"Brownies" is a story by ZZ Packer, a young African American writer. It appears in Packer's short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, which was published in 2003 to great acclaim. The story is about a Brownie troop of fourth-grade African American girls from suburban Atlanta, Georgia, who go to summer camp. At the camp, they encounter a troop of white girls and believe that one of the white girls addressed them with a racial insult. The African American girls resolve to beat up the white girls.
"Brownies" is a story about racism as it is experienced by young girls, but it has a twist. The African American girls discover that the situation is not as clear-cut as they had believed, and as they return home on the bus, Laurel, the African American girl who narrates the story, tells them of an incident in her family involving a white Mennonite family. As she tells the story, she comes to an unsettling realization about racism and the nature of human life.
ZZ Packer was born in Chicago in 1973. Her first name is Zuwena, which is a Swahili word meaning "good." But she has been known by the nickname ZZ for as long as she can remember, she told Richard Dorment in a March 2003 interview for Interview magazine. When she
was five, she and her family moved to Atlanta, where she remained until she was eleven. Then her parents got divorced, and ZZ went to live in Louisville, Kentucky, with her mother. During her early schooling, Packer was interested in math and science, but in high school a teacher had the class write short stories, and that planted a seed in Packer's mind that she might one day become a writer.
After graduating from high school, Packer attended Yale University. For a while she was unsure of whether to focus on the humanities or the sciences, but she then decided she would become an engineer. At the time she did not think writing was an activity that people could actually do in order to make a living. But after graduating from Yale, she attended the Writing Seminar at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. At Johns Hopkins, one of her tutors was Francine Prose, whose perspective on writing encouraged Packer to look at her own work in a new way.
After Johns Hopkins, Packer taught in a public high school for two years, determined to write during her spare time. But she found that teaching was a demanding profession, and it was difficult to find the time to write as well as teach. She took many odd jobs during the summers and then decided to apply to the prestigious Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa. She was admitted to the program and graduated in 1997.
It was not long before she began to have success. Her story, "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" was included in the Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker in 2000, and her work also appeared in Seventeen, Harper's, The Best American Short Stories (2000), and Ploughshares. Eight of Packer's stories, including "Brownies," were collected in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, which was published by Riverhead Books in 2003 to universal praise from reviewers. John Updike chose the book as the June 2003, Today Book Club selection on the NBC network's Today Show, and the book was also nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 2004.
Among the writers Packer most admires are Toni Morrison, especially Morrison's novel, Beloved. She has also been influenced by Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.
As of 2006, Packer lived in San Francisco, California, and taught at Stanford University. She was working on a novel about the Buffalo Soldiers, African Americans who served in the U.S. Army following the Civil War.
"Brownies" takes place at Camp Crescendo, a summer camp for fourth graders near the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The story is told in the first person by an African American girl named Laurel, known to the other girls by her nickname, Snot. Laurel announces that by the second day at the camp, all the girls in her Brownie troop had decided they were going to "kick the asses" of every girl in Brownie Troop 909, who were all white girls. The black girls took a dislike to the white girls when they first saw them. Arnetta, the girls' ringleader, said they smelled "like Chihuahuas. Wet Chihuahuas." When she adds that they were like "Caucasian Chihuahuas," Page 3 | Top of Article all the black girls go into fits of laughter. They regard the word Caucasian as a hilarious term of abuse that can be used in almost any situation.
The black girls have seen whites before but have never had much to do with them. But the ten white girls they encounter at the camp are closer to them and, therefore, more real and capable of exciting envy and hatred.
At the end of the first day at camp, Arnetta reports she heard one of the white girls refer to Daphne, a black girl, as "a nigger." On prompting by Arnetta, Daphne, a quiet girl, nods her head to confirm that the derogatory term was used. Arnetta tells the other girls that they cannot let the white girls get away with using that word about them. She says they must teach the white girls a lesson. Janice suggests that they put daddy-long-legs in the white girls' sleeping bags, and when the girls awake, beat them up. Arnetta tells Janice, who is not a popular girl, to shut up. Arnetta then announces that they are to hold a secret meeting. She turns to Laurel, whom she appears not to like, and asks her whether Laurel plans to tell Mrs. Margolin, their troop leader, about the situation.
On the second day of camp, the black girls eat their sandwich lunch by a stream that borders the field hockey lawn. Arnetta eyes the white girls from Troop 909 and would like to attack them right then and there, but the white girls are with their troop leader, which makes the mission impossible. When the white girls leave, Arnetta says they must find a way of getting them when they are alone. Laurel says that the girls will never be alone, and the only time they will be unsupervised is in the bathroom. Octavia tells Laurel to shut up, but Arnetta seems to think this is a useful piece of information.
The black girls walk to the restrooms, which are messy, with leaves and wads of chewing gum on the floor. Arnetta says that when they meet the white girls there, they will be nice to them at first and then tell them what happens when they call any one of the black girls a "nigger." Janice says that she will tell the white girls, "We're gonna teach you a lesson!" Laurel, who is normally very quiet, asks what will happen if the white girls say they did not use the offending word. Arnetta dismisses this possibility and says that all they have to do is fight. An exception is made for Daphne, however, since they are doing this to avenge her. The girls leave the restrooms, although Daphne stays behind, picking up the trash. When Arnetta is asked about the secret meeting, she replies that they have just had it.
That evening, just before their bedtime, Mrs. Hedy, the parent helper, comes to their cabin. The girls, knowing she is depressed about her impending divorce, sing her favorite Brownie song for her. The girls are then reluctantly persuaded by Mrs. Margolin to sing "The Doughnut Song," a religious song which they all hate. Mrs. Margolin is tired and leaves to go to the lodge. Arnetta says it is time to go to the restroom, hoping that Mrs. Hedy will not go with them. Arnetta knows that the troop of white girls will be in the restrooms soon and will not be expecting an ambush. Mrs. Hedy indicates that the girls can go to the bathroom unaccompanied. She makes Octavia promise to be good.
