Brooklyn Boro

Someone you should know, but probably don’t

October 4, 2023 William A. Gralnick
Head shot of writer William Gralnick
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Jacklyn Woodson could be today’s headlines. She is proud to be Black, proud to be a woman, proud to be gay, and proud to be a writer — a writer raised in Brooklyn. “Diversity is about all of us, how we’re going to walk through the world together.” She said of South Carolina where she was born, “Even after Jim Crow was supposed to not be a part of the South anymore, there were still ways in which you couldn’t get away from it. And I think once I got to Brooklyn, there was this freedom we had. “Speaking to Terry Gross, WLRN radio host, Woodson said, “Aside from the fact that I’m so fiercely attached to New York and my life here, I think given the fact that I have a partner and we have a multiracial family, I think it (the South) 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.”

Ms. Woodson “spoke to me” as a columnist’s subject because we have something in common. We love writing. In her biography, she puts it far better than I could. “I loved and still love watching words flower into sentences and sentences blossom into stories.” 

What we write about differs. She discovered that telling stories (read lies) on paper was different than just telling lies. It could get you praise and even awards. I, however, write from the first person, believing my truths have been stranger than fiction and that sometimes you can’t let facts get in the way of a good story. For Woodson, it’s cadence. She said she likes to feel the musicality in what she writes.

Let’s explore how Ms. Woodson blossomed. The Poetry Foundation shares that Jacqueline Woodson was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, and Brooklyn, New York. For two years she was their young person’s poet laureate. points out that in her writing she reveals pieces of herself. For instance, in Black Girl Dreaming we learn Jacklyn’s struggles with reading and jealousy over her sister’s giftedness made her ability to write sweeter. Her first composition book helped her find her voice. It opened the door to her passion for writing. 

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Again, in her own words: “I wrote on everything and everywhere. I remember my uncle catching me writing my name in graffiti on the side of a building. (It was not pretty for me when my mother found out.) I wrote on paper bags and my shoes and denim binders. I chalked stories across sidewalks and penciled tiny tales in notebook margins.” Woodson was a confessed, fun-loving liar until 5th grade. Then she wrote a poem about Martin Luther King, Jr. Her normally grumpy teacher smiled broadly, and she won a prize. I remember a similar experience. It occurred much later in my writing life, but I feel her when she says it changed her whole perspective on writing. 

Where does such depth in talent come from? Writer’s Digest calls it a “left brain” function. That’s where emotion, empathy, sympathy—feelings—come from. Some experience or series of experiences taps into that. For Ms. Woodson, it was being born and being reared in the early years in a segregated South. Growing up in Greenville, S.C., in the ’60s and ’70s, she was keenly aware of segregation.

“We knew our place,” Woodson told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross. “We knew our place was with our family. We knew where it was safest to be. There wasn’t a lot of talk about the white world and what was going on in it; it didn’t really have a lot to do with us, except in situations where there was the talk of resistance.” 

Inside that family circle was safety and fun. Outside of it came danger.

Woodson’s story includes being raised a Jehovah’s Witness, although she’s not practicing now. She also said she remembers clearly when she came out to her family.

“My mom and grandma were horrified and just kind of like, ‘Where did we go wrong?’ ” Woodson says. “They actually blamed it on my sorority, which is ridiculous.”

But even though they were religious, her family didn’t disown her, she says.

“That kind of choice was not an option,” Woodson says.

Woodson has written 30 books, including “Another Brooklyn,” and countless articles. She’d need a separate living space to hold all the prizes and awards she has won.

But how does one assess if there’s genius in this 60-something writer? This speaks to it all. Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature for her memoir “Brown Girl Dreaming.” It’s written in verse. And that’s because, Woodson says, memories come to people in small bursts.

“It comes in these small moments with all of this white space around it,” she says. “And I think that that’s what you get in reading it — you get that small moment. That moment, I’m hoping, is very, very clear on the page and then the moments are of course linked together to tell the story.” 

Now that’s genius.

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