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Jacqueline Woodson On Growing Up, Coming Out And Saying Hi To Strangers

Woodson won the National Book Award for young people's literature for her memoir Brown Girl Dreaming. She says that growing up in South Carolina, she knew that the safest place was with her family.


Other segments from the episode on December 10, 2014

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 10, 2014: Interview with Jacqueline Woodson; Commentary on the phrase "God view";


December 10, 2014

Guest: Jacqueline Woodson

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Although my guest Jacqueline Woodson won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature last month for her memoir in verse "Brown Girl Dreaming," it was a very good read for me as an adult. It's about growing up in the '60s and '70s in the segregated South and in Brooklyn. Woodson won a Coretta Scott King Book Award for her young adult book "Miracle's Boys," which is narrated by a 12-year-old whose brother comes home from a juvenile detention center where he spent time for armed robbery.

Woodson's book "From The Notebooks Of Melanin Sun" is about an African-American boy whose mother falls in love with a white woman. Her picture book "Show Way" was inspired by her own family history and is about how quilts served as secret maps for freedom-seeking slaves. The Woodson family traces its family tree back to Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemmings. Jacqueline Woodson, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations. So I'd like you to read the opening poem from "Brown Girl Dreaming."

JACQUELINE WOODSON: (Reading) February 12, 1963. I am born on a Tuesday at University Hospital, Columbus, Ohio, USA, a country caught between black and white. I am born not long from the time or far from the place where my great-great-grandparents worked the deep, rich land unfree, dawn 'til dusk, unpaid, drank cool water from scooped-out gourds, looked up and followed the sky's myriad constellation to freedom. I am born as the South explodes - too many people, too many years, enslaved then emancipated, but not free. The people who look like me keep fighting and marching and getting killed so that today, February 12, 1963, and every day from this moment on, brown children like me can grow up free, can grow up learning and voting and walking and writing wherever we want. I am born in Ohio, but the stories of South Carolina already run like rivers through my veins.

GROSS: So, you know, your memoir is written in verse. And some people might think, oh, poetry like that's going to make it harder. They might think that's a little off-putting. It's actually, I think, easier to read than it would have been in prose in the sense that it's so not dense. There's so much space around the words. (Laughter) It's so easy to read.

WOODSON: Yeah. I mean, that was my intention. It's a book of memories. And it's how memory comes to us. It comes in these small moments with all of this white space around it, and I think that that's what you get in reading it. You get that small moment, and that moment, I'm hoping, is very, very clear on the page. And then the moments are of course linked together to tell the story.

GROSS: The North and the South are like characters in your book. You're born in Ohio. Your mother is from Greenville, South Carolina, where your maternal grandparents still lived when you were born. When your parents separated when you were very young, you, your mother and your siblings moved to South Carolina to be with your grandparents. But then later as a girl, you moved to be with your mother in Brooklyn. When you moved to the South to Greenville when you were - what? - 1 years old?

WOODSON: I was probably little bit - I was an infant.


WOODSON: So I wasn't yet walking.

GROSS: So what was the state of segregation when you were growing up in the South?

WOODSON: The South was very segregated. I mean, all through my childhood, long after Jim Crow was supposed to not be in existence, it was still a very segregated South. And the town we lived in - Nicholtown, which was a small community within Greenville, South Carolina - was an all-black community. And people still lived very segregated lives, I think, because that was all they had always known. And there was still this kind of danger to integrating. So people kind of stayed in the places - the safe places that they had always known.

GROSS: How did your grandparents - how did your mother explain segregation to you, and what did they warn you about because it would have been dangerous?

WOODSON: You know, it's a really good question. We just knew. We knew our place. We knew our place was with our family. We knew where it was safest to be. You know, there wasn't a lot of talk about the white world and what was going on. And it didn't really have a lot to do with us, except in situations where there was the talk of resistance. You know, we're not going into - we're worse. Because of the history of it, we're not going into that department store because they follow you around because you're black. And the idea - the constant talk about how people will think of us as African-Americans or at that time my grandmother would say colored people as lesser than and that that wasn't the truth. So there was - the talk was always about resistance and really making us sure that who we were was important in the world. And so that's where the gaze was. That's what the focus was in our family.

