I first learned about Connie Briscoe (she/her) when I was searching for D/deaf authors. Biscoe’s name popped up, but I quickly learned she doesn’t write D/deaf characters. Briscoe herself identifies as “hearing impaired.” But when I saw her name on the Goodwill bookshelf, I grabbed a copy of Big Girls Don’t Cry. The other aspect of Briscoe that I learned is she started publishing around the same time as Terry McMillan, and thus both were acknowledged as new voices for Black women in the U.S.
Big Girls Don’t Cry begins in 1963. Naomi, a twelve-year-old Black girl, loves reading Nancy Drew, though her mother is forcing her and her brother, Joshua, to take piano lessons to become well-rounded people. Naomi and Joshua’s parents are hard-working people living in D.C. They describe how when they were young adults, the only options in America for them were teaching or a government job, but they recognize that their children will have more opportunities.
As they drive to the first piano lesson, the mother gets lost and winds up in Virginia, where a couple of white boys call them a racial slur. Later, when the family attempts to eat at a Chinese restaurant, the owner tells them they can’t come in because they will make the white patrons uncomfortable. Joshua, seeing a pattern, becomes active in protesting with his friend Drew.
Meanwhile, Naomi mostly focuses on learning about boys and sex. She’s a virgin, but she’s got lots of questions for her mother after she hears rumors around school, like kissing can make you pregnant, or you can’t get pregnant the first time you have sex. In a couple of years, Naomi becomes sexually active and starts asking her brother more questions, instead of her mother. He’s easier to talk to and closer to her age. The siblings are close, which is why is slams Naomi so hard when she learns Joshua, his friend Drew, and two others were in a car accident and Joshua died. They were on their way to a civil rights protest in Chicago.
The novel continues through Naomi’s college years and eventually into the 1980’s when she’s trying to get a career going. Through it all, she oscillates on how to best protest against racism. Is it picketing with signs? Is it working twice as hard as white people? Is it starting Black-owned businesses, which is what Joshua and Drew encouraged her to do? I was fascinated by this question: how does a Black woman most effectively protest to earn equal footing with white men?
However, I found the sexual aspect of the book distracting. Naomi was constantly dating and almost engaging men who didn’t cherish her dreams and ambitions, would make claims about not being able to go too long without sexual satisfaction, and cheating on her repeatedly because she kept forgiving them. There are at least six major relationships Naomi navigates, which means readers have to sit there and sigh and shake their heads, because in sexual matters and relationships, Naomi doesn’t learn. She sees the red flags: men telling her how to dress and where to live, her girlfriends warning her that another woman was with Naomi’s boyfriend in his room, men telling her not to start a business or not to get her MBA, etc. I suppose I am not the kind of friend who wants to hang out with a person who keeps making the same ignorant choices for decades and then looking for sympathy. I mean, I’ve had friends like that, and they’re exhusting.
However, I suspect the boyfriends played a smaller role in Naomi’s life than the novel suggests because the author isn’t sharing much about Naomi’s studies, classes, clubs, friends, etc. There really are other things she’s doing. But, it is what Briscoe focuses on.
An interesting, frustrating book that I didn’t hate but wouldn’t read again.