Paule Marshall was born in Brooklyn as Valenza Pauline Burke, one of three children of Samuel and Ada Burke, immigrants from the island of Barbados. Her father, whom she dearly loved, was unskilled but dreamed of a better life. Eventually, he left the family to join the “kingdom” of black religious leader Father Divine in Harlem. Her mother worked as a domestic servant. Marshall credits her early interest in language and stories to “the poets in the kitchen,” her mother’s Barbadian friends who gathered in the basement kitchen of her brownstone house after work to have a cup of tea or cocoa and discuss their lives.
At the age of nine, Marshall visited Barbados, where she first met her maternal grandmother, an impressive ancestral figure who appears in many of Marshall’s works. Her story “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” (1967) is a nearly autobiographical account of this visit. Inspired by the beauty of the islands, she began to write poetry, and on her return began a period of intense reading. By accident, she discovered the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first African American author whose work she had ever read, and this experience gave her the courage to think of becoming a writer.
In 1950, Marshall married Kenneth E. Marshall. Three years later, she graduated Phi Beta Kappa, cum laude, from Brooklyn College. Her first published story, “The Valley Between” (1954), reflects her own struggle as a wife and mother with her desire for education and a writing career. Marshall worked in New York public libraries and from 1953 to 1956 was the only woman staff writer for Our World magazine, traveling on assignment to Brazil and the West Indies.
While doing postgraduate work at Hunter College in 1955, Marshall began her autobiographical novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), completing it in...
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