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The Women of Brewster Place | Context


The setting for The Women of Brewster Place is a run-down housing project in an unnamed northern city during the 1970s. The collection of stories paints vivid portraits of the African American women whose lives have brought them to this dead-end project. The stories reflect realities of life unique to America's black sons and daughters. That history includes Jim Crow segregation laws and the Great Migration, as well as the civil rights and Black Power movements.

Jim Crow and the Great Migration

Most of the residents of Brewster Place are transplants from the South. Following the American Civil War (1861–65), civil rights of the newly freed blacks were protected by the federal government, but only for a short time. As former Confederate states regained control of their governments, legislators passed racist laws sanctioning segregation. By the late 1870s, blacks in the South were living under color codes that enforced discrimination and turned a blind eye to brutal violence against those who violated the regulations. The codes came to be known as "Jim Crow" laws. Jim Crow was a pre-Civil War minstrel show character—a stereotypical slave who sang and danced.

At this time, Southern blacks also suffered economic disadvantages. The Civil War had laid waste to farms and plantations and destroyed the South's economy. Farmers struggled to begin again, this time with hired labor instead of slaves. Many former slaves went to work as sharecroppers for white landowners. However, they turned little profit, making enough to survive, but not enough to get ahead.

During the years of the Great War, or World War I (1914–18), increased demand for workers in the industrial North set off the first wave of migration among Southern blacks. They fled persecution and poor economic conditions for better wages and an improved standard of living. The flow of northern migration slowed during the Great Depression (1929–39), but picked up again during World War II (1939–45). The pace remained high for several decades, finally halting in the 1970s. This second wave of immigrants included Gloria Naylor's sharecropping parents, who left Mississippi for New York in 1950, just weeks before Naylor was born.

Major destinations for migration included northern cities like Chicago, Illinois; Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; and New York City, New York. The social, political, and economic geography of these cities changed forever as the local populace, government, and businesses responded to the flow of new arrivals. Neighborhood demographics shifted as whites fled to the suburbs. Housing projects sprang up—not unlike Brewster Place. Black communities within cities also took root, such as Harlem in New York City. In these largely segregated enclaves, a creative urban black culture evolved, giving birth to developments in music and art like jazz and the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 30s—an intellectual movement that saw an explosion in African American culture. The Great Migration also brought a surge in political activism among blacks too long disenfranchised and silenced in the South.

By the 1970s—the time frame of most events in The Women of Brewster Place—over six million southern blacks had relocated to the North. Yet, despite generally improved living conditions, they did not escape discrimination and racism. Although two major social and political campaigns—the civil rights and Black Power movements—had taken aim at the problem, the struggle for equality was far from finished.

Civil Rights Movement

In 1954 the modern civil rights movement was ushered in by a landmark Supreme Court decision. In the case of Brown v. Board of Education, the court ruled as unconstitutional state laws establishing separate schools for blacks and whites. The push for racial desegregation began.

Nine years later, in 1963, this drive for legal and social equality reached a series of key milestones. The civil rights movement heated up with bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, desegregation marches and rallies, and legendary speeches by leaders like the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. Men and women stood up in the fight for justice and equality under the law, applying general tactics of nonviolence and passive resistance. However, their protests were often met with acts of brutality. The most infamous were the assassination of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) state field director Medgar Evers (1925–63) and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four black children and wounded many others.

That year was also personally significant for Gloria Naylor. Her family moved to Queens, a borough, or district, of New York whose population in the 1960s was primarily white. For the first time, Naylor became aware of racism—of being perceived as different—with that difference being a negative factor.

In 1964–65, years of struggle culminated in the passage of major civil rights legislation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 guaranteed blacks the right to vote, abolishing literacy tests and poll taxes designed to keep them out of the process.

Black Power Movement

Kiswana Browne, a character in The Women of Brewster Street who adopts an African name, reflects an emerging kind of black activism that evolved from the civil rights movement. The new federal legislation was not a cure-all for the social, political, and economic problems that plagued blacks in America. In the early and mid-1960s, conditions in some places like Mississippi remained largely unchanged. The fresh phase in the fight for equality and justice was called the Black Power movement, and it abandoned nonviolent resistance in favor of armed militancy and violence. Integration with white society was no longer the goal. Instead the struggle was now for freedom from white influence and interference. Leaders of the movement envisioned an America in which blacks displayed racial pride and self-respect and built strong, self-reliant, self-governing African American communities that provided food, housing, education, and business opportunities for their people. However, the methods employed to achieve these goals were revolution and lethal force.

Guiding voices of the civil rights movement such as Martin Luther King Jr. and leaders of the NAACP decried the separatist goal of the Black Power movement and the violent methods it advocated. Nevertheless, radical activist groups, in particular the Black Panthers, spread the message of black power and revolution across the nation. The result was racial unrest, gun battles with police, riots, and fear among white Americans that triggered decisive action by the government. Raids on Black Panther strongholds, arrests, harassment, and the death of key movement leaders led to the Black Power movement's decline. By the mid-1970s, it was over. Many African American activists began switching gears to focus on working more effectively for change inside the system.

Critical Reception

Upon its publication in 1982, critics praised The Women of Brewster Place for its candid, emotionally charged, sometimes raw, depiction of the lives of seven black women in urban America. They also acclaimed the powerful, often poetic, nature of the novel's language. In 1983 Naylor received the National Book Award for Best First Novel. Brewster Place was soon adapted for the screen. An acclaimed television mini-series starring American actresses Oprah Winfrey, Cicely Tyson, and Robin Givens aired in 1989. The drama was expanded into a weekly television series in 1990.

The Women of Brewster Place shows that shattered dreams can be transcended by courage and the nurturing bonds of love and friendship. Although written in the 1980s, that emotional core still resonates with readers today.

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