One day in 1959, prolific Harlem Renaissance poet, Langston Hughes, walked into a storefront that was hosting a party for a newly published and then-unknown novelist. Hughes, famously known for supporting the works of burgeoning writers, would go on to figure hugely in their life, becoming their mentor and urging them along in their literary career. Clairvoyant then is Hughes, for his support of a writer whose debut is thought of as, “the novel that most black feminist critics consider to be the beginning of contemporary African-American women’s writings,” writes Cheryl Wall in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. This writer was novelist Paule Marshall, whose career included nine published works as well as a multiplicity of awards and fellowships.
Sixty years later, in August of 2019, Paule Marshall would pass, at the age of 90. Several writers took to the internet to express grief over her passing, “This is a grieving season for black literature,” tweeted scholar Imani Perry, her lament signaling the closeness of Marshall’s death to the passing of one of her contemporaries, Toni Morrison. Morrison’s impact on American literature is inestimable, offering us several seminal works and winning the Noble Prize for literature. Whereas Marshall’s legacy is seemingly diminutive, her name unknown to those who are not scholars of African American literature. Nonetheless, Marshall’s work is laden with significance for the canon of African American letters, for it forges a pathway filled with preoccupations that would later gain popularity and be further explored by Black Women writers in its wake. Moreover, her literary output served as a bridge connecting the writings of Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks with Toni Morrison and Alice Walker – to be sure, her work doesn’t nearly connect, it spans 50 years.
In his essay on Marshall written for the New York Review of Books, critic Daryl Pinckney observes, “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.” These women are waged in battles against racism and sexism, which impresses itself against their lives. That is to say; these battles don’t comprise the totality of their experiences; they are flawed subjects living ordinary lives. Marshall has a knack for ambivalence; we often find her subjects suspended in contradiction: both vengeful and loving, simultaneously sure and unsure of themselves. Of her oeuvre, only two books feature male protagonists, a clear and deliberate choice; in an interview for Essence magazine, Marshall says “Traditionally in most fiction men are the wheelers and dealers. They are the ones in whom power is invested. I wanted to turn that around. I wanted women to be the centers of power. My feminism takes its expression through my work. Women are central for me. They can as easily embody the power principles as a man.”
To the African diasporic subject, Marshall writes with a knowingness that is comfortingly familiar; Haitian novelist Edwidge Danticat writes of Marshall, “She could have been talking about both my mother and the women who’d raised me in Haiti while my parents were toiling in sweatshops in New York to send money back home.” And it is this familiarity that returns me to the work of Paule Marshall; her prose is riddled with the melodious, proverbial speech that I’ve heard spoken by my mother and aunts. I credit Marshall for shifting my ways of seeing; I once thought the women in my family were perennially embittered by the frustrations of their past – I now realize their wisdom lay embedded in their speech, and their vitality is extant within me. As we near the one-year anniversary of Marshall’s passing, I return to her debut novel Brown Girl, Brownstones for evocations of these women, but perhaps, more significantly, for treatment of the characters alive in her text. Reading the book sixty years after its publication gifts me the opportunity to situate its characters adjacent to the writing of brilliant scholar Saidiya Hartman, whereby I utilize her work to explore the complex depths of the characters in Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones.
Marshall’s critically acclaimed debut, initially published by Random House in 1959 and reissued by the Feminist Press in 1981, has its subject matter gleaned from her personal life. In the book, we find its characters grappling with racism, sexism, cultural nationalism, and the search for self-identification – the earliest iterations of themes Marshall would go on to explore significantly in later novels. A close read would expose the book’s sophistication, for the hallmark of Marshall’s artistry lies in her craftsmanship. She uses literary devices – plot, characterization, narration, and setting – to build worlds so layered and textured its familiarity belies the complexity that yielded it. We also see prose rich in dialogue that lives off of the page and Marshall delineating in realistic and mythic presentation. It is the story of a young girl – Selina Boyce, American born to Barbadian parents – living in the throes of a neighborhood in transition. Intrinsic to the bildungsroman form, we find Selina struggling with adolescent turmoil: she is gangly as opposed to her friends, classmates, and sister who are all blooming into their young femininity: she is fiercely curious and sprightly; and she has eyes that befit someone who has lived a long, storied life. And it was these eyes, described as paradoxically young and old, that would gaze upon her surroundings, looking for a place to call home, of which she fails to find, only seeing composites of herself and a community reconciling their dashed hopes.
