Academic journal article African American Review

Women's Spiritual Geographies of the African Diaspora: Paule Marshall's "Praisesong for the Widow"

Academic journal article African American Review

Women's Spiritual Geographies of the African Diaspora: Paule Marshall's "Praisesong for the Widow"

Article excerpt

Paul Gilroy's monumental 1993 work The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness has shaped our discussions about diasporic identity for more than a decade, despite the fact that many have found reason to critique it. I wish herein to question one of its assumptions that still holds sway in both academic and popular circles: Gilroy's association of both women and religion exclusively with static "roots," as opposed to dynamic "routes." In Gilroy's analysis of Martin Delany's novel Blake, he praises the protagonist's "scepticism and strictly instrumental orientation towards religion" and argues that these attitudes are particularly "important because African American religion is so often the central sign for the folk-cultural, narrowly ethnic definition of racial authenticity that is being challenged here in the name of rhizomorphic, routed, diaspora cultures" (28). Fiction by contemporary African American women writers disproves this simplistic formula. In works by Paule Marshall, Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and others, we encounter narratives in which pure "origins" are impossible to reach, in which diasporic subjects are cut off from the land and the religion of their ancestors in Africa. Yet, in the diasporic spiritual geography of these African American women writers, "home" is still a possibility when the subject grounds herself in both the roots and the routes of the African diaspora. (1)

For Gilroy, "roots" represent an "ethnically absolute" form of "cultural kinship," based in a narrative of shared history and ancestors (and especially, I would add, a shared place of origin), whether or not this narrative is based in fact. "Routes," which for him are a much more complex way of speaking of black identity, refer to cultural exchange and hybridity, which Gilroy symbolizes through both ships and music (jazz and blues). Gilroy's critique of roots-based black identity emerges out of his frustration with African American identity politics in the 1970s and 1980s, and he provides a needed balance to forms of racial identity that exclusively emphasize ancestral origins. However, Gilroy pays insufficient attention to the gendered and the religious elements of diasporic experience, and his association of both with stasis is puzzling. African American religion, especially African American Christianity, is hardly a simplistic celebration of origins or "roots." After all, Christianity is not usually viewed as the original religion of African Americans' long-ago, pre-slavery ancestors (although many of the earliest Christian communities were in Africa, and Western Christianity needs to acknowledge its debt to African Christians, both past and present). Considering Christianity as a potential part of black identity, therefore, can never be a purely roots-oriented approach (though Christian belief and practice do emphasize rooting one's spiritual identity in God, the Creator). Rather, the inclusion of Christianity as part of the experience of many, though not all, African Americans necessitates a complex mixture of roots and routes, one that does not naively embrace either approach, but rather holds them in tension.

Like Gilroy's dismissal of the religious experience of African Americans, his pronounced lack of attention to black women's experience of roots and routes reveals some of the ways in which his argument needs to be expanded and more fully explored. He does acknowledge that "gender is the modality in which race is lived" (85), but his concern is almost exclusively with the construction of black masculine identity (except for brief analyses of the Margaret Garner narrative and of Toni Morrison's use of it in Beloved--and, even in these sections, he analyzes women's identity only in comparison to men's). Clearly, in 1993, questions over the applicability and usefulness of travel metaphors for women were already flying in the critical atmosphere. One might question, then, why gender plays such a small role in The Black Atlantic. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.