The Women of Brewster Place

BOOK: The Women of Brewster Place



Gloria Naylor grew up in New York City, where she was born in 1950. She received her B.A. in English from Brooklyn College and her M.A. in Afro-American Studies from Yale University. Her first novel,
The Women of Brewster Place,
won the National Book Award for first fiction in 1983. Ms. Naylor is also the author of
Linden Hills
(available from Penguin),
Mama Day, Bailey’s Cafe,
The Men of Brewster Place





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First published in the United States of America by
Viking Penguin Inc. 1982

Published in Penguin Books 1983

60   59   58   57   56   55   54   53   52   51

Copyright © Gloria Naylor, 1980, 1982

All rights reserved


Naylor, Gloria.

    The women of Brewster Place.

    I. Title.

[PS3564.A895W6    1983]    813’.54     82-24533

ISBN: 978-1-101-65617-4

A portion of this book appeared originally in

Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following for permission to reprint copyrighted material. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and Harold Ober Associates: “What Happens to a Dream Deferred?” from
The Panther and the Lash
by Langston Hughes. Copyright 1951 by Langston Hughes. Edward B. Marks Music Corporation: Portions of lyrics from “Strange Fruit” by Lewis Allan, “Billie’s Blues” by Billie Holiday, and “God Bless the Child” by Arthur Herzog and Billie Holiday. Copyright © Edward B. Marks Music Corporation. MCA Music and ATV: A selection from “Tain’t Nobody’s Biz-Ness If I Do,” words and music by Porter Grainger and Everett Robbins. Copyright 1922 by MCA Music, A Division of MCA Inc., New York, New York. Copyright renewed. All rights reserved. Woodrow Music, Inc.: Selections from “Detour Ahead,” words and music by Herb Ellis, John Frigo, and Lou Carter. All rights reserved.

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition
that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise
circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other
than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including
this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Marcia, who gave me the dream
Lauren, who believed in it
Rick, who nurtured and shaped it
And George,
who applauded loudest in his heart

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore —

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

—Langston Hughes


Table of Contents


Mattie Michael

Etta Mae Johnson

Kiswana Browne

Lucielia Louise Turner

Cora Lee

The Two

The Block Party



Brewster Place was the bastard child of several clandestine meetings between the alderman of the sixth district and the managing director of Unico Realty Company. The latter needed to remove the police chief of the sixth district because he was too honest to take bribes and so had persisted in harassing the gambling houses the director owned. In turn, the alderman wanted the realty company to build their new shopping center on his cousin’s property in the northern section of town. They came together, propositioned, bargained, and slowly worked out the consummation of their respective desires. As an afterthought, they agreed to erect four double-housing units on some worthless land in the badly crowded district. This would help to abate the expected protests from the Irish community over the police chief’s dismissal; and since the city would underwrite the costs, and the alderman could use the construction to support his bid for mayor in the next election, it would importune neither man. And so in a damp, smoke-filled room, Brewster Place was conceived

It was born three months later in the city legislature, and since its true parentage was hidden, half the community turned out for its baptism two years later. They applauded wildly as the smiling alderman smashed a bottle of champagne against the edge of one of the buildings. He could hardly be heard over the deafening cheers as he told them, with a tear in the corner of his eye, it was the least he could do to help make space for all their patriotic boys who were on the way home from the Great War

The gray bricks of the buildings were the color of dull silver during Brewster Place’s youth. Although the street wasn’t paved—after a heavy rain it was necessary to wade in ankledeep to get home—there was a sense of promise in the street and in the times. The city was growing and prospering; there were plans for a new boulevard just north of the street, and it seemed as if Brewster Place was to become part of the main artery of the town

The boulevard became a major business district, but in order to control traffic some of the auxiliary streets had to be walled off. There was a fierce battle in the city legislature between the representatives of these small veins because they knew they were fighting for the lifeblood of their community, but there was no one to fight for Brewster Place. The neighborhood was now filled with people who had no political influence; people who were dark haired and mellow-skinned—Mediterraneans—who spoke to each other in rounded guttural sounds and who brought strange foods to the neighborhood stores. The older residents were offended by the pungent smells of strong cheeses and smoked meats that now hung in the local shops. So the wall came up and Brewster Place became a dead-end street. There were no crowds at this baptism, which took place at three o’clock in the morning when Mrs. Colligan’s son, stumbling home drunk and forgetting the wall was there, bloodied his nose and then leaned over and vomited against the new bricks

Brewster Place had less to offer the second generation of children—those of its middle years—but it did what it could for them. The street was finally paved under the WPA program, and a new realty company picked up the mortgage on the buildings. Cut off from the central activities of the city, the street developed a personality of its own. The people had their own language and music and codes. They prided themselves on the fact that Mrs. Fuelli’s store was the only one in the city that carried scungilli and spinach fettucine. But it
broke Mrs. Fuelli’s heart when her son returned from the war and didn’t settle on Brewster Place, and her cousin’s son didn’t either, or her second-floor neighbor’s. And there were the sons who never returned at all. Brewster Place mourned with these mothers because it had lost children also—to the call of a more comfortable life and to the fear of these present children who were once strange but were now all it had. Brewster Place grew old with Mrs. Fuelli and the few others who either refused or were unable to leave

A year before the Supreme Court decision in
. Topeka Board of Education
realigned the entire country, integration came to Brewster Place on the rounded shoulders of a short, brown-skinned man who had been hired as janitor and handyman for the buildings. He moved into the basement of 312, and when asked his name would reply, “Just call me Ben.” And that’s all he was to be known by until his death. There was little protest over his living in the block because it got around that he was a nice colored man who never bothered anybody. And when the landlord was a postoffice box in another city, and the radiators leaked, or the sink backed up, or arthritis kept you from sweeping the front steps, it was convenient to have someone around to take care of those things, even this man with strange hair and skin and hints of stale liquor on his breath

Ben and Brewster Place’s Mediterraneans grew well acquainted from a distance. They learned that when they were awakened by the somber tones of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” he was on one of his early drunks, and there was no point in asking him to do anything that day—he would yessem you to distraction and just never show up. And he learned that no matter how great the quantities of homemade vegetable soup and honey nut loaves brought up to him by old ladies clucking softly about his womanless plight, he would be met with cold and suspicious eyes if he knocked on their doors without a wrench or broom in his hands. Consequently,
no one ever knew why Ben drank. The more observant could predict the return of the early drunks because they always occurred the morning after the mailman descended the basement steps of 312. And if anyone ventured close enough the next day, Ben could be heard mumbling about an unfaithful wife and a lame daughter, or was it a lame wife and an unfaithful daughter? They could never tell which. And if they cared to ask, he probably could have told them, but after a while the mailman stopped descending those steps; yet Ben still drank

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