GROSS: So there's another poem I want you to read. And this one is called "Journey." And it's about how - you know, we were talking about how the North and the South are like characters in your book and that you grew up in both places. And apparently, this was a conflict between your parents before they separated. Your mother, you know, wanted to live in the South. Your father did not. He was from the North. He was from Ohio. And that's what this poem is about. Would you read it for us?

WOODSON: Sure. "Journey" (Reading) You can keep yourself, my father says. The way they treated us down there, I got your Mama out as quick as I could, brought her right up here to Ohio. Told her there was never going to be a Woodson that sits in the back of the bus. Never going to be a Woodson that has to yes-sir and no-sir white people. Never going to be a Woodson made to look down at the ground. All you kids are stronger than that, my father says. All you Woodson kids deserve to be as good as you already are. Yes siree, Bob, my father says. You can keep your South Carolina.


GROSS: When you were growing up, were you aware that that was, like, a point of argument between your parents?

WOODSON: Not at all, I wasn't until I was much older, I would say around 7 or 8. And I think what I knew was they were both fiercely attached to their families. And my father's family was in Ohio, and my mother's family was in South Carolina. And then, later on, I realized they were also fiercely attached to place and what they had always known. So it was interesting just investigating those two worlds and coming to understand what would pull people apart.

GROSS: Now, as an adult who's lived in the North and in the South, do you see both sides of that dispute?

WOODSON: I completely see both sides of that dispute. I think there is such a richness to the South and a lushness and a way of life. I could never live it full time. (Laughter). You know, I feel like I'm a New Yorker to the bone. But there is a lot of the South in me. I know there is a lot of the South in my mannerisms. There's a lot of the South in my expectations of other people and how people treat each other. There's a lot of the South in the way I speak, but it could never be home.

GROSS: Why not?

WOODSON: I think it's - well, aside from the fact that I'm so fiercely attached to New York and my life here, I think, you know, given the fact that I have a partner and we have a multiracial family, and I don't want - I think it wouldn't be a safe place for my kids. I don't want my kids to have to walk through a world where they have to constantly explain who they are and who their family is.

GROSS: In that context, does it make it even harder to a multiracial family - and you're a lesbian. So it's, like, something else to explain to people who might not get it.

WOODSON: Yeah, I think that is - I think I'm fine with explaining it. I think my kids - I don't want my kids to have to ever explain having two moms. Like, it just is. And if you don't understand it, then it's the work you have to do, not that my kids have to do. So I think there is - they can - in New York City, they can go to schools. And, you know, my son's school, he has four other kids who have two months in his family. My daughter can introduce her sister, who is half-Korean, and no one bats an eye. Instead, they say, oh, yeah, you guys both have your father's dimples, you know? So I think there is this way in which there's energy I don't want them to have to put out into the world in terms of explaining who they are. You know, and I want them to know how amazingly fabulous they are. And I want the world to echo that. So I want them to know the South. I want them to visit it. I want them to know of our history connected to the South. But I don't think we could ever live there.

GROSS: What are some of the differences the North and the South brought out in you and your personality and how you talked and behaved?

WOODSON: Well, one of the differences is I still say hi to strangers. But in New York, strangers don't say hi back. And my daughter is mortified by it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WOODSON: You know, the whole idea that I would say good morning to someone - and it's just so ingrained in who I am. I think it also - there is this way in which I'm not afraid of silence. You know, I'm not afraid to sit in a room and have the conversation drop into silence. I think that's a very southern thing. And I write about that in the book. You know, when the heat is enough to melt the mouth so southern folks knew to stay silent. And I think sometimes we're afraid of that silence. We're afraid of what it implies or what people are thinking. But I do feel like that's a cultural thing that I learned in South Carolina. I think in terms of being a New Yorker, as my friends would say, I don't take a lot of mess. I have no tolerance for people who are not thinking deeply about things. I have no tolerance for the kind of small talk that people need to fill silence. And I have no tolerance for people not - just not being a part of the world and being in it and trying to change it.

