It's all a matter of exposure and a training of the ear for the would-be writer in those early years of his or her apprenticeship. And, according to my guest lecturer, this training, the best of it, often takes place in as unglamorous a setting as the kitchen.
He didn't know it, but he was essentially describing my experience as a little girl. I grew up among poets. Now they didn't look like poets - whatever that breed is supposed to look like. Nothing about them suggested that poetry was their calling. They were just a group of ordinary housewives and mothers, my mother included, who dressed in a way (shapeless housedresses, dowdy felt hats and long, dark, solemn coats) that made it impossible for me to imagine they had ever been young.
Nor did they do what poets were supposed to do -spend their days in an attic room writing verses. They never put pen to paper except to write occasionally to their relatives in Barbados. ''I take my pen in hand hoping these few lines will find you in health as they leave me fair for the time being,'' was the way their letters invariably began. Rather, their day was spent ''scrubbing floor,'' as they described the work they did.
Several mornings a week these unknown bards would put an apron and a pair of old house shoes in a shopping bag and take the train or streetcar from our section of Brooklyn out to Flatbush. There, those who didn't have steady jobs would wait on certain designated corners for the white housewives in the neighborhood to come along and bargain with them over pay for a day's work cleaning their houses. This was the ritual even in the winter.
Later, armed with the few dollars they had earned, which in their vocabulary became ''a few raw-mouth pennies,'' they made their way back to our neighborhood, where they would sometimes stop off to have a cup of tea or cocoa together before going home to cook dinner for their husbands and children.
The basement kitchen of the brownstone house where my family lived was the usual gathering place. Once inside the warm safety of its walls the women threw off the drab coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked. While my sister and I sat at a smaller table over in a corner doing our homework, they talked - endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with impressive range. No subject was beyond them.
True, they would indulge in the usual gossip: whose husband was running with whom, whose daughter looked slightly ''in the way'' (pregnant) under her bridal gown as she walked down the aisle. That sort of thing. But they also tackled the great issues of the time. They were always, for example, discussing the state of the economy. It was the mid and late 30's then, and the aftershock of the Depression, with its soup lines and suicides on Wall Street, was still being felt.
Some people, they declared, didn't know how to deal with adversity. They didn't know that you had to ''tie up your belly'' (hold in the pain, that is) when things got rough and go on with life. They took their image from the bellyband that is tied around the stomach of a newborn baby to keep the navel pressed in.
They talked politics. Roosevelt was their hero. He had come along and rescued the country with relief and jobs, and in gratitude they christened their sons Franklin and Delano and hoped they would live up to the names.
If F.D.R. was their hero, Marcus Garvey was their God. The name of the fiery, Jamaican-born black nationalist of the 20's was constantly invoked around the table. For he had been their leader when they first came to the United States from the West Indies shortly after World War I. They had contributed to his organization, the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), out of their meager salaries, bought shares in his ill-fated Black Star Shipping Line, and at the height of the movement they had marched as members of his ''nurses' brigade'' in their white uniforms up Seventh Avenue in Harlem during the great Garvey Day parades. Garvey: He lived on through the power of their memories.
And their talk was of war and rumors of wars. They raged against World War II when it broke out in Europe, blaming it on the politicians. ''It's these politicians. They're the ones always starting up all this lot of war. But what they care? It's the poor people got to suffer and mothers with their sons.'' If it was their sons, they swore they would keep them out of the Army by giving them soap to eat each day to make their hearts sound defective. Hitler? He was for them ''the devil incarnate.''
Then there was home. They reminisced often and at length about home. The old country. Barbados - or Bimshire, as they affectionately called it. The little Caribbean island in the sun they loved but had to leave. ''Poor - poor but sweet'' was the way they remembered it.
And naturally they discussed their adopted home. America came in for both good and bad marks. They lashed out at it for the racism they encountered. They took to task some of the people they worked for, especially those who gave them only a hard-boiled egg and a few spoonfuls of cottage cheese for lunch. ''As if anybody can scrub floor on an egg and some cheese that don't have no taste to it!''
Yet although they caught H in ''this man country,'' as they called America, it was nonetheless a place where ''you could at least see your way to make a dollar.'' That much they acknowledged. They might even one day accumulate enough dollars, with both them and their husbands working, to buy the brownstone houses which, like my family, they were only leasing at that period. This was their consuming ambition: to ''buy house'' and to see the children through.
