the result of the sexual encounter, her children, have been taken from her. Cora Lee abuses sex, accepting little or no responsibility for introducing more babies into the world. Kiswana is in the throes of sexual awakening in her relationship with Abshu, and, in a process of maturity, she also begins to see her mother as a woman, a sexual being. Lorraine and Theresa are defined only by their sexuality, as though society can define them only as one-dimensional creatures because they are lesbian, or perhaps society defines all women in this way, but because Lorraine and Theresa are ostensibly untouchable (the rape of Lorraine notwithstanding), they are cast away as perverse other. Even Ben’s unnamed daughter learns early on that as a woman, she might well be victimized because of her gender; consequently, she opts for a life of prostitution, rather than suffering at the hands of sharecropping landowner Mr. Clyde, so that she can have a measure of control over her life.
That women are defined (and then either accepted or rejected) by their ability to serve in the sexual gratification of men is made evident in the scene of Lorraine’s rape by C. C. and his gang. To highlight the phallocentric world that women must try to function and survive in, the narrative voice in “The Two” offers the following description of the gang: “These young men wouldn’t be called upon to thrust a bayonet into an Asian farmer, target a torpedo, scatter their iron seed from a B-52 into the wound of the earth, point a finger to move a nation, or stick a pole into the moon—and they knew it. They only had that three-hundred-foot alley to serve them as stateroom, armored tank, and executioner’s chamber. So Lorraine found herself, on her knees, surrounded by the most dangerous species in existence—human males with an erection to validate in a world that was only six feet wide” (170).
Every description in the previous passage is sexual in nature. Clearly, Naylor is turning the tables as she defines men by their sexuality, suggesting that every action in which they engage is, in some way, indicative of their need to expose their sexual energy. Every social institution established, every political maneuver executed, every economic takeover performed is man’s effort to showcase virility. Feminist criticism affords the reader language such as “phallocentric” to describe a world in which male genitalia serves as a kind of god to be worshiped, especially since its every move determines the fate of everyone within its reach.
Still, there is another important component to this description. Naylor confines all men to the role of sexual predator. At this juncture race, class, and social status as distinct entities collapse, as all women become grouped together in an antagonistic stance against all men. Though C. C. Baker and his gang are to be despised for their actions, Naylor is careful not to place their dehumanized nature only on black men, or poor men. She reminds the reader that the most “civilized” of European men must act out the same fantasies. The only difference is that they have the resources and the power to execute their desires. Even an action supposedly as patriotic as planting a pole on the moon is presented/construed as suspect. No male power, then, is left unaffected by the depictions illustrated here.