“Sexual harassment? We didn’t even think to use the term back in the early fifties when this story takes place,” author Paule Marshall writes in the introductory note to “Brooklyn.” The short story was first published in the 1961 collection, Soul Clap Hands and Sing. For the 1983 Feminist Press edition of the volume, Reena and Other Stories, Marshall revisits “Brooklyn.” In her 1983 introduction to the story, she explains some of the autobiographical motivations behind it. When a lecherous older white male professor propositioned her as an undergraduate student, there were no women’s groups, no support systems, no sympathetic administrators to whom she could turn. She stayed in his course to get the grade, but later penned “Brooklyn” as a revenge fantasy to release her anger over what he had done.
Paule Marshall’s “Brooklyn,” published in 1961, in many ways foreshadowed the current #MeToo movement, originally founded by activist Tarana Burke who initiated the phrase “Me Too” in 2006 as an affirmation for victims of sexual assault. The phrase later grew into the popular social media hashtag #MeToo. While Burke was eventually recognized for her role in the movement, some of the initial dialogue about sexual harassment centered high profile white women who had been harassed and assaulted by well-known male celebrities. Burke’s absence from those conversations underscores how Black women live with what Patricia Hill Collins refers to as a “matrix of domination” in which their race, class, and gender makes their suffering invisible. In “Brooklyn” Paule Marshall addresses how her generation of women often had to deal with the unwanted advances of white men who routinely used their power against vulnerable women, like the real one who inspired the character in her story.
Paule Marshall is most famous for her 1959 autobiographical coming-of-age novel, Browngirl, Brown Stones, set in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. It was her 1969 novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, that brought Marshall to my attention. Set on the fictional Bourne Island in the Caribbean, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People is an academic novel that comments on the intrinsic racism of academic social scientific discourses by showing how Black subjects of anthropological research talk back to their inquisitors. “Brooklyn” is an academic story of a different sort, set in a small college in downtown Brooklyn that seems to resemble CUNY’s New York City College of Technology, where I now teach. This year I decided to include the story in my writing and literature courses, as a way to connect with our location, and as a means to address some of the current political conversations about sexual harassment and sexual abuse.
It has become fashionable among certain critics of academia to ridicule “trigger warnings,” but this story was a good example of why students deserve to know beforehand when they will encounter subject matter that may resonate with deeply painful personal experiences. I made it a point to address the story’s content at the very beginning of the semester, because I didn’t want anyone to be blindsided by it three months into the term when it was on the schedule.
In “Brooklyn,” Paule Marshall constructs a complex “villain” in the form of the Jewish professor Max Berman. Raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn—then a Jewish immigrant neighborhood—Berman grew up under his parents’ expectations that he would become a doctor. Due to anti-Jewish quota systems, which were common in elite higher education at the time, he was frozen out of medical school. Berman wasn’t especially interested in becoming a doctor anyway, and he disappoints his parents by becoming a professor of French literature. While working as a professor, Berman becomes the target of an anti-communist investigation at the upstate New York college where he taught. His firing lands him back home in Brooklyn where he lives in the Brownsville home that his parents left him. He finds a job teaching summer courses in French literature at the modest college in downtown Brooklyn. One of the students in his course is a young Black woman named Ms. Williams (the only name Marshall gives her in the story). She’s an alumna of Howard University who is working as a schoolteacher and is studying for her master’s degree.
Through these details about Berman and Williams, Marshall suggests a potential coalition between the two characters, based upon their shared discrimination. But that potential is compromised by Berman’s sense of entitlement to her body, and his racialized objectification of her. “She seemed to bring not only herself, but the host of Black women whose bodies had been despoiled to make her. He would not only possess her but them also, he thought (not really thought, for he scarcely allowed these thoughts to form before he snuffed them out).” Marshall takes care not to paint Berman as a one-dimensional monster. And by doing so, she emphasizes that what he does to his student is a matter of particular choices that he makes, regardless of what his background and his own prior humiliations may have been.
Like so many women academics who have found themselves cornered by one of these “old lechers with a love on every wind,” Ms. Williams stays after class with Berman thinking they are having an intellectual conversation about her paper on André Gide’s The Immoralist, but soon comes to find out they are really having another conversation, about Berman’s lust for her and his desire to invite her up to his country house north of the city. She disappears from the class after his initial proposition, only to show up on the night of the final exam where she tells him that she has changed her mind and would like to go to his place if the invitation is still open.
She takes the train up to meet him, and once there she turns the tables on him, angrily recounting how his advances affected her. She tells him how her parents had always told her to be wary of white people, but also to stay away from lower class and darker-skinned Black people, and how this had created confusion and anxiety for her. She tells him that “in a way you did me a favor. You let me know how you and most of the people like you – see me.” And she explains to him that she came up there to tell him this to his face, and that she wasn’t afraid of him anymore because, “You’re so old you’re like a cup I could break in my hand.”
One of the questions that I asked my students to consider was the risk involved in handling things the way that she does. This could have all gone wrong for her. But it was a vengeful action born of anger. In “The Uses of Anger” Audre Lorde describes anger as a powerful energy that can be deadly and self-destructive when internalized, but which is also a force that can be harnessed toward liberation. Berman sheepishly drives Ms. Williams back to the station, and the story ends with him watching as the lights of the departing train recede into the darkness.
By creating this revenge fantasy, Marshall articulates the seething rage of Black women who had to swallow their anger, as she had to do in her own real-life scenario. “Brooklyn” is a remarkable story that shows just how long this kind of harassment has been a problem, and how often men were able to get away with it. Plenty of abusers will still get away with their actions, but the organized resistance of #MeToo has announced that this cloak of silence that abusive men have enjoyed and relied upon for so long may not always be there to protect them.