Paule Marshall, author of Brown Girl, Brownstones

Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall (April 9, 1929–August 12, 2019), born Valenza Pauline Burke, was a Brooklyn-born and raised writer of Barbadian, or Bajan, heritage.

Best known for her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), her subsequent novels and stories touch on cultural and ancestral themes relating to the Caribbean. (Photo at right: Fair use image from

Both of her parents came to the United States from Barbados, and she incorporated the experiences of West Indian immigrants as well as the social and political perspectives of college-educated Black Americans into her novels and short stories. 

The title of her memoir, Triangular Road (2009, adapted from a series of lectures she delivered at Harvard University in 2005), is appropriate. There were multiple triangles in Marshall’s life: the triangle trade that brought enslaved African people to the Caribbean islands and the North American mainland.

The triangle of Marshall’s identity, which included her Brooklyn, Bajan or Barbadian, and African roots; and finally, what she refers to in Reena and Other Stories (1983) as the “triple-headed hydra of racism, sexism, and class bias” that affected every aspect of her life.

. . . . . . . . . .

Triangular Road - a memoir by paule marshall

. . . . . . . . . .

A fraught relationship with parents

Marshall had a fraught relationship with both of her parents. In her 1983 New York Times essay, “The Poets in the Kitchen,” Marshall describes her mother and her mother’s friends as suffering from “a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners.” 

And yet the exuberantly expressive language these women used to discuss and overcome the humiliations of their days as domestic workers inspired the future writer. 

These women gathered in the basement kitchen of Marshall’s brownstone to gossip and to discuss the politics and the economy of their immediate surroundings and the islands that had been their homes.  Marshall credits them with teaching her the narrative art and training her ear. 

Marshall says her mother Adriana “would recite almost daily the list of my physical flaws.”

Marshall’s mother told her that her face was the face “of a child that’s living its old days first!” Her mother also denounced her for her personality flaws: “Hard-ears!” “Willful!” and “Own-ways!”

Marshall describes her father, Sam Burke, as an “illegal alien” who presented himself as a man who had never been near the sugarcane fields where he worked before stowing away on a ship bound for New York or, for that matter, in the factories where he labored in New York City. 

He started numerous projects—courses in radio repair, accounting, and trumpet—in the hopes they would lead to something worthy of his talents. He finally abandoned his family to join a religious cult in Philadelphia, a loss that deeply affected young Marshall.


The Barbadian influence

Marshall visited Barbados for the first time when she was nine. Adriana brought Marshall and her sister to Barbados so that Da-duh, as she was known, could meet her “American-born grands.” 

This meeting with her grandmother had a great impact on Marshall, who described Da-duh as “an ancestor figure, symbolic … of the long line of black women and men—African and New World—who made my being possible.” 

Marshall captures the power of that meeting with her grandmother in what she has termed her most autobiographical story, “To Da-Duh, In Memoriam.” 

In this story, Da-duh stares at the narrator as if she “were a creature from Mars, an emissary from some world she did not know but which intrigued her and whose power she both felt and feared” after the young girl sings and dances to some popular songs of the era. Da-duh appears, Marshall says, “in some form or another” in every book she has written.

. . . . . . . . . .

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshell

Brown Girl, Brownstones
. . . . . . . . . .

Diving into the literary scene; moving to Barbados

After Marshall finished high school, her mother urged her to apply for a position with the telephone company. Marshall, who had shortened her old name, Pauline, to Paule (the e is silent) at the age of thirteen as an homage to her first Black literary inspiration, Paul Laurence Dunbar, ignored her mother’s urging.

 New York City colleges were then free to any New York City resident who qualified; Marshall earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Brooklyn College and then a master’s from Hunter. 

When Marshall (who changed her surname after marrying Kenneth Marshall in 1950; the couple, who has one son, divorced in 1963) received an advance to cut the six-hundred-page manuscript for what became her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones to a reasonable length, she used the money to move to Barbados. 

There she encountered the people, experiences, and landscapes that would shape so much of her future writing. After ten months of revisions, she returned to New York and was astonished when Langston Hughes, the great man of African American letters, appeared at the party to launch the book. Publication of Brown Girl, Brownstones in 1959 (reissued 2006) brought Marshall a Guggenheim Award, partly as a result of Hughes’s letter of recommendation. 

Critic and noted scholar of African-American history Darwin T. Turner credited Brown Girl, Brownstones with paving the way for a series of bildungsromans by Black women. This now includes Toni Morrison’s Sula and Alice Walker’sThe Color Purple. 

He sees Marshall’s emphasis on the importance of ancestral history and cultural pride, at a time when many other Black writers focused on claiming their right to an American identity, as the source of a new awareness that culminated in Alex Haley’s Roots. 


Further writing sojourns in the Caribbean

Hughes remained a supporter, sending Marshall a postcard to congratulate her on the release of her second book, Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961, reissued 1988), a collection of novellas featuring four aging men in Barbados, Brooklyn, British Guiana, and Brazil who try to reclaim love or regain a sense of purpose by reaching out to young women. 

