Ntozake Shange's most recent novel, "Betsey Brown," is a portrait of an artist as a young girl and an affirmation of childhood as a source of creativity. With elements of both autobiography and fiction, the novel bears a sharp resemblance to Gwendolyn Brooks' "Maud Martha," Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" and Audre Lorde's "Zami: A New Spelling of My Name." It draws heavily on details from Shange's own childhood and blends them with imaginative detail.
Shange's style is distinctively lyrical; her monologues and dialogues provide a panorama of Afro-American cultural diversity. Most of Shange's characteristic elliptical spelling, innovative syntax and punctuation is absent from "Betsey Brown." Missing also is the caustic social criticism about racial and sexual victimization found in "for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow is enuf" and "Nappy Edges." "Betsey Brown" seems also to mark Shange's movement from explicit to subtle expressions of rage, from repudiating her girlhood past to embracing it, and from flip candor to more serious commentary.
The story, which takes place in 1959 against the backdrop of school desegregation in St. Louis, charts the passage from childhood to adolescence in the life of a nice, respectable, well-mannered, intelligent, middle-class, 13-year-old "colored girl." Her confrontation with the adult world disturbs her belief in traditional class, racial and gender values. The novel's strength lies in Betsey's ability to express her compassion for others. In Betsey this traditionally recognized feminine virtue is transformed into a genuine source of human power. Not only does she effect her own maturity, but she evolves into a vehicle, a means of her mother's spiritual, emotional and intellectual rebirth. She becomes her mother's mother. In turn, Betsey seems to be the source of Shange's own regeneration, affirmation and inspiration.
Betsey's family seems like a black version of the Dick-and-Jane family of first-grade lore or a southern version of "The Cosby Show." And her father's Thunderbird, the dishwasher in the kitchen and Betsey's Lord & Taylor school outfits are sometimes a distraction. But in the end, the stereotypes don't impede our appreciation of Betsey's struggle to move confidently into womanhood and to fortify her "colored" world against the assault of school integration.
The focus of the novel is the conflict between the ideas of ladylike behavior held by Betsey's mother and grandmother and Betsey's own attempts to confirm her racial identity with black American, African and Caribbean history and culture. But the activity she selects for strengthening her racial and sexual identities most is dancing. And every time she starts to dance, feeling her racial pride and getting the moves just right for her entry into the world of boys, her mother chastises her:
" 'Turn that mess off . . . That niggah noise is disturbing my rest.' . . . Every time she played music she was a niggah."
Resolving this conflict demands that Betsy redefine herself in her own context, outside the expectations of the white or "colored" world and beyond the prescriptions of traditional, female roles of docile daughter and dutiful wife. Be redefining herself, by "making decisions and discoveries about herself that would change the world," first she and then her mother can be freed from conventional mythologies to see that beauty and virtue are not defined by light skin and straight hair, that the poor are as sensitive to pain as the wealthy, and that women, as well as men, can define their autonomy.
Without these mythologies daughter and mother can be free to know the difference between woman and wife, woman and mother, and woman and her occupation. Females, whether adults or children, mothers or daughters, can be free to become autonomous, self-determined individuals, who can be subjects rather than objects. They can become individuals larger than the cast of traditionally defined social roles.
They can, as Shange says, be free to become themselves.
The reviewer, who teaches English at Howard University, is the author of "Black Women Writers at Work."