GROSS: While you were living with your grandparents in Greenville, South Carolina, your mother left for a while to go up north and eventually found a place to bring you and your siblings back to in the North. While you were living with your grandparents, it was understood that you would take your grandmother's religion. And she was a Jehovah's Witness. And so before we talk about that period of your life, I'd like you to read the poem in your memoir called "Faith."

WOODSON: (Reading) After my mother leaves, my grandmother pulls us further into the religion she has always known. We become Jehovah's Witnesses like her. After my mother leaves, there is no one to say, the children can choose their own faith when they're old enough. In my house, my grandmother says, you will do as I do. After my mother leaves, we wake in the middle of the night calling out for her. Have faith, my grandmother says, pulling us to her in the darkness. Let the Bible, my grandmother says, become your sword and your shield. But we do not know yet who we are fighting and what we are fighting for.

GROSS: How did your mother feel about you becoming a Jehovah's Witness? Was she?

WOODSON: My mother was as a child. And she believed in the faith, but she didn't necessarily practice it. So as we were growing up, she basically sent us to the Kingdom Hall. And she would go once in a while. But she definitely believed in the actual faith of being a Jehovah's Witness.

GROSS: Is the Kingdom Hall the church, the meeting place?

WOODSON: So yes, the Kingdom Hall is the meeting place.

GROSS: So your grandfather didn't believe. What were - what are the basics beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses?

WOODSON: Well, one of the main beliefs is that we are in the world but not of the world. And it served me well as both a young person and an adult. And they believe that because we are not actually a part of the world because we are considered God's chosen people, that we shouldn't behave as worldly people do. So we don't celebrate holidays. We don't celebrate birthdays. We believe that this system of things is going to end, and there will be a better system of things, a new world. And those witnesses who have died will be resurrected in that new world and that this system will end with Armageddon and that the signs of Armageddon are constantly upon us. So the Bible is big in the religion, treating people as you want to be treated. I think there is - it's Christian. So it's a lot of the Christian principles.

GROSS: But you don't celebrate Christmas.

WOODSON: No, no. Yeah, I guess Christmas is Christian, huh?


WOODSON: No, no holidays. So it's a Christian sect, so there are Christians. But Jehovah's Witnesses consider themselves different from those Christians.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson. And she just won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature for her memoir in verse called, "Brown Girl Dreaming." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Jacqueline Woodson, who won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature last month for her memoir in verse "Brown Girl Dreaming." It's about growing up in the '60s and '70s in the Jim Crow South and in Brooklyn. When we left off, we were talking about the period when she was living with her grandparents in South Carolina, and her grandmother was raising her as a Jehovah's Witness. She was taught to believe the end times were near.

So growing up with your grandmother, you know, explaining to you that Armageddon - the end of the world - was probably near, but that you would probably be saved, was that a scary thought? Like, did that weigh on you, that, like, the signs of the end were apparent?

WOODSON: You know, I think I was pretty nervous about it (laughter) as a kid. I think, you know, I did exist somewhat in that fear of the world coming to an end. I think, also, it's kind of how kids exist anyway, you know? You're always fearing change. You're always fearing the wrath of a parent. You're always fearing that something's going to go wrong somewhere.

But yeah, Armageddon was just, you know, yet another one of those fears. I think one thing that it allowed me to do was be really conscious of the moments I was living in and not take them for granted 'cause I believed, at that time, that one day, these moments wouldn't be here because of Armageddon. And now I know, at this time, that these moments won't always be here, and that's because time passes.

GROSS: When you were a child, you had to go door-to-door proselytizing. What were you supposed to say?

WOODSON: Hi, I'm Jacqueline, and I'm one of Jehovah's Witnesses, and I'm here to bring you some good news today. And that good news was the good news of Jehovah's kingdom coming. And if you accepted the faith, then you would be spared.

