Praisesong for the Widow

by Paule Marshall

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In Praisesong for the Widow, how does Jay play an important role in the story?

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The character of Jerome Johnson or "Jay," who is the husband of the protagonist, "Avey" or "Avatara," stands for the phenomenon called "social whitening." In this extreme type of assimilation, people who are racially, ethnically, or otherwise considered "nonwhite" take on social characteristics of dominant white society. In Jay's case, this includes changing his name, becoming a middle-class white-collar professional, joining fraternal organizations such as the Masons, and moving to the suburb of White Plains.

Jay's death is an inciting event that propels Avey to take the cruise, from which she ultimately disembarks for the island. The vision she sees of Jay looking white in his coffin, thus associating his physical death with the rejection of his blackness, is a turning point for Avey's revelations about seeking her true identity.

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