Praisesong for the Widow
is a novel about losing and refinding oneself and one’s
roots. It is Paule Marshall’s most direct statement of her
belief that black Americans need to reconnect with their African
The African American widow who is the protagonist of Praisesong (an African poetic form) is 64-year-old Avatara (Avey) Johnson. As the book opens, Avey is comfortably well-off; her childhood in Harlem and struggling young married years in Brooklyn are way behind her. She has no thought that anything was lost as she and her late husband strived to achieve financial security and white-defined success. But, on a Caribbean cruise, Avey has an upsetting dream about the Africa-focused great-aunt she visited in South Carolina as a child. Other disturbances follow. Avey, suffering from a psychic distress that she can’t explain, bolts ship at the next port, Grenada, intending to catch a plane home to North White Plains, New York.
As Avey waits for a flight out, she meets an old man who persuades her to join him on the annual excursion of out-islanders from Grenada to the nearby island of Carriacou to honor their ancestors. On Carriacou, among the islanders celebrating through song and dance the African tribes from which they came, Avey feels linked to a history she had eschewed. Reclaiming her roots and herself, she decides to change her life to keep her heritage alive.
The daughter of immigrants from Barbados, Marshall grew up in Brooklyn in a bicultural environment and reveled in the conversation and customs of her mother’s Barbadian friends. She began writing fiction in 1958, when few African American women had published novels, and became one of the major African American writers of the last half-century.
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