Praisesong for the Widow

by Paule Marshall
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What is the significance of the Big Drum Ritual in Praisesong for the Widow, and how does it apply to Avey Johnson, Lebert Joseph, and the people of Grenada and Carriacou?

In Praisesong for the Widow, Lebert Joseph and the other people of Carriacou have grown up with the Big Drum Ritual and are imbued with its cultural and historical significance. Avey Johnson finds that the ritual expresses the complex spirit of the island, prompting her to meditate on its past and her own.

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The Big Drum ritual occupies a central place in Praisesong for the Widow. Paule Marshall describes in emotive terms its importance for the culture and collective memory of the people of Carriacou, who still refer to their island as the Big Drum Nation. The sound of the drum is "like the distillation of a thousand sorrow songs" and is intimately connected to the tragic history of displacement and slavery that brought the ancestors of the current inhabitants to the Grenadine islands:

The note was a lamentation that could hardly have come from the rum keg of a drum. It’s source had to be the heart, the bruised still-bleeding innermost chamber of the collective heart.

In the novel, Lebert Joseph represents the islanders who have grown up with the Big Drum ritual and understand it intimately. He knows the music and the dances, which he still performs, despite his limp and his advanced age. However, he is also familiar with the way the Big Drum ritual encodes the history of the African nations from which his family originated, and goes on to recount the horrors of enslavement, the Middle Passage, and labor in the Caribbean.

For Avey Johnson, the Big Drum ritual is a way of reconnecting with her culture after a lifetime of separation. It symbolizes the contradictions and complexity she faces in coming to Carriacou, from the festive atmosphere she encounters on her arrival to the bloody history of slavery to which the ritual bears witness.

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