Daphne tells Laurel that she is not going with them, and Laurel says she is not going either. But Arnetta overhears her and insists that she comes.
They make their way to the restrooms in the darkness, using a flashlight to guide them. They do not talk about fighting; they are all frightened enough to be walking through the woods at night.
When they arrive, the white girls are already there. Arnetta and Octavia go in first, instructing the others to follow when they hear Arnetta say, "We're gonna teach you a lesson."
After about a minute, Laurel hears one of the white girls deny that they had used the offensive word. The other black girls decide to go inside, even though Arnetta has not given the signal. Inside, they see five white girls huddled up against a bigger girl. Octavia whispers to Elise that she thinks the white girls are retarded. The big girl denies it, but it is obvious to the others that she and all the other white girls are indeed mentally handicapped. Arnetta says they are just pretending, but Octavia, deflated, says that they should just leave. Octavia tells the big girl they are leaving and not to tell anyone they were there. The big girl asks why not, saying she knows the black girls will get into trouble. She threatens to tell on them.
Shortly after this, the white girls' troop leader enters the bathroom and assures the girls that everything will be all right. All the girls start crying. Then the ranger comes, then Page 4 | Top of Article Mrs. Margolin and Daphne. Mrs. Margolin tells the leader of Troop 909 that the girls will apologize and their parents will punish them. The white girls' leader denies that her girls are mentally handicapped but admits they are "delayed learners."
The black girls are speechless, while the Troop 909 leader is full of words and energy. She tells Mrs. Margolin that some of her girls are "echolalic," which means they will repeat whatever they hear. (Echolalia, the repeating of the speech of others, is a severe communication disorder associated with childhood schizophrenia and mental retardation.) So they might have used the racial slur, but it would not have been intentional. Arnetta points to a small girl and says it was she who used the word. The troop leader says that is impossible, since the girl never speaks. Arnetta then picks out another girl as the culprit, but Laurel thinks it very unlikely that this happy-looking girl would call anyone a "nigger."
On the fourth morning, they board a bus to go home. The journey is quiet to begin with, but then the girls all try to silently imitate the expressions and mannerisms of the white girls, trying not to laugh too hard and attract the attention of Mrs. Margolin and Mrs. Hedy. Octavia wonders why they had to be stuck at camp with retarded girls. When Laurel starts to tell a story, Octavia tries to shut her up, but Daphne encourages Laurel to continue. Laurel tells her about an incident in a mall when she was there with her father. They saw a Mennonite family, dressed in their distinctive garb. Laurel's father had told her that if someone asked the Mennonites to do something for the person, they would be compelled to do it, because it was part of their religion. Laurel's father asked them to paint his porch, and the entire Mennonite family came and did so. Laurel's father explained to her that he had asked them to do this because it would be the only time he would be able to see a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free.
Laurel now understands why her father said that, although she does not agree with the sentiment. When Daphne asks if Laurel's father had thanked the Mennonites, Laurel replies no, and she suddenly realizes that there is "something mean" in the world that she cannot stop.
Arnetta is the strong-minded leader of the black girls in the Brownie troop. She is a dominant personality, and after she speaks the other girls are usually quiet: "Her tone had an upholstered confidence that was somehow both regal and vulgar at once. It demanded a few moments of silence in its wake, like the ringing of a church bell or the playing of taps." It is Arnetta who says that she heard one of the white girls call Daphne a "nigger," and she is determined that the white girls must not be allowed to get away with it. She is eager to start a fight and makes sure that the reluctant Snot goes along, too. Arnetta plans out how the confrontation in the restroom is to be handled and gives instructions to the other girls. With Octavia, Arnetta is the first one to enter the bathroom. Arnetta is also a cunning girl. She makes a point of listening to Mrs. Margolin in class and giving all the right answers. Mrs. Margolin, therefore, has a good opinion of Arnetta and does not realize quite how subversive she can be. Arnetta knows how to deceive both Mrs. Margolin and Mrs. Hedy.
Daphne is the black girl who was allegedly insulted by one of the white girls, although she does not seem to be upset by it. Daphne is a very quiet girl. When she speaks, her voice is "petite and tinkly, the voice one might expect from a shiny new earring." She appears to be intelligent and wrote a poem for Langston Hughes Day that won a prize at school. (Langston Hughes was a prominent African American poet.) Daphne's parents are poor, and she wears old but clean clothes. She has no desire to fight the white girls and is excused from doing so by Arnetta. When the girls first visit the restrooms to assess the place where they seek out the fight, Daphne busies herself by cleaning up the trash.
Elise is a black girl who plays a minor role in the story. She is a follower of Arnetta and Octavia, although on one occasion she takes the unusual step of asking Snot, who is usually ignored by the others, for her opinion.
Mrs. Hedy is the parent helper for the troop of black girls. She is Octavia's mother. Mrs. Hedy is Page 5 | Top of Article worried about her impending divorce and talks about it in public, to Octavia's embarrassment. She tries in a perfunctory manner to get the girls to behave themselves, but she has little authority over them. Instead, she persuades them to sing Brownie songs to cheer her up. She is lenient and allows the girls to go to the restrooms on their own.
Along with Arnetta, Octavia Hedy is one of the leaders in the troop of black girls. She is an aggressive girl with very long hair which "hung past her butt like a Hawaiian hula dancer's." Octavia is as determined as Arnetta that the white girls should not get away with insulting Daphne. She is scornful of Janice and keeps telling her to shut up, and she has the same attitude toward Laurel. She is also disdainful of the experience of being in camp. She says, "I mean, I really don't know why it's even called camping—all we ever do with Nature is find some twigs and say something like, ‘Wow, this fell from a tree.’" It is Octavia who decides that the girls should leave the restroom when they discover the white girls are retarded.
