Skip to main content Skip to main content

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Becoming Visible Paule Marshall (b. 1929)

[6715] Romare Bearden, The Return of Ulysses (1976), courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Born Valenza Pauline Burke to parents who had emigrated from Barbados to New York, Paule Marshall explores the contrasts between her West Indian heritage-a heritage of slavery and colonial exploitation-and her Brooklyn background and confronts the issues of identity and assimilation that face Caribbean American families. Maintaining one’s identity and voice while dealing with these issues remains a common theme in her work.

Marshall graduated from Brooklyn College in 1953 and worked for a popular African American magazine, Our World. Her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, was published in 1959. Praisesong for the Widow (1983) established her as a major writer and won her the Columbus Foundation American Book Award. Other works include Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), Reena and Other Short Stories (1983), Daughters (1991), and The Fisher King (2000).

While Marshall claims that she is indebted to the “literary giants,” both black and white, she notes that “they were preceded in my life by another set of giants . . . the group of women around the table long ago-this is why the best of my work must be attributed to them; it stands as testimony to the rich language and culture they so freely passed on to me in the wordshop of the kitchen.” Indeed, her early novels focus on the power of the oral tradition and the idea of women as oral translators of their culture who are able to define themselves and their world based on their ability to articulate their feelings. In Marshall’s works, conversation becomes a means of empowerment, and addressing the spiritual over the material offers important affirmation. Marshall’s focus on the Afro-diasporic culture as well as black women protagonists as voices of the immigrant community has opened new avenues of discussion and expanded the concept of what it means to be American.

Teaching Tips

  • Before teaching Marshall, have students record an oral history. Instruct them to inconspicuously write down the topics, threads, and themes of a family conversation they overhear, or perhaps a conversation in a dorm or a lunchroom between friends. In addition, have them record the conversation at the same time that they are transcribing it and then compare what they have written to what was recorded. Have them then examine and analyze the dynamics of conversation in contrast to more formal types of communicating. Try to have them pluck out any serious themes or topics amidst all the casual conversation and remarks. Discuss how they write down colloquial or accented English when it is present.
  • To prepare for Marshall, have groups of students research both the history and the culture of Barbados in particular and Caribbean culture in general. Have them present their findings in class. Then, after they’ve read”Reena,” have them discuss their research in relation to the story’s use of characterization and setting.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What kinds of pressures contributed to the divorce between Reena and her husband?
  2. Comprehension: Of the stories discussed in Unit 14, “Reena,” in which a writer hears about an old friend’s life, covers the broadest landscape and the longest expanse of time. Does “Reena” hold together as a short story? How does the narrator create coherence in her account of Reena’s adventures?
  3. Comprehension: In what ways is “Reena” a universal story about women in America, rather than an exploration of the lives of urban African American women?
  4. Context: “Reena” ends with a long overview of the modern African American experience, a sequence of paragraphs from Reena herself that read at times like an opinion piece in a newspaper. Comment on how effective you find this overview as the ending to a short story.
  5. Context: Reena and the narrator, who is also African American, speak to each other in dialect only infrequently, and only when they are being ironic. Otherwise, their exchanges are in an English more standard than that used by Malamud’s or Paley’s characters. Why might Marshall have these intimate friends talk to each other in this way?
  6. Exploration: Compare Marshall’s style of writing in “Reena” with the styles of other African American writers, such as Hughes, Hurston, Wright, Brooks, Morrison, and Walker. What is so comfortable and familiar about the way Marshall composes her art?

Selected Archive Items

[4327] Anonymous, Slave Quarters on St. Georges Island, Florida (n.d.),
courtesy of the collection of The New-York Historical Society.
Slaves photographed in front of cabins near the Gulf of Mexico. Slave quarters throughout the South were similar in size and shape, but these cabins were built of “tabby,” an aggregate of shells, lime, and sand more common to the Caribbean region. Contemporary writer Paule Marshall’s work explores connections between her West Indian heritage and her Brooklyn upbringing.

[6715] Romare Bearden, The Return of Ulysses (1976),
courtesy of the Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Romare Bearden’s paintings and collages distinguish him as one of the great artists in the twentieth-century African American aesthetic tradition. Derek Walcott’s long poem Omeros is a Caribbean retelling of the Odysseus (Ulysses) myth, and Caribbean American author Paule Marshall’s writing emphasizes the need for black Americans to reclaim their African heritage.

[7194] Samuel H. Gottscho, New York City Views. Financial District, Framed by Brooklyn Bridge (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-G612-T01-21249].
River and New York City skyline. Hart Crane used the figure of the Brooklyn Bridge to represent modernization’s unifying potential; some authors saw technology and urbanization as fragmenting.

[7641] Anonymous, NAACP Members Picketing Outside the Republic Theatre, New York City, to Protest the Screening of the Movie Birth of a Nation (1947),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-84505].
Despite the protests of civil rights groups, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation achieved massive popularity and was even shown in Calvin Coolidge’s White House. The NAACP also mobilized against the film

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6