GROSS: I'm thinking of how odd it must have been to be a child, knocking on the doors of strangers, explaining to adults that you knew the right way to their salvation.

WOODSON: Well, you know, it wasn't odd because I had nothing to compare it to (laughter). And I think there was - I remember knocking on my first door - and I talk about it in "Brown Girl Dreaming" - and it was this old woman. And I felt so proud to finally be able to speak, to not have to stand beside my big sister or my grandmother or my big brother and just kind of be a shadow while they spoke. I felt so proud to finally have this voice in the world and this information to depart. But I think once I was in New York City as a Witness, I was always concerned that I was going to knock on the door and it was going to be the door of a school friend. And they were going to come to school Monday and say, Jackie was begging for money at my house (laughter) over the weekend.

GROSS: So the begging for money part, was that you're - asking for money to sell the Jehovah's Witnesses' literature, "The Watchtower" and "Awake!"

WOODSON: Yeah. And it was a donation. You know, we were asking for donations. We were not asking - saying you had to pay. But basically, the more important thing was asking people to think about becoming a part of the faith, and, you know, I think, we thought - I thought I was saving lives. I mean - and there's still - I think, I have such a deep respect for the faith. And I think, anyone who has grown up in any kind of faith does have this part of their body that still - this part of their mind that still belongs in that place - of that kind of believing. And Witnesses are really, really kind people. I have never met a mean Witness. And it's part of the way they walk through their - through the world - quietly and kindly, you know. They're not up in your face proselytizing - screaming from a soapbox saying, you're going to die tomorrow if you don't do this. And everything you do is wrong. They're saying, you know, I have some good news. Do you want to hear it?

GROSS: During the period when your mother was gone, was it really helpful to have some of that gap in your life filled by faith?

WOODSON: I don't know. For me, going to the Kingdom Hall was about being allowed to imagine and dream and make up stories in my boredom. You know, of course, the faith was getting in, but think about being so young and having to sit for two hours and listen to soft-spoken people talk about stuff. And you know, it's kind of like, where else can I be? Anywhere but here. And I think it allowed me the gift of story and imagination and to kind of will myself to other places.

GROSS: And when did you leave the faith?

WOODSON: When I was 15.

GROSS: Did you replace it with a different faith?

WOODSON: I think I replaced it with all kinds of spiritual beliefs. You know, remember my uncle was also a Muslim. So I had that vision as well. And so I think my faith is very broad-based and spiritual. I definitely believe in a greater good. I definitely believe that there's a reason each of us is here and that we've been brought here to do something. And we need to get busy doing it. And I definitely believe that there is something moving us forward. That's good.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Jacqueline Woodson. Last month she won the National Book Award for young people's literature for her memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming," about growing up in the Jim Crow South and in Brooklyn. She also won the Coretta Scott King Book Award and a Caldecott Medal as well as three Newbery Honor Medals. The Woodson family traces its family tree back to Thomas Jefferson's slave mistress, Sally Hemings.

You're a writer. You love stories. But when you were growing up, it was your sister who was the one that was always called, you know, like, really smart. And you had a hard time reading. You had to read things over and over for the words to make sense. So how did you fall in love with reading and writing if it was such an effort?

WOODSON: You know, I read stuff over and over, and it made deep sense. I think what happened was the language settled in me much deeper than it settled into people who just can read something once and absorb what they absorb of it. I feel like what I was absorbing was not by any means superficial, and I think I was - from a really young age, I was reading like a writer. I was reading for this deep understanding of the literature; not simply to hear the story, but to understand how the author got the story on the page.

And I didn't know any of that. And my sister, you know, just kind of sailed for reading and read - consumed book after book after book. And here I was reading the same book very slowly, slowly coming to understand it. And looking back on it, I think it was part of what brought me here.

GROSS: You write that you copied lyrics to songs from records and TV commercials until the words settled into your brain - into your memory. So what are some of the records and TV commercials whose lyrics you wrote over and over until you really got them?

