The critic Barbara Christian has pointed out that before the publication of Brown Girl, Brownstones, there were very few novels written by black women focusing on the interior life of a black woman. The two most notable precedents to Brown Girl, Brownstones are Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953), neither of which was widely known when Marshall was writing her first novel. Against such a context of silence about black women’s inner lives, Paule Marshall’s coming-of-age story can be read as a demand that the voices of black female writers be recognized as culturally significant.
Yet because it appeared in the midst of the civil rights era and immediately prior to the 1960’s, Marshall’s inquiry into social values by a young person can also be read as a prelude to and an affirmation of a social upheaval that was then forming. Like many of the college activists of the 1960’s, Selina is a young person challenging her community over its values and simultaneously searching for her own values.
Although it was favorably reviewed when it first appeared, Brown Girl, Brownstones was widely neglected for many years. Even as the works of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker during the 1970’s created a widespread interest in the works of black women writers, interest in Marshall’s first novel remained relatively sparse. The appearance of Barbara Christian’s landmark study: Black Women Writers: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 in 1980 and the republication of Brown Girl, Brownstones by the Feminist Press in 1981 helped to rekindle interest in the book. With the publication of two well-received novels, Praisesong for the Widow (1983) and Daughters (1991), Marshall’s reputation continued to grow. With the growth of her literary reputation has come the critical recognition of her first novel, not only as a worthy coming-of-age tale but also as a pivotal text in the development of twentieth century African American literature.