Early in Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, Deighton is delighted to learn that he has inherited form his deceased sister a plot of land or, as he refers to it, a “piece of ground,” in his native Barbados. His elation stems from the possibility that he will be able to build a house that will be on par, or be the envy of the other Barbadian immigrants who have ridiculed him for his failure to achieve a measure of the American dream: home ownership. As he holds up the letter informing him of his new-found treasure, he exalts, “Now let these bad-minded Bajan here talk my name ‘cause I only leasing this house while they buying theirs.” For Deighton, owning a home “just like the white people own,” will represent the pinnacle of material success. Silla, however, is possessed of a wholly different perspective on what it means to succeed in America. She is hard working and thoroughly-disciplined – a marked contrast to her husband who prefers to spend his days lounging about, working on is art, and fantasizing about success while decrying the racial prejudices to which he has been subjected.
How did Silla sell Deighton’s “piece of ground?” By pretending to be Deighton and sustaining a series of correspondences with her husband’s sister. As she describes it to Deighton:
“While you was running with your concubine and taking trumpet lessons I was figuring out how to do this thing. I say to myself that you don write to the sister so I gon write for you. I sat at this kitchen table late ‘pon a night practicing to write your name till I had it down pat. Then I write the first letter. One like a brother would write to a sister . . .I take it to a place near my job that does type out letters for people and pay to have it type and then I had to do was sign yuh name.”
As Silla continues to describe for Deighton her record of deceit and the evolving history of correspondence with his sister, she finally gets to the point where she tells her husband that, in pretending to be Deighton, she ‘confided’ in his sister that he was in dire financial straits and needed the money that could come from selling the “piece of ground.” Silla is compassionate in explaining her rationale for deceiving Deighton, and his sister in Barbados, but Deighton is crushed. His wife’s vision of the American Dream involves a house in New York, not one on the tiny and economically-destitute island of Barbados, and she believes she is insuring her family’s future by selling the land in the Caribbean.
How does he exact a measure of vengeance for this betrayal and the crushing of his dreams of building a home in Barbados? By spending the money from the sale of the land. While Deighton is crushed by the news that the “piece of ground” was sold, Silla’s actions also serve to lift a form of weight from his shoulders. As Marshall writes, Deighton’s “sigh expressed a profound relief. It was as though Silla, by selling the land, had unwittingly spared him the terrible onus of wresting a place in life. The pretense was over. He was broken, stripped, but delivered . . .”
Deighton gets his revenge by buying new clothes for the girls, and new, expensive trumpet for himself. The theme of hand-me-down donated clothing runs throughout Marshall’s story as a symbol of the family’s socioeconomic status. “Now, Miss Ina,” he says as he displays the items purchased with the money from the sale of the land, “come put this coat on. It cost a hundred dollars if it cost a penny.” In perhaps the ultimate illustration of the conflict between the materialism associated with “the American Dream” and the Caribbean spirituality to which Deighton clings, he exclaims to the family, “Lady-folks, money done talk sweet enough in this man country.” Deighton has been forced to succumb to the trappings of American life, the expensive fur coat he has bought for Ina, the bookstore gift certificate for Selina, the skirts, blouses, lace petticoats, the shoes, are all the family now has to show for the money that was the key to their respective dreams. Deighton, of course, will drown on his way back to Barbados, an apparent suicide, the unwilling refugee betrayed once again by his wife so that she may have her dream fulfilled, ownership of a brownstone.