Themes and Meanings

Paule Marshall identifies two sources for the character of Watford. In her 1983 essay “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” she recalls a West Indian custodian at the public library in Brooklyn who would give her orders as if he were the librarian himself. The other model, as she wrote in the preface to “Barbados,” was her landlord for a year in Barbados, an old man who scarcely spoke to her and who lived in a plantation house such as a black man “playing white” would have.

These two sources suggest that Marshall is examining in her main character the weakness that underlies a particular kind of angry, arrogant, male authority. Watford is portrayed as a strong, energetic man who is accustomed to having things exactly his way. His essential isolation undermines his power, until finally the girl brushes him aside and he collapses. His hatred of his people, his mother, and even himself prevents him from participating in his community, both in the United States and in Barbados. He holds himself above everyone through his cold, facile cynicism. He will not converse with the girl or even ask her name because he cannot allow anyone living so close to him her own personhood. Significantly, her first self-assertion destroys him. The kind of black manhood that is based on racial loathing corrupts every aspect of Watford’s personality. His authority is hollow, his strength a mask for weakness.