Janice is the girl who comes up with a plan to put daddy-long-legs in the white girls' sleeping bags. She is a simple, country girl, "her looks homely, her jumpy acrobatics embarrassing to behold." Janice is a big fan of Michael Jackson. Arnetta and Octavia treat her with contempt, but Janice does not seem to mind or even notice. At one point, Snot and Daphne are worried that Octavia may push Janice into the stream. Janice is enthusiastic about the prospective fight and carefully rehearses the line she has thought up: "We're gonna teach you a lesson!" But when the time comes and she says this to the big white girl, it has no effect, and Octavia tells her to shut up.
Laurel, the narrator of the story, is one of the black girls in the Brownie troop. She has been called Snot ever since first grade. Laurel is a quiet, studious, observant girl who tends to stand apart from the others. She is not very popular with them. No one ever asks for her opinion; Octavia tells her to shut up, and Arnetta demands to know whether she is going to tell on them to Mrs. Margolin. Laurel seems more thoughtful than the others. She is the only girl who considers the possibility that the white girl did not use the forbidden term, that perhaps Arnetta misheard what was said. Laurel also wonders, unlike the others, what will happen if the white girls deny using the bad word, and why Page 6 | Top of Article none of her troop considers the possibility that the white girls will not be so easy to beat up and may well fight back. But it is Laurel who observes that the only time the white girls will be unsupervised will be when they are in the bathroom, so she is in a way partly responsible for the confrontation that ensues. However, Laurel does not want to fight and tries to stay behind with Daphne, but Arnetta refuses to let her. Finally, it is Laurel who tells the story about the Mennonite family that paints the porch of their house, and it is she who understands more deeply than the other girls the origins of racism.
Mrs. Margolin is in charge of the troop of black girls and watches over them like a mother duck looks after her ducklings. According to Snot, Mrs. Margolin even looks like a mother duck: "she had hair cropped close to a small ball of a head, almost no neck, and huge, miraculous breasts." Mrs. Margolin is a religious woman who likes to give religious instruction to the girls in the Brownie troop.
Troop 909 Leader
The Troop 909 leader is a white woman who enters the restroom shortly after the confrontation between the two groups of girls. She explains to Mrs. Margolin that the white girls may have special needs, but they are not retarded.
The racial prejudice and hostility shown in the story appears to be the product of historical circumstances combined with the current reality of racial segregation. The first noticeable fact in the story is that the Brownie troops at the summer camp appear to be either all-white or all-black. No mixed-race troop is presented. It also transpires that in the Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in the south suburbs of Atlanta, there is only one white child, a boy named Dennis. For all intents and purposes, the black girls in the story have been raised in a racially segregated environment. This is confirmed by the remark of Laurel: "When you lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was easy to forget about whites. Whites were like those baby pigeons: real and existing, but rarely seen or thought about."
Because they have had so little contact with whites, the black girls are extremely conscious of the differences between themselves and the white girls. Many of these differences are purely imaginary: "Man, did you smell them?" asks Arnetta of the other girls in her troop after they first see the white girls of Troop 909. For the black girls, the term Caucasian is an all-purpose, humorous term of abuse that can be applied in almost any situation: "If you ate too fast you ate like a Caucasian, if you ate too slow you ate like a Caucasian." It is because the black girls are so used to living in a racially segregated environment, in which they may catch only momentary sight of white people in places like clothing stores or the downtown library, that Arnetta regards the white girls as "invaders."
Indeed, until the confrontation in the restrooms, Laurel, Arnetta, and their friends do not even see the white girls at the camp at close quarters. The one thing they are able to see is that the white girls' long straight hair looks like the shampoo commercials they have seen on television, and this difference alone is cause for "envy and hatred." But they cannot see "whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV—ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money." In other words, the black girls' knowledge of whites comes not from direct experience but through the distorting, homogenizing lens of mass culture.
Given the extent of racial segregation, it is not surprising that the encounter between the black girls and the white girls should be full of misunderstandings. It is never established beyond doubt that any of the white girls actually used the racial insult, but even if they had, they would not have used it with the intention of offending the black girls. But this is not the whole story. If a white girl used the word, she must have heard it somewhere, possibly spoken in private by her parents or other white people. It is thus made clear that racial prejudice continues to exist in present-day Atlanta. This is confirmed by Arnetta in the bus returning from the camp, when she reports on her experience at the mall in Buckhead. (Buckhead is an extremely affluent Page 7 | Top of Article area in the northern part of Atlanta, known as a shopping mecca for the entire South.) While Arnetta was there with her family, she says, "this white lady just kept looking at us. I mean, like we were foreign or something. Like we were from China." It appears that there are still places in Atlanta where black people are perceived as not belonging.
The story Laurel tells on the bus illustrates the depths of resentment that black people feel over such slights. Her father feels his resentments keenly, and that is why he asks the Mennonite family to paint his porch for free, so he can for once feel himself to be in a position of superiority over whites. Laurel now understands why her father did this: "When you've been made to feel bad for so long, you jump at the chance to do it to others." This is a great moment of realization for Laurel. She is mature enough to realize that she does not agree with her father's motivation, but she also learns that "there is something mean in the world" that she cannot stop, something that makes people dislike those who are different from themselves and also makes those who suffer discrimination harbor grudges and try to settle old scores whenever opportunity presents itself. The sad thing that Laurel realizes is that the kind act of the Mennonite family did nothing to heal the situation or remove past pain, since her father refused to thank the family for the work they had done. It is to Laurel's credit that she does not indulge in racist thoughts of her own to explain such sad incidents. She appears to attribute the painful reality to human nature rather than to one specific racial group.
