Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our first guest is writer Jacqueline Woodson. Her latest novel, "Another Brookyln," is a finalist for this year's National Book Awards to be announced in November. Woodson's the author of a number of award-winning children's, middle-school and young-adult books. And she's the Young People's Poet Laureate, a position named by the Poetry Foundation. Woodson's books "After Tupac And D Foster," "Feathers" and "Show Way" were awarded the Newbery Honor Medal. Her book "Coming On Home Soon" was awarded the Caldecott Honor. And she's won the Coretta Scott King Award numerous times.
We're going to listen to Terry's 2014 interview with Jacqueline Woodson, when her memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," was awarded the National Book Award for young people's literature. It's about growing up in the segregated South and in Brooklyn. It's just been published in paperback.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Jacqueline Woodson, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations. So I'd like you to read the opening poem from "Brown Girl Dreaming."
JACQUELINE WOODSON: (Reading) February 12, 1963. I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, USA, a country caught between black and white. I am born not long from the time or far from the place where my great-great-grandparents worked the deep, rich land unfree, dawn 'til dusk, unpaid, drank cool water from scooped-out gourds, looked up and followed the sky's myriad constellation to freedom. I am born as the South explodes - too many people, too many years - enslaved then emancipated. But not free. The people who look like me keep fighting and marching and getting killed so that today, February 12, 1963, and every day from this moment on, brown children like me can grow up free, can grow up learning and voting and walking and writing wherever we want. I am born in Ohio. But the stories of South Carolina already run like rivers through my veins.
GROSS: The North and the South are like characters in your book. You're born in Ohio. Your mother's from Greenville, S.C., where your maternal grandparents still lived when you were born. When your parents separated when you were very young, you, your mother and your siblings moved to South Carolina to be with your grandparents. But then later as a girl, you moved to be with your mother in Brooklyn. When you moved to the South to Greenville when you were - what? - 1 years old?
WOODSON: I was probably a little bit - I was an infant.
GROSS: Oh. OK.
WOODSON: So I wasn't yet walking.
GROSS: So what was the state of segregation when you were growing up in the South?
WOODSON: The South was very segregated. I mean, all through my childhood, long after Jim Crow was supposed to not be in existence, it was still a very segregated South. And the town we lived in - Nicholtown, which was a small community within Greenville, S.C. - was an all-black community. And people still lived very segregated lives, I think, because that was all they had always known. And there was still this kind of danger to integrating. So people kind of stayed in the places - the safe places that they had always known.
GROSS: How did your grandparents - how did your mother - explain segregation to you? And what did they warn you about because it would've been dangerous?
WOODSON: You know, it's a really good question. We just knew. We knew our place. We knew our place was with our family. We knew where it was safest to be. You know, there wasn't a lot of talk about the white world and what was going on. And it didn't really have a lot to do with us, except in situations where there was the talk of resistance. You know, we're not going into wars because of the history of it. We're not going into that department store because they follow you around because you're black.
And the constant talk about how people will think of us as African-Americans or - at that time, my grandmother would say colored people - as lesser than - and that that wasn't the truth. So there was - the talk was always about resistance and really making us sure that who we were was important in the world. And so that's where the gaze was. That's what the focus was in our family.
GROSS: So there's another poem I want you to read. And this one is called "Journey." And it's about how - you know, we were talking about how the North and the South are like characters in your book and that you grew up in both places. And apparently, this was a conflict between your parents before they separated. Your mother wanted to live in the South. Your father did not. He was from the North. He was from Ohio. And that's what this poem is about. Would you read it for us?
WOODSON: Sure. "Journey." (Reading) You can keep yourself, my father says. The way they treated us down there, I got your Mama out as quick as I could, brought her right up here to Ohio, told her there was never going to be a Woodson that sits in the back of the bus - never going to be a Woodson that has to yes-sir and no-sir white people, never going to be a Woodson made to look down at the ground. All you kids are stronger than that, my father says. All you Woodson kids deserve to be as good as you already are. Yes siree, Bob, my father says. You can keep your South Carolina.
GROSS: Now, as an adult who's lived in the North and in the South, do you see both sides of that dispute?
