How Paule Marshall's Writings Transformed Me

My first engagement with Paule Marshall occurred while writing my senior college thesis on Black Caribbean women. The stories these women told about their lives drew me in—sexual assault and rape, lack of love from parental figures, circumstances facing racism and misogyny, feelings of hopelessness or despair—and how they found resilience amidst terror. Their use of Caribbean vernacular, too, connected me to the islands I had only visited, but knew that their history and language coursed through my blood. Although the assignment included eight women, Marshall’s life and literary production most reflected my lived experience, and countless other Caribbean and Black women.

Marshall’s life stuck out to me because her name (as well as the name of her first protagonist, Selina) reminded me of Valina, my maternal grandmother, who was born in 1932 in St. Lucia.

Born Valenza Pauline Burke to Bajan parents in 1929, Paule Marshall credited her mother and mother’s friends, the “poets in the kitchen,” with teaching her to write and appreciate the love nurtured when self-possessed Black women come together.

These poets, like my grandmother and mother, used the kitchen as their fortress. It was a place where they demonstrated their love through delicious meals that fortified themselves and their families; argued their financial fates with spouses and lovers; or upheld the importance of their children’s intellectual pursuits. The kitchen for many West Indian women provided space for their lives to flourish in ways other parts of the world curtailed. Marshall captured these stories and made them breathe, personified by her weighty yet verbose language and humor.

The author of nine books, Marshall learned the power of language for Black people through reading Paul Laurence Dunbar. Like so many other Black poets, intellectuals, and scholars of her time, she determined to rename herself in the influence and creativity that she hoped to possess. Inspired by love and community, Marshall published her first novel Brown Girl, Brownstones in 1959 at the age of 30. She later won many awards, including a MacArthur Genius Fellowship, thirty-three years after her first novel.

Brown Girl is my favorite. It spoke to my lived experience and the power of Black women’s literature. Marshall’s narrative in Brown Girl stood out to me because the protagonist, Selina Boyce, seemed like the kind of girl/woman I wanted to be. Like many of my favorite characters, Selina was an ornery child and wise beyond her years. Marshall writes of Selina, “she might have been old once and now, miraculously, young again — but with the memory of that other life intact. She seemed to know the world down there in the dark hall and beyond for what it was. Yet knowing, she still longed to leave this safe, sunlit place at the top of the house for the challenge there.” She was fiery and willing to question and be angered by the ways of the world that made no sense to her, ways that were supposedly inappropriate for a girl, for a child, and for a Black girl child to know anything about. And yet she lived undeterred, a life “rough and loud and undisciplined” toward which I aspired. Beyond Selina, every single character in Brown Girl had depth and texture.

Like Toni Morrison, Marshall knew how to write for us and about us across the richness of our skin complexions and linguistic tones.

She made every character come to life, reminding me of the Caribbean aunties and friends my granny, Valina, was always writing to, calling to check on, or sending money to. Marshall portrayed women like my grandmother and her friends as people with stories worth understanding and exploring. She captured the Black Caribbean American experience, especially in the sweltering New York summers that so many Caribbean migrants have intimately known. Marshall made us, our triumphs and injuries, known.

I found us in every single page of Brown Girl, Brownstones. I found my maternal grandmother, one of four who worked hard to lift herself and anyone she knew out of poverty. I found my mother, the first in her family to leave St. Thomas, making her own way with little money or friends yet determined to make something of herself and help others along the way. I found my maternal grandfather, a man like Deighton whose life has been marked by plans, schemes, and scandals. I found my father, a handsome dreamer whose relationship with my mother had cooled after their first child and the drama of making a life together in the U.S. I found my paternal grandmother, a so-called loose yet devoutly Christian woman who had children with whomever seemed like the best provider. I found my family in Brown Girl, Brownstones and made myself at home in it.

When my grandmother passed in late December 2018, I told others to celebrate her life the way that she always did—with food and drink like curry chicken, red snapper, and sorrel; with lots of people to talk over each other, laughing heartily, and arguing about the state of the world; with soca, parade-worthy steel pan, and dancing with her arms raised while sweat dripped from her brow. Thinking of her then, and today of Marshall, I encourage you to take up the mantle of reflection in this way. Gather some folks, eat until you are full, and create your own “poets in the kitchen.” Take today and become Selina or Deighton or Beryl or Silla or Ina. Become Suggie Skeete and love on whomever makes your whole body shiver with passion. That is Paule Marshall’s legacy and the stories she gave us to celebrate.

Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones as well as her other novels and short stories created the literary backdrop of my family and our heritage. She encouraged me to read more Black women’s work so I could discover words to narrate my own experiences through poetry and nonfiction.

Alongside other Black West Indian women writers, Marshall also gave voice to my academic career, in which I research and write about Black women’s (and girls’) cultural productions. Marshall’s legacy resides on every page of her work as well as in every Black girl who sees herself more clearly because of her words. From one island gal to another, thank you for seeing us, Paule Marshall, and helping me see myself.

About the Author

Aria S. Halliday is an author, professor, and poet based in New England who specializes in the study of cultural constructions of black girlhood and womanhood in contemporary literature and visual culture. Her forthcoming book, Beyond Barbie: Nicki Minaj, Disney, and Black Women’s Cultural Production engages broad interdisciplinary interests in sexuality, feminism, and radicalism in Black popular culture in the United States.