Praisesong for the Widow
Paule Marshall does not let the black women in her fiction lose. While they lose friends, lovers, husbands, homes, or jobs, they always find themselves. The precocious heroine of Brown Girl, Brownstones (first published in 1959, now reissued) comes of age and rejects the class aspirations of her tightly knit Barbadian community in Brooklyn. The willful teacher of The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969) is middle-aged and heading toward a sharp turn in her rocky road, one that will take her into battle with developers on her Caribbean island, and then to the unknown in Africa. The well-heeled woman approaching old age in Praisesong for the Widow finds spiritual renewal on a remote island in the Caribbean.
In exploring the stages of black women’s lives, Marshall insists that the woman with enough nerve can win even when the deck is stacked and the other players are hostile. Nerve, here, means making radical choices, and though the liberating destinies Marshall gives to her heroines are often unconvincing, the attraction of her work lies in a deep saturation in the consciousness of her characters and the ability to evoke the urban or tropical settings in which they toil. Dorothy Parker, in a review of the first novel, complained about the title. The years have not improved Marshall’s ear for titles. They are sentimental and heavy with obvious meaning. They do not do justice to the discipline of the writing or to Marshall’s engagement with questions of heritage, assimilation, and the black woman’s identity.
Marshall’s heroines tend to be stubborn, alienated, and ripe for some sort of conversion. The leap of faith is presented as a matter of making up one’s mind to heed an inner voice, whatever the cost. Unfortunately, these assured, preachy women are not as interesting as the flawed souls who surround them and hold them down. Selina Boyce in Brown Girl, Brownstones is a scraggly, bookish tomboy. We know immediately that her growing pains will be severe. Her eyes are “not the eyes of a child. Something too old lurked in their centers. They were weighted, it seemed, with scenes of a long life. She might have been old once and now, miraculously, young again—but with the memory of that other life intact.” This burdensome wisdom has come to Selina from observing her family, the boarders in the house for which her mother labors and which she hopes some day to buy, and the neighbors on Chauncey Street.
Selina hears and sees much in this place of bad and better addresses. The neighborhood was once white but by 1939, when the novel opens, the whites have “discreetly” died or moved away. “And as they left, the West Indians slowly edged their way in. Like a dark sea nudging its way onto a white beach and staining the sand, they came.” They came with ambitions for the better life. “Lord, lemme do better than this. Lemme rise!” They look down on Afro-Americans as “keepbacks” and think of themselves as a superior caste because they came to America voluntarily.
Their values are those of most other immigrant groups. The hurting effort of each day is to squeeze every penny in the pay envelope, overcharge roomers, acquire property and political influence, make lawyers or doctors of their children, and have them marry among their own kind. Selina is therefore strictly brought up—rules, curfews, beatings, streets out of bounds:
…Fulton Street this summer Saturday night was a whirling spectrum of neon signs, movie marquees, bright-lit store windows and sweeping yellow streamers of light from cars. It was canorous voices, hooted laughter and curses ripping the night’s warm cloak; a welter of dark faces and gold-etched teeth; children crying high among the fire escapes of the tenements; the subway rumbling below; the unrelenting wail of blues spilling from a bar; greasy counters and fish sandwiches and barbecue and hot sauce; trays of chitterlings and hog maws and fat back in the meat stores….
Selina is a square peg squinting at round holes. She contemplates her narrow world from the upper landing of the top floor, behind potted ferns and parlor curtains, in the dining room with its china closets and stained-glass wisteria lamps, in Prospect Park with her best friend Beryl, in the school cafeteria, in the bed she shares with her meek and prim older sister, Ina.
Selina has a reputation for asking too many questions, for sneaking up on her elders. She feeds on a steady diet of overheard conversation and unsatisfactory explanations. Dialogue is the current that pushes this long work forward. Selina talks to Suggie, a roomer who cannot keep a job and finds consolation in men. Suggie is close to Barbados in feeling, her room smells of codfish and perfume, and she likes to “take a drink while the sun hot-hot and yuh wun know whether it was the sun or the rum or both that had yuh feeling so sweet.” Selina visits old Miss Mary, bedridden and white, who talks to herself of the past, and is a convenient symbol of the musty, dying order. Selina also calls regularly on Miss Thompson, the hairdresser from Georgia who has an unhealed ulcer on her foot: the result of a wound inflicted by a white man back home who tried to rape her. Before her long day in the beauty shop she puts in a long night as a cleaning woman in an office building.
