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Abstract

In addition to personal, national, and/or global anxieties, Paule Marshall’s novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones speaks most eloquently of local anxieties experienced throughout the twentieth century and even to this day in Bedford Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. This essay argues that Marshall’s novel provides a rare glimpse into the invention, development, and repeated transformation of this important neighborhood in Black history. Not often read as a novel of material conditions, Brown Girl, Brownstones contains the story of a neighborhood that serves as a space of representation for an ever-evolving population, each with its own socio-cultural baggage. We see through Marshall’s eye, and that of her female protagonists Silla and Selina Boyce, the last vestiges of the first rendition of Bedford Stuyvesant as a space of representation marking the social, political and economic dominance of the affluent Irish first inhabiting the ornate brownstones that line the newly gridded streets of former farmland, protected by the firewall of restricted covenants that by 1939 come tumbling down. We experience through Silla and Selina Boyce one of the first examples of “white flight,” as the neighborhood transforms into a space representing aspirational Barbadians, who, despite New Deal “redlining,” band together to form their own Garveyite financial associations, allowing them to “buy house” and turn the brownstones of Bedford Stuyvesant into sites of entrepreneurial profit through the creation of Single Room Occupancy hotels, which in yet another turn contributes to profound disinvestment and the building of massive post-War housing “projects” for the poor on bulldozed blocks. Virtually 100% Black during the second half of the twentieth century, Bedford Stuyvesant becomes one of New York’s most prevalent representations of the “ghetto”—rife with crime, abandoned buildings, shuttered businesses, and poor schools—despite the best efforts of committed residents and community activists. And finally, we witness the recent undoing of Silla and her compatriots’ SROs by white gentrifiers, corporations, and hedge funds, who spend great sums to return these brownstones to single or two-family status, and even greater sums on gut renovations, reaping in the process massive profits, and returning Bedford Stuyvesant to a space representing once again the social, political, and economic dominance of whiteness.

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