WOODSON: You know, Choo Choo Charlie was an engineer (laughter), Sly and the Family Stone, which I talk about in there, Colorado Rocky Mountain High - I mean, I have so many bad commercials.

GROSS: Oh, which ones?

WOODSON: Winston taste good like...


GROSS: Like a cigarette should.

WOODSON: Winston taste good like a cigarette should. Taste me, taste me, come on and taste me. You know, I just - I could just go through it for about an hour, and you'd be so sick of me. But I would sit there and, you know, after the commercial went off, still writing the words. And at that time with records, you'd have to take the needle off and move it back to the beginning of the record so you could hear. It was not - you know, it wasn't like you had a pause button or anything. And I would just sit there. I loved the Jackson Five. Anything they sang, I would try to memorize as many lyrics as I could to it. There were so many. Otis Redding was another big one. He was a favorite of my mom. And I love the story inside his song "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay."

GROSS: So when you had trouble reading but were so deep into it, did people think you had some kind of learning disorder - although, I don't think we used the word back then - or did they think like, oh, she's so studious? She cares so much about this.

WOODSON: Oh goodness, no. I wish they would've thought that. It wasn't called a learning difference at that time. They wrote on my report card, Jacqueline can do better. Jacqueline should try harder. And I think they just didn't understand I was doing something differently than how one was supposed to do it at that time. But it was so interesting because they were always kind of blown away because whenever it was anything that had to do with reading comprehension, I soared. And so they were like, well, she obviously understands it. But it was confusing for people I think.

GROSS: So something you don't write about in the memoir is coming to the understanding that you are a lesbian. How old were you when you knew that?

WOODSON: You know, I probably - the first Mira I had - Maria had an Aunt Alma (ph), and we loved Alma. And Alma...

GROSS: Maria was your good friend.

WOODSON: Maria is my best friend, yeah. And she and I are still really close. And Alma was this kind of beautiful, very butch woman who always had these beautiful, very femme girlfriends. And I definitely, you know, saw something there, but I knew I wasn't Alma. I knew I wasn't - you know, I knew I didn't have this interest in wearing man's clothes and having this huge - I did want the Afro, actually. And I knew I wasn't her girlfriends who were these really high femmes.

But I knew there was something there that struck a chord in me, and it wasn't like now where you can name stuff. You know, I think when I got into college and my housemate, Beth, said to me, you know, I'm gay. And I'm like, oh, me too. (Laughter) You know, like, suddenly a light went on, and I thought, this is what it is. But I always had boyfriends as a, you know, young person and as a teenager, many of whom are really still close - we're close.

But I didn't have the language for what I was discovering yet, and I think it - obviously if I had grown up in this time, I probably would've been out by the time I was 12 years old. I mean the closest I came to it as a kid was being called a tomboy because I was kind of rough and tumble but I also still wore ribbons.

GROSS: So coming from - like, having been raised in the tradition of Jehovah's Witnesses, there's so much you weren't allowed to do. How did being gay fit into that or not?

WOODSON: Yeah. It wasn't even - I remember my mother would get upset with me 'cause she said I walked like my dad. And I always thought she was getting upset with me because it reminded her of someone she wasn't too happy with. But I think it was more like, there's something about you that's not quite ladylike and femme. And then when I got older - once I came out, I mean, my mom and grandma were horrified and just kind of like, where did we go wrong? And they actually blamed it on my sorority, which is ridiculous.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WOODSON: So - but I think it took them many, many years to kind of realize that this is who I was. But at the same time, you know, one of the things about being a Witness is you're kind of not supposed to associate with people who are not a part of the truth - who are not Witnesses. And if your family members do something and they're Witnesses, then they get kind of excommunicated. They call it disfellowshipped. But I think that was the point where my grandmother and mother - although they still believed a lot in the truth, they were not going to disown their family. You know, the family was just so much tighter than having to make - that kind of choice was just not an option. But they were not happy at all.

GROSS: And how old were you when they found out?

