Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall (1983)
By Lynne Weiss | On December 13, 2023 | Comments (0)
Praisesong for the Widow is widely regarded as Paule Marshall’s most eloquent statement of the need for African Americans to understand and embrace their heritage even as they pursue equality and success.
Praisesong was initially published in 1983 and reissued in 2021 in a handsome edition by McSweeney’s as the second volume in its Diaspora series.
Praisesong is the first of Marshall’s novels to feature a middle-class Black American woman at its center, a woman who experiences what was also a defining moment in Paule Marshall’s own life: the Big Drum ceremony on the tiny Caribbean island of Carriacou.
The witnessing of the Big Drum ceremony, recounted in Triangular Road, Marshall’s 2009 memoir, allowed her to break through writer’s block to write The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969). It constitutes the climactic moment in Praisesong for the Widow.
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Learn more about Paule Marshall
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A Decision to Jump Ship
Compared with Marshall’s earlier novel, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People, which has a broad array of characters with complex interrelationships and an intricate plot that unfolds over a period of months, the plot of Praisesong is a simple one.
Avey Williams Johnson, the protagonist, is a middle-aged African American widow with adult children. She lives in a large and comfortable suburban home in prosperous North White Plains, a suburb of New York City. A supervisor in the state motor vehicle department, she dresses well, eats well, and enjoys all the pleasures of a hard-won upper-middle-class lifestyle.
Avey embarks on an expensive Caribbean cruise on the Bianca (white) Pride with two friends, also widows, and six pieces of matched luggage filled with her well-chosen wardrobe, but a few days into the cruise she succumbs to her feeling of increasing unease and decides, for reasons she cannot explain, to jump ship off the coast of the island of Grenada. She plans to fly back to New York as soon as possible.
A few days earlier, she had dreamt about her great-aunt, whom Avey visited on Tatem Island in North Carolina during childhood summers. The old woman told stories of the landing of enslaved people. Avey is disturbed by the dream, but she doesn’t connect it to her sudden impulse to abandon her cruise and the ship.
Arrival on Grenada
Avey arrives in Grenada to find “a crowd of perhaps two hundred men, women and children … clearly from the more respectable element on the island” who pay her no attention as they stream onto a waiting line of schooners and sloops. She learns that there are no more flights to New York until late the next day; her taxi driver tells her that the people she saw boarding boats were headed for Carriacou, an island “so small scarcely anybody has ever heard of it.”
Avey checks into the best tourist hotel in Grenada and the next day she goes for a walk along the beach. Finding herself disoriented and lost, she encounters an old man, Lebert Joseph, who is about to embark on the same expedition to Carriacou as the people she saw the day before.
Although Avey insists she is a tourist, the old man recognizes something in her that she has yet to discover in herself and he eventually overcomes her resistance and convinces her to join him on the trip to Carriacou to witness the Big Drum ceremony.
Journey to Carriacou
Despite her objections, Avey delays her flight again and makes the journey to Carriacou with a boatload of people, including two old women who nurse her through a bout of vomiting that she attributes to seasickness, but which readers will recognize as a metaphorical purging.
Once on the island of Carriacou, she is initially disappointed when she sees the “large denuded dirt yard” where the dance is to be held. But as the dance proceeds, women from different “nations,” or ethnic groups, take their turns to dance. Avey begins to “feel the reverberation” of the dancers’ powerful tread.
Eventually, “…an arm made up of many arms” reaches out to draw her in and soon she is also “doing the flatfooted glide and stomp with aplomb … in the company of these strangers who had become one and the same with people in Tatem.” Later, Lebert Johnson and his daughter Rosalie tell Avey that after watching the way she danced and after considering her height and the way she carries herself, they have determined that she is descended from the Arada people.
Avey has a history, and the costs of her success
By the time she heads back to New York, Avey knows what she is going to do: she will pass this history along to the “young, bright, fiercely articulate token few for whom her generation had worked the two and three jobs,” sell her house in North White Plains, and restore her great aunt’s house.
She makes plans to turn it into a place where she can bring her grandchildren to tell them the stories of their people.
An immensely readable and straightforward story, Praisesong for the Widow takes place over just a couple of days. Yet Marshall incorporates so much into this account: Avey and her husband Jerome’s endless work to move from a cramped and cold apartment in Brooklyn to the comfortable home in North White Plains; the costs of that striving to her marriage and relationship with her children; the brutality of the racism that always surrounds them as she and her husband watch helplessly (in this era before cell phone cameras) from the window of their Brooklyn apartment as police drag a Black man from his car and beat him until he bleeds; the joyous childhood outings among her Harlem neighbors setting out for a summer picnic.
We see the yearning of Avey’s youngest child, Marion, to share her struggle for equality and the history of their people with her mother and Avey’s refusal to acknowledge that history for fear of losing what she and her husband have worked so hard to attain.
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The Chosen Place, the Timeless People
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Paule Marshall’s Own Transformation
Much of this story is mirrored in Marshall’s own life. Though she wasn’t on a cruise, in 1962 she was living on the island of Grenada, having gone there as a single mother intending to write after receiving a Guggenheim grant.
Despite her preparations for the opportunity—stacks of research—and the ideal conditions—Grenada’s beauty and the money that allowed her to hire a housekeeper, a cook, and a nanny, and rent a house with large rooms and tall windows—she found herself suffering, for the first time in her life, from a paralyzing case of writer’s block.
When a couple of friends insisted that she make the trip to Carriacou (a smaller island two hours away by schooner) to witness The Big Drum/Nation Dance, she reluctantly agreed to go.
“The drums,” she wrote, “were nothing more than a few hollowed-out logs with a drumhead of goatskin. The drummers themselves were elderly men who couldn’t possibly, it seemed, open their stiff, work-swollen hands to beat a drum.”
The men drum throughout the night as aged women dance. “Who we is, oui!” the dance caller cries. “Where we’s from in truth! Our true-true nation: Manding, Arada, Cromanti, Congo, Yoruba, Igbo, Chamba.”
As Marshall watched the dance, she recalled James Weldon Johnson’s description of the Ring Shout in his memoir of growing up in segregated Florida, Along This Way. Inspired, Marshall joined the dancers, and when she returned to her study the next morning, she packed up her steno pads of research notes and locked them away.
It was only then that she was able to begin writing the novel that would become The Chosen Place, the Timeless People:
“… finally understanding, fledgling that I still was, that as a fiction writer, a novelist, a storyteller, a fabulist … my responsibility first and foremost was to the story … 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.”
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.
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