THERE was no way for me to understand it at the time, but the talk that filled the kitchen those afternoons was highly functional. It served as therapy, the cheapest kind available to my mother and her friends. Not only did it help them recover from the long wait on the corner that morning and the bargaining over their labor, it restored them to a sense of themselves and reaffirmed their self-worth. Through language they were able to overcome the humiliations of the work-day.
But more than therapy, that freewheeling, wide-ranging, exuberant talk functioned as an outlet for the tremendous creative energy they possessed. They were women in whom the need for self-expression was strong, and since language was the only vehicle readily available to them they made of it an art form that - in keeping with the African tradition in which art and life are one - was an integral part of their lives.
And their talk was a refuge. They never really ceased being baffled and overwhelmed by America - its vastness, complexity and power. Its strange customs and laws. At a level beyond words they remained fearful and in awe. Their uneasiness and fear were even reflected in their attitude toward the children they had given birth to in this country. They referred to those like myself, the little Brooklynborn Bajans (Barbadians), as ''these New York children'' and complained that they couldn't discipline us properly because of the laws here. ''You can't beat these children as you would like, you know, because the authorities in this place will dash you in jail for them. After all, these is New York children.'' Not only were we different, American, we had, as they saw it, escaped their ultimate authority.
Confronted therefore by a world they could not encompass, which even limited their rights as parents, and at the same time finding themselves permanently separated from the world they had known, they took refuge in language. ''Language is the only homeland,'' Czeslaw Milosz, the emigre Polish writer and Nobel Laureate, has said. This is what it became for the women at the kitchen table.
It served another purpose also, I suspect. My mother and her friends were after all the female counterpart of Ralph Ellison's invisible man. Indeed, you might say they suffered a triple invisibility, being black, female and foreigners. They really didn't count in American society except as a source of cheap labor. But given the kind of women they were, they couldn't tolerate the fact of their invisibility, their powerlessness. And they fought back, using the only weapon at their command: the spoken word.
Those late afternoon conversations on a wide range of topics were a way for them to feel they exercised some measure of control over their lives and the events that shaped them. ''Soully-gal, talk yuh talk!'' they were always exhorting each other. ''In this man world you got to take yuh mouth and make a gun!'' They were in control, if only verbally and if only for the two hours or so that they remained in our house.
For me, sitting over in the corner, being seen but not heard, which was the rule for children in those days, it wasn't only what the women talked about -the content - but the way they put things - their style. The insight, irony, wit and humor they brought to their stories and discussions and their poet's inventiveness and daring with language - which of course I could only sense but not define back then.
They had taken the standard English taught them in the primary schools of Barbados and transformed it into an idiom, an instrument that more adequately described them -changing around the syntax and imposing their own rhythm and accent so that the sentences were more pleasing to their ears. They added the few African sounds and words that had survived, such as the derisive suck-teeth sound and the word ''yam,'' meaning to eat. And to make it more vivid, more in keeping with their expressive quality, they brought to bear a raft of metaphors, parables, Biblical quotations, sayings and the like:
''The sea ain' got no back door,'' they would say, meaning that it wasn't like a house where if there was a fire you could run out the back. Meaning that it was not to be trifled with. And meaning perhaps in a larger sense that man should treat all of nature with caution and respect.
''I has read hell by heart and called every generation blessed!'' They sometimes went in for hyperbole. A woman expecting a baby was never said to be pregnant. They never used that word. Rather, she was ''in the way'' or, better yet, ''tumbling big.'' ''Guess who I butt up on in the market the other day tumbling big again!''
And a woman with a reputation of being too free with her sexual favors was known in their book as a ''thoroughfare'' - the sense of men like a steady stream of cars moving up and down the road of her life. Or she might be dubbed ''a free-bee,'' which was my favorite of the two. I liked the image it conjured up of a woman scandalous perhaps but independent, who flitted from one flower to another in a garden of male beauties, sampling their nectar, taking her pleasure at will, the roles reversed.