WOODSON: I completely see both sides of that dispute. I think there is such a richness to the South and a lushness and a way of life. I could never live it full time (laughter). You know, I feel like I'm a New Yorker to the bone. But there is a lot of the South in me. I know there is a lot of the South in my mannerisms. There's a lot of the South in my expectations of other people and how people treat each other. There's a lot of the South in the way I speak, but it could never be home.
GROSS: Why not?
WOODSON: I think it's - well, aside from the fact that I'm so fiercely attached to New York and my life here, I think, you know, given the fact that I have a partner and we have a multiracial family - and I think it wouldn't be a safe place for my kids. I don't want my kids to have to walk through a world where they have to constantly explain who they are and who their family is.
GROSS: In that context, does it make it even harder to multiracial family - and you're a lesbian. So it's, like, something else to explain to people who might not get it.
WOODSON: Yeah, I think that is - I think I'm fine with explaining it. I think my kids - I don't want my kids to have to ever explain having two moms. Like, it just is. And if you don't understand it, then it's the work you have to do, not that my kids have to do. So I think they can - in New York City, they can go to schools. And, you know, my son's school - he has four other kids who have two moms in his family. My daughter can introduce her sister, who is half-Korean, and no one bats an eye. Instead, they say, oh, yeah, you guys both have your father's dimples, you know?
So I think there is this way in which there's energy I don't want them to have to put out into the world, in terms of explaining who they are. You know - and I want them to know how amazingly fabulous they are. And I want the world to echo that. So I want them to know the South. I want them to visit it. I want them to know of our history connected to the South. But I don't think we could ever live there.
GROSS: What are some of the differences the North and the South brought out in you and your personality and how you talked and behaved?
WOODSON: Well, one of the differences is I still say hi to strangers. But in New York, strangers don't say hi back. And my daughter is mortified by it.
WOODSON: You know, the whole idea that I would say good morning to someone - and it's just so ingrained in who I am. I think it also - there is this way in which I'm not afraid of silence. You know, I'm not afraid to sit in a room and have the conversation drop into silence. I think that's a very Southern thing. And I write about that in the book. You know, when the heat is enough to melt the mouth, so Southern folks knew to stay silent. And I think, sometimes, we're afraid of that silence. We're afraid of what it implies or what people are thinking.
But I do feel like that's a cultural thing that I learned in South Carolina. I think, in terms of being a New Yorker, as my friends would say, I don't take a lot of mess. (Laughter) I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people just not being a part of the world and being in it and not trying to change it.
GROSS: While you were living with your grandparents in Greenville, S.C., your mother left for a while to go up North and eventually found a place to bring you and your siblings back to in the North. While you were living with your grandparents, it was understood that you would take your grandmother's religion. And she was a Jehovah's Witness. And so before we talk about that period of your life, I'd like you to read the poem in your memoir called "Faith."
WOODSON: (Reading) After my mother leaves, my grandmother pulls us further into the religion she has always known. We become Jehovah's Witnesses like her. After my mother leaves, there is no one to say, the children can choose their own faith when they're old enough. In my house, my grandmother says, you will do as I do. After my mother leaves, we wake in the middle of the night calling out for her. Have faith, my grandmother says, pulling us to her in the darkness. Let the Bible, my grandmother says, become your sword and your shield. But we do not know yet who we are fighting and what we are fighting for.
GROSS: How did your mother feel about you becoming a Jehovah's Witness? Was she?
WOODSON: My mother was as a child. And she believed in the faith. but she didn't necessarily practice it. So as we were growing up, she basically sent us to the Kingdom Hall. And she'd go once in a while. But she definitely believed in the actual faith of being a Jehovah's Witness.
GROSS: Is the Kingdom Hall the church, the meeting place?
WOODSON: So yes, the Kingdom Hall is the meeting place.
GROSS: So your grandfather didn't believe. What were - what are the basics beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses?
