Academic journal article African American Review

Embodying Cultural Memory in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow

Academic journal article African American Review

Embodying Cultural Memory in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow

Article excerpt

As an epigraph to the section entitled "Lave Tete," the third section of her novel Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall uses a brief quotation from a poem by Randall Jarrell: "Oh, Bars of my [ldots] body, open, open!" (148). It is in this section that Avey Johnson, the novel's protagonist, becomes aware of her body as a repository of memory, as a place where physical sensation echoes emotional feeling. This awareness is pivotal in Avey's progress from a state of denial to acceptance of her heritage. This essay aims to explore Marshall's construction of a fictional body as a site of cultural expression and memory. Avey's body communicates to her what she has taught her conscious mind to ignore: her disconnection from her own sense of herself and from the African-American and Caribbean heritage which is a crucial part of that self. Through the processes of extreme physical discomfort, illness, purging, healing, bathing, and dancing, Avey is able to make an emotional journey that restores her awareness of he r cultural inheritance. I will argue, however, that the novel's portrayal of Avey's emotional and physical rebirth, while raising important questions about the cultural identity of African and Caribbean Americans, is disconcerting in terms of the suggestion that it is possible to return to an unmediated state of being, to a tabula rasa of mind and body. The idea, suggested in the novel, that Avey's memories of Africa are an essential part of her being, while her American identity is a socially constructed one, is problematic.

In the present time of the novel's opening chapters Avey Johnson has become so detached from her own heritage that she does not consciously recognize that it has been lost. She is alerted to what is missing in her life in two ways: by her subconscious, through the bodily symbols in a dream; and by her physical reaction to her situation, her body's illness. These two developments precipitate Avey's hurried departure from the cruise ship on which she is traveling, but instead of returning to her home in New York as she anticipated, events conspire to take her on a journey of grieving and discovery. The actual excursion upon which Avey is embarked while her metamorphosis occurs, recalls other culturally significant journeys, which Avey must remember in order to restore her physical and emotional health. At significant moments during the Caribbean cruise she is taking, and the subsequent journeys she makes to escape it, Avey recollects childhood trips up the Hudson with people from her neighborhood, trips to her family's old home in South Carolina, a legendary journey of Ibo slaves' return to Africa, and the original journey of the slave passage. In all of these journeys the body is of crucial significance. This paper aims to examine the way the body functions in the text not only as an indicator of personal consciousness, but also as a metaphor for African people's cultural disinheritance created by the African diaspora. It also aims to draw attention to the disparity presented in the novel between acknowledging the body as an avenue of expression and yet wanting to escape its limitations.

Inconsistencies in the portrayal of Avey's body in Marshall's novel convey anxiety about the possible extent and source of bodily located knowledge and power. The text explicitly acknowledges the workings of social practice in contributing to an individual and collective understanding of physicality. Yet, simultaneously, events in the novel present a body's inherent knowledge as a resource for overcoming social and cultural disenfranchisement. Marshall's text does not confront its own contradictions: The differing attitudes to Avey's body are not addressed, but are presented as a coherent solution to her personal crisis. There seems to be no sense of incompatibility between the body as a source of knowledge and the importance of separating mind from body. These disparities will be discussed for what they can productively reveal about the difficulties of negotiating autonomy in a racist society. …

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