Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Praisesong for the Widow, Marshall suggests that the journey through the African diaspora must be rooted in an understanding of the past, which must be continually sung, continually reiterated in the present. The novel is about a woman reclaiming her story in a context in which storytelling becomes part of a larger project of self-actualization.

For Africans, a praisesong is a particular kind of traditional heroic poem. Sung in various communities over the entire continent, praisesongs embrace many poetic forms but are always specifically ceremonial social poems, intended to be recited or sung at public occasions. When sung as a part of a rite of passage, they mark the advancement of a person from one group or stage to the next. This novel, therefore, celebrates for the widow her coming to terms with her widowhood—a reconciliation that has greater implications than coming to terms with the loss of an individual husband alone. The entire narrative in itself acts as a “praisesong” for the widow, with the narrator as the griot (the oral historian/genealogist/musician of traditional African society). The title also refers specifically to the communal song and the dance of the “beg pardon” at the end of the novel, which itself becomes a praisesong for the widow in homage to her homecoming. Through the healing of one of Africa’s lost daughters, a scattered people are made whole again.

In this work, storytelling is not only a metaphor for cultural self-possession and wholeness but also a literal injunction. The quest on which the widow is embarked culminates in her taking upon herself the burden, bequeathed by Cuney, of telling the story of the African slaves at Ibo Landing. This story serves in the text as the representation of spiritual understanding and the will to survive and triumph. In taking it upon herself to perpetuate the story, the widow finds a meaning to her own personal journey, which then also transcends the self and the family. Storytelling, like singing, becomes a cultural metaphor and the carrier of cultural meaning. This is Avatara’s true inheritance and legacy.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall examines the high cost at which African Americans purchase success in American society: the relinquishment of their history, their culture, and their individual identities. Avey Johnson represents the contemporary African American woman who has gained the American Dream and lost her soul. The novel traces her quest to recover her lost identity, which is only possible through the sacrifice of her middle-class trappings and the recovery of the rituals of her family and the other people of the African diaspora.

Cuney appears first in Avey’s dream because she represents the most important piece of her past that Avey Johnson needs to recover: the stories of the Ibo Landing, the summers in Tatem, and the old folks circling in the Ring Shout. Avey remembers her walks with her aunt as a ritual, both she and Cuney donning ceremonially their two belts: one for practicality’s sake and one for strength. As the old woman and little girl walked across the island, Avey learned the history of the place and its people, especially the slave Ibos who refused to set foot on the land because, as Cuney observed, “those pure-born Africans was people my gran’ said could see in more ways than one. The kind can tell you ’bout things happened long before they was born and things to come long after they’s dead.” Cuney’s grandmother reported that, seeing the awaiting slave owners, the Ibos simply walked across the water back to Africa. “Her body she always usta say might be in Tatem,” Cuney said of her grandmother, “but her mind, her mind was long gone with the Ibos.” Her African connection was never severed. On these walks, also, Avey watched the old Ring Shouters dancing. The stories and the dance were all part of Cuney’s plan for Avey to engage in “a mission she couldn’t even name yet had felt duty-bound to fulfill.” The trappings of material success, however, bury Avey Johnson’s sense of duty, her commitment to Cuney’s legacy. Tatem’s rituals become lost.

Sacrificing the rituals Jay and Avey Johnson shared on Halsey Street in Brooklyn early in their marriage to...

(The entire section is 882 words.)