WOODSON: Well, one of the main beliefs is that we are in the world but not of the world. And it served me well as both a young person and an adult. And they believe that because we are not actually a part of the world because we are considered God's chosen people - that we shouldn't behave as worldly people do. So we don't celebrate holidays. We don't celebrate birthdays. We believe that this system of things is going to end, and there will be a better system of things, a new world. And those witnesses who have died will be resurrected in that new world - and that this system will end with Armageddon and that the signs of Armageddon are constantly upon us. So the Bible is big in the religion - treating people as you want to be treated. It's Christian. So it's a lot of the Christian principles.
GROSS: But you don't celebrate Christmas.
WOODSON: No, no. Yeah, I guess Christmas is Christian, huh?
WOODSON: No, no holidays. So it's a Christian sect. So there are Christians. But Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves different from those Christians.
DAVIES: That's Jacqueline Woodson speaking with Terry Gross about her 2014 novel "Brown Girl Dreaming," which won the National Book Award for young people's literature. Her latest novel, "Another Brooklyn," is a finalist for this year's National Book Awards. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Jacqueline Woodson. Her 2014 memoir, "Brown Girl Dreaming," is about growing up in the '60s and '70s in the Jim Crow South and in Brooklyn. When we left off, she was talking about the period when she was living with her grandparents in South Carolina. Her grandmother was raising her as a Jehovah's Witness. And she was taught to believe the end times were near.
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GROSS: So growing up with your grandmother, you know, explaining to you that Armageddon - the end of the world - was probably near, but that you would probably be saved - was that a scary thought? Like, did that weigh on you - that, like, the signs of the end were apparent?
WOODSON: You know, I think I was pretty nervous about it (laughter) as a kid. I did exist somewhat in that fear of the world coming to an end. I think, also, it's kind of how kids exist anyway, you know? But yeah, Armageddon was just, you know, yet another one of those fears. I think one thing that it allowed me to do was be really conscious of the moments I was living in and not take them for granted 'cause I believed at that time that one day these moments wouldn't be here because of Armageddon. And now I know at this time that these moments won't always be here. And that's because time passes.
GROSS: When you were a child, you had to go door-to-door proselytizing. What were you supposed to say?
WOODSON: Hi. I'm Jacqueline. And I'm one of Jehovah's Witnesses. And I'm here to bring you some good news today. And that good news was the good news of Jehovah's kingdom coming. And if you accepted the faith, then you would be spared.
GROSS: I'm thinking of how odd it must have been to be a child, knocking on the doors of strangers, explaining to adults that you knew the right way to their salvation.
WOODSON: Well, you know, it wasn't odd because I had nothing to compare it to (laughter). And I think there was - I remember knocking on my first door - and I talk about it in "Brown Girl Dreaming" - and it was this old woman. And I felt so proud to finally be able to speak, to not have to stand beside my big sister or my grandmother or my big brother and just kind of be a shadow while they spoke. I felt so proud to finally have this voice in the world and this information to depart. But I think once I was in New York City as a Witness, I was always concerned that I was going to knock on the door, and it was going to be the door of a school friend. And they were going to come to school Monday and say, Jackie was begging for money at my house (laughter) over the weekend.
GROSS: So the begging for money part, was that - you're asking for money to sell the Jehovah's Witnesses' literature, "The Watchtower" and "Awake!"
WOODSON: Yeah. And it was a donation. You know, we were asking for donations. We were not asking - saying you had to pay. And, you know, I think we thought - I thought I was saving lives. I mean - and there's still - I think I have such a deep respect for the faith. And Witnesses are really, really kind people. I have never met a mean Witness. And it's part of the way they walk through the world - quietly and kindly. You know, they're not up in your face proselytizing, screaming from a soapbox, saying, you're going to die tomorrow if you don't do this. And everything you do is wrong. They're saying, you know, I have some good news. Do you want to hear it?
GROSS: During the period when your mother was gone, was it really helpful to have some of that gap in your life filled by faith?
WOODSON: I don't know. For me, going to the Kingdom Hall was about being allowed to imagine and dream and make up stories in my boredom. You know, of course, the faith was getting in. But think about being so young and having to sit for two hours and listen to soft-spoken people...
WOODSON: ...Talk about stuff. And, you know, it's kind of like, where else can I be?
