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The Women of Brewster Place | Symbols



When first erected, the gray wall at the end of Brewster Place is "baptized" by a drunken man who stumbles into it, bloodies his nose, and then vomits against the new bricks. The wall isolates the street and its residents from the rest of the city, choking off any sense of promise the neighborhood initially had. Brewster Place, ignored and forgotten by the authorities who built it, begins its decline.

Literally and symbolically, the wall creates a dead-end street. For the black women who live behind it, the partition represents their severance from society by racism, poverty, violence, and sexism, and their resulting sense of alienation and isolation. It also symbolizes the hopelessness of their lives. For many of these women, this street is the final, dead-end stop on their journey through life. As a physical barrier, it cuts off light and vision. As a spiritual barrier, it cuts off hope for something better. In this way, it further represents the women's crushed and murdered dreams.

Next to the wall is a narrow alley claimed by the most degenerate members of the neighborhood—C.C. Baker and his gang of hoodlums. At their hands, the wall realizes its most dreadful symbolism with the horrific rape of Lorraine and murder of Ben. Lorraine is mentally, physically, and spiritually broken against the wall. Ben is murdered with one of its bricks.

Following these acts of violence, Mattie dreams that the women of Brewster Place tear down the wall with their hands. Her vision suggests that a time may come when the women will unite and, in strength, break through the social barriers that hold them back.


In literature, water can symbolize ideas like cleansing, clarifying, or purifying. The use of water to bathe or baptize may symbolize the washing away of the old existence and rebirth or renewed life. In The Women of Brewster Place, several uses of water correspond to these ideas.

One example occurs when things start to sour between Lucielia and Eugene, and Ciel refuses to believe it's because she is pregnant. During a confrontation with Eugene, she repeatedly washes a pot of uncooked rice. The water becomes clearer with each round of washing, paralleling Ciel's growing clarity that Eugene resents the new baby on the way. However, like the rice water, the entire truth about Eugene remains unclear. When Mattie rescues Ciel from her death wish, she bathes the young woman like a child. The ritualistic quality of the bathing symbolizes cleansing and purification. In this way, Ciel's deep emotional and spiritual wounds are washed clean, and her healing can begin.

Cora Lee provides another example of the purifying nature of water. She bathes her newborn baby twice a day, keeps the child's clothing scrupulously clean with washing, and scrubs religiously around the area where her baby sleeps. There is a ritualistic aspect to the washing that suggests an act of baptism, and renewal—as if it will keep her baby physically and spiritually safe, and keep the child frozen in time—a baby forever.

Water in the form of rain plays a significant role in "The Block Party." For a week following Lorraine's rape and Ben's murder, it rains steadily, trapping the residents of Brewster Place inside their apartments. It prevents them from gathering and openly discussing the twin tragedies. Nevertheless the ugly reality of these events cannot be ignored. The women dream of Lorraine in her blood-soaked dress, and little girls wake up screaming. Some women begin to view the unrelenting rain in religious terms—as a biblical sign—although they are not ready to look more closely at its meaning. On the day of the block party the rain returns with a vengeance. This time the deluge washes the metaphorical blindness from their eyes and forces them to look at the bloodied wall and recognize that it stands for everything that holds them back and murders their dreams. There is a sense of purification and renewal as the rain drenches the women while they tear down the offending wall.


In The Women of Brewster Place, color is used to symbolize unity among the women as well as their individuality. While serving as a common bond, it helps establish their separate identities. Color also serves as a metaphor for the emotional component of life events.

In the prologue, "Dawn," the dark-skinned "Afric" tenants of Brewster place are described as multicolored, with "nutmeg arms" or "ebony legs" or "saffron hands." These colorful descriptions are enriched with additional sensory elements: "nutmeg" suggests spiciness; "ebony" suggests strength; "saffron" is associated with love and lust as well as fertility.

Individually the characters featured in the novel have their own distinct skin color. For example, Mattie is described in terms of ebony and rich, double cocoa. Butch Fuller, who seduces her, has cinnamon-red skin, as does Mattie's son, Basil. Eva Turner's skin is white with yellow undertones, and her eyes are blue, indicating her mixed ethnic heritage. Kiswana is described as golden, and her mother is copper-skinned.

Color as a metaphor for the emotional component of an event is illustrated by the "yellow mist" that surrounds the lesbian couple in "The Two." It conveys the unwholesomeness of the rumors being spread about Lorraine and Theresa. The yellow mist isolates the two and surrounds them with suspicion. The black and green colors of Lorraine's dress on the night she is raped carry emotional significance as well, especially when the color red is added. Black, green, and red are the colors of the Pan-African flag, which represents a worldwide black liberation movement of the 1920s. Lorraine in her blood-stained black and green dress comes to the women in their dreams and, like the flag, moves them to emotionally unite. In Mattie's dream, they become a liberating force that tears down Brewster Place's wall.

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