Weddings, wielding the straightening comb in the beauty shop, plucking a chicken at the kitchen sink—women’s chores and the woman’s traditional territory. These form Selina’s initiation. The women are examples, and their banter contains some lessons. “Silla sucked her teeth in disgust. ‘Woman, you might go hide yourself. These ain ancient days. This ain home that you got to be always breeding like a sow. Go to some doctor and get something ‘cause these Bajan men will wear you out making children and the blasted children ain nothing but a keepback. You don see the white people having no lot.”’ They have not only harsh opinions about men and neighbors but ideas about politics. “The rum shop and the church join together to keep we pacify and in ignorance. That’s Barbados. It’s a terrible thing to know that you gon be poor all yuh life, no matter how hard you work. You does stop trying after a time. People does see you so and call you lazy. But it ain laziness. It just that you does give up. You does kind of die inside….”
Selina is not admitted anywhere where men talk freely. They are phantoms in her girlhood, names to be greeted politely and gotten away from. For the women of Brown Girl, Brownstones everything is an extension of the self: the good cook can bring in extra money, houses are power, husbands and children are a reward or a punishment, style of dress defines status and temperament.
Selina’s confusions are very much those of adolescence in fiction: the body (“I feel different. Like I’m carrying something secret and special inside”); the self-loathing a black child can suffer (“She was something vulgar in a holy place”); the future, a vague sense of oppression; and ambivalence toward her parents. In fact, the bitter, protracted struggle between her mother and father haunts Selina’s formative years, and is the most dramatic element in this novel.
Deighton Boyce is a “spree boy”—handsome, dapper, disarming, and irresponsible. “‘I thought I’d catch little air on the avenue,’ and the words sounded lame and incriminating….” He is desperate to be a big man and, of course, his life is littered with failed plans, with forgotten, desultory studies at home of auto repair, radio repair, accounting, the trumpet. He paints fanciful pictures of the fine things he’ll give his family once he hits the jackpot. “And we gon have a house there—just like the white people own. A house to end all house!”
No one could be more unlike him, more antagonistic, than his wife Silla. “You ain got a pot to piss in.” She is weighed down like a mule by work, by disappointment, by brutal calculations, and by her obsession to get ahead. Her recriminations are relentless. “Here every Bajan is saving if it’s only a dollar a week and buying house and he wun save a penny.” Even their memories of the islands make for opposition: Deighton recalls boyhood games, Silla remembers drudgery as a child in the cane fields. Theirs is one of those love matches gone sour: they can’t get along and they can’t call it quits. But Deighton is also not the shiftless father we have come to expect in such patterns. He works in a mattress factory, he is tender toward his daughters, and has a conspiratorial intimacy with Selina, who adores him. One job, however, is not enough. Silla is painfully aware that some wives have husbands with two jobs.
Deighton inherits two acres of land in Barbados, which he refuses to sell even though it would enable them to make a down payment on their brownstone. “I feel I could do cruel things to the man,” Silla says. She does, to the point of committing fraud to sell the land without his knowledge. He retaliates and squanders the money on a shopping spree. The meanness of it all turns into his defeat, not hers. He is ostracized by the community and his downward course makes for some memorable scenes. “Small Island, go back where you really come from.” During the war Deighton is injured at the factory. Afterward he becomes a follower of a charlatan preacher based in Harlem, Father Peace. “His life became simple and cloistered.” When he leaves home to manage one of Father Peace’s restaurants, Silla betrays him to the immigration authorities, and he is deported.
Everyone in the neighborhood is tormented by the possibility of slipping downward, of backsliding, and success is measured by the distance from Barbados as well as by the number of mortgages taken on and killed. Deighton drowns himself rather than return to Barbados a nobody. Suggie prefers to live with a man about whom she is indifferent after Selina’s mother evicts her rather than go back to Barbados no better off than when she left it. Although Selina is attracted to the easy tempo of Barbados represented by Suggie and by her father, whom she mourns extravagantly, she is trapped in some middle ground between the suffocating world of respectability and a yearning for freedom because of a grudging respect for her authoritarian mother’s dogged, single-minded campaign to survive.
Brown Girl, Brownstones loses much of its appeal when Selina becomes a college girl (Hunter). One misses the daily life in the community that Marshall depicts in such sprawling detail. Selina cultivates a humorless, smug, self-righteous style that permits her to tell off friends for caring about dresses and the cars they receive as graduation presents. She vilifies the Barbadian association of property owners, of which her mother is at long last a member: