Don't Let the Man Keep You Down
By Deanna Jenkins

    From the moment the reader picks up the book Brown Girl, Brownstones it is evident that color plays a major role in the story. The racism in Barbados that the Boyces tried to escape follows them in their immigration to America. While all of the central characters fight their own battle with racism, Deighton's struggle is of particular interest since the effects of his struggle spill over into the lives of his family. Continual racial discrimination makes Deighton feel like less of a person, so to combat these feelings of inferiority he overcompensates in some aspects of his life, which in turn leads to severe shortcomings in others. Deighton's numerous encounters with racism cripple him to the extent that he feels like he needs to prove his worth to the world, his family, and himself.

    One of the most basic ways Deighton tries to prove his worth is through his appearance. The author spends a fair amount of time describing Deighton's dress in detail, which signifies that clothes are an important part of his life. One passage in particular exemplifies this:

His hands, very thin but strong and very dark, caressed a new silk undershirt which he had just taken from its wrapping. Deighton loved the feel of silk next to his skin, and he smiled now as he slipped on the new shirt and the silk passed in a cool caress over his face and neck. (22)
Throughout this passage the author talks about Deighton's skin, whether its his hands, "very thin but strong and very dark," or his face and neck. These repeated references reiterate the importance of Deighton's skin; how his skin color largely defines who he is. Also, the fact that the undershirt, a common article of clothing, is made of silk, shows that Deighton was willing to pay a lot for such a simple item because he "loved the feel." The pleasure Deighton gets from the silk undershirt suggests that wearing an article of high value increases his own value as a person.

    The passage that follows is also key in showing how clothes are extremely important in making Deighton feel good about himself: "Dressing for him was always a pleasurable ritual. Tonight, as usual, he carefully inspected the crease in his trousers, brushed his coarse hair till it lay flat, and puzzled over the many pairs of shoes in his closet before he chose a new pair of white and brown spectators" (22). The fact that dressing is a "pleasurable ritual" for Deighton, and that he takes great care in perfecting his appearance is "usual," drives home the point that Deighton wants to look the part of a successful person. He does this so that he will be taken seriously, and not automatically dismissed due to color of skin, which denotes to many that he is a second-class citizen and should be treated as such. Deighton is looking for respect, which is one way to feed his need to be valued. Another interesting part of this passage is Deighton's shoes. He has many shoes, which is unexpected since he is out of work, and struggling to support his family, but they must be very important to him since he spent what money he had on buying them. Also, out of his many shoes, Deighton chose the brown and white ones; a fitting parallel to the color contrast of his own life. His skin is brown, but by wearing nice clothes he hopes to be treated like his skin was white. Ultimately, Deighton's obsession with his appearance is fueled by his desire to be treated on the same level as white people.

    Deighton's desire to be treated like white people can also be seen in his search for a job, where he is met with a great deal of resistance. Even though he is well dressed, Deighton is automatically rejected from well paying jobs on account of the color of his skin. Deighton had to deal with racial discrimination and rejection his whole life: "He was always putting himself up in the face of the big white people in town asking for some big job -- and they would chuck him out fast enough. He was always dressing up like white people" (33). The bitterness of such rejections eats away at Deighton's ego, yet he still strives for the top jobs, even though they are only offered to white people. Deighton says he is going to "the three places offering the best salary" to look for a job. To this, Silla replies, "You don't want no job...Instead of him going down to some small office where he might have a chance -- no, he got to play like he's white" (82). Deighton's perseverance seems admirable at first, but his stubbornness and unwillingness to settle for a job within reach puts his family at jeopardy since he has no income. In feeling like "he got to play like he's white", Deighton is denying part of who he is, and in being so adamant in proving his worth, he neglects his duties as a husband and father. These severe shortcomings in the duties to his family are a result of his personal insecurities caused by perpetual racial discrimination.

    Another interesting aspect in Deighton's blind search for a "white job," is his attempt to learn job skills on his own. Again, this sounds admirable, but Deighton's lack of completeness and thoroughness thwarts his meager efforts. He takes a correspondence course in accounting, but only does it half-heartedly: "I gon breeze through this course 'cause I was always good in figures. I ain even gon bother my head with all the preliminary work they sending now" (11). This is not an isolated incident; this same behavior is repeated when Deighton drops accounting to pursue the trumpet, "The book says you must have the scales down pat before you start playing any song. Even the teacher say so. But I ain worrying with all that. I ain got time to be practicing no scales or learning those foolish little pieces the teacher give me" (84). The reader can't help but cringe at these words, because he can see what Deighton cannot: his undoubted failure. When Deighton skips over crucial parts of his training, it seems like he is setting himself up for disaster, ensuring his failure. Perhaps he does this so that if he is rejected, which he presumes he will be since he usually is, he can blame it on something other than the color of his skin. This self destructive cycle is mentioned when Deighton returns home after failing to find a job, "'Here and in Birmshire they's the same. They does scorn yuh' 'cause yuh skin black...' Despite his bitterness, there was a nuance, a shading of something else. A frightening acceptance, it seemed to be, which sprang, perhaps, from a conviction hidden deep within him that it was only right that he should be rejected..." (83). Each time Deighton fails to follow through with some job training, and fails to get a job, he fails to overcome his struggle to best racism. In not improving his status, Deighton fails to prove his worth to the world, his family and himself. As a result, he has a hard time gaining respect from any of these parties.

    Lacking the respect of employers because of the color of his skin, and then his wife, for not providing for the family, Deighton seeks comfort elsewhere. Discrimination makes Deighton feel like less of a person, but also less of a man. In this aspect, Deighton tries to prove his worth by asserting his manhood. It is after Seifert reminds Deighton of the reality of racism, that he seeks out his lover. Seifert tells Deighton. "Boyce mahn...you can know all the accounting there is, these people still not gon have you up in their fancy office and pulling down the money same as them" (39). So Deighton tears away to his "concubine' to seek comfort and to feel valued. Who the woman is, is not terribly important, which the author makes apparent in that she is given no name, no distinct facial features or characteristics, and is referred to only as "she," "a woman," or "the woman" (40). It is the role this woman plays, and what she symbolizes that is important. She is Deighton's escape from reality, and his temporary relief. He runs away from home, in a sense, because when he is with this anonymous woman, he can temporarily forget the responsibilities of husband, father, and breadwinner. The reason Deighton wants to forget about these responsibilities is because he has not been very successful, so he seeks respect and worth elsewhere.

    When Deighton fails to prove his worth, he feels like less of a man, as seen in the disparity between his own life and his definition of a man, "'He wear the best of clothes. He eat the finest. He rides in the swellest cars.' That's the way a man does do things..." (85). But Deighton cannot do things that way, so he feels inferior. Racism emasculated Deighton the very first time in encountered it:

Those faces, stippled red by the tropic sun, that had always refused his request for a clerk's job and thus turned the years at school, and his attempts to be like them in his dark wool English-cut suits (even in that sodden heat!), and his face -- clean though black -- into nothing; that had utterly unmanned him before he was yet a man; that had stripped him of any possibility of self and then hustled him out... (182)

    Deighton was doomed even before he came to America. Instead of hating the white people that kept him down, Deighton turned his hate inward. He tried very hard to "be white," to meet their standards, but they ignored his good education and his good clothes because of his color. Deighton's face was "clean though black," signifying that the color of his skin outweighed all other aspects of who he was. Racism weakened, emasculated, and crippled Deighton. In response, Deighton tried to wear nice clothes, have a well-paying job, and even have a mistress to feel more important, and prove his worth so that he might ultimately be treated as an equal.


Work Cited

Paule Marshall. Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York: The Feminist Press, 1981.