I’m taking the English creative writing course where we read a lot of stories and make comments on them and the try to write in their style.
ZZ Packer’s “Brownies”, one of the first we’ve read, is set in a more informal “folk” setting as in, it’s more conversational and anecdotal as if someone is sitting with you telling you a story. It’s most useful if the author wants you to view the world from a certain perspective. In this case, it’s the perspective of a nine-year-old black girl. The story is trying to make clear the limitations of her world and the fact that it’s not straight forward. The other black girls in her story and in her world have very different perspectives and opinions of how the world works or ought to work, even though the share a similar background.
It’s a story about a troop of Brownies that decide that they’re going to beat up another troop because they are white and are therefore viewed as deserving of punishment by the black troop, the main character’s troop, that has made this decision. There are two camps of the thought (please excuse the pun) in this piece. One is that it’s okay to inflict pain on others, because it’s been done to us; the other is that two wrongs don’t make a right. The little girls never see the hypocrisy of inflicting pain not only on someone who they can’t prove did them wrong, but also on each other just to be mean. They can’t prove that the girl from the other troop used the N word, but they just infer guilt and move swiftly to punishment. Something they learned from their parents’ world? Though it turns out later that the little girl did use the N-word, but was only parroting her racist parent completely unaware of the word’s hateful meaning, nor meaning to offend. The author is cleverly complicating not only the idea of justice, but also of crime. We have to stop and think about whether the action that did, in fact, take place, but whether or not it can be defined as criminal. We are made to adjudicators in the little girls’ courtroom. But this is something the girls in their innocence are unable to do. We as the audience expect the grown-ups to make this clear to them, but they don’t (perhaps leaving the girls to puzzle through the situation instead of explaining it to them is a subtle way of showing part of the mechanism of the cycle of violence). The lead girl sees no unfairness in abusing her own as she moves to push one of their own into the river.
I loved the author’s technique of using foils to illustrate the theme of punitive justice (an eye for an eye) vs. merciful justice (generously doling out forgiveness). Mrs. Hedy fake admonishes the girls for being cruel, teaching that it is okay (even funny to do so). And the Mennonites painting the porch after being asked to which also subverts the children’s sense of justice in a world where it is more normal for white people to take advantage of black people and make them do hard and humiliating work for nothing and never thank you.