Both Paule Marshall and Toni Morrison died within days of each other. What a great loss for the literary world! Both women burst onto the literary scene around the time that the curtain was being pulled back to reveal positive black images in printed books.
During the mid-1980’s, we had Alice Walker’s The Color Purple to appear along with her personal endeavors to brush the dust of the works of Zora Neale Hurston. Thus, there was the introduction of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Then, Toni Morrison eked onto the stage with Song of Solomon, Sula, Tar Baby and a host of other works. Maya Angelou joined the jambalaya stew with her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and a long trail of her autobiographical books dotted the horizon.
But, around that same time, I was working as a bookseller at Waldenbooks in Memphis. I was stocking books on the shelf one day and when I saw this one cover, I stood still. There was a sketch of this refined black woman holding her purse with pride. I picked up the book and read the title Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall.
I immediately asked the store manager if I could take it out on loan. We could borrow books because the company understood that well- read booksellers could sell books. Simple! So, I rushed home that night with that book in my hand. That was my introduction to the Author Paule Marshall!
When I finished reading it, I passed it onto my mother. We always read the latest books together and had hearty discussions. That was one of our enjoyments and she often accompanied me whenever I went to authors’ book signings. We often joked and used one of the character’s lines from Praisesong for the Widow. We imitated Thomasina Moore when she said, “Don’t get my colors up!” That meant, don’t make her angry. Oh, that book left so many indelible marks!
About ten years later, I heard that Paule Marshall would be speaking at a venue in the Chicagoland area. We had returned to Chicago by then and my mother went with me to the event. I drove all the way from the South Suburbs to see her at ETA Creative Arts Theatre on the South Side.
When we reached the proper area, there sat Paule Marshall with that beautiful, effervescent smile. My mother stood to the side and said, “I just want to stand here and look at her.” I laughed and got into the line for a book signing.
When I reached her, we had a brief talk. I told her that I had taught her book, Praisesong for the Widow to a racially mixed college class. Her eyes lit up. I was telling her about the good but heated discussions that it had evoked and then someone came up and interrupted our conversation. Poof! The moment was gone just like she is now gone from our view. But the moments were memorable.
She will always be with us because she followed a Biblical command. The Book of Habakkuk say, “Write the vision And make if plain on tablets, That he may run who reads it.”(2:2) She left her footprints behind and I will always cherish both her books and being in her presence. I have also read her other works such as Brown Girl, Brownstones and Daughters.
After her passing last week, I went on YouTube and savored a couple of recorded interviews. I learned that Langston Hughes was her friend and mentor. Wow! She will forever be a mentor of mine. She is forever tangible, and her warm humor will be forever etched into my psyche. I am currently experiencing her one more time as I slowly digest one of her last books, The Fisher King.
Lynn M. August 24, 2019