ZZ Packer "Brownies"

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ZZ (Zuwena) Packer

African American author, ZZ Packer wrote "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" in 2003. The book features a collection of highly praised short stories. ZZ Packer was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1973, and attended John Hopkins University Writing Seminar, including The University of Iowa Writers Workshop, graduating with a M.F.A. in 1997. ZZ packer taught at Stanford University in California and lived in the Bay area with her husband up to the printing of her collection. [1] The stories in "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" have been printed in The New Yorker, Harpers, and Ploughshares Literary Magazine. [2] The book is published by Riverhead books, New York, 2003.



  • Short Plot Summary
  • Characters
  • Themes

*Short Plot Summary
The short story "Brownies" takes place at a summer camp (Camp Crescendo) located on a reopened high school band and Hockey field near the south suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. At the camp, the African American Brownie troop of six young girls, (from an inner city school, Woodrow Wilson Elementary, which is predominately racially segregated, as referenced to the only White student, Dennis at the school) encounters the "invaders." A White girls Brownie troop #909, exiting their bus the White girls have a special appearance, "their complexions of ice cream: strawberry, vanilla" but smell like "wet Chihuahuas" (Packer 1.) A plan is developed when the African American Brownie troop girls learn and believe that one of the fourth grade girls from the White troop addressed them with a derogatory racial slur. Over a period of four days, the African American Brownie troop confirms their suspicions and plan a "lesson" for the other troop. Suggestions for the "lesson" include: "beating" the White girls up or placing "daddy-long-legs" in their sleeping bags. A Secret meeting is held to talk about the lesson, with the culmination of events ending in the "messy, with leaves and wads of chewing gum on the floor" camp bathroom (13.) The story twists when the African American girls realize the White girl’s troop consists of "delayed learners" with "special needs," who have the medical condition of "Echolalia."[3] Laurel (the narrator)reaches a conclusion as she relates her father’s story of a Mennonite family. The family "dressed in distinctive garb" does work for him without pay or a thank you. Laurel remembers her father saying, "It was the only time he'd have a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free" (30) and "suddenly Laurel realizes that there is just "something mean" in the world that she cannot stop" (31.)


Arnetta is girl leader of the African American girls Brownie troop. She is the only girl who suspects the White girls of the "racial slur." With some prodding of a "nudge" and being a bully, enlists the reluctant and quiet, Daphne in the plan. Arnetta, a good student, commands much attention:

"Her tone had an upholstered confidence that was both regal and vulgar at once. It demanded a few moments of silence in its wake, like the ringing of a church bell or the playing of taps" (8.)-Brownies

Daphne is the very quiet unassuming girl of the African American Brownie troop. She is the girl that "might" have heard the racial slur from the White troop. Daphne is characterized as somewhat out of fashion, wearing old clean Chic jumpers and dresses, although a smart young girl who wrote a poem for Langston Hughes School day and won a prize. Daphne is a meek girl, who has no commanding voice, as ZZ Packer writes,

"Her voice was petite and twinkly, the voice one might expect from a shiny new earring" (6.)-Brownies

*Drema and Elise
Drema and Elise are minor characters in the short story, with only references to a few lines. Drema and Elise are tag alongs with the main characters of Arnetta, and Octavia. Elise is often ignored. Drema is noted for her interest and curious question of the night stars at the camp.

"Why are all the stars out here? I never see stars back on Oneida Street" (21.)-Brownies

*Mrs. Hedy
Mrs. Hedy is Octavia's mother. She is the parent helper of the African American girl's troop. Mrs. Hedy constantly talks about her imminent divorce to all the girls. The girls try to redirect Mrs. Hedy from the subject of her husband (during a moment when she speaks of her husband, who is even depicted in the clouds) and sing her the "Brownie Smile Song."

Brownie Smile Song
"I've got something in my pocket;
It belongs across my face.
And I keep it very close at hand
in a most convenient place.
I'm sure you couldn't guess it
if you guessed a long, long while.
So I'll take it out and put it on-
It's a great big Brownie smile!" (16-17.)-Brownies

*Octavia Hedy
Octavia is Mrs. Hedy's daughter. She is the associate girl leader of the African American brownie troop. She is a main character, as Arnetta and Octavia (working together) insist that Daphne be protected from the White girls racial slur. As a strong character she constantly tells Janice to "shut-up" regarding the impending bathroom confrontation. Octavia was the only African American girl at Woodrow Wilson school with:

"long hair that hung past her butt like a Hawaiian hula dancers" (5.)-Brownies

Janice is a girl with a "homey, country accent," full of energy. She aligns herself with Arnetta and Octavia, and is anxious to help with the "lession." It was Janice's idea to put the "daddy long-legs" in the sleeping bags. ZZ Packer writes, with the appearance of the White Girls troop, Janice:

"[...] she jumped straight up in the air, then did it again as if to slam-dunk her own head" (3.)-Brownies

*Laurel, Known as "Snot"
Laurel is the narrator of the story, nicknamed "Snot," because of an episode in first grade. Laurel is the only character in the short story that questions whether Arnetta actually heard the racial slur. She seems to be an obstacle to the girls plan of action as she questions what will happen if the other girls deny saying the "word?" as Laurel is very hesitant to participate in the "lesson."

"Hey-maybe you didn't hear them right-I mean-"(10.)-Brownies

*Mrs. Margolin
Mrs. Margolin is the African American troop leader. Mrs. Margolin plays the "Mother duck" to her little ducklings. She seems very religious as she sees her job post as an Evangelical leader to the girls. Mrs. Margolin is described as having:

"short cropped hair, a small ball of a head, almost no neck and huge, miraculous breasts" (2.)-Brownies

*Troop 909 Leader
The adult leader of the White girls troop, with hair styled like an Egyptian pageboy is introduced at the end of the short story. After entering the bathroom after the "Lesson,"

"she appeared like a T.V. cooking show host, one that can talk, chop onions and smile all at the same time" (25.)-Brownies

Racial segregation and prejudice appears to be the major themes in ZZ Packer's short story "Brownies." The school which the African American Brownie troop attends is Woodrow Wilson Elementary, where there is only one reference to a single White student named Dennis. In the story, Laurel narrates:

"When you lived in the south suburbs of Atlanta, it is easy to forget about Whites. make up unusual things like the use of the word Caucasian meaning everything from high watered boy's jeans to eating too fast or too slow. The segregation that the African American brownie troop experienced with exposure of only glimpses of White people going to the mall, can explain the girls as "invaders." It is not concretely clear that the White girls used a racial slur, but if they had it seemed because of their disabilities it would not have been intentional. However, the White girls may have indeed repeated what they had heard. This would point directly to prejudice that still exists in Modern day times. As the short story concludes, Laurel does not explain why her father neither pays the Mennonite family nor offers a thank you. Laurel does not defend her father; rather she realizes there is just "something mean" in the world that she cannot change (31.)

Referenced materials
ZZ Packer. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere. "Brownies." New York, Riverhead Books, 2003. XV, 1-31. Print.

Educational level: this is a tertiary (university) resource.
Subject classification: this is a psychology resource.