Brewster Place in these stories thus stands at a point when change is taking place but has not yet been as thorough as it would be later.
The African-Americans now living in Brewster Place have largely migrated from the South. Indeed, Mattie Michael and several other characters arrive in Brewster Place from her parents' home in the South. When Mattie leaves her parents' home, she is pregnant by a disreputable man named Butch Fuller. Mattie is part of the move to the North known as the Great Migration. There is no doubt that having children out of wedlock is a major cause of problems for minority women, however, as can be seen in this reference from the Women of Brewster Place:
She had gone to school until her sophomore year, when she had her first baby. And in those days you had to leave high school if you were pregnant. (Naylor 113)
Mattie lives at Brewster Place with her new baby and works on an assembly line. Mattie's home is decaying and rat-infested, and a rat bites Mattie's child.
Mattie has to find a new home, and she meets Mrs. Turner, who insists on taking her and her child into her home and refuses to let them pay rent. When Mrs. Turner dies, Mattie buys the house. Her son Basil grows to be a troubled young man who never takes any responsibility for his actions. He kills a man in a bar fight and gets arrested. Mattie uses her house for collateral to bail him out, but he runs off so that she forfeits her house and has to move to Brewster Place.
For Mattie, Brewster Place is a new beginning, as it is for her friend, Etta. The two women take care of one another, and when Etta is despondent about her relationship with Reverend Woods, Mattie makes her feel better about herself. The two women represent the major strain of people at Brewster Place, people who end up living in this decrepit structure because they have no choice. Brewster Place is a site that has persisted but that has seen its best days some time ago. Etta also ends up at Brewster Place because she has failed in the outside world. By contrast, Kiswana Browne lives at Brewster Place by her own choice. She was raised in a more affluent community, then dropped out of college to live in Brewster Place. She wants to bring about real social change in the black community. Her mother visits, generating a good deal of anger between the two as they argue about Kiswana's life. Kiswana's life is also defined by Brewster Place, for that location is seen by her as a target for her social activism, a place in need of the change she thinks she can bring. Her mother sums up a view of the nature of her daughter's social activism and the degree to which it has failed to change the world. As her mother says,
But you kids thought you were going to turn the world upside down, and it just wasn't so. When all the smoke had cleared, you found yourself with a fistful of new federal laws and a country still full of obstacles for black people to fight their way over -- just because they're black. (Naylor 84)
This emphasizes that the black person is still separated from the white majority, and Brewster Place itself serves as an example of this fact, standing as an isolated area enclosing these particular women and in essence walling them off from much contract with the white community elsewhere in the city.
Indeed, Brewster Place separates these women from the larger community in a way mirroring their place in society as a whole, for they experience a double dose of discrimination both as black Americans and as women. Gender has long been a component of stratification in the workplace, with women finding that they are paid less than men for the same work and that they do not have the same chance at advancement. Even after attitudes changed to a degree, women encountered a "glass ceiling" that allowed them to advance so far and no farther in most organizations. Stratification on the basis of race has a long history as well, and it has long been noted that black women suffer a double-dose of discrimination and marginalization, shunted aside both form race and for gender.
For the most part, birth does not determine social position in America, and social class is more associated with economic level. Mantsios notes that the "distribution of income and wealth in the U.S. is grossly unequal and becomes increasingly more so with time" (Mantsios 99).
Mantsios further points to the primary source of social differences in American society -- economic advancement based on education and jobs. America is proud of its educational system and sees it as offering opportunity to all, though Mantsios finds this is an illusion:
For while we have made great strides in opening the doors of academe, the system of education in the United States leaves much to be desired and is anything but egalitarian. (Mantsios 100)
The quality of education is as important as its availability, and the quality is determined by funding and the tax base that supports it: "Schools in poorer districts are just not as likely to provide a high-quality education" (Mantsios 100).
The latter fact is more likely to affect blacks than women, since more blacks are found in the lower economic strata. Women have been affected over the years by programs diverting women into "women's careers" rather than careers dominated by men. Women also were under-represented in higher education, and while this is not necessarily true any longer, there remains an attitude that women will get married and not work while men will have to work to support their families.
In bell hooks' book Talking Back, the author discusses feminism as a mode of change, and she sees a dichotomy in the women's movement between white women and black women based on the nature of the element they desire to eradicate. She finds that both groups take their cue from the fact that we live in a world governed by the politics of domination, and they further see that the root of this problem is the prevalence of patriarchal domination on the planet. This has fostered the idea that eradicating sexist oppression would lead to the eradication of all forms of domination. White women thus tend to suggest that racism and class exploitation are only the offspring of the patriarchal system and so that resisting patriarchal domination is more legitimate for feminists than resisting racism or other forms of domination. Hooks disagrees and finds that following such a course may blind feminists to other forms of domination, including the fact that women as well dominate just as they are dominated.
It is clear that what hooks would want is an attack by everyone on the politics of domination and on the different forms that domination may take. She does not see women as totally innocent in this, whether they are white or black, and recognizing this fact is the one means by which blacks, whites, men and women can be brought together to effect real change that goes beyond addressing only one aspect of the much larger problem.
Hooks cites the suggestion that much of the solidarity claimed for women is an illusion and that class and race divide women more than they are bound together by being women. For example, she notes that it is perceived that black communities are more homophobic than other communities, and she addresses this issue and finds some doubt that it is true. She notes how some blacks from the South report that gay people were able to express themselves openly, while others dispute this. Homophobia directed at lesbians was bound with deep religious and moral belief that women defined their femaleness by bearing children, and being a lesbian was thus "unnatural" because this was not possible. Yet, hooks finds that the possibility exists that blacks are seen as more homophobic not because they are but because those who are tend to express themselves in a more outspoken way then similarly minded people in other communities do. Hooks also points out how attitudes toward homosexuals in the black community can be affected by outside factors, and one such is the positive portrayal of a lesbian relationship in the Color Purple, which contrarily produced a belief that lesbian relationships threatened heterosexual relationships in the black community (Hooks 120-23).
Of course, there is a biological basis for both some sex differences and some racial differences, though we tend to over-emphasize both. Science has discovered that there is little genetic difference between the races, and most physical racial differences developed over time in response to different environmental influences. Many people confuse ethnic and…