Themes and Meanings
In Praisesong for the Widow, Marshall suggests that the journey through the African diaspora must be rooted in an understanding of the past, which must be continually sung, continually reiterated in the present. The novel is about a woman reclaiming her story in a context in which storytelling becomes part of a larger project of self-actualization.
For Africans, a praisesong is a particular kind of traditional heroic poem. Sung in various communities over the entire continent, praisesongs embrace many poetic forms but are always specifically ceremonial social poems, intended to be recited or sung at public occasions. When sung as a part of a rite of passage, they mark the advancement of a person from one group or stage to the next. This novel, therefore, celebrates for the widow her coming to terms with her widowhood—a reconciliation that has greater implications than coming to terms with the loss of an individual husband alone. The entire narrative in itself acts as a “praisesong” for the widow, with the narrator as the griot (the oral historian/genealogist/musician of traditional African society). The title also refers specifically to the communal song and the dance of the “beg pardon” at the end of the novel, which itself becomes a praisesong for the widow in homage to her homecoming. Through the healing of one of Africa’s lost daughters, a scattered people are made whole again.
In this work, storytelling is not only a metaphor for cultural self-possession and wholeness but also a literal injunction. The quest on which the widow is embarked culminates in her taking upon herself the burden, bequeathed by Cuney, of telling the story of the African slaves at Ibo Landing. This story serves in the text as the representation of spiritual understanding and the will to survive and triumph. In taking it upon herself to perpetuate the story, the widow finds a meaning to her own personal journey, which then also transcends the self and the family. Storytelling, like singing, becomes a cultural metaphor and the carrier of cultural meaning. This is Avatara’s true inheritance and legacy.