Academic journal article MELUS

The Gullah Seeker's Journey in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow

Academic journal article MELUS

The Gullah Seeker's Journey in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow

Article excerpt

As Barbara T. Christian and others have argued, all of Paule Marshall's fiction demonstrates her conviction that African-based cultural and historical rituals have the power to resist centuries of loss and psychological colonization. Marshall's third novel, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), uses myth, ritual, and folklore even more deliberately than her other works. Specifically, Praisesong follows the steps of the protagonist's ancestral Gullah "seeker's" initiation rite, which religious historian Margaret Washington Creel notes was the metaphysical practice of nearly all Africans who were transplanted to the Americas during slavery. (1) Although critics have examined Marshall's use of African ritual inheritances, none have elaborated on the seeking journey in Praisesong. An investigation of the initiation rite in Marshall's novel not only offers a uniquely Afrocentric window into the heart of this text, but also offers insight into the significance of the trope more generally in post-Civil Rights-era literature by African American women.

Besides being enacted as ah integral step in the seeker's journey in Praisesong, the initiating rite of baptism also appears in Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters (1980), Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place (1982), and Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987). Literal and figurative baptism alerts the reader that the texts' female characters are, like the protagonist in Praisesong, undergoing a "spiritual metamorphosis, symbolic death, and rebirth" that will develop these "raw souls" through their metaphysical "striving" (Creel, "Gullah" 80). The characters' spiritual maturation includes the resolution/integration of grief resulting from the death of a loved one, resurrection/reclamation of self after the character's own metaphysical death, and/or reunification with others after estrangement from the black community. If the initiate rises to the challenge, she is led to healing and wisdom, which are powerful resources for survival and spiritual enrichment, not only for the individual but also for her family, community, and the greater community of the text's readers. (2) In The Salt Eaters, Velma, who over the course of the novel is being healed after a suicide attempt, remembers an instance when Ruby and others washed her following her emotional breakdown from the endless political work she and other women had been doing in the rain and mud while male leaders socialized and womanized indoors (40-41). In The Women of Brewster Place, after Ciel loses a pregnancy to abortion, her toddler to accidental electrocution, and her man to his need to run, Mattie brings Ciel back to life by bathing her (104-05). In Beloved, Baby Suggs bathes her daughter-in-law after Sethe arrives at 124 Bluestone Road, having escaped the abuses of enslavement and given birth in the woods (92-93). Baptismal reinitiation into self and community is figuratively suggested again toward the end of Beloved when the women who gather to banish the ghost begin singing: the wave of their sound "broke over Sethe and she trembled like the baptized in its wash" (261). In addition, Paul D is about to bathe Sethe in the text's final scene, when, after her physically and metaphysically draining ordeal, he has returned to help her reclaim herself and their life together as members of the black community (272).

In The Salt Eaters, Bambara's narrator asserts that to heal, one must "tap the brain for any knowledge of initiation rites lying dormant there, recognizing that life depended on it, that initiation was the beginning of transformation and that the ecology of the self, the tribe, the species, the earth depended on just that" (247). The activist characters in Bambara's post-Civil Rights-era black community must continue to fight, because the Transchemical Corporation's economic grip and pervasive pollution hold the town captive, threatening the people on physical, socioeconomic, and metaphysical levels. Like Bambara's protagonist Velma, Marshall's Avatara "Avey" Johnson must revivify her relationship to herself and to the black community. …

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