WOODSON: When they found out, I was probably around 19 or 20. But when I found out, I was probably around 18.

GROSS: OK. So you don't write about that in this book. Is that because this memoir ends when you're younger than that...


GROSS: ...Or is it just something you wanted to keep out of this book?

WOODSON: No because I didn't know. You know, this book is during a time when I didn't have the language for it, and I think I thought at one point about writing about Alma, but it would have been false to the book because I was still figuring stuff out. So - but, you know, I write about my love for Maria. And I think as an adult - I was never really, like, attracted to Maria that way - I mean, Maria - but I adored this person as my friend. But there was - you know, I was starting to figure it out. And again, I think if I had been older - I mean, if I had grown up in a different time, this would have been a different book in terms of talking about being queer.

GROSS: Although you don't discuss being gay and there's no gay characters in your memoir, you have had central gay characters in other books that you've written. And I wonder if you've gotten any blowback from that from, you know conservative groups or Christian groups that think that this is just inappropriate material for children's literature or young adult literature.

WOODSON: You know, my books are challenged. And I am kind of protected from the challenge because it's not like someone calls me up and says, you know what? I'm going to challenge your book and burn it in the schoolyard (laughter). What they do is they say, Jacqueline Woodson will never come to our school. But I'm not privy to those conversations. But I definitely know - I remember getting a call from Judy Blume. She was working on an anthology called "Places That I've Never Meant To Be," and she said it was going to be an anthology of writers who've gotten challenged. And I'm like, I've never gotten challenged. She's like, oh yes, you have.


WOODSON: And that was the first time - this was many years ago - that I realized that the books were being challenged. Another time for my book "From The Notebooks Of Melanin Sun," it was an all-school read at a school in Brooklyn, and so they had given out - I don't know, like 150 copies to the upper grades. And then a parent challenged it so the principal said over the loudspeaker that people had to return their books. It wasn't going to be read. And they said he got two books back, so I always think that books being challenged is a good thing.

You know, on the other side of it, the books have won so many awards, and the awards bring the books into the classroom. So I was really surprised when "After Tupac And D Foster" received the Newbery Honor...

GROSS: Which is the name of one of your books, yeah.

WOODSON: Yes, which is the name of one of my books - received a Newberry Honor because of - you know, it deals with Tupac. One of the main characters is gay and ends up in prison. So aside from being challenged, there has also been a lot of love for the literature. So that's kind of kept the books in the classrooms.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson, and she won the National Book Award in November in the category of young people's literature for her memoir in verse called "Brown Girl Dreaming." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jacqueline Woodson. And last month, she won the National Book Award in the category of young people's literature for her memoir in verse, which is called "Brown Girl Dreaming."

So your name is Jacqueline Woodson, and so your father's side of the family, the Woodson side of the family, is believed to be - or believe themselves to be - descendants of Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson. And Sally Hemmings was the person who was his slave and his mistress. And, you know, coincidentally, as - (laughter) - right before I read your book, I was paging through a book about genealogy that said that, you know - that actually, the Woodson family is descended from Sally Hemmings. But the father in that line wasn't Jefferson; it was somebody else. So what do you know from your aunt, who's a specialist in genealogy. What do you know about the Sally Hemmings story?

WOODSON: The story that we've been told is that the first son that was born on the plantation to Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson looked so much like Thomas Jefferson, and had red hair, and very, very pale, and was sent to the Woodson plantation and just gotten off the land. And that's where the blip in the history comes in. And it's so interesting 'cause I don't - you know, I wasn't there. But this has always been our story. And my Aunt Ada talks about how, you know, there's this huge Woodson reunion that happens in Ohio. And then, I think something else happens. But anyway, so this is what I've always known to be the connection to Thomas Woodson and Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. And his name was actually Thomas Woodson.

GROSS: So whether Jefferson was actually the father or not, it seems pretty sure, from my understanding, that Sally Hemmings was the mother. When the Sally Hemmings story started getting to be an official part of history, how did you feel about that, knowing that the story that had been passed on in your family was now, like, a kind of certified historical story - or at least part of it was?