Selina is wedged between her parents’ dissenting vision for the future – it is this that drives the conflict for half of the novel. Silla Deighton, Selina’s Mother, is unrelenting in her pursuit of the penultimate American dream: homeownership. As she endeavors to own the Brownstone where the family lives, Deighton Boyce, Selina’s father, can only dream of moving back to Barbados and building a grandeur home on his recently procured plot of land. We find in Silla and Deighton’s relationship, as well as the community at large, the dichotomous ramifications of sociopolitical forces: racism and sexism. These are the factors that exacerbate the rift, disillusioning them and forcing them to perpetually seek pacification. For Silla, that salve is found among her witty and crass friends with whom she spends Saturdays, cooking Barbadian delicacies. Deighton is initially unburdened by a mistress, and ultimately by a religious sect in Harlem. Eventually, they are left embittered and unable to comprehend the journey’s ending; of their last look, Marshall writes, “They might have been alone with the world around them stilled and the years rubbed away like smoke from a glass. For the look they shared must have been the same as when they first met: shy yet curious and at its core the stir of love. Silently they asked each other what had gone wrong, what it was that had ruined them for each other, and their mutual bewilderment confessed they did not know.” Silla would eventually own the Brownstone of her dreams – but not before she pays a grave price.
Silla stands as a formidable force within the novel, always threatening to eclipse Selina’s presence. It is through Silla that we gain a sentimental education on the experience of the Black Caribbean born woman living in America. She is a woman filled with warring emotions: acceptance and denial, love and hate, both desire and refusal of her husband. This posits Silla as discontinuous from depictions of the Black Woman in Literature, for who before her gave in, and was sustained by, the fiery pit of rage begotten from oppression. It would be a decade before a woman as complex as Silla appeared again in African American Literature; that woman would be Toni Morrison’s eponymous antagonist Sula. In writing Silla – a woman who yields to the collective force of her community and the myth of the American dream – Marshall is in conversation with scholar Saidiya Hartman who writes, “The plot of her undoing begins with the social contract, with the marriage vow, with the dream of the state, with the novel of love, with the longing to be sovereign, with coveting a piece of the pie.” And it is gazing on this pursuit of “a piece of the pie” that confounds Silla; she is simultaneously enraptured and frightened by her mother. Still, she mines the rage she feels, stirred by her mother’s possessiveness, and resists her – creating tension throughout the novel. Selina ultimately realizes she is akin to her Silla, and not her father’s daughter as she initially anticipated, she says, “Everybody used to call me Deighton’s Selina but they were wrong. Because you see I’m truly your child. Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was you own woman? I used to love hearing that. And that’s what I want. I want it!”
But Selina’s shaping isn’t limited to just her home; her neighbors, who occupy the Brownstone where she resides, exist like a constellation and pours into her identity. Like Suggie, the wayward Barbadian woman who takes nightly suitors and gives Selina rum to drink. It is here that I draw another parallel to the work of Saidiya Hartman. Hartman could have been writing about Suggie instead of Mattie Nelson, a southern woman who travels to New York and is subsequently accused of prostitution and jailed, Suggie is kicked out of the Brownstone following accusations of prostitution. Their motivation for the act of coitus the same, Hartman writes, “Mattie’s restiveness and longing and the free love practiced in a private bedroom rented by the week were part of a larger ensemble of intimate acts that were transforming social life…” Or her hairdresser, Miss Thompson, who possess the tenderness that Selina’s Mother lacks, and softly challenges her to look at her community differently. It is these figures that contribute to Selina’s maturation and factor into her decision making. Towards the end of the novel, she takes part in a bohemian romance with a fellow Barbadian, Clive. Their positionality, as outliers, converges them, where they spend their time together, stirring on the realities of their lives and their ways of escape. Eventually, Selina realizes she must end the relationship with Clive for her strength, ambition and tenacity usurp that of his own. Clive’s role in the novel is symbolic of choice for Selina; it is through him that she chooses to walk the path that is separate from the one laid out for her. But the forces that have shaped her identity intersect and she completes her maturation; it is her father’s romanticism that gives her the intense passion for Clive; Suggie’s sensuality that makes room to give herself to him; and her mother’s determination and ambition that encourages her to deceive the Barbadian association, and finally, to leave Clive. Ultimately, Selina realizes her identity is not distinct from that of which she’s witnessed but a compilation of separate parts that contribute to her totality. With this new sense of self-realization, she concludes that she must leave and return to Barbados, to strengthen her sense of self. Readers of Marshall will acknowledge that what appears to be an end is a start for Selina; she is on her way to fully healing her inchoateness by journeying “home,” the birthplace of her parents. For Marshall, we are only able to heal after we’ve mined the past for solutions to our afflictions; only then can we achieve togetherness.
Through Brown Girl, Brownstones, we meet several of the most memorable women in American literature; but more importantly, we learn a profound lesson on the enigmatic complexity of human weakness and resolve. Marshall nudges us toward the past – which may require a journey, like that of Selina’s – as a means for coherence; as such, I will always return to her work. I hope more readers join me; Marshall’s art demands we do so – together.
Michael Nuñez is a Garifuna-American freelance writer from Brooklyn, New York. He is particularly interested in the writings of the African-Diasporic subject, primarily taking an interest in Caribbean literature. When he is not reading, he could be found watching film – he is a staunch fan of “Third-World Cinema.” He is currently conducting research for his first book, which will explore his Garifuna identity.