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:
Then, with her hands relaxed on her crossed knees and her eyes like deep pits which hid her venom, she said very quietly, “I think it stinks,” and exulted…. She wished that her father could witness it. And Suggie. “And why does it stink? Because it’s the result of living by the most shameful codes possible—dog eat dog, exploitation, the strong over the weak, the end justifies the means…. Your Association? It’s a band of small frightened people. Clannish. Narrow-minded. Selfish…. Prejudiced. Pitiful—because who out there in that white world you’re so feverishly courting gives one damn whether you change the word Barbadian to Negro?”
Perhaps Selina’s outbursts are meant to indicate her fight against the claustrophobia of her community and her rage at the larger world as represented by the “meticulously groomed, mink-draped women” on Fifth Avenue.
Selina is of the new generation, a winner, and more is open to her than mere endurance. She makes white friends at school, takes up dancing at which she is, naturally, very gifted; and when she takes a lover she does not have to settle for a conventional, fumbling boy but finds instead a failed artist, Clive, the dropout son of prosperous Barbadian parents. They talk a great deal in his lair and their excruciatingly self-conscious prattle points to the difficulty of capturing bohemia on the page:
“Those damn dirty feet. Everywhere I went people were always shedding their shoes and displaying their grimy feet. Now I have the sensibilities, if not the soul, of the artist, and those feet offended me to the core….” At her uncertain smile, he laughed—a full boyish sound—and pressed her legs between his. “Oh God, I love to shock you. You so want to be shocked…. The whole pathetic Village scene got to me after a while. All that passion and poverty. That horde of colored cats in hot pursuit of a few mangy white chicks—desperate for a sponsor and a taste of the forbidden. The few sad colored chicks enacting their historic role with the whites. And those others of confused gender: he-whores and bullers as the Bajans would aptly call them. All mixed together in one desperate potpourri…. Sweet Selina, beware Bohemia!”
Much of this could be inserted into, say, Baldwin’s Another Country without alteration. It is not clear, from the point of view, whether Marshall means for us to regard Clive as absurd. Nor are we certain if Selina isn’t made deliberately overbearing, as if it were just a phase. Her trial comes when the mother of one of her white classmates informs her none too subtly that she is, after all, black. This trauma—for once Selina is incapable of telling off an opponent—triggers in her a tidal wave of resolution. Selina comes to feel “love” for the “mysterious endurance” of her people but declines to accept the association’s scholarship to medical school. Clive is too weak, too dependent on his parents, and Selina leaves him, as she does her mother, after coming to a kind of truce. Selina journeys to Barbados, which means fulfillment.
The journey into the past, moving closer to one’s cultural background, is a recurring theme in Paule Marshall’s fiction. Discovering the Caribbean or Africa has, for her, the properties of psychic healing. In her latest novel, Praisesong for the Widow, this pilgrimage serves an almost exorcistic function. It is a quest for purity and release. But, as in Brown Girl, Brownstones, we end with a clearer idea of what has been renounced than we do of what has been found.
The renewal that Avey Johnson, the widow of the title, finds in the Caribbean may be ambiguous because of the awkward construction of the novel. It is an interior monologue told in the third person. The narration wanders from the inside of Avey Johnson’s dreams to speculations more proper to an omniscient voice. Moreover, much is told in internal flashbacks, and this makes for a cumbersome reliance on the past perfect to keep chronology straight. The curious monotone in the writing is a disappointment, considering the animation Marshall is capable of giving exotic settings, as she did in a collection of short stories, Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961). Praisesong for the Widow hasn’t much substance, though we review with Avey Johnson her steep climb of years, and we get a sense of endless procrastination waiting for her to get to wherever she is going.
When the novel opens Avey is on a cruise with two friends of whom she is not very fond. She has six suitcases of clothes which she is packing with “a burglar’s finesse”: sweaters, stoles, linen shirtdresses, blouses, summer suits, shoes in a special caddy, hats in a cylindrical box. Her things—the jewels and clothes—are her biography, suggesting that back in New York there are a house full of crystal, silverware, rosewood furniture, photographs of daughters and grandchildren; bank accounts, insurance policies, pension checks; and a respectable tombstone over her husband’s grave.