Figurative language is the art of describing something in terms of something else. There are many types of figurative language. Prominent in "Brownies" are similes, in which something is compared to something else that on the surface may be dissimilar but at some other level is similar. Similes can be recognized by the presence of connecting words such as "like" or "as if." Similes seem to come naturally to Laurel, the lively, observant first-person narrator of the story. Mrs. Hedy wags her finger "like a windshield wiper," for example. The similarity between the finger and the windshield wiper is based on the regular, repetitive, rhythmic motion of both. The leader of Troop 909 holds a banana in front of her "like a microphone," the similarity between banana and microphone based on the shape of the object and the way it is held. The shape and color of the dissimilar objects being compared are at the basis of the simile that occurs to Laurel in the bathroom: "Shaggy white balls of paper towels sat on the sinktops in a line like corsages on display." Other similes include the tree branches that "looked like arms sprouting menacing hands"; the girl who flaps her hand "like a bird with a broken wing"; and Mrs. Margolin with her Brownie troop following behind her "like a brood of obedient ducklings."
Unlike a simile, a metaphor is a figure of speech in which one object is identified with another, rather than compared with it. There are several metaphors in the story. At sunset, the leafy tops of the trees "formed a canopy of black lace," the shared qualities between leaves and black lace being the color the leaves appear to take on in the setting sun and the delicate fine patterns or designs they appear to form as the narrator looks up at them. Another metaphor occurs when the sound made by a covey of insects leads Laurel to think of them as "a throng of tiny electric machines, all going at once." Inside the restrooms, another metaphor occurs to Laurel. Noticing how the wooden rafters of the restroom come together in large V's, she observes that "We were, it seems, inside a whale, viewing the ribs of the roof of its mouth." Thus metaphorically, the interior of the restroom becomes the inside of a whale's mouth. Laurel also shows a talent for humorous metaphorical thinking. After Arnetta suggests that they sing a Brownie song about old friends being gold, while new friends are only silver (both lines employ metaphor), Laurel dryly observes, "If most of the girls in the troop could be any type of metal, they'd be bunched-up wads of tinfoil, maybe, or rusty iron nails you had to get tetanus shots for."
Racial Segregation in the United States
In "Brownies" the fictional Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in south suburban Atlanta has only one white student. This is a telling detail, since Atlanta, especially in the inner city, has one of the highest levels of separation Page 8 | Top of Article between blacks and whites in the southern United States, a segregation that is also reflected in the public schools.
Since 1988, there has been a widespread trend in public schools in the United States towards more segregation. This is a reversal of a trend toward racial integration that began following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education, which ruled that racially segregated educational facilities were unconstitutional because they were inherently unequal. Researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that the years between 1991 and 1994 were marked by the largest movement back toward segregation since the landmark 1954 Supreme Court ruling. It was estimated that two-thirds of African American children in the United States attend schools in which most of the students are members of minority groups.
A study conducted by Catherine Freeman and others at the Fiscal Research Center, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, found that in Georgia from 1994 to 2001 there was a slight trend towards increased black-white segregation in public elementary schools. In 1994, 17.7 percent of students attended predominantly black elementary schools (defined as over 70 percent black). This increased to 19.1 percent in 2001. The highest level of black-white segregation was in the Atlanta metropolitan area, which is caused largely by segregation between school districts. Segregation within the same district is related to residential segregation. Residential segregation is apparent in the story, since Laurel states that in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it was rare to see a white person. Another factor in the reemergence of racial segregation is that in the 1990s and early 2000s there has been less pressure from the courts to integrate public schools than there was from the mid-1950s to the 1980s.
The same study found that in Georgia, schools with higher percentages of blacks had higher teacher turnover rates. Such schools also have fewer teachers with advanced degrees and more inexperienced teachers. Teacher quality has a large impact on how well students perform. Schools with high percentages of African American students also received fewer school resources.
These statistics from Georgia reflect a trend toward increased segregation amongst whites and blacks in the general population elsewhere in the United States. University of Chicago researchers, as reported by James Waller in Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America (1998), found that middle-class blacks are less likely than Hispanics or Asian Americans to live among whites.
Persistence of Racism in the United States
Although blatant, violent racism decreased in the United States between 1965 and 2005, racism still existed in more subtle forms. During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, especially in the American South, black people were subject to beatings, racially motivated murders, cross-burnings by the white supremacist group the Ku Klux Klan, as well as everyday insults and humiliations, such as having to sit at the back on buses and use separate public facilities such as water fountains. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and changing public attitudes toward race and racism have ensured that old-style racism of this kind has been vastly reduced in the United States. However, it has been replaced by a less overt form of racism in which prejudice is not stated openly but is nonetheless discernible in different behaviors adopted by white people when dealing with blacks rather than people of their own race. Waller, in Face to Face, reports the comments made by a late 1990s graduate of Georgia Tech University about his experiences with racism:
[W]hite clerks ‘tailing’ him in a local music store; restaurant managers checking repeatedly on the satisfaction of other patrons while ignoring him and his dining partner; people expressing surprise at how ‘articulate’ and ‘well-spoken’ he was; and white women who, when passing by him on a downtown Atlanta sidewalk, would shift their purses to the opposite side of their bodies.
This student's comments are in line with studies that have documented the regular occurrence of this kind of subtle but unmistakable everyday discrimination suffered by middle-class African Americans. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, in "‘New Racism,’ Color-Blind Racism, and the Future of Whiteness in America," calls this changing face of racism the "new racism." He argues that although it appears less harmful than the older, violent form of racism, "it is as effective as slavery and Jim Crow in maintaining the racial status quo."
