What influence does the novel Praisesong for the Widow have over present-day black culture in the USA?
Paule Marshall's novel, published in 1983 but set in the mid-1970s, remains relevant particularly due to its engagement with the black diaspora -- that is, the population of people of West African descent throughout the West and, especially, in the Americas. It is significant that the novel takes place in the seventies, as, for black people, this was a consciousness-raising era. There was a pressing urge to connect blacks to their roots, and the field of Black Studies entered academia.
Avey Johnson is a widow in her mid-60s. Her husband, Jerome, died about four years before the novel is set. She lives in White Plains, New York and was raised in Harlem, but traces her origins to South Carolina.
Her great-aunt Cuney visits her in a dream, asking her to follow her down a road in Tatem, South Carolina, the town that Avey's family comes from. Avey resists. Aunt Cuney's urging is a metaphor for an ancestral journey that Avey, in the moment, is unprepared to take. However, on a cruise, she finds herself in Carriacou, an island in Grenada, where a festival is taking place.
The journey to Carriacou allows Avey to come to terms with the death of her husband. On the island, she is confronted by her sense of isolation. Oddly, the people of Carriacou only speak a local patois. Their esoteric use of language mirrors their rootedness. Avey, on the other hand, does not understand their language and feels disconnected from the island's traditions, despite the fact that she has a shared history with the people of Carriacou. On the boat from Grenada to Carriacou, she has a dream in which she imagines a slave ancestor on the Middle Passage. Avey's affinity with the island through her slave ancestors contends with her assimilation into American culture, which often refutes or attempts to forget its slave-owning past.
Thus, Marshall's novel remains important due to its themes of diaspora and cultural disconnectedness.