Tribute to Paule Marshall: Author of memoir Triangular Road and novel BrownGirl, Brownstones

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Paule Marshall. YouTube screenshot of WNYC interview.

[BSN Book World]

In her memoir Triangular Road, Paule Marshall (born April 9, 1929 - died August 12, 2019) generously shares 80 years of her life. Her works of fiction, including  novels BrownGirl, Brown Stones, The chosen Place, The Timeless People, Reena and Other Stories and her other writings all reflect the life of the Brooklyn-born author who had Bajan roots. The memoir not only confirms culture and history provided in the fiction, but also provides additional essential knowledge needed for our survival in this political moment.

As we remember 1619, August 400 years ago, Paule Marshall’s transition augments an urgent call to consciousness, a call connecting us, Africans born in Africa, Africans born in the Caribbean, and Africans born in America. This is a call to remember the brutality of Jamestown, to remember our 20 ancestors who survived the Middle Passage that would leave more than 22 million African bodies at the bottom of the Atlantic. And the call comes from a woman of large internal beauty, and expressed external beauty, compassionate and wise, lovingly supporting new writers even as Langston Hughes supported and encouraged her long ago.

In her beautiful memoir published in 2009, Triangular Road, the author packs so much history, so much humanity. In the second section, “I’ve Known Rivers: The James River” the author literally walks us through the grounds leading to the historical river. And what a river! She describes, “the James at floodtide comes roaring downstream in a whitewater chaos of uprooted trees hurtling rocks, unmoored boats, drowned dogs, cats, cows and even the occasional human.” She gives us a  larger understanding of that infamous river. The turbulence of the river prefigures the abysmal horrors of American enslavement.

The author describes a bridge, Mayo’s Bridge which almost collapsed “under the weight of the chained and coffled nightly traffic.” The nightly traffic was to accommodate the “good” townspeople who while not objecting to enslavement did not want to witness enslavement.

We’re “educationally shortchanged” the author reminds us when she learns of “the scrambles” where eager slavers waited for the slave pens to open so that they could rush in, pushing and shoving each other for the opportunity to use long ropes, to grab the finest of the captive Africans who had just survived the grueling  Middle Passage and who often had not yet been “cleaned up” following that horrific journey. 

Sixty years ago, Langston Hughes would be a surprise guest at the book party for BrownGirl, Brownstones. Paule Marshall was eight months pregnant at her book party. And six years later Langston Hughes would invite her and William Melvin Kelley to join him on a tour of Europe sponsored by the State Department. At the point when she is being debriefed by the State Department before given permission for the tour, Paule Marshall discovers that the government had a thick dossier detailing all her political activities.

In addition to using her pen for community uplift, the author also marched for justice. The author reveals a social consciousness expressed in her late teens when she briefly joined the American Youth for Democracy, or AYD, and her social consciousness grew as she was also a member of two organizations, Associations of Artists for Freedom and Concerned Mothers for Justice. The organizations worked to secure voting rights for African Americans living in the South. Paule Marshall’s thought process during this debriefing is inspirational. Of course she panicked. But her courage was greater than the panic. And she never intended to compromise the Truth, simply because someone was writing down everything that she said.

How did the author of BrownGirl, Brownstones, born in Brooklyn, come to reside in Virginia? A tenured teaching position. At one point she worked two part time jobs at different branches of the New York Public Library. She had gone to Barbados in order to revise BrownGirl, Brownstones, which was 600 pages when she first handed the manuscript to the publisher. The published novel, 255 pages, is priceless. The mother-daughter conversation on the night trolley ride is among the many powerful dialogues in this novel as the mother extols the value of money and the daughter insists that there exists values that greatly exceed that of money. But even in the conflict, there is a degree of harmony, a reflection of the meticulous, complex portraits of the human family which characterizes all of Paule Marshall’s writings.  In this memoir the author provides an unforgettable portrait of poet Langston Hughes.

In Triangular Road, we learn that Pauline Burke changed her name to Paule at age 13. Her father did love the Sun parlor of the Brownstone, as did the father in the novel. Many Bajans worked constructing the Panama Canal, which claimed 5,000 lives. Ghana inspired Barbados’s independence which came in 1966, nine years after the West African nation's. The author’s mother and her peers provided inspiration for the “Poets in the Kitchen;” her father becomes Brother Burke after joining Father Divine; and in this memoir the list of physical features that a mother finds unappealing in her daughter appears; and a senior sister persistently smoked Virginia Slims until it caused her death in 1995.

The memoir closes on a triumphant note, in 1977 when both Paule Marshall and her son attended the Second World Festival in Lagos, Nigeria. There are frenzied shouts of “Omowale.” The child returns, greeted, the parade of Africans born in America. They had missed us, these 400 years, and they were beyond joy at the return, making the returning family promise to come again. And again.


Ebele Oseye is Professor of African Literature and Creative Writing, Pace University.


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