The Women of Brewster Place | Study Guide

Gloria Naylor

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The Women of Brewster Place | Kiswana Browne | Summary



Kiswana Browne has come to Brewster Place recently and by choice. Sitting in the window of her sixth-floor studio apartment on a late autumn afternoon, she watches the busy city avenue on the other side of the gray wall. A pigeon flutters past her window, and Kiswana imagines placing her dreams on the pigeon's back and letting them ascend with the bird "to the center of the universe." Then the wind dies down, and the bird lands awkwardly on the corroding fire escape of the building opposite. Suddenly, her attention is drawn to a tall, well-dressed, copper-skinned woman striding purposefully down the avenue. With a shock, Kiswana realizes, "Oh, God, it's Mama," and knows where the woman is headed. In a panic, she rushes to straighten the apartment and to hide any traces of Abshu, her boyfriend.

Minutes later, Kiswana's mother raps on the door and calls out, "Melanie, Melanie, are you there?" Melanie is the young woman's given name, and her more African-sounding name is newly adopted. Kiswana is an idealistic college drop-out from a middle-class family who rejects what she judges as bourgeois values and dreams, instead, of helping "her people" organize and fight for equality and a better community. As their visit progresses Mrs. Browne mentions that Kiswana's protest tactic is behind the times. The revolutionary movement has died, and her fellow campus activists all are "sitting in wood-paneled offices with their degrees in mahogany frames." Mrs. Browne points out that their goals, like Kiswana's, were not grounded in reality.

Tempers flare when Kiswana pushes back by accusing her mother of being "a white man's nigger who's ashamed of being black." In a brief, but passionate lecture, Mrs. Browne recalls with gratitude the strong, dignified people who worked hard, survived, and gave her life. She recalls that "Melanie" was her grandmother's name—given to Kiswana with pride—and states that she herself had labored preparing Kiswana and her brother "to meet this world on its own terms" and to be proud of who they are.

Kiswana finds it in herself to listen to what her mother is saying. It does not change her intentions, but she realizes that her mother has "trod through the same universe that she herself [is] now traveling." She is breaking no new trails. When Mrs. Browne departs, Kiswana is left with a deeper respect for her mother.


Kiswana "Melanie" Browne is the only resident of Brewster Place who is living there by choice. Symbolically, she is the sole tenant who—from her sixth-floor apartment—can see over the wall to the busy city avenue on the other side. Born into a solid middle-class family, she is educated and has options in life. She is free to leave Brewster Place any time she likes.

Kiswana's story is mainly about generational differences and Kiswana's naīveté about the revolutionary cause she hopes to champion. She dreams of becoming an activist for poor black people—living on her own among them and helping them fight to improve their lives. She earnestly embraces the spirit of the civil rights movement—with an emphasis on ethnic pride and the empowerment of black people. Young and idealistic, she believes activism requires rejecting her conservative parents' middle-class values, changing her name to one with African roots, and dropping out of a "phony, prestige" college. In her passion, she has overlooked the proud heritage of her family, rejected her courageous grandmother's honorable name, and substituted imagined African roots for the real roots that are her birthright. She also has ignored the fact that the opportunity to attend college was among the goals of the civil rights movement.

A vivid metaphor for Kiswana's sincere but naive one-woman revolution appears at the beginning of the chapter. Sitting in her window, Kiswana follows the flight of a pigeon gliding past. She fantasizes placing her dreams on its back and letting it bear them "to the center of the universe." Then the wind dies, and the bird lands with "awkward, frantic movements" on the rusty fire escape of the building opposite. Like the bird, Kiswana is all flutter and no flight plan. She has passion, but no strategy; dreams, but no direction. As her mother points out, it will be hard for her to help the people of Brewster Place when she herself is living hand-to-mouth.

Kiswana sees her mother and father as sell-outs, enjoying the good life in Linden Hills while other African Americans suffer. In an eloquent rebuttal to this accusation, Mrs. Browne injects some realism and wisdom into Kiswana's view. Over the years, she has seen revolutionary movements come and go, and from her adult perspective, she knows how little change was achieved. She believes change comes slowly and from working within the system. Family history has taught her to meet life on its own terms, to stand strong, and never forget the lessons learned through "the blood of proud people who never ... begged or apologized for what they were."

This volatile exchange between mother and daughter will have an effect. In later chapters, Kiswana's dreamy approach to helping people becomes a practical plan as she tries to organize the tenants to protest living conditions in the community.

Mrs. Browne departs, and with a long sigh, Kiswana sinks into the chair by the window. Her sigh is "caught in the upward draft of the autumn wind" and disappears "over the top of the building." Where this skyward-rising image leaves off, the next story begins as Ben trudges into Brewster Place under a sky of "watery" sunlight.

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