Packer's short story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, was published to a chorus of praise from reviewers. The reviewer for Publishers Weekly comments that "the clear-voiced humanity of Packer's characters, mostly black teenage girls, resonates unforgettably through the eight stories of this accomplished debut collection." The reviewer concludes, in a comment that might be applied also to "Brownies": "These stories never end neatly or easily. Packer knows how to keep the tone provocative and tense at the close of each tale, doing justice to the complexity and dignity of the characters and their difficult choices."
Jean Thompson in the New York Times Book Review praises Packer's skill in characterization; she also brings attention to the youthfulness of the characters and the fact that in some cases they lack self-knowledge. "The very young characters in "Brownies" [have not] developed much insight into matters of race, adulthood or a religion that reduces its teachings to acronyms—Satan, for example, is ‘Serpent Always Tempting and Noisome.’"
Thompson's conclusion, however, is entirely positive regarding the collection as a whole:
Young writers, naturally enough, write about young characters. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is not really limited by this. Instead, there is a sense of a talented writer testing and pushing at those limits, ringing as many changes as possible within her fictional world. It is a world already populated by clamoring, sorrowing, eminently knowable people, and with the promise of more to come.
David Wiegand, in San Francisco Chronicle, also has fulsome praise for Packer's stories: "Packer doesn't merely tell stories brilliantly, but she also packs each one with a right-between-the-eyes moral about issues of race and black identity." However, Wiegand argues that in some stories Packer's didacticism, her desire to teach a moral lesson, "seems slightly forced." He cites as an example the incident in "Brownies," in which the learning disabled white girls innocently repeat the racial insult only because they have Page 10 | Top of Article heard it somewhere themselves. "It's Packer's way of reminding us, unnecessarily, that prejudice is learned," writes Wiegand.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on literature. In this essay, he discusses "Brownies" in the context of modern racism in the United States.
"Brownies" is a story with a great deal of humor but a serious theme and purpose. No one who lives in the United States can be unaware that in the history of the nation, relations between black people and white people have been fraught with injustice and oppression. Although the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and later federal government policies, including equal opportunity laws and affirmative action, removed most of the egregious racist practices, racism continues to exist in the United States. This fact is plain from the story, not only in the words and actions of the little girls, but in a small but significant comment made by Laurel, the narrator, which gives a glimpse into the day-to-day world of the black girls' parents in suburban Atlanta. Laurel states, "We had all been taught that adulthood was full of sorrow and pain, taxes and bills, dreaded work and dealings with whites, sickness and death." There is an old saying that the two inevitable things in life are death and taxes, but these young girls have also learned that "dealings with whites" must be added to those unpleasant realities.
Modern racism, according to James Waller in Face to Face, is more insidious, subtle, and covert than the old racism. It manifests in negative, stereotypical, mistrustful attitudes that many whites have towards African Americans and other people of color. It is compounded by the fact that many whites believe that racism no longer exists in the United States, which makes them resistant to the demands by minorities for equal and fair treatment. Modern racism has measurable effects on quality of life indicators such as economic status and educational Page 11 | Top of Article attainment, as well as self-esteem and general well being. According to Waller, the effects of such racism are "cumulative, draining, energy consuming, and, ultimately, life consuming."
Racism is not confined to adults; it can also be found in young children. Research in the late 1990s and early 2000s has shown that children develop an awareness of racial categories and society's established racial hierarchies at a very early age. Previously it had been believed that young children were color blind in this respect, with no awareness of racial differences or the meanings applied to them by adults. But Debra van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin in The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, using experimental data on fifty-eight preschool children from age three to six in an ethnically diverse urban day-care center, demonstrate how children of this age use awareness and knowledge of race in their social relationships. These children had already learned at an early age "the desirability of whiteness, of white identity and esteem"; they knew that "whiteness is privileged and darkness is not"; they had the ability to understand and use the power of racial insults to hurt other children and to reinforce the perceived superiority of whiteness over blackness. In some cases, white children had learned to exclude others from games based on racial identity, as with the four-year-old white girl who had been pulling a wagon across the floor and told an Asian girl that "Only white Americans can pull this wagon." In another incident, a three-year-old white girl refused to let a three-year-old black boy get on a swing, telling him that "Black people are not allowed on the swing right now, especially Black boys." The authors comment: "Children hold knowledge of the power and authority granted to whites and are not confused about the meanings of these harsh racial words and actions." The children know where status and privilege lie. The authors further point out that "Black children, like Black adults, must constantly struggle to develop and maintain a healthy sense of themselves against the larger society that tells them in a legion of ways that they are inferior."
If this is indeed so, the black girls in "Brownies" seem to have done extremely well. This is not a story about the struggles of these girls to establish self-esteem. On the contrary, whatever their parents may have told them, or what they may have overheard about the difficulties of "dealings with whites," they are not suffering from any sense of inferiority. When they hear, or Arnetta thinks she hears, the offensive racial word used by a white girl, their reaction is not to go off into a corner and cry, but to fight back, to teach the white girls a painful lesson. These are tough, confident girls, especially Arnetta and Octavia.
The African American girls in "Brownies" also know how to use language to counter any negative names or labels that whites might try to impose on them. They simply do the same in reverse. Although none of them has directly encountered many white people—whites are largely objects of curiosity to them—they have adopted the term "Caucasian" as an all-round term of abuse and ridicule. When someone does something, or wears something, they do not approve of, or acts in a clumsy or incompetent manner, the response is, "What are you? Caucasian?" as Arnetta said to a black boy in school who was wearing jeans considered to be unfashionable.
