A poet’s history lesson on Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood

Jacqueline Woodson, one of America’s premier writers of young adult and children’s literature, is out with her second novel for adults called “Another Brooklyn.” It’s her first in 20 years, and Jeffrey Brown talked to her about it in her Park Slope home recently.

It’s set in the nearby Brooklyn borough of Bushwick, her childhood neighborhood, which becomes one of the central characters in this latest novel about memory, friendship and loss.

Woodson sees her role as a “history keeper” of Bushwick. She also wrote about the neighborhood two years ago in “Brown Girl Dreaming”, a collection of poems, which won the National Book Award and was a New York Times bestseller. Woodson’s family, like many African-American families, moved from the South to Brooklyn in 1968 as part of the Great Migration. Her parents hoped for greater opportunity in New York, and Woodson remembers the new neighborhood was “filled with strivers.”

“The reason I wanted to write a book about this area was to preserve it, so that people know what it was like. I talk about the fact that the neighborhood was discovered by Franciscus the Negro, a former slave who bought his freedom. That is something I didn’t know as a kid, that the neighborhood I was growing up in was settled by a black man. I think all of that is so important, that people know the history of the places they exist in, even as those histories quickly change.”

She read one of her poems from that volume recently in her old neighborhood, which she says has completely changed. It’s called “Bushwick History Lesson.”

“Bushwick History Lesson”

Before German mothers wrapped scarves around
their heads,
kissed their own mothers good-bye and headed
across the world
to Bushwick-

Before the Italian fathers sailed across the ocean
for the dream of America
and found themselves in Bushwick-

Before Dominican daughters donned quincenera
dresses and walked proudly down Bushwick Avenue

Before young brown boys in cutoff shorts spun their
first tops and played their first games of skelly on
Bushwick Streets-

Before any of that, this place was called Boswijck,

Settled by the Dutch
And Franciscus the Negro, a former slave
who bought his freedom.

And all of New York was called New Amsterdam,
run by a man
named Peter Stuyvesant. There were slaves here.
Those who could afford to own
their freedom
lived on the other side of the wall.
And now that place is called Wall Street.

When my teacher says, So write down what all of this means
to you, our heads bend over our notebooks, the whole class
silent. The whole class belonging somewhere:

I didn’t just appear one day.
I didn’t just wake up and know how to write my name.

I keep writing, knowing now
that I was a long time coming.

Jacqueline Woodson is the 2014 National Book Award Winner for her New York Times bestselling memoir BROWN GIRL DREAMING, which was also a recipient of the Coretta Scott King Award, a Newbery Honor Award and the NAACP Image Award. Woodson was recently named the Young People’s Poet Laureate by the Poetry Foundation. She is the author of more than two dozen award-winning books for young adults and children.

Her books include “The Other Side”, “Each Kindness”, “Coming On Home Soon”, “Feathers”, “After Tupac and D. Foster” and “Miracle’s Boys”, which received the LA Times Book Prize and was adapted into a miniseries directed by Spike Lee.

Watch for Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Woodson to air soon on the PBS NewsHour.

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