Weaving the Web of Reintegration: Locating Aunt Nancy in Praisesong for the Widow
Benjamin, Shanna Greene, MELUS
Myth, of course, plays, a very important part in all of our lives, in everyone's culture. Without myth and tradition, what is there?
--Julie Dash, Daughters of the Dust (29)
Links to the memories, myths, and ways of stolen Africans linger in the symbols, tropes, and forms of African American writing. (1) Following in the steps of Pauline Hopkins, who fictionalized an imagined memory of Africa in Of One Blood (1903; see Gruesser), and Zora Neale Hurston, who traveled "east" from Florida to New Orleans in Mules and Men (1935), (2) Paule Marshall has similarly infused Praisesong for The Widow (1983) with a distinctly African presence by grounding her narrative in West African tricksters and African American myth. In Praisesong, Marshall focuses on the interior life of her protagonist Avey Johnson, paying particular attention to Avey's spiritual and psychological desires. Marshall approaches these concerns in a way that emphasizes the central role of African ways of knowing as an alternative to Western individualist values and modalities--values that, once adopted by Avey, distance her from a rich cultural heritage. The novel's mythic backdrop allows Marshall to reach beyond the material reality of race, class, and gender oppression and delve into the psychological and spiritual desires of black women. Unearthing the remnants of West African myth in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow reveals how mythical traces of the Ghanaian spider-trickster, Kwaku Ananse, emerge and function in the novel as a culturally reconnective force.
The first step in understanding Ananse's web-driven presence in Praisesong involves tracing his trans-Atlantic journey from Africa to the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands to determine how this journey altered his name and cultural function. (3) Ananse's trans-Atlantic transformation begins in Ghana, where the Akan and Ashanti peoples view Ananse as the source of life's stories and of life itself. An "endearing rogue" (Newall 62), lovable but unquestionably wicked in a charming sort of way, Ananse pushes intellectual, social, and linguistic limits and stimulates intercourse between different places, discourses, and ideologies. In weaving his web of life, Ananse mediates the space between heaven and earth, advocates for humans in the presence of god and, in doing so, bridges disparate spaces and ways of knowing.
Ananse's cultural function in Ghana is made clear in the oftanthologized tale "Trickster Gets Sky-god's Stories" (Courlander, Feldman, Rattray). In this account, we learn that there was once a time when all the stories of the world belonged to Sky God. Consequently, the people of the earth had no stories to share. To secure the tales for all to enjoy, Ananse spins a web to the heavens and asks Sky God for his trunk of stories. Sky God agrees to hand over these tales on one condition: Ananse must bring him Onini the python, Osebo the leopard, Mmoatia the fairy, and Mmoboro the hornet (Scheub 67). Frail and weak, a most unlikely contender, Ananse, in classic trickster fashion, uses his intellect and wit, not force or strength, to fulfill Sky God's request. When Ananse ascends with his captives, Sky God, somewhat surprised by his success but more pleased with his new possessions proclaims, "No more shall we call them the stories of the sky-god, we shall call them Spider Stories" (70). Finally, Ananse returns to earth to share the stories, now named after him, with the entire world. Even though his behavior in this tale is somewhat atypical (Ananse usually uses his abilities to satisfy his seemingly insatiable appetite), the intercessory powers and linguistic skills he displays represent important facets of Ananse's character in Ghana.
During the Middle Passage, however, Ghanaian Ananse experienced a "sea change" that altered not only his name, but also his function in diasporic society (Wilson Harris 156). In Ghana, he was a "creative culture hero" while in Jamaica (and other parts of the Caribbean) he became a "trickster-par-excellence" (Tanna 77). …