To Da-duh in Memoriam

by Paule Marshall

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What is the conflict between the narrator and her grandmother in "To Da-duh in Memoriam"?

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The narrator, who lives in New York City, visits her elderly grandmother, Da-duh, who lives in Barbados. The conflict between the narrator and Da-duh lies in the intergenerational differences between the two, the cultural differences of the Caribbean islands versus that of city life in an American city, and the tensions of tradition versus new ways of navigating life.

Da-duh is more representative of someone of the African diaspora living in Barbados who is still very much so connected to the traditions and cultures of African-descended folks of the Caribbean. The unnamed narrator represents the disconnect from these traditions as a young person living in New York City who is a couple generations removed from these diasporic African and Caribbean traditions.

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The narrator, who lives in New York City and visits Barbados with her mother and sister when she is 9, immediately gets locked into a kind of competition with her fearsome grandmother, Da-duh. When her grandmother pronounces her "fierce," the narrator thinks, "After all I had won the encounter. Da-duh had recognized my small strength—and this was all I ever asked of the adults in my life then." The narrator delights in the competition that she expects to have with her grandmother.

Da-duh shows the narrator her fruit orchards, and she asks the narrator if there is anything as nice in New York. The narrator must sadly admit that there isn't, and the narrator feels bereft and thinks, "My world did seem suddenly lacking." To best her grandmother, the narrator tells her grandmother some tall tales about snow higher than one's head in New York. The narrator then tries to best her grandmother with tales of the city: "But as I answered, recreating my towering world of steel and concrete and machines for her, building the city out of words, I would feel her give way." The narrator feels that she can best the grandmother by proving the mechanical might of the city. In an ironic twist, the grandmother dies after the narrator has left Barbados when England flies loud planes over Barbados (then one of its colonies) in a show of force. The display of the motorized might of the empire has literally caused Da-duh to die of fright.

The conflict between the narrator and her grandmother is about the power of the land in Barbados and its natural delights (which the grandmother celebrates) and the power the narrator celebrates of New York and urban life, in which machines and material goods hold sway. The grandmother believes that the traditional life of Barbados is more worthy, but the granddaughter, in her childish way, defends the life she has become accustomed to in New York. It is ultimately the power of the mechanized world that kills the grandmother, and the granddaughter remains forever guilty as a result. 

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The main conflict between Da-duh and her granddaughter is generational.  Da-duh represents tradition and life as it used to be in Barbados.  The granddaughter, however, lives in the modern city of New York City and knows very little about her roots.  Da-duh and the granddaughter banter back and forth about the attributes of both places.  Barbados has beautiful palm trees, and New York City has tall, beautiful skyscrapers.  Da-duh and her granddaughter are two opposites representing the old and the new in their family, and that is where the conflict begins.  Da-duh tries desperately to teach the narrator about her past and the sugar cane fields that surround her home. And, the granddaughter does the same telling Da-duh about how a black girl at her school hit a white girl. Da-duh is in disbelief at some of things she learns from her granddaughter, and it is only when the granddaughter becomes an adult that she understands the beauty of Barbados that Da-duh showed her. 

The conflict between the two was not in anger or disrespect but simply a clash in culture and generations. 

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