WOODSON: Anywhere but here. And I think it allowed me the gift of story and imagination and to kind of will myself to other places.>>GROSS: You're a writer. You love stories. But when you were growing up, it was your sister who was the one that was always called, you know, like, really smart. And you had a hard time reading. You had to read things over and over for the words to make sense. So how did you fall in love with reading and writing if it was such an effort?
WOODSON: You know, I read stuff over and over. And it made deep sense. I think what happened was the language settled in me much deeper than it settled into people who just can read something once and absorb what they absorb of it. I feel like what I was absorbing was not by any means superficial. And I think I was - from a really young age, I was reading like a writer. I was reading for this deep understanding of the literature not simply to hear the story but to understand how the author got the story on the page.
And I didn't know any of that. And my sister just kind of sailed through reading and read - consumed book after book after book. And here I was, reading the same book very slowly, slowly coming to understand it. And looking back on it, I think it was part of what brought me here.
GROSS: You write that you copied lyrics to songs from records and TV commercials until the words settled into your brain - into your memory. So what are some of the records and TV commercials whose lyrics you wrote over and over until you really got them?
WOODSON: You know, Choo Choo Charlie was an engineer (laughter), Sly and the Family Stone, which I talk about in there, Colorado Rocky Mountain High - I mean, I have so many bad commercials.
GROSS: Oh, which ones?
WOODSON: Winston tastes good like...
GROSS: Like a cigarette should.
WOODSON: Winston tastes good like a cigarette should. Taste me. Taste me. Come on and taste me. You know, I just - I could just go through it for about an hour. And you'd be so sick of me.
WOODSON: But I would sit there and, you know, after the commercial went off - still writing the words. And at that time, with records, you'd have to take the needle off and move it back to the beginning of the record so you could - it was not - you know, it wasn't like you had a pause button or anything. And I would just sit there. I love The Jackson 5. Anything they sang - I would try to memorize as many lyrics as I could to it. Otis Redding was another big one. He was a favorite of my mom. And I love the story inside his song "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay."
GROSS: So when you had trouble reading but were so deep into it, did people think you had some kind of learning disorder? Although, I don't think we used the word back then. Or did they think, like, oh, she's so studious? She cares so much about this.
WOODSON: Oh, goodness, no. I wish they would've thought that (laughter). It wasn't called a learning difference at that time. They wrote on my report card, Jacqueline can do better. Jacqueline should try harder. And I think they just didn't understand I was doing something differently than how one was supposed to do it at that time. But it was so interesting because they were always kind of blown away because whenever it was anything that had to do with reading comprehension, I soared. And so they were like, well, she obviously understands it. But it was confusing for people, I think.
DAVIES: Jacqueline Woodson speaking with Terry Gross. Her novel "Another Brooklyn" is a finalist for this year's National Book Awards. Her memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," is now out in paperback. After a break, we'll hear more from Woodson. And we'll remember civil rights lawyer Jack Greenberg, who argued the cases that led to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. Greenberg died Wednesday. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's 2014 interview with writer Jacqueline Woodson. Her latest novel, "Another Brookln," is a finalist for this year's National Book Awards. Her memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," about growing up in the segregated South and in Brooklyn, won the 2014 National Book Award for young people's literature. It's just been published in paperback.
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GROSS: So something you don't write about in the memoir is coming to the understanding that you are a lesbian. How old were you when you knew that?
WOODSON: You know, I probably - the first mirror I had - Maria had an Aunt Alma (ph), and we loved Alma. And Alma...
GROSS: Maria was your good friend.
WOODSON: Maria is my best friend, yeah. And she and I are still really close. And Alma was this kind of beautiful, very butch woman who always had these beautiful, very femme girlfriends. And I definitely, you know, saw something there. But I knew I wasn't Alma. I knew I wasn't - I knew I didn't have this interest in wearing man's clothes and having this huge - I did want the Afro, actually. And I knew I wasn't her girlfriends, who were these really high femmes.
But I knew there was something there that struck a chord in me. And it wasn't like now, where you can name stuff. You know, I think when I got into college - and my housemate Beth said to me, you know, I'm gay. And I'm like, oh, me too. (Laughter) You know, like, suddenly a light went on, and I thought, this is what it is. But I always had boyfriends as a young person and as a teenager, many of whom are really still close - we're close.
But I didn't have the language for what I was discovering yet. And I think it - obviously, if I had grown up in this time, I probably would've been out by the time I was 12 years old. I mean, the closest I came to it as a kid was being called a tomboy because I was kind of rough and tumble. But I also still wore ribbons.
GROSS: So having been raised in the tradition of Jehovah's Witnesses, there's so much you weren't allowed to do. How did being gay fit into that or not?
WOODSON: Yeah. It wasn't even - I remember my mother would get upset with me 'cause she said I walked like my dad. And I always thought she was getting upset with me because it reminded her of someone she wasn't too happy with. But I think it was more like, there's something about you that's not quite ladylike and femme. And then when I got older - once I came out, I mean, my mom and grandma were horrified and just kind of like - where did we go wrong? And they actually blamed it on my sorority, which is ridiculous.
WOODSON: So - but I think it took them many, many years to kind of realize that this is who I was. But at the same time, you know, one of the things about being a Witness is you're kind of not supposed to associate with people who are not a part of the truth - who are not Witnesses. And if your family members do something, and they're Witnesses, then they get kind of excommunicated. They call it disfellowshipped. But I think that was the point where my grandmother and mother - although they still believed a lot in the truth, they were not going to disown their family. You know, the family was just so much tighter than having to make - that kind of choice was just not an option. But they were not happy at all.
GROSS: And how old were you when they found out?
WOODSON: When they found out, I was probably around 19 or 20. But when I found out, I was probably around 18.
GROSS: OK. So you don't write about that in this book. Is that because this memoir ends when you're younger than that...
GROSS: ...Or is it just something you wanted to keep out of this book?
WOODSON: No - because I didn't know. You know, this book is during a time when I didn't have the language for it. And I thought at one point about writing about Alma. But it would've been false to the book because I was still figuring stuff out. And I think if I had been older - I mean, if I had grown up in a different time, this would've been a different book, in terms of talking about being queer.
GROSS: Although you don't discuss being gay, and there's no gay characters in your memoir, you have had central gay characters in other books that you've written. And I wonder if you've gotten any blowback from that from, you know, conservative groups or Christian groups that think, like, this is just inappropriate material for children's literature or young-adult literature.
WOODSON: You know, my books are challenged. And I am kind of protected from the challenge because it's not like someone calls me up and says, you know what? I'm going to challenge your book and burn it in the schoolyard (laughter). What they do is they say, Jacqueline Woodson will never come to our school. But I'm not privy to those conversations. But I definitely know - I remember getting a call from Judy Blume. She was working on an anthology called "Places That I've Never Meant To Be." And she said it was going to be an anthology of writers who've gotten challenged. And I'm like, I've never gotten challenged. She's like, oh yes, you have.
WOODSON: And that was the first time that I realized that the books were being challenged. Another time, for my book "From The Notebooks Of Melanin Sun," it was an all-school read at a school in Brooklyn. And so they had given out - I don't know - like, 150 copies to the upper grades. And then a parent challenged it. So the principal said over the loudspeaker that people had to return their books. It wasn't going to be read. And they said he got two books back (laughter). So I always think that books being challenged is a good thing.
You know, on the other side of it, the books have won so many awards. And the awards bring the books into the classroom. So I was really surprised when "After Tupac And D Foster" received the Newbery Honor...
GROSS: Which is the name of one of your books, yeah.
WOODSON: Yes - one of my books - received a Newbery Honor because, you know, it deals with Tupac. One of the main characters is gay and ends up in prison. So aside from being challenged, there has also been a lot of love for the literature. So that's kind of kept the books in the classrooms.
GROSS: Well, congratulations on the book and the National Book Award. It's really been such a pleasure to talk with you. Thanks.
WOODSON: Thanks so much, Terry, you too.
DAVIES: Jacqueline Woodson speaking with Terry Gross. Her novel "Another Brooklyn" is a finalist for this year's National Book Awards. Her memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," is now out in paperback. Coming up, we remember civil rights lawyer Jack Greenberg, who died Wednesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.