A Review of Praisesong for the Widow

Darise JeanBaptiste


A travel archetype rarely examined in literature is the haunted Black widow. Grief follows her on a journey replete with ghosts and hallucinations. Disconnecting from ordinary matters is a trap that forces her to face the origins of her sorrow.

For Avey Johnson, the protagonist in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow, typical travel advisories are ill-equipped to outline the anguish and awakening she encounters during a Caribbean vacation. Her torment lies in her mind, where questions around identity and its fading clarity swirl. Straddling sea and land, Avey surrenders to the dream call of her ancestors to reclaim the sweetness of her cultural roots. Thus, through her story, Marshall explores the geographical-spiritual border that connects Avey’s Black Southern formation to an annual ceremony in Carriacou, Grenada.

We first meet Avey, short for Avatara, when she is packing her suitcases while aboard the Bianca Pride, a cruise ship sailing the Caribbean Sea during the mid-1970s. Geographically speaking, Avey is in a Black vortex. She’s floating on the sea, between the death and liberation sites of her ancestors, while attempting to flee and return to North White Plains, a place she barely calls home. Spiritually, Avey is unmoored by a dream in which her late great-aunt drags her by the wrists to Ibo Landing, a river port where enslaved Africans were said to have walked on water. Ibo Landing references the historic Igbo Landing where enslaved people rebelled against their captors. Historians call it one of the largest mass suicides of enslaved people. In the novel, Avey recalls with dread her inability to believe that the Ibos could reclaim their freedom this way. ‘Did it say Jesus drowned when he went walking on the water in that Sunday School book your momma always sends with you?’ Her great-aunt admonishes Avey’s childish doubtfulness, which returns in her later years as a failure to recognize herself. The morning after her dream, Avey moves stealthily in the dark, trying not to disturb her cabinmates who would likely dissuade her from leaving their vacation. Avey’s instincts are right – when her friends wake up and learn that she’s leaving, they are outraged, confused, and demand to know why. Avey can’t tell them about the dream because she doesn’t fully understand it herself. Yet her body recalls the sensation of being visited by a force determined to get her attention.

It’s no coincidence that Avey’s dream occurs while she’s out at sea. Marshall uses the sea as motif, contrasting Avey’s experiences with lower and higher socioeconomic statuses. While Avey comes across luxury and comfort on the Bianca Pride, she is faced with incredible illness and humiliation on the Emmanuel C, a schooner that takes her roughly eighteen miles from Grenada, to the tiny island of Carriacou. Her time on the rickety boat is filled with vomiting and other uncontrollable excretions. When she is taken off deck, she senses the souls of people who once occupied the boat. The horrors of the Middle Passage appear in the novel, reminding us of the 12.5 million men, women, and children who were stolen from Africa during the transatlantic slave trade, and the two million who died during the horrendous transfer. Time compounds the loss. Yet the novel’s clock pulls us back to the urgent matter of Avey’s spiritual awakening. The sea is where her body purges any attempt to doubt her history.

On Grenadian soil, Avey recalls her physical and emotional journey as a mother and wife. Memories of an unwanted pregnancy, suspicions of marital infidelity, anxiety about childbirth, economic struggles – these terrors show up on the island, and in her mind. When her husband Jay’s ghost appears in her hotel room, clad in the garment in which he was buried, he repeats the words he said just before he died: ‘Do you know who you sound like, who you even look like?’ His question calls to mind the poor, loud woman who lived in their Brooklyn neighbourhood. She was the poster child for the poverty they had worked hard to escape. When they left their community, they abandoned the ideas of communal struggle and uplift. Although Avey doesn’t recognize herself, she never loses sight of the importance of knowing. An altered identity pains her deeply. The pressure to provide a stable life for her family – while denying the sociopolitical tradeoffs – catch up with her quickly.

By abandoning her cruise vacation, Avey loses fifteen hundred dollars. For someone whose financial situation barely withstood the weight of racism, it feels like a fortune. Among her concerns in Grenada, money – at least not her own – is trivial. She is, however, keenly aware of the destitution embodied in Lebert Joseph, the rum shop owner who convinces her to accompany him and other community members to Carriacou. Lebert Joseph is dressed in tatters and is missing teeth. He speaks Patois similar to the language she heard as a child in Tatem, South Carolina. He has an uneven stride, to which her gaze is repeatedly drawn. Although Lebert Joseph has nothing to hide, and mentions the possibility of hitting choppy waters, Avey blames him for the tumultuous crossing. Like the poor woman in Brooklyn, Lebert Joseph is a point of contrast. Avey resists seeing her own reflection in people who represent distance between her humble origins and current middle-class status.

The farther Avey gets from the places that formed her understanding of self, the more she is pulled toward remembering. In Carriacou, after she’s been cleansed of her denial and misunderstanding, she embraces the Big Drum. This ceremony marks renewal, gratitude, and remembrance. It connects Avey back home to Tatem where she watched the Ring Shout, where ‘they were propelling themselves forward at a curious gliding shuffle which did not permit the soles of the heavy work shoes they had on to ever once lift from the floor.’ Praise-singing and dancing, whether in a small church or outside in an open field, steadies the swirl that threatened to overtake Avey at the start of her travels. ‘She had finally after all these decades made it across.’

Published in 1983, Praisesong for the Widow spans spiritual distance. For the Black widow who carries memories of her Southern upbringing, and who identifies their connection to the familiar rituals of Grenada, travel is not only an awakening, but also an act of mourning.

Darise JeanBaptiste

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Darise JeanBaptiste is a writer born and raised in the Bronx. She earned her MFA from Rutgers-Newark and her MA in English from Brooklyn College. Darise is an alum of VONA, Callaloo, Hurston/Wright, and Tin House workshops. Her writing is featured at Electric Literature, Green Mountains Review, and Aster(ix) Journal.


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