And nothing, no matter how beautiful, was ever described as simply beautiful. It was always ''beautiful-ugly'': the beautiful-ugly dress, the beautiful-ugly house, the beautiful-ugly car. Why the word ''ugly,'' I used to wonder, when the thing they were referring to was beautiful, and they knew it. Why the antonym, the contradiction, the linking of opposites? It used to puzzle me greatly as a child.
There is the theory in linguistics which states that the idiom of a people, the way they use language, reflects not only the most fundamental views they hold of themselves and the world but their very conception of reality. Perhaps in using the term ''beautifulugly'' to describe nearly everything, my mother and her friends were expressing what they believed to be a fundamental dualism in life: the idea that a thing is at the same time its opposite, and that these opposites, these contradictions make up the whole. But theirs was not a Manichaean brand of dualism that sees matter, flesh, the body, as inherently evil, because they constantly addressed each other as ''soully-gal'' - soul: spirit; gal: the body, flesh, the visible self. And it was clear from their tone that they gave one as much weight and importance as the other. They had never heard of the mind / body split.
As for God, they summed up His essential attitude in a phrase. ''God,'' they would say, ''don' love ugly and He ain' stuck on pretty.''
Using everyday speech, the simple commonplace words -but always with imagination and skill - they gave voice to the most complex ideas. Flannery O'Connor would have approved of how they made ordinary language work, as she put it, ''double-time,'' stretching, shading, deepening its meaning. Like Joseph Conrad they were always trying to infuse new life in the ''old old words worn thin ... by ... careless usage.'' And the goals of their oral art were the same as his: ''to make you hear, to make you feel ... to make you see.'' This was their guiding esthetic.
By the time I was 8 or 9, I graduated from the corner of the kitchen to the neighborhood library, and thus from the spoken to the written word. The Macon Street Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library was an imposing half block long edifice of heavy gray masonry, with glass-paneled doors at the front and two tall metal torches symbolizing the light that comes of learning flanking the wide steps outside.
The inside was just as impressive. More steps - of pale marble with gleaming brass railings at the center and sides - led up to the circulation desk, and a great pendulum clock gazed down from the balcony stacks that faced the entrance. Usually stationed at the top of the steps like the guards outside Buckingham Palace was the custodian, a stern-faced West Indian type who for years, until I was old enough to obtain an adult card, would immediately shoo me with one hand into the Children's Room and with the other threaten me into silence, a finger to his lips. You would have thought he was the chief librarian and not just someone whose job it was to keep the brass polished and the clock wound. I put him in a story called ''Barbados'' years later and had terrible things happen to him at the end.
I was sheltered from the storm of adolescence in the Macon Street library, reading voraciously, indiscriminately, everything from Jane Austen to Zane Grey, but with a special passion for the long, fullblown, richly detailed 18th-and 19th-century picaresque tales: ''Tom Jones.'' ''Great Expectations.'' ''Vanity Fair.''
BUT although I loved nearly everything I read and would enter fully into the lives of the characters - indeed, would cease being myself and become them - I sensed a lack after a time. Something I couldn't quite define was missing. And then one day, browsing in the poetry section, I came across a book by someone called Paul Laurence Dunbar, and opening it I found the photograph of a wistful, sad-eyed poet who to my surprise was black. I turned to a poem at random. ''Little brown-baby wif spa'klin' / eyes / Come to yo' pappy an' set on his knee.'' Although I had a little difficulty at first with the words in dialect, the poem spoke to me as nothing I had read before of the closeness, the special relationship I had had with my father, who by then had become an ardent believer in Father Divine and gone to live in Father's ''kingdom'' in Harlem. Reading it helped to ease somewhat the tight knot of sorrow and longing I carried around in my chest that refused to go away. I read another poem. ''Lias! ''Lias! Bless de Lawd! / Don' you know de day's / erbroad? / Ef you don' get up, you scamp / Dey'll be trouble in dis camp.'' I laughed. It reminded me of the way my mother sometimes yelled at my sister and me to get out of bed in the mornings.
And another: ''Seen my lady home las' night / Jump back, honey, jump back./ Hel' huh han' an' sque'z it tight ...'' About love between a black man and a black woman. I had never seen that written about before and it roused in me all kinds of delicious feelings and hopes.