WOODSON: You know, it's interesting because I think whether or not it would have been certified, I would have still believed it and celebrated it because it's what I've always known. And then, to have that - have the kind of world say, yup, this - you know, this is true, I don't know how much that matters to me, that the rest of the world now cares, because it's about - it's about us. It's about our family and what we know and what we need to know to understand our own history. So it doesn't feel like now it's legitimized because the question is who does it need to be legitimized for? And for me, it just needs to feel right to me.

GROSS: So I have to ask you about this. When you got the award for young people's literature at the National Book Awards in November, the person introducing your category was Daniel Handler. And what he said now is kind of infamous. I'll repeat it. He said - he said, I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned about her this summer. Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your minds. I said, you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book. And I said, I'm only writing a book about a black girl who's allergic to watermelon if you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison and Barack Obama say, this guy's OK. He later apologized profusely and donated a lot of money to something called We Need Diverse Books. What was your reaction when he said that?

WOODSON: You know, it's so interesting 'cause we were all jumping up and cheering. And, you know, there was a standing ovation. And I had so much of my family in the audience. And it was - it was an amazing time. You know, the chair of the committee had just said it was a unanimous decision. And then, in the next moment, she said Jacqueline Woodson. And so all of that energy was forming around us. So we kind of - I kind of missed it all and was just so elevated in the moment of having won this award. And I think when - when the fury came down and when it all just started flying around us, it was just kind of like, oh, man. I think, again, though, for me, looking back on it and really trying to take some time to process it all, it makes me sad that there's so many people who are not connected to the deep history of where that racial stereotype comes from. And I think so much of what I've been trying to do is what I've learned from my own family, is how important history is to the context of everything so that something like that doesn't become a 30 second joke. And I think, looking back on it, Daniel didn't know. He just didn't get the history. And he thought - he made the mistake of thinking we're beyond that. And we're not. And so I'm still really trying to figure it all out. And I'm really just trying to celebrate the fact that "Brown Girl Dreaming" was given this award.

GROSS: He said he learned about your allergy over the summer. Are you friends?


GROSS: So are you still on good terms with each other?

WOODSON: You know, yeah. You know, friendships are complicated. And he is a friend of mine. And there are things that people don't know that they maybe can say in private and have it be a private joke that they can't say in public. And when he said it in private and I said, you write it, you know, it was a way of saying, you know, let's stop this now. And I think, unfortunately, he didn't get it. So - but no, you know, it's not going to end our friendship. I think he has a good heart. I think a lot of people who are ignorant have good hearts. And sometimes people make mistakes, and this is what that kind of racial mistake looks like.

GROSS: So in ending our conversation, I'd like you to read something from your book. And this isn't your poem. This is a poem by Langston Hughes. It's the poem that opens the book. Would you read it for us, and then tell us what this means to you and why this is an important piece of writing for you?

WOODSON: (Reading) Hold fast to dreams. For if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams. For when dreams go, life is a barren field, frozen with snow. Langston Hughes.

You know, I think it's so important to me because it was one of the first poems I memorized. And it was the first time a poet spoke to me, and I understood them. And that poet, obviously, was Langston Hughes. And I feel like he kind of opened the floodgates for me to understanding that inside of poems were stories and messages and language that mattered. And so since this whole book is about me growing up, dreaming of becoming a writer and all of the influences that led to making that dream a reality, I couldn't write this book without putting Langston in there somewhere.

GROSS: Well, congratulations on the book and the National Book Award. It's really been such a pleasure to talk with you, thanks.

WOODSON: Thanks so much, Terry, you too.

GROSS: Jacqueline Woodson won a National Book Award for Young People's Literature last month for her memoir in verse, "Brown Girl Dreaming." You can read an excerpt on our website, This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has chosen his Word of the Year. Actually, it's a phrase, and it comes from the unsettling feeling we have these days that online or off, our moves are being tracked in ways we aren't aware of.

GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: Infobesity, lumbersexual, phablet - as usual, the items that stand out as candidates for Word of the Year are like its biggest pop songs - catchy but ephemeral. But even a fleeting expression can sometimes encapsulate the zeitgeist. That's why I'm nominating God view for the honor. It's the term the car company Uber uses for a map view that shows them the locations of all the Uber cars in an area and silhouettes of the people who order them. The media seized on the term this fall when it came out that the company had been entertaining themselves and their guests by pairing that view with their customer data. So they could display the movements of journalists and VIP customers as they made their way around New York.

Those reports came on top of earlier criticisms of Uber for taking a prurient interest in its customers' movements. Not long before, an Uber data scientist had blogged about tracking what he called rides of glory. Those were the customers who booked rides late on weekend nights and then returned home a few hours later, presumably after one night stands. You could think of that as the Uber Santa view. He doesn't just know when you've been sleeping but where.

Those were awkward revelations for Uber, which has also been under fire for its sharp-elbowed tactics with regulators and competitors and a truculent attitude toward its critics. The so-called sharing economy depends on users providing a company with enough personal information to reassure others that they're OK to rent to or drive around with. As Airbnb put it last year, when they asked users to provide their Facebook contacts and pictures of their drivers' licenses, there is no place for anonymity in a trusted community. So it doesn't look good when the people entrusted with the information come off as a crew of brash striplings who seem to take privacy casually.

Calling a display God view didn't help dispel that impression, particularly coming from a company whose name already suggested a certain Teutonic grandiosity. But if Uber's choice of words was ill-advised, it's still a pretty apt name for the way technology sees us now. Every week brings another indication that the world is becoming a vast panopticon, a place where everybody can be observed without being aware of it. An app displays the Facebook profile of every woman in the immediate vicinity who's logged in on Foursquare. A website streams live video from thousands of unsecured webcams along with their map locations. And we're dogged by those uncannily personalized ads as we browse the web.

In a course I co-teach at Berkeley, we ask our students to try to figure out what Google knows about them. One young woman tried switching to a new browser and entering searches for products like Stride Rite Shoes and Barry Manilow albums. She wasn't surprised when ads for menopause supplements started to appear on the web pages she visited, but it was unsettling when her boyfriend started seeing ads for Viagra.

What we're talking about here, of course, is the sense that the world is getting more and more creepy. That word has been around too long to be a candidate for Word of the Year, but it's clearly in the running for Word of the Era. It goes back to the time of Dickens, but we use it more often and more broadly than ever before. It's our aesthetic reaction to everything from John Malkovich to Furbies, and it's become our reflexive response to the unnerving promiscuity of digital information. Scholars ponder it. You see articles in academic journals and law reviews with titles like "A Theory Of Creepiness" and "Leakiness And Creepiness In App Space." As the thinking goes, understand creepiness and you've located the boundaries of personal privacy, the line you mustn't trespass.

Creepy's a more elusive notion than scary. Scary things are the ones that set our imagination to racing with dire scenarios of cyberstalkers, identity thieves or government surveillance, whereas with creepy things, our imagination doesn't really know where to start. There doesn't have to be any concrete threat we can point to. There's only the unease we feel when we realize we've been the object of somebody's unbidden gaze. A while ago, my wife was caught by Google Street View early one morning as she was opening our gate after taking out the garbage. It creeped her out. You can see me from Buenos Aires, she said, and I wouldn't even wear those pants to the Safeway.

Not that most of the builders of the technology are actively trying to creep us out, though they're willing to come close. As Google's Eric Schmidt said, Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line but not cross it. But that line is constantly moving as we get more and more used to being exposed. Time was when we'd be creeped out if somebody Googled us before meeting or a first date. Now we're fine with that and even post profiles to make it easier.

Follow that logic, some people say, and the creepiness of technology may come to seem a passing phase. But this isn't really about technology in the first place. What we find creepy isn't those God views in themselves, but the people we fear might be out there using them. There may be no more creeps in the world than in earlier times, but there've never been so many opportunities for acting like one.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley School of Information.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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