The residents of Brewster Place are constantly searching for a home, both as a literal place to live and as a metaphorical state of mind. For Mattie, her search for a home other than the one in which she was raised takes her from a rundown apartment in the city to a wonderful home in which she raises her child, and finally, to Brewster Place. The journey from one home to another is repeated with every character in the novel. Just as important as any physical location is the security and comfort attached to the idea of home. Brewster Place, though it’s falling apart, offers Etta a form of security and comfort she has long lived without. It offers Kiswana the opportunity to live out her ideals, and it offers Mattie the opportunity to become a surrogate mother to a host of women. In every search for a home, what ultimately defines the idea of “home” isn’t the condition of the walls but the strength of the relationships within those walls.
The residents of Brewster Place have migrated to Brewster Place from their parents’ home in the South, from the Mediterranean, from the middle-class suburbs ringing the city, or from more secure lives and homes. Regardless of where they come from, they have ended up here, and they have chosen, or been forced, to call it home. Migration, in addition to being a central theme of the novel, is also a central theme in African-American history. From the slave migration to the North prior to the Civil War, to the Great Migration of millions of African-Americans following the post-World War II industrial boom, the idea of escaping to the North has always held hope and promise of a better future.
For most of the residents of Brewster Place, however, migration isn’t the fulfillment of a dream but the culmination of a long, frustrating life. Mattie loses her home and ends up in Brewster Place, while Etta arrives after a series of failed relationships. Ben comes to Brewster Place after being abandoned by his wife and daughter, while Lorraine and Theresa are forced out of their more comfortable middle-class existence because of their sexuality. Despite the frustrations and difficulties of life in Brewster Place, it brings all of its residents hope: a light is left on all night; a late-night conversation brings comfort; and many of those searching for meaning find some version of it here.
Throughout the novel, characters reach out to one another across generational, cultural, and gender lines. They reach out to one another and, in doing so, are able to ease the loneliness and hardship that surround their lives. One example of a powerful personal connection is Mattie’s relationship with Eva. The women are separated by class, skin tone, and age, yet they find each other and make each other’s lives more bearable. Similar benefits arise from other connections, including Mattie’s relationship with Etta, Mattie’s relationship with Lucielia, Kiswana’s relationship with Cora, and Ben’s relationship with Lorraine. Each relationship shows how personal connections can sustain and offer hope in even the direst circumstances. The relationships show individuals at their best, and they serve as a necessary counterweight to the abandonment, prejudice, and brutality that comprise much of the novel.
In Brewster Place, births are nearly always illegitimate. Every child we hear about is missing a father, from Mattie’s son to all of Cora’s children. These children are missing half their identities, and their fates seem dire—just as the fate of Brewster Place itself seems dire. Brewster Place’s conception is even referred to as a bastard birth. From the moment of Brewster Place’s creation, its fate is sealed, the buildings and their inhabitants destined to live in ever-worsening conditions.
The men in The Women of Brewster Place are masters at disappearing. Faced with any hardship or difficulty, men such as Basil, Eugene, and Butch run from any responsibility. Their flight is in direct response to any perceived threat to their freedom. Basil disappears when faced with the remote possibility of going to jail. Eugene disappears once his responsibilities as a father and husband become too demanding, and Butch Fuller lives a philosophy dedicated to living in the moment. While the men in the novel are constantly running away, the women are constantly returning home to one another.
In The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor portrays a broad spectrum of women to show the similarities and differences between the experiences of each generation. In every encounter between an older and younger woman, past and present blend together, and the connection between generations adds perspective and historical depth to the experiences of each. For example, despite Kiswana’s dramatic differences of opinion with her mother, she comes to recognize that her life, in fact, is not so different after all. She is merely living her own slightly altered version of the life her mother lived. That realization restores the connection that had previously been threatened when Kiswana insulted her mother.
The wall separating Brewster Place from the main avenues of the city serves several important purposes. Following its initial creation, the wall comes to symbolize the indifference with which Brewster Place is treated by the men responsible for its creation. Because of the wall, Brewster Place is economically and culturally isolated from the rest of the city. The wall has forced Brewster Place to fend for itself. For the residents of Brewster Place, the wall symbolizes the fact that for most of them, Brewster Place will be the end of the road. Their lives will go no further, regardless of how much they may hope or dream. The wall, for them, represents the wall that has been built around their lives, either by failed opportunities or by a series of misfortunes. The true disastrousness of the wall becomes evident at the end of the novel. Along this wall, Lorraine drags her nearly lifeless body after she is gang raped, and it is from this wall that she grabs the brick she uses to kill Ben.
Butch Fuller uses sugar cane not only to lure Mattie into the fields with him but also to espouse a whole philosophy on life. From the start of Mattie and Butch’s trip to the sugar cane field, there is an ominous overtone cast by the large machetes that each of them wields. There is something dangerous about Butch, and that danger is encapsulated perfectly in his attitude toward the world. When preparing to eat the sugar cane, Butch tells Mattie to spit it out while it’s still sweet. In telling her this, he not only reveals something about his perspective toward life but also prepares her for what’s about to come. Following their brief encounter, Mattie winds up pregnant while Butch becomes nothing more than a ghost. He stays just long enough to enjoy the pleasures of Mattie’s body, while refusing to stay around to experience any of the complications or hardships that come about as a result.
Brewster Place is full of color, from the clothes the children wear on a summer afternoon to the color of its residents. Naylor describes the color of nearly every character that appears in the novel. Characters are described as caramel, honey, light-skinned, dark-skinned, and blue-eyed. In describing characters this way, Naylor shows the spectrum of shades and experiences that have defined African-American culture. There is a diversity of experiences, evident not only in the lives of the characters but in the characters’ very skin. In addition, the color of the residents also occasionally serves as a contrast to the drab colors that otherwise characterize Brewster Place. The sky may be gray and the walls “ashen,” but the residents of Brewster Place, full of life, are vibrant and rich.