And I began to search then for books and stories and poems about ''The Race'' (as it was put back then), about my people. While not abandoning Thackeray, Fielding, Dickens and the others, I started asking the reference librarian, who was white, for books by Negro writers, although I must admit I did so at first with a feeling of shame - the shame I and many others used to experience in those days whenever the word ''Negro'' or ''colored'' came up.
No grade school literature teacher of mine had ever mentioned Dunbar or James Weldon Johnson or Langston Hughes. I didn't know that Zora Neale Hurston existed and was busy writing and being published during those years. Nor was I made aware of people like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman - their spirit and example - or the great 19th-century abolitionist and feminist Sojourner Truth. There wasn't even Negro History Week when I attended P.S. 35 on Decatur Street!
What I needed, what all the kids - West Indian and native black American alike - with whom I grew up needed, was an equivalent of the Jewish shul, someplace where we could go after school - the schools that were shortchanging us - and read works by those like ourselves and learn about our history.
It was around that time also that I began harboring the dangerous thought of someday trying to write myself. Perhaps a poem about an apple tree, although I had never seen one. Or the story of a girl who could magically transplant herself to wherever she wanted to be in the world - such as Father Divine's kingdom in Harlem. Dunbar - his dark, eloquent face, his large volume of poems -permitted me to dream that I might someday write, and with something of the power with words my mother and her friends possessed.
When people at readings and writers' conferences ask me who my major influences were, they are sometimes a little disappointed when I don't immediately name the usual literary giants. True, I am indebted to those writers, white and black, whom I read during my formative years and still read for instruction and pleasure. But they were preceded in my life by another set of giants whom I always acknowledge before all others: the group of women around the table long ago. They taught me my first lessons in the narrative art. They trained my ear. They set a standard of excellence. This is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich legacy of language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen.Continue reading the main story
Image by Geoffrey Philip/CC licensed
In 1929, Paule Marshall was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York. She visited Barbados, her parents’ birthplace, for the first time at the age of nine. Marshall graduated from Brooklyn College in 1953 and graduate school at Hunter College in 1955. Early in her life, Marshall wrote a series of poems reflecting impressions of Barbados. Later, she turned to fiction. She has published short stories and articles in various magazines. She is best known for her novels and collections of short stories: Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Reena and Other Short Stories (1983), and Daughters (1991). Marshall has lectured on black literature at universities and colleges such as Oxford University, Columbia University, Michigan State University, and Cornell University. She holds a distinguished chair in creative writing at New York University.
Works & Themes
Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall’s first novel, tells the story of Selina Boyce, a girl growing up in a small black immigrant community. Selina is caught between her mother, who wants to conform to the ideals of her new home and make the American dream come true, and her father, who longs to go back to Barbados. The dominant themes in the novel – travel, migration, psychic fracture and striving for wholeness – are important structuring elements in her later works as well. (See Mimicry, Ambivalence and Hybridity)
Soul Clap Hands and Sing, whose title is taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” is comprised of four novellas, each taking place in different locations but depicting an aging man of African descent. Hardened by their compliance to the Western ideal to accumulate wealth, these men feel the need to develop meaningful human relationships and reach out to young women. Still caught up in their selfish motives, these men must face their individual failures for having waited too long as well as the tragedy of loneliness. While, as Joyce Pettis points out, “women’s capacity for renewal is not elaborately articulated in this early work, the recognition is crucial, for it foreshadows their potential for exhaustive developments in later texts,” such as The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, and Daughters (15). In these works, childbearing stands for the hope to heal the West Indian psyche of the fractures it has suffered from the traumatic experience of the colonial past and white supremacy (See Frantz Fanon, Colonial Education, Gender and Nation). Conversely, the inability to conceive and the unwillingness to bear children will be a symbol of the inability to remedy those fractures.
