In Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, the central characters are at war with each other. The novel’s main protagonist, Selina, is caught between her mother, a somewhat cold and distant matriarch of this economically destitute clan who believes in hard work as the key to achieving the American Dream, and her father, Deighton, an immigrant from Barbados who has been beaten down by the ravages of racism and by his own unwillingness to accept the challenges that confront his family’s efforts at economic and social advancement. As Marshall’s novel progresses, and as the mother, Silla, intensifies her efforts at economic advancement, Marshall introduces an organization of like-minded Barbadian emigres, the Association of Barbadian Homeowners and Businessmen, which uses as its motto the phrase “it is not the depths from which we come but the heights to which we ascend.” This organization purports to represent the interests of the Barbadian community, and Silla attends a meeting with Selina in tow, thus enabling the story’s narrative to include the details of that gathering. The phrase itself occurs on page 220 of Marshall’s novel.
The significance of the phrase is in its affirmation of the importance of self-reliance and of economic advancement as the goal to which its members collectively ascribe. These individuals and families may come from the most humble of origins, but they are in America now and the opportunities that avail themselves, obstacles born of a legacy of racism nothwithstanding, are there for the taking. The phrase is stating that economic and social advancement are the goal and the only things worth mentioning. Towards that end, the association, as Cecil Osborne, “a small fierce man with work-ruined hands, gold-edged teeth and high, fully-molded nose rising out of his thin face,” notes in his remarks before the gathering, provides loans to members to help them start businesses but, more importantly, is expanding its horizons by establishing a credit system to further aid its members.