The behavior of the African American girls in the story is a reverse image of the way in which some white people still use language that denigrates others because of their racial or ethnic identity. In "White Fright: Reproducing White Supremacy Through Casual Discourse," Kristen Myers reports on her own experiment in tracking what she calls "casual racetalk" (talk that denigrates someone due to race or ethnicity or celebrates white supremacy) in the everyday encounters of a variety of mostly white people, including college students, family members, employers, coworkers, parishioners, and professors, as well as strangers. Myers used a covert approach because explicit racist expressions, since they are no longer considered socially acceptable, are not commonly used in public. Instead, Myers used informants to report on "casual racetalk" that occurs in contexts when people are with friends and others whom they believe think like they do. She found that the racetalk revealed whites' belief that they form a "unified, superior group whose interests were threatened by the very presence of people of color." Whites constructed language consisting of caricatures and slurs (including the word that incites the black girls to plan violence in "Brownies") that delineated an us-against-them mentality. Certain negative qualities were attributed to black people and then applied also to Page 12 | Top of Article whites who did something that fitted the negative stereotype, as in this example:
We sat around on Saturday night, and sometimes we called each other niggers because something stupid would happen. I guess we sometimes refer stupidity to black people. For example, we were playing a card game…. I did something wrong, and my friend asked me, "Why are you such a black person?"
In addition to the theme of racial prejudice, "Brownies" makes another serious point. It shows the power of group thinking and the pressure to go along with the actions of the group to which one belongs, even against one's wishes and better judgment. People tend to do things when caught up in the pressures exerted by a group of peers, or even in a crowd of strangers, that they would not do if left to themselves. The example in the story is the narrator, Laurel. Laurel is more reflective than the other girls; she is the only one who questions whether the white girl actually made the insult, and she has no desire to fight. She wants to stay back with Daphne until Arnetta forces her to join in the planned assault. But then an interesting thing happens; as the girls approach the restrooms, Laurel finds that her thinking has changed: "Even though I didn't want to fight, was afraid of fighting, I felt I was part of the rest of the troop; like I was defending something." It should be noted that Laurel does not define what she is defending; it seems to be only a vague feeling, induced by her membership of a group that has collectively decided on a certain course of action. Had the fight broken out, no doubt the normally quiet, nonviolent Laurel would have done what was expected of her.
This small example serves as a kind of inverse parable of race relations between blacks and whites up to the later twentieth century: many African Americans, especially in the South, have had good reason to fear the violence of an unthinking white mob, ready to beat and even lynch a man whose skin happened to be a different color than theirs because of some perceived racial insult. "Brownies" offers no comforting conclusion that this deep-seated racism, that has existed for centuries, may by overcome. Laurel's remark, that "there was something mean in the world that [she] could not stop" is a sobering reminder from a young girl of the enduring weight of racial prejudice and the pain it continues to cause.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on "Brownies," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of Z.Z. Packer's work.
ZZ Packer's debut short-story collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, has collected consistently high praise from readers, reviewers, and prominent literary figures such as John Updike. The eight "finely crafted tales" in the book make up "a debut collection that cuts to the bone of human experience and packs a lasting wallop," wrote a Kirkus Reviews critic. Updike chose the book as the June, 2003, Today Book Club selection on the NBC network's Today show. Packer has converted skeptical reviewers, such as Evette Porter, who observed on the Africana Web site, "ZZ Packer's Drinking Coffee Elsewhere lives up to its billing. More impressively, Packer handles the burden of being the next big thing by exceeding expectations."
And it is that level of quality that Packer consistently strives to maintain, or exceed. "Packer writes nearly every day and sets herself page number goals instead of time requirements," wrote Kim Curtis in a profile of Packer on the Monterey Herald Web site. "You have to nurture your talent or it's going to lie fallow," Packer said in the profile. On those infrequent days when Packer doesn't practice her craft, "the guilt of not doing so gets her to write the next day," Curtis remarked.
She was born Zuwena Packer; "ZZ" is a family nickname that evolved into Packer's professional name. "I didn't come up with that [nickname]," she said in an interview on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Web site. "My first name is Zuwena and my family nickname has been ZZ for ages. People say it's such a clever pen name since it's so memorable, but I've been ZZ since middle school."
Packer spent her childhood in areas around Appalachia, Atlanta, and Baltimore. She graduated from Yale and the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop and always considered herself "bookishly uncool," she said in a profile in Book. She is a Jones lecturer at Stanford University in Stanford, CA, and despite her success and critical acclaim, still considers herself an apprentice in the literary world, still in awe of writers she admires. "I have not achieved what I want, but maybe I will someday," she said in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer profile. In an interview on the Barnes & Noble Web site, she named Toni Morrison's Beloved as the book that most influenced her life. "Beloved is a reflection of how our most horrid actions are wedded to our most noble desires," Packer remarked. "Few living authors are able to write in such a way as to give me the shivers," she commented. "I loved The Bluest Eye, but it was only while reading Beloved that I knew without a doubt that I was in the presence of greatness." Among other books she named as influences are Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping, and James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain.
In the title story of Packer's collection, Dina, a young black woman from Baltimore, is newly arrived at Yale University and is undergoing mandatory orientation games, trust-building exercises, and other trite and bland activities required of freshmen. When one such game requires Dina to decide which inanimate object she'd like to be, she chooses a revolver, a choice that guarantees her psychological counseling and status as a loner and outcast. A relationship begins to bloom between Dina and Heather, a fellow freshman who is Caucasian and unsure of herself. When Heather declares herself a lesbian, Dina flees from the relationship and the characterization it would impose on her. Dina's carefully maintained walls may be her way of coping with her mother's recent death, or they may be her way of dealing with the world when she can't escape by pretending she's drinking coffee elsewhere. Jean Thompson, writing in New York Times Book Review, called "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" a "superb story, its wry and mournful tones bound together by a complex psychological portrait." Laurie Meunier Graves, writing on the Wolf Moon Press Web site, remarked that the story "is as close to perfect as a short story can be, and perfection is a rare thing."