Marshall undertook the project to see if she could “write convincingly of men.” More important, she says, she wanted to use “the relationships between the old men and the young women in the stories to suggest themes of a political nature.” 

Her short story “Reena” (the second e italicized), published in Harper’s magazine in 1962, was among the first pieces of fiction to “feature a college-educated, politically active Black woman as its protagonist” in its portrayal of a chance meeting between two old friends reflecting on their failures and the costs of their successes. 

Marshall used her Guggenheim money to rent a house on Granada, a Caribbean island with a landscape quite different from that of Barbados. 

With plenty of money, unlimited time to write, and stacks of research conducted in preparation for her writing retreat, Marshall ironically found herself suffering from writer’s block for the first time in her life. 

The logjam was finally broken after two women she had befriended in Granada insisted she make an overnight trip to Carriacou, an island some two hours away from Granada, to watch elderly women dance to the drumming of old men as they celebrated their numerous ancestral nations in the Big Drum/Nation Dance. The dance lasted into the wee hours; Marshall found it transformative.  

Returning to her writing desk the following day, Marshall gathered up her research notes and locked them away. “The paralysis broken,” she says, “I began to write nonstop.” 

As a fiction writer, she said, “my responsibility was first and foremost to the story, the story above all else: the old verities of people, plot and place; a story that if honestly told and well crafted would resonate with the historical truths contained in the steno pads.”

. . . . . . . . . .

Conversations with Paule Marshall

. . . . . . . . . .

A European tour with Langston Hughes

Marshall was active in a variety of organizations pushing for radical change, including American Youth for Democracy (a front group of the Communist Party), the civil rights movement, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. 

She suspected that the FBI agents known to be collecting information on activists were well aware of her activities, so she assumed the worst when she received a thick envelope from the U.S. State Department in her mail one day in 1965. When she opened the envelope, however, she discovered an invitation to accompany Langston Hughes on a month-long cultural tour of Europe. 

Marshall let the State Department sponsors know that she would be critical of U.S. government policies and actions while making this tour. Her intentions clearly pleased the government officials: her outspoken criticism would emphasize the freedom of speech enjoyed by Americans, even Black Americans. In any case, the chance to travel with Hughes to Paris, London, Copenhagen, and other European cities was an opportunity not to be missed.

. . . . . . . . . .

Praisesong for the widow Paule Marshall

Praisesong for the Widow (1983)
. . . . . . . . . .

A succession of successful novels

The novel Marshall began writing in Granada was published in 1969. The Chosen Place, the Timeless People was described by a New York Times reviewer as “the best novel to be written by an American Black woman.” 

It’s a novel that pits one of Marshall’s most memorable characters—Merle Kinbona, a powerful mystic and political leader—against a group of American social scientists who arrive to study and try to modernize Kinbona’s fictional Caribbean island and its people. 

Marshall’s next novel, Praisesong for the Widow (1983; reissued 2021), portrayed a middle-class Black American woman whose life is transformed by the all-night drumming and dancing ritual that ended Marshall’s writer’s block. 

Later novels include Daughters (1991), which portrays the life of a successful Black woman who leaves the United States behind to support the political career of her father in a fictional Caribbean nation. The Fisher King (2000) is the story of the grandson of a jazz musician who left Brooklyn for Paris, and who discovers his family’s history when returning to Brooklyn for a memorial concert.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People by Paule Marshall

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People
. . . . . . . . . .

Paule Marshall’s legacy and honors

Marshall had many admirers in addition to Langston Hughes. They included Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat and award-winning playwright Lynn Nottage. Nottage was Marshall’s goddaughter and said, “I wouldn’t be here without her,” on the occasion of Marshall’s death in 2019. 

She taught at several institutions, including UC Berkley, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, and Yale University. Ultimately, she was the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture at New York University. Marshall received an honorary doctorate form Bates College.

Marshall received numerous honors, including the American Book Award (1984), the Langston Hughes Medallion Award (1986), the John Dos Passos Prize (1989), the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1992), and the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award (2009) to recognize books that have contributed to our understanding of racism and the rich diversity of human cultures. 

Paule Marshall died in Richmond, Virginia, at the age of ninety.

Contributed by Lynne Weiss: Lynne’s writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review; Brain, Child; The Common OnLine; the Ploughshares blog; the [PANK] blog; Wild Musette; Main Street Rag; and Radcliffe Magazine. She received an MFA from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has won grants and residency awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Millay Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. She loves history, theater, and literature, and for many years, has earned her living by developing history and social studies materials for educational publishers. She lives outside Boston, where she is working on a novel set in Cornwall and London in the early 1930s. You can see more of her work at LynneWeiss.

You may also enjoy Lynne’s piece, Inspiration from Classic Caribbean Women Writers.

More about Paule Marshall

Major Works

  • Brown Girl, Brownstones (1981)
  • Soul Clap Hands and Sing (four short novels; 1961)
  • The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969)
  • Reena and Other Stories (1983)
  • Praisesong for the Widow (1983)
  • Merle: A Novella, and Other Stories (1985)
  • Daughters (1991)
  • The Fisher King (2001)
  • Triangular Road: A Memoir (2009)

More information and sources

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *