Fighting Great Aunt Cuney: An Appreciation for Paule Marshall’s “Praisesong For the Widow”

I have been warned in my life about huge disappointments (Ruth in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun says “sometimes life can be a barrel of disappointments”) and one of the things I have been told that really, really comforts me is the fact that sometimes, some people will fight and fight and fight against their heritage, their history, their truth. This is beautifully captured in the character of Avatara (Avey) Johnson in Paule Marshall’s 1983 novel and masterpiece, Praisesong For the Widow. This novel is about one woman’s journey, one woman’s mission to learn about her history & heritage in the face of a decadent, tempting Western culture that seems to deny or belittle such history & heritage. When I got sad about the disappointments I was warned about, I think about how hard Avey Johnson fought her Great Aunt Cuney when visiting the town where she spent her summers as a child, Tatem, South Carolina. In the following excerpt of the novel, Marshall presents the conflict from which Avey suffers: a longing to respect her childhood past and the African past that her Great Aunt Cuney taught her and a longing to ascribe to upper middle class American values that essentially teaches her to shun her African heritage. This conflict manifests itself in a huge physical fist fight between Avey and her Great Aunt Cuney when Avey imagines her deceased Great Aunt while walking on the same Landing she spent her summers in Tatem. Thinking about this physical fight comforts me because it brings to mind the ways that all of us will fight to death the truth of the heritage that we cannot deny. It’s comforting, sometimes funny, the way we can try and beat and beat and beat the truth in front of our faces, all to a futile end. In the following excerpt, Marshall writes about this conflict all people of African descent confront on this side of the Atlantic at some time:
Did she [Aunt Cuney] really expect her to go walking over to the landing dressed as she was? In the new spring suit she had just put on to wear to the annual luncheon at the Statler given by Jerome Johnson’s lodge (He was outside the house this minute waiting for her in the car). With her hat and gloves on? And her fur draped over her arm? Avey Johnson could have laughed, the idea was so ridiculous. That obstacle course of scrub, rock and rough grass leading down from the cotton field would make quick work for her stockings, and the open toed patent-leather pumps she was wearing for the first time would never survive that mud flat which had once been a rice field…From a distance of perhaps thirty feet, the old woman [Aunt Cuney] continued to wave her forward, her gesture exhibiting a patience and restraint that was unlike her. And she was strangely silent, standing there framed by the moss-hung wood; her voice, unlike her body, had apparently not been able to outfox the grave [this “outfox the grave” is an expression that would appear twenty years after this novel was published Toni Morrison’s Love]…A battle, she sensed, had been joined. They remained like this for the longest time, until finally, the old woman, glancing anxiously at the declining sun, abruptly changed her tactics. Her hand dropped and, reaching out with her arms, she began coaxing her foward, gently urging her, the way a mother would a one-eyar-old who hangs back from walking on its own…Moreover, in instilling the story of the Ibos in her child’s mind, the old woman had entrusted her with a mission she couldn’t even name yet had felt duty-bound to fulfill. It had taken her years to rid herself of the notion. Suddenly Avey Johnson drew herself up to her full height, which equaled that of the tall figure up the road. The whole ridiculous business had gone on long enough. She was leaving. Let the old woman think what she will! Reaching over, she straightened the fur stole on her left arm, took a deep defiant breath, and was about to turn and walk away when a sudden eruption of movement up ahead caused her to stop, confused, in her tracks. Before she could take in what was happening, or think to complete the turn and run, she saw her great-aunt charging toward her over the thirty feet between them like one of those August storms she remembered would whirl up without warning out of the marshes around Tatem to rampage out of the land. In seconds a hand with the feel of a manacle had closed around her wrist, and she found herself being dragged forward in the direction of the Landing…she was raising her free hand, the fist tightly clenched, and bringing it down with all her force on the old woman. Wildly she rained blows on her face, her neck, her shoulders, and her great fallen breasts–striking flesh that had been too awesome for her to even touch as a child. Her great-aunt did not hesitate to hit her back, and with the same if not greater force. While firmly holding her wrist with one hand, she began trading Avey Johnson blow for blow with the other. Moreover, as if the fallen stole had also triggered a kind of madness in her, she began tearing at the spring suit, the silk blouse, the gloves. The tug-of-war was suddenly a bruising fist fight, which Avey Johnson saw to her horror, glancing around, had brought her neighbors in North White Plains out on their lawns [here Marshall is beautifully dramatizing the conflict in Avey by having her imagine this fight is being seen by her neighbors, in order to justify even more fighting by Avey to shun her African heritage and give the appearance of “normalcy” or Western “civility.” She must do this, she feels, in front of her neighbors by shunning her African past, manifested in her blows against her aunt Cuney]…Worse, among the black faces looking on scandalized, there could be seen the Archers with their blue-eyed, tow-headed children, and the Weinsteins. The only ones for blocks around who had not sold and fled. An uncharitable thought surfaced amid the shame flooding her. Could it be they had stayed on in the hope of one day being treated to a spectacle such as this: at any moment the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and an unenlightened wailing…It was something Marion [Avey’s upper class friend] was always quoting. The fight raged on…With the fur stole like her haard won life of the past thirty years being trampled into the dirt underfoot. And the clothes being torn from her body. The wood of cedar and oak rang with her inflamed cry. And the sound went on endlessly, ranging over Tatem and up and down her quiet streets at home. Until suddenly, jarring her, her cry was punctuated by the impatient blast of a car horn. The luncheon! The Statler! And this year they had been scheduled to sit on the dais, Jerome Johnson having been made a Master Mason. The thought of the ruined day brought her anger surging up anew, and ignoring the look of anguished love and disappointment in the old woman’s gaze, spurning her voiceless plea, she began hammering away at her with renewed fury there on the road to the landing, with the whole of North White Plains looking on (Marshall, 40-45).
This experience of Avey will train her for the mission she undertakes when going on the Excursion, on a boat, where she basically re-lives the trauma of the middle passage experience. There is a scene in Morrison’s Beloved, when Beloved is in the outhouse and calling for Sethe and Denver that is similar. Reading this really helped me deal with a lot of rejection in my life because it shows how no matter some people can reject you, they cannot deny the truth you are trying to bring. They can fight and fight and fight, but they still have to confront it, as Avey Johnson does in Praisesong For the Widow.
I had the pleasure of talking with (NYU Creative Writing) Professor Marshall in November of 2006 about this novel, when my master’s committee member and huge mentor, Dr. Shirley Toland-Dix, was teaching this novel in her English course at the University of South Florida. Thank you, Dr. Toland-Dix, and thank you Professor Marshall for Praisesong For The Widow: a must read. -RF.