Briscoe's second novel narrates black woman's travails

by Shelly-Ann Scott | 11/6/96 6:00am

"Big Girls Don't Cry" is the second novel from Connie Briscoe, and as the title hints, it tells the story of a young woman who learns to take life's hard knocks and survive them.

Naomi Jefferson's beginnings are atypical of most black success stories, fact or fiction. Instead of being dirt poor and living on the wrong side of the tracks, her family is middle class, her parents own their home and a respectable two year old Buick, and at her mother's insistence, little Naomi takes piano and ballet lessons, while her brother takes trumpet.

Her greatest worries are surviving the weekly ritual hair-pressing without getting her scalp burnt off and standing up to the school bully.

Her only disturbing thought is whether her new popular friend Jennifer, of the light-skinned, long-haired persuasion, dislikes her childhood friend Debbie for any reason other than Debbie's dark skin and nappy hair.

Nevertheless, Naomi handles all these teen traumas with aplomb, and is soon happily "going steady" with a dashingly handsome young man, also of the light-skinned, curly-haired genre.

But these are troubled times, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. is greeted with shock, grief and anger by Naomi's family, most of the anger coming from her brother.

Turning to political activism to find an outlet for the frustration that plagues so many other black males in this era, he is later killed in a fatal accident while away at college.

Naomi never quite gets the bitter taste out of her mouth from this first encounter with the unfairness of the world. Raised in such a protective family, she had no reason to know how to deal with misfortune.

She goes away to college, but finds no respite from the realities of the world, only more disappointment and disillusionment with authority, politics and love. Not surprisingly, finding out that her romance was not as perfect as she thought it was is the most bitter pill to swallow.

Up until this point, Briscoe has fashioned a compelling and complex tale of a young girl's coming of age in an era of great upheavals.

However, the rest of the book is somewhat two-dimensional, Naomi's search for equality in the employment arena portrayed against a "Waiting to Exhale"-esque on-going commentary on the succession of men in her life, all of whom have various idiosyncratic flaws.

The salvation of the novel is the tale of Naomi's fight to overcome the gender and race biases that threaten to stagnate her upward rise.

AfricanAmericans who are headed to corporate America should be able to appreciate Naomi's struggle and glory in her eventual success.

After the disappointments of her youth, it is hardly surprising that Naomi has come to see her career as the one area in her life that she can exert control over.

After all, through hard work alone, she has overcome a childhood phobia of numbers to being one of the top securities analysts in her company, the best in her own candid estimation.

So why does she keep banging her head against the glass ceiling? Aggressive tactics that would seem to work for a man, and earn him some appreciative slaps on the back for "using initiative," only seem to leave her steaming when she gets passed over for a promotion in favor of a more inept colleague.

A minority twice over, black and a woman, Naomi tries to tell her story to a sympathetic white female co-worker, and realizes that it is futile to try to explain racism to someone who has never experienced it. They just will not see it, or rather, they just cannot.

Only when this very same woman realizes that she is being asked to train the man who has been appointed head of her division is she able to understand what it is like to be discriminated against.

Against the story of the fight for equal rights in the workplace is the troop of men in Naomi's life. Why is it that all contemporary women's novels must invariably have women making stupid choices in men?

Naomi has had her fair share of Mr. Wrongs, from drug dealer to architect, she has pretty much traversed the entire spectrum.

It gets tedious to the reader who has pretty much lost interest in all her misbegotten choices by the time we get to the architect. Instead of trying to figure out if this one is the one, we start to hope that he is so we can get to talking about something else!

Still, the book does have a gratuitous and predictable happy ending, and so since we have really been plugging for Naomi through all her misadventures, we're happy that she gets everything in the end; career success, a family and the man she loves.

In fact, we are so happy that everything works out that we are willing to forgive Briscoe for falsely giving the impression at the beginning of "Big Girls Don't Cry" that it was going to be a reality tale, rather than a Danielle Steele story with some color thrown in to distract the unaware.

The author of the national bestseller "Sisters and Lovers", Briscoe is the former managing director of "American Annals of the Deaf" at Gallaudet University. She has been hearing-impaired for most of her adult life, and is now at work on her third novel.

Advertise your student group in The Dartmouth for free!