Academic journal article MELUS

Memory and Identity for Black, White, and Jew in Paule Marshall's 'The Chosen Place, the Timeless People.'

Academic journal article MELUS

Memory and Identity for Black, White, and Jew in Paule Marshall's 'The Chosen Place, the Timeless People.'

Article excerpt

Paule Marshall concludes her autobiographical essay "Shaping the World of my Art" (1973) by reminding us, almost as a motto, that "the past offers much instruction for the present struggle" (112). Earlier in the piece, Marshall had explicitly stated her "belief that for black people to define ourselves on our own terms we must consciously engage our past" (106). Indeed, each of her three novels published to date depicts a shattered Black protagonist who slowly regains wholeness through "truly confronting the past, both in historical and personal terms" (110-11); it is surely no coincidence that each of these novels concludes with the Black protagonist's return to an ancestral homeland and to the fullness that is embodied in it. Because Marshall places such emphasis on the importance of the past in defining one's present, she also places a great deal of emphasis on the fundamentally important role of memory.

Marshall's explanation of the vital role memory should play in one's life receives its most streamlined, almost paradigmatic, representation in her novel Praisesong for the Widow (1983). This work focuses on the character of Avey Johnson as she comes to terms with herself by remembering and coming to terms with her past. As the novel opens, Avey is portrayed as a typical widow of the American Black bourgeoisie; her behavior is in many ways determined by Whites, as symbolized by her house in North White Plains. While on a cruise in the Caribbean, Avey decides to return home ahead of schedule, but is instead detained on the island of Grenada. She discovers herself to have arrived on a holiday, furthermore, an annual excursion day when all of the Out-Islanders who work in Grenada return to Carriacou to celebrate their heritage and remember their ancestors. Watching the crowd waiting to be transported, Avey herself begins to remember, and experiences a kind of deja vu; the excursion calls to her mind the times in her childhood when she had gone on "the annual boat ride up the Hudson River to Bear Mountain!" (188), as well as the feelings she had "when she stood beside her great-aunt outside the church in Tatem, watching the elderly folk inside perform the Ring Shout" (190). Through remembering these communal rituals, Avey comes to feel the threads that reach from Africa to the Carriacouian Out-Islanders and to her great-aunt in South Carolina; she also comes to realize that all of these threads travel through her as well. "For those moments," Marshall writes in the book's most epiphanic section, "she became part of, indeed the center of, a huge wide confraternity" (191), all the members of which exist within the same circle of cultural memory.

The excursion is itself in honor of that memory, for its central ritual is the "Beg Pardon," a prayer of atonement directed toward one's ancestors, but one that also serves to declare the commonality of Black people from throughout time and space (Collier 313). The novel ends, as does the ritual, with "the Nation Dances," a dance of unity and strength (McCluskey 333), in which Avey is asked to dance for the sake of her ancestors. In doing so, performing her version of the Tatem Ring Shout, she rediscovers her own heritage (as a member of the Aradas) and begins to take her life back from the false webs of American materialism that had threatened to devour her completely. By the end of the novel, then, Avey has cast aside her American identity because of her strong feelings of natural kinship to the island people of Carriacou. Hers is the story of "the traveler who must first find the answer to the question of origins before she can return home" (Busia 205), for that answer entirely changes her definition of home.

Lebert Joseph, the archetypal crossroads figure in the novel who guides Avey on her journey, warns her of the power of the ancestors. "'I tell you, you best remember them!'" he says to Avey. "'If not they'll get vex and cause you nothing but trouble'" (165). …

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