Avey cannot explain to her friends or even to herself why she wants to leave the cruise. Every year since her husband’s death three years before, in 1974, she and her friends have sailed on the Bianca Pride. But Avey has been in a state of panic that sends her fleeing from the other passengers to the upper decks. “Could she have dared mention as one possible reason the parfait they had had for dessert two nights ago?” It seems that the dining room, the Versailles Room, with its chandeliers, gilt-framed mirrors, sconces, and tapestries made her inexplicably uncomfortable to the point where she could not touch the “layers of sliced and sweetened peaches alternating with syrup, whipped cream and peach sherbet up the length of the tall fluted glass.” For a moment she could not even recognize herself in beige crepe de Chine and pearls. Another reason for her panic may be the sudden return of troublesome dreams. Whereas her dreams once came from images of the evening news—cattle prods, lunging dogs, the bombed Sunday school in Birmingham—her most recent dream involves her childhood visits to a great aunt on an isolated island off the South Carolina tidewater.
Avey is, one assumes, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. She has the withdrawn tendencies of someone in a paranoid state. She is repelled by people and things, anxious to keep her mental balance. But Marshall cannot make very vivid or menacing Avey’s nightmares involving the old woman from her childhood. She spends paragraphs describing the ship, the meals, the routine, the pointless consumption and idle luxury in solemn detail that becomes both tedious and laughable.
Avey’s panic does not abate once she is ashore. There are no taxis in sight and Avey spends several paranoid pages wondering why there is such a huge crowd on the Grenada wharf and why they were all speaking a strange language and why they were well dressed but ferrying in decrepit craft and where they were going. She is told by a sneering taxi driver that it is the season of the annual “Excursion.” People from the out-island of Carriacou prepare all year for the festive return home. “Is a serious business, oui! Every year this time every man, woman and child that’s from the place does pick up themself and go. They don’ miss a year. No matter how long they been living over this side… the minute they set foot on the wharf for the excursion is only Patois crossing their lips.”
Carriacou is the island where Avey undergoes her transformation—but not until we are given the story of her life, a story of working for and getting everything she wanted only to wonder about the cost. Her childhood poverty in Harlem has been erased by years of upward mobility—good manners, dressing well, education, social clubs, a job in the state bureaucracy. Avey has managed to do the right things. She does not like to remember Halsey Street in Brooklyn where she and her husband, Jay, lived when they were first married. They were terrified of being trapped with the odors, the noise, the cheap rooms, the loud, vulgar tenants. Avey does not like to remember herself as a woman who could conceivably go about her chores barefoot. She especially regrets the memory of the nights when she was pregnant with her third child and tormented by the suspicion that Jay was having an affair. Her accusations almost drove him away. But he remained, and they prospered after he established his own accounting firm. But something had been lost, signified by the fact that she began to address him as Joseph rather than as Jay. He even shaved off the mustache she found so romantic. They no longer danced alone in the apartment to jazz records; he ceased to recite the Langston Hughes and Countée Cullen poems he loved. At the time of his death he was a stranger. The man, in this novel, is the ornament, the symbol of status, instead of the woman.
The outline of Avey’s story is familiar. But instead of blaming the years for Avey’s disappointments, Marshall leaves us with the impression that it was somehow Jay’s fault. Unlike Deighton who, by his temperament, was the architect of his own ruin, Jay completed his night courses. He worked overtime and remained faithful to his wife. Yet there is a faint note of condescension toward his ambition to get his family from the five-floor walk-up to the house and garden in North White Plains. This seems to be a favorite notion of Marshall’s: the price of pulling up one’s bootstraps is the soul, and men are more likely than women to sell theirs. The trade-off is particularly damaging to blacks since they can never belong to the white world, but that world forces them to give up the culture that is their only possibility of redemption.