Linnea Davis, the main character of "Our Lady of Peace," is a teacher struggling to reach her students in a rough Baltimore public school. She sees her job as teacher as little more than a way to make a living, "but finds herself drowning amid a chaotic classroom filled with angry, disruptive, and violent inner-city students," Porter wrote. Her rescuer arrives in the unlikely form of a burly student transferred from another district. The characters in "Geese," a group of young American students abroad in Japan, are unable to find work or sustenance, and slowly and bitterly lose "the all-knowing arrogance of youth" as they spiral into frustration and desperation. In "Speaking in Tongues," teenage Tia resists all attempts by her sternly religious aunt to "get saved." One day she is locked in a church closet for the dubious sin of laughing in Sunday school. Packing her clarinet, Tia heads to Atlanta to search for her mother, a drug addict who abandoned her years before. Tia fails to find her mother, but becomes involved with Marie and Dezi, a streetwise hustler. "Packer knows how to turn up the volume and invest a narrative with shocking turns of events," Thompson remarked. "Ironically, it is a sexual experience with Dezi that brings Tia a moment of ecstatic, visionary feeling that she's been unable to achieve in church," Thompson wrote. Tia emerges from the experience the type of person who won't be locked in a closet by anyone again. In "Brownies," a troop of black brownie scouts plots revenge against a perceived racial insult committed by a fellow group of white brownie scouts. Bookish Laurel watches the self-appointed leaders of the troop, Arnetta and Octavia, plan retaliation, but it turns out that neither the alleged insult, nor the hated rival troop, may actually be what they seem.
"The Ant of the Self," featuring the collection's only male protagonist, puts Spurgeon into conflict with his ne'er-do-well father, who browbeats Spurgeon into driving him to the Million Man March in Washington. Tensions erupt in a fistfight between Spurgeon and his father. The boy is left abandoned in an unfamiliar city, where a sermon from the Million Man March urges him to cast off the ant of the self, "that small, blind, crumb-seeking part of ourselves," and rise up to greater things.
Packer "has distilled her writing so that in its 100-proof potency, it goes right to the back of the throat," wrote David Abrams on the January Page 14 | Top of Article Magazine Web site. Ann H. Fisher, writing in Library Journal, called the collection "bright, sharp, promising, and recommended," while Allison Lynn, writing in People, declared it "a bottomless cup of longing, loneliness, and real, vital literature." Drinking Coffee Elsewhere is "truly a stunning debut," wrote Toni Fitzgerald on the Book Reporter Web site. "Here's hoping that Packer's next work, be it more stories or a novel, comes quickly."
"Remarkably, in the eight stories that make up Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Packer manages to capture the complexity of what it is to be black in a world where race, gender, sexuality, and class are all mutable," Porter observed. For Thompson, "Packer's collection reminds us that no stylistic tour de force—or authorial gamesmanship, or flights of language—can ground a story like a well-realized character. This is the old-time religion of storytelling, although Packer's prose supplies plenty of the edge and energy we expect from contemporary fiction. The people in the eight stories here form a constellation of young, black experience."
Source: Thomson Gale, "Z.Z. Packer," in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2004.
In the following review, Wiegand notes that Packer's writing is resolute on moralizing "issues of race and black identity." He commends her on this, calling her "courageous," and praises her stories as "beautifully crafted."
Do writers create for readers of their own race? Do readers of races or ethnicities different from the writer's have similar experiences with their work as do readers of the same race or ethnicity?
Some might think those are dangerous questions even to ask, but they will become unavoidable to anyone reading ZZ Packer's extraordinary first collection, Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. All eight stories here are about African Americans, but what provokes the questions of audience is that Packer doesn't merely tell stories brilliantly, but she also packs each one with a right-between-the-eyes moral about issues of race and black identity. And that makes it inevitable that African American readers will have a different experience reading Packer's work than white readers, in particular.
What is also true is that the experiences will be provocative and rewarding for any category of reader, because Packer, a Jones Lecturer at Stanford whose title story here was included in the New Yorker's debut fiction issue in 2000, has a commanding sense of character and setting, a captivating eye for detail and, most of all, a bold and often thrilling use of language and style. Consider a few random quotes from some of the stories: "We'd seen them, but from afar, never within their orbit enough to see whether their faces were the way all white girls appeared on TV—ponytailed and full of energy, bubbling over with love and money." "(S)he imagined her uterus, that Texas-shaped organ, the Rio Grande of her monthly womanly troubles, flushing out to the Gulf." "The sunset has ignited the bellies of clouds; the mirrored windows of downtown buildings distort the flame-colored city into a funhouse."
But a story needs more than style to make it successful, and most of Packer's stories have all the right stuff. "The Ant of the Self," possibly the best story in the book, finds a somewhat estranged father and son driving to the Million Man March in Washington, D.C., because the old man, Roy Bivens Jr., just out of jail on another DUI charge, has an idea that they can clean up by selling exotic birds at the march. His son, Spurgeon, knows that the idea is lame, but it's just another part of the burden he has to bear as the son of Roy Bivens Jr., a terminal loser who claims to have been part of the Black Panther movement.
There's not much to like about Roy, but is Spurgeon the real loser here? Feeling oppressed as the only black kid in his class is about as far as Page 15 | Top of Article his African American identity seems to go. When he and his father get to Washington, they load up the birdcages and head toward the march. "Quite a few whites stop to look as if to see what this thing is all about, and their hard, nervous hard smiles fit into two categories: the ‘don't mug me!’ smile, or the ‘Gee, aren't black folks something!’ smile. It occurs to me that I can stay here on the sidelines for the entire march."
That final line is telling. In his effort to distance himself from his no-account father, Spurgeon has distanced himself from his own identity and is doomed to a life on the sidelines of being black.
Like "Ant of the Self," many of the stories are set in the past, such as "Doris Is Coming," in which a young girl stages a one-person sit-in at a soda fountain in the South. That's the simple plot summary. What enriches the story is that Doris is the only black girl in her class. Her mother cleans house for a well-to-do Jewish family whose daughter, Livia, pushes her friendship on Doris. Doris isn't really interested in being friends, but gives in, perhaps out of loneliness. She is always reminded that she is different from the other girls, however: At one point, one of Livia's friends tells them about her new "flesh-colored" prom dress.
"‘You mean, the color of your flesh?’
Doris said …
"‘Well, how should I say it? What
should I say when describing it?
Say, "Oh, I bought a dress the
color of everybody else's skin
Although the story, like others here, is about events and racial attitudes of the past, it is part of Packer's gift that she's able to make even "ancient history" credibly relevant to contemporary readers.
But what about those morals? What about the lessons Packer is clearly intent on teaching through her fiction? There are moments when the didacticism seems slightly forced. In "Doris Is Coming," for example, the young girl hears a news report about a racial demonstration that ends with the white commentator expressing hope that there will soon be an end to the "tumult." "She could not forget the radio show she'd heard earlier, how the announcer seemed to loathe the colored people of Albany when all they'd wanted was to march for decent sewage disposal without being stoned for it."
In "Brownies," in which a troop of African American Brownies encounters its white counterpart at Camp Crescendo, a dispute arises over whether one of the white girls used the "n" word. But their troop leader explains that her charges, who have what we'd call learning disabilities today, "are echolalic…. That means they will say whatever they hear, like an echo—that's where the words comes from…. (N)ot all of them have the most progressive of parents, so if they heard a bad word, they might have repeated it. But I guarantee it would not have been intentional."
It's Packer's way of reminding us, unnecessarily, that prejudice is learned. On the other hand, consider the substrata of meaning in the fact that these girls are all "Brownies" and you can easily overlook a bit of obviousness here and there.
Packer's stories are, in a sense, political, in that, collectively and individually, they are all meant to make a point. Some might criticize the writer for preaching and for not merely telling stories. But the obviously conscious decision to write from a soapbox is just as bold as Packer's style and character development, perhaps even courageous.
And that's why the issue of audience becomes interesting. Of course, the experience of reading is always individual and subjective, but when a writer makes such a point of preaching in her work, you have to ponder who her audience is. Nonblack readers might seem at first to be the target for Packer's sermons, but, in fact, African Americans will learn something from her work as well.
But don't let all this talk of preaching put you off. The fact is, Packer's stories also just happen to be beautifully crafted.
Source: David Wiegand, "Packer Blends Race, Lessons and Craft," in San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2003, p. M1.
Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo, "‘New Racism,’ Color-Blind Racism, and the Future of Whiteness in America," in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, edited by Ashley "Woody" Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Routledge, 2003, p. 272.
Freeman, Catherine, Benjamin Scafidi, and David Sjoquist, "Racial Segregation in Georgia Public Schools, 1994-2001: Trends, Causes and Impact on Teacher Quality," FRP Report No. 77, Fiscal Research Center, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, December Page 16 | Top of Article 2002, http://frc.gsu.edu/frpreports/Report_77/ (accessed November 13, 2006).
Myers, Kristen, "White Fright: Reproducing White Supremacy Through Casual Discourse," in White Out: The Continuing Significance of Racism, edited by Ashley "Woody" Doane and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Routledge, 2003, pp. 130, 132, 136.
Packer, ZZ, "Brownies," in Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, Riverhead, 2003, pp. 1-28.
Review of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 249, No. 50, December 16, 2002, p. 43.
Thompson, Jean, "Notorious in New Haven: This Debut Collection's Title Story Takes Place at Yale and Involves an Imaginary Handgun," in New York Times Book Review, Vol. 108, No. 11, March 16, 2003, p. 7.
Van Ausdale, Debra, and Joe R. Feagin, The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2001, pp. 35, 56, 57, 104, 105, 107.
Waller, James, Face to Face: The Changing State of Racism Across America, Plenum Press, 1998, pp. 95, 100, 137, 166.
Wiegand, David, "Packer Blends Race, Lessons, and Craft," in San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2003, p. M1.
D'Souza, Dinesh, The End of Racism, Free Press, 1996.
This is a controversial study by a conservative writer of the history, nature, and effects of racism, as well as contemporary approaches to it. Most approaches, in the author's view, are misguided. He claims that racism is no longer an important factor in American life and cannot be blamed for black underachievement.
Reddy, Maureen T., ed., Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World, Seal Press, 1996.
This anthology of essays by mothers and teachers is a resource for parents. Drawing on their own experience, the authors describe strategies by which racial prejudice can be countered in schools, colleges, and elsewhere.
Stern-LaRosa, Caryl, and Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann, The Anti-Defamation League's Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice, Scholastic Paperbacks, 2000.
This practical book offers a guide to how children learn prejudice and how it can be unlearned. The authors offer strategies, role plays, and sample dialogues for parents and teachers. Some of the sections record and discuss true stories about children of all ages who have initiated or suffered from hateful words and actions.
Wright, Marguerite, I'm Chocolate, You're Vanilla: Raising Healthy Black and Biracial Children in a Race-Conscious World, Jossey-Bass, 2000.
Wright argues that young children do not understand adult racial prejudice and that such color blindness must be taken advantage of in order to guide the development of a child's self-esteem. Wright discusses issues such as the age at which children understand the concept of race; how adults can avoid instilling in children their own prejudices, and how schools can lessen the impact of racism.