Women of Brewster Place – Gloria Naylor (1982)

After reading some other Naylor books, I was pretty curious about this one, Women of Brewster Place (1982) which seems to be actually the most famous one of the lot. It’s been made into a movie and a TV miniseries, was awarded the National Book Award for First Novel, and is typically the title with which more readers are acquainted. It’s also been the one that I’ve had to search the longest for!

After my first read of Naylor’s, I’ve been searching for a similar read from her pen but it seems as though that first read (Bailey’s Cafe – 1992) is actually the outlier for her oeuvre, and her work is actually much darker and strongly literate than I had initially realized. (This is not a bad thing, by any means, but does mean that I have really underestimated her writing.)

So, what about this read? This book, my third Naylor read, confirmed my feeling that Naylor is a much more complex writer than I had believed after that first read. The second read, Mama Day (1988), was a tougher more complicated read than Bailey’s Cafe (1992), and this one (published in 1982) was the one that was more broccoli (for me).

If you review the dates of when these books were published, it looks like Naylor started off with really complex narrative arcs and then gradually got easier over time, but I could be mistaken on that. There are still quite a few titles that I haven’t read just yet.

Naylor was well educated. She had an undergraduate degree in English from City University – New York, and a M.A. in African-American Studies from Yale. In fact she published Women of Brewster Place when she was still in college, which underscores that she was probably deeply immersed in lit criticism and theory at the time – perhaps one reason for the complexity in this novel.

Researching Naylor online, it’s mentioned quite often that she was really a fan of the Harlem Renaissance writers back in the 1920s (such as Langston Hughes, Nella Larson and Zora Neale Hurston), and in fact, Naylor uses one of a few lines of Hughes’ Harlem poem as part of her epilogue of this novel. (Same reference as the title used for “Raisin in the Sun” play by Lorraine Hansbury (1959).

(And her parents were, in fact, part of that great northward movement called The Great Migration when thousands of African-Americans went north and east in search of an escape from the Southern racism.)

Obviously, Naylor was not the only African-American writer of the late twentieth-century to be influenced by this cultural movement: others include Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (which was heavily influenced, in turn, by Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God), so there’s a lot going on there (and that’s before we even get into the plot!!)

They were hard-edged, soft-centered, brutally demanding, and easily pleased, these women of Brewster Place.

The plot of this one revolves around one central apartment block (Brewster Place) which is used as the hub for meeting a group of different characters as they interact with each via these seven short stories. It’s a tapestry book with lots of different threads, but Naylor handles the introductions really well, and gives the reader enough info to keep a clear idea of each of these individuals. (Similar set up as Bailey’s Cafe in that there is a central location [almost a character in and of itself) through which a set of other people interact).

Written and published originally as short stories in Essence Magazine, each of these female characters (except the one male – but he’s been through hardship as well…) have all gone through personal hardship of one type or another which has led them along the path to Brewster Place. Individually, each character is strong but together they are stronger as a group (and this is clearly demonstrated in the last chapter when things come to a head for the women).

In her acceptance speech for the NBA (the award not the basketball league!), Naylor said that she wrote the book “as a tribute to her [mother] and other black women, who, in spite of very limited personal circumstances somehow manage to hold a fierce belief in the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.”

So, we have this group of disparate mostly female characters, who have all undergone different hardships and somehow have ended up living in close proximity to each other.

Not only are there overlapping actions between each of these women, but each separate story is also interwoven with similar dream imagery. This dream theme is repeated throughout the novel starting with Hughes’ poem about “a dream deferred”, combining it with MLK Jr.s’ “I Have a Dream” speech and the dreams (delayed or otherwise) that each of the characters have themselves, and then that dream sequence {or is it} in the final concluding chapter.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying that I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up on life…”

Martin Luther King Junior’s “I Have a Dream” speech, 1963.

So, this turned out to be much deeper read than I first anticipated and although I may internally grumbled about this, in the end and after more research, it’s actually turned into a much more provocative read than I had originally thought.

As with most things, I think you’ll get the most out of this read if you continue to explore the book online once you’ve turned that last page. Naylor was a fascinating person who lived an interesting life, and this online poking-around can lead you down into all sorts of rabbit holes about the Great Migration, the Harlem Renaissance, sharecropping, civil rights, and onward.

So, although this perhaps wasn’t the most *enjoyable* book in the world, I did get a lot out of it.

For another take on Women on Brewster’s Place, try this review from The Vulture (May 09 2019):

The Women of Brewster Place Cracked Open the Door for Queer Tv.

Gloria Naylor in 1992.

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