Avey’s trip to Carriacou is occasioned by an improbable meeting with an old man, Lebert Joseph, in a rum shop down the beach from the hotel where she is staying until she can get a flight out. She confides her unease immediately, and this is peculiar, given the code of propriety by which she has lived for so long. But Marshall means to present a woman who is desperate, although we never get more than the sense of a bored, somewhat frightened tourist. Joseph invites Avey to make the Excursion with him. He has known many who suffer from her ailment: “People who can’t call their nation. For one reason or another they just don’ know. Is a hard thing. I don’ even like to think about it. But you comes across them all the time here in Grenada. You ask people in this place what nation they is and they look at you like you’s a madman.”
Slavery always seemed a fairly reasonable explanation of why most black people cannot name their tribe, but Lebert Joseph is a creation of unforgivable sentimentality. “He was one of those old people who give the impression of having undergone a lifetime trial by fire which they somehow managed to turn to their own good in the end; using the fire to burn away everything in them that could possibly decay, everything mortal.” The odd notion that south of the border, in the Caribbean or Africa, the elderly among the people will come forward to lead their lost brethren back to their roots can only result in sentimentality.
Avey is taken ill during the crossing—strange that the description of vomiting in this novel is as off-putting as the descriptions of sex—and this makes her more vulnerable. She is open to the ministrations of Joseph’s large family who welcome her as one restored to them. Avey participates in the rituals of the homecoming, which climax in a dance and a prayer addressed to the ancestors and called the “Beg Pardon.”
And the single, dark, plangent note this produced, like that from the deep bowing of a cello, sounded like the distillation of a thousand sorrow songs. For an instant the power of it brought the singing and dancing to a halt—or so it appeared. The theme of separation and loss the note embodied, the unacknowledged longing it conveyed summed up feelings that were beyond words, feelings and a host of subliminal memories that over the years had proven more durable and trustworthy than the history with its trauma and pain out of which they had come. After centuries of forgetfulness and even denial, they refused to go away. The note was a lamentation that could hardly have come from the rum keg of a drum. Its source had to be the heart, the bruised still-bleeding innermost chamber of the collective heart.
The ceremony stirs in Avey memories of the church services she attended with her old aunt in South Carolina and helps her to make sense of her recent dreams. She returns to New York resolved to “spread the word” about her discovery of the “Beg Pardon.”
Such romanticizing of black culture in no way honors it. Romanticization has been constantly debated among black artists, its practitioners claiming that one must know the past in order to shape the future. The question is, what value has the past when it is so reduced? It is, at best, a kind of overcompensation. Paule Marshall has throughout her work pitted a mystical, lyrical African past against the evils of the West. Such an easily conceived idea of the cultural past does not increase our understanding of it. It can also lead to notions that are dangerously foolish, as when, in an interview in Essence magazine, Marshall remarked, “It’s the kind of thing that the Cambodians are doing today…. Move all the goddamn people out of the cities. Go back to the land. Learn to feed yourself. Be your own people. Own your soul. Close the door to the West, like China did for years.”*
Virginia Woolf once observed that when women come to write novels, they probably find themselves wanting to alter established values, to make important what is insignificant to men and to make trivial what men think essential. Marshall shares this subversive inclination and sometimes it brings satisfying results. But Woolf also warned against a distorting element that can enter the fiction of those who are painfully aware of their “disability,” and in Marshall’s case the distorting element is not only a simplistic view of culture but also a simplistic idea of strength. The women in her novels are meant to seem courageous but they have more of the manic certitude of religious fanatics. They have an almost narcissistic appreciation of their own states of mind but little is revealed about the complicated forces against which they claim to struggle. This limited picture of the world is what sets Marshall’s women apart from those of Zora Neale Hurston, whose women are more tolerant, forgiving, and, one might say, truly experienced.
Perhaps this one-dimensional approach comes from current strains in black feminism. To counter the image of the black woman as victim, a different picture is deemed necessary, one that inadvertently makes such words as “nurturing,” “positive,” and “supportive” unbearable. One is constantly aware of a manipulation of reality at work in Marshall’s fiction and this causes us to distrust it.
Interview with Alexis DeVeaux in Essence, May 1979.↩
Interview with Alexis DeVeaux in Essence, May 1979.↩