In The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, Marshall brings these ideas together in the character of Merle Kimbona, daughter of one of the last sugar cane plantation owners and a servant. As an educated woman who lived in England but returned to her homeland, the fictitious island of Bourne located in the West Indies, Merle stands as a symbol for the troubled consciousness of the West Indian psyche. Having been seduced and abused by the perverted ideals of British white supremacy epitomized in the character of an upper class English lady, which ultimately leads to the end of her marriage with her African husband, Merle is left alone with her shame and the conviction that she has lost her quest for her true identity. Thus it is a bitter and cynical Merle who meets the novel’s other main character, Jewish American anthropologist Saul Amron, coming to Bournehills to conduct a preliminary survey that aims to better the life of the inhabitants in a way that takes their culture into account. The subdued romantic affair between Merle and Saul results in the cancellation of Saul’s project, the suicide of his wife, and Merle’s decision to move to Africa to find her husband and daughter. Simple oppositions, deployed in an ideologically burdened manner (e.g. the one between a problematic America and an unproblematic Africa or the one between “perverted,” futile female homosexuality and Merle’s ability to conceive a child with her African husband) point to a problematic idealism in the novel’s message. Nevertheless, Marshall’s extraordinary talent in depicting complex, intriguing characters undermines this idealism and creates a brilliant epic of the West Indian condition.
Reena and Other Stories is a collection of Marshall’s short fiction but it also contains the important essay “The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen.” In this piece, Marshall expresses her gratitude to her mother and other Barbadian women for having taught her the power of the word as an instrument of communication as well as survival.
Praisesong for the Widow is in many ways the closing point of Marshall’s explorations concerning the fractured West Indian psyche. The main characters, Avatara and Jerome Johnson evoke Silla and Deighton Boyce, the parents of Selina in Brown Girl, Brownstones. Similar to the couple in the earlier novel, Avatara and Jerome are caught up in pursuing capitalist comforts. Like Silla, Jerome dies without ever realizing that there may be a different way of survival. Unlike Silla, Avatara discovers a possibility to reconnect with the cultures of African descent when traveling to a Caribbean island (See Paul Gilroy: The Black Atlantic). Here, the remains of African cultures are preserved in legends, dances, myths, and rituals. The novel suggests that, in Pettis’s words, “the divisiveness of Eurocentric cosmology can be countered through sensitivity to and acceptance of one’s cultural origins. The result is a self that is whole and moored” (16-17).
In Daughters, Marshall is no longer invested in depicting such cultural and psychic reintegration although the familiar motives of travel and the symbolic significance of childbearing reappear. The heroine, Ursa McKenzie, daughter of an African American woman and a native politician of a fictitious Caribbean island, Triunion, lives in Brooklyn. The conflicts in her life are structured by the social implications of racism and gendered relations. The idealism of the earlier novels only appear in Ursa’s long planned thesis topic: the demonstration of egalitarian gender roles of the people of African descent under slavery. The Triunian legend of slave freedom fighters and lovers Congo Jane and Will Codjoe portrays an equal relationship unmatched by any of the couples in the novel. While Ursa chooses not to bear children and her friend Viney is willing to be a mother only through artificial insemination and chooses to stay celibate, these motives no longer suggest the denial to discover and accept one’s cultural heritage. Ursa is quite capable of leading a productive, if not utterly satisfactory, life in New York; the source of her main conflict is her relationship with her father, the politician who has lost his initial zeal to help his people and has become a puppet in the hands of imperialist businessmen. (See African American Studies and Postcolonialism)
The recurring themes of travel, psychic reintegration, and gender relations in a patriarchal, postcolonial, capitalist, and white supremacist world render Marshall’s oeuvre a consistent body of writings exploring the possibilities and stakes of claiming a culture of African origin. As Dorothy L. Denniston writes, “Marshall offers no easy solutions in her fiction, but she does suggest models for change and possibility. Because she develops those possibilities through the characterization of black women, she celebrates female agency and empowerment. Indeed, black women become representative of the larger black struggle for individual autonomy and communal wholeness” (88).
Rosenthal Award for the National Institute of Arts and Letters for Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961)
Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Praisesong for the Widow (1984)
John Dos Pasos Award for Literature (1989)
MacArthur Fellowship (1992)
Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1959.
—. Soul Clap Hands and Sing. Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1961.
—. The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. New York: Vintage, 1969.
—. Reena and Other Stories. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1983.
—. Praisesong for the Widow. New York: Plume, 1983.
—. Daughters. New York: Plume, 1991.
—. The Fisher King. New York: Scribner, 2001.
—. Triangular Road. New York: Basica Civitas Books, 2009.
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Author: Eszter Timar, Spring 2000
Last edited: May 2017
Brown Girl, Brownstones, 1959