Betsey Brown by Ntozake Shange is a novel which deals with very important matters concerning African-Americans. It tells the story of the Brown family who lived in St Louis in the 1950s. The eponymous character- Betsey is the oldest daughter of Greer and Jane, and she tells the story through a child's perspective. The 1950s was the time when essential social changes were made, like for example a ban on segregation in public schools (Brown v. Board of Education).
In this book, the author mentions many important facts, which changed the American history. She presents the readers with the names of important figures and the dates of essential events that happened in the America in the 1950s. Those names and dates are incorporated into the story of the novel. This nuclear family is not a typical one because it overturns deeply entrenched stereotypes, which are connected with African-Americans.
First of all, Betsey's parents are wealthy members of the middle class. They do not live in a poor district. The father, Greer, works as a doctor and the mother, Jane, is a professional social worker. They live in a house which belonged to white people. Even though they are rich, they are still discriminated in the society and have to fight for equality. Greer is an activist who is not afraid of taking action and expressing his views. He participates in a demonstration and, against his wife's will, takes his children with him. This event proves that, despite his superb education and a respected job, he was not equal with white people. The thing which made him inferior was just the color of his skin.
Betsey Brown was written in 1985, but it is set in 1957. Through this retrospective method of writing, Shange incorporated many crucial facts. The 1950s were very important as a result of radical changes in the legal system and in society. One of the most essential events, which is mentioned in the novel and which caused a huge outcry among not only African- Americans but many white Americans as well, was the true story of the lynching of a young black boy Emmet Till in 1955. His name is mentioned in the scene, in which children are supposed to go to a mixed school after the desegregation act was introduced in 1954. On the one hand, this act changed a lot in the legal system, but it did not change the mentality of many white people, for whom mixing black children with their white peers was still outrageous. African-American children were really afraid of being abused or treated unequally. The case of Emmet Till was the most horrible example of the dangers which might have been caused by white people. This constant fear was very legitimate because besides Emmet there were more than 2,000 families murdered and lynched over the years by whites in America.
Betsey belongs to those black pupils, who were the first to go to the same schools as white children. She was afraid of this new situation, but after the first day at a new school, she noticed an essential thing which changed her attitude towards other people: namely that without being together, playing together and studying together, the word “equality” was meaningless. Before the act from 1954, there was a ubiquitous rule of being “separate but equal”, which meant that black and white communities could never get to know each other.
Jane, Betsey's mother, teaches her children to have a positive attitude towards others, regardless of skin color or social status. She says that bad people are everywhere, even among African-Americans. This lesson shows Jane's children that everybody is the same and that the invisible boundaries between races and classes should be destroyed.
Another thing described in this complex book is the reversal of the roles ascribed to particular members of the family. Jane stands for those women who, in the 1950's, started to change the stereotype connected with their gender roles. It was believed that women should stay at home, raise children, clean, cook, and be financially dependent on men. In this novel, Jane is presented as a self-confident woman, who has got her own career and who is not a servant for her husband, but his equal partner. She can afford to employ a nurse for her children, so she is not obliged to look after house and her offspring. She has got enough time for pleasures and thinking about herself. This new model of a woman represents the social change in the society and the new approach towards womanhood.
What is more, this family is a perfect example of showing different attitudes of people at different ages toward those social changes. This family is like a microcosm, in which everybody stands for a particular approach. It is an extended family in which grandma's behavior is contrasted with the lifestyles of her daughter and son-in-law. Vida represents an older generation for whom equality was only a dream. She remembered the oppression and visible hatred of white Americans toward African-Americans. Her life taught her that it was extremely dangerous to stand out or to oppose the system controlled by white people. That is why Vida cannot accept Greer's traditionalism(?) and persistence in fighting for a better future. Nobody can blame Vida for her conformism and surveillance(?). The situation in the 1950s must have surprised many people from her generation, who would not even dare to think that an anti-discriminatory act would be introduced during their lifetimes. Greer represents activists who later created the Black Is Beautiful Movement and who openly admitted their pride of their heritage and traditions. He strongly believes in the purpose of this fight and the importance of those historical events he participates in because he realizes that his children will live totally different lives than his.