Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones: Reconciling Ethnicity and Individualism

by Martin Japtok
Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones: Reconciling Ethnicity and Individualism
Martin Japtok
African American Review
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Paule Marshall's Brown Girl,Brownstones: Reconciling Ethnicity and Individualism

Edward Said claims that "students of post-colonial politics have not . . . looked enough at the ideas that minimize orthodoxy and authoritarian or patriarchal thought, that take a severe view of the coercive nature of identity politics" (219). Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones does exactly that: It explores the potential of coercion behind the notion of ethnic soli- darity. What Carole Boyce Davis has said about autobiographical writings by black women holds true for the semi-autobiographi- cal Brown Girl, Brownstones as well: "The mystified notions of home and family are removed from their romantic, idealized moorings, to speak of pain, movement, difficulty, learning and love in complex ways. Thus, the complicated notion of home mir- rors the problematizing of community/nation" (21). As Davies's remark implies, the struggle the protagonist has to go through is expressive of the narrative's struggle with cultur- al nationalism. Paule Marshall, in "From the Poets in the Kitchen," explains the influence which the conversations of her mother and her friends had on her writing career. In these con- versations, Marcus Garvey played a pivotal role: "If F.D.R. was their hero, Marcus Garvey was their God. The name of the fiery, Jamaican-born black nationalist of the '20s was constantly evoked around the table" (5).Small wonder, then, that his spirit, in the form of ethnic solidarity as ideal, hovers over the novel. But far from simply subscribing to Garveyism, the novel is locked in a dialectical struggle with the notion of ethnic solidarity. It is thus characterized by dualities: Its protagonist rebels against a com- munally prescribed ethnic identity and yet comes to a kind of rec- onciliation with her community1; the novel harshly criticizes and yet celebrates the Barbadian community. The result for the pro- tagonist is a reluctant but inescapable hybridity. Garveyism was one of the most important expressions of eth- nic nationalism in the first half of the twentieth century. In its more extreme forms, this form of ethnic nationalism could pose as an answer to every question in life. Marcus Garvey, in "African Fundamentalism" (1925), exhorted his readers to "remember always that the Jew in his political and economic urge is always first a Jew; the white man is first a white man under all circum- stances, and you can do no less than being first and always a Negro, and then all else will take care of itself" (qtd. in Clarke 158). "Race" appears here as the basis of all action. Know who you are, "racially," and you know what to do. Solidarity under- writes both the more extreme and the more moderate forms of nationalism; black nationalism, Pan-Africanism, and Negritude all "begin with the assumption of the racial solidarity of the Negro," as Kwame Anthony Appiah says (6).This is most.obvi-

African American Review, Volume 32, Number 2 0 1998 Martin Ja~tok

Martin Japtok teaches English and African Amerlcan Studies at West Virginla State College.

ous in the work of Marcus Garvey, where race becomes a program in and of itself, but echoes of it can also be heard in Du Bois's view, elaborated in The Souls of Black Folk, of the gifts that every "race" has to contribute to humanity. Brown Girl, Brownstones resists the idea that ethnicity is destiny and embraces individualism as an important value. However, its protago- nist still feels that responsibility towards her ethnic group or ethnic her- itage is one of her duties and that eth- nicity is inescapable after all. In the words of Werner Sollors, "In the com- plicated American landscape of region- al, religious, and ethnic affiliation, it could be very difficult to construct the self as autonomous individual and as fated group member" (Beyond Ethnicity 173). Yet Marshall's novel attempts just that.

Early readings of the novel recog- nized that the book deals in dualities and oppositions, but these readings tended to overemphasize the novel's individualism-except for a 1959 New Yorker review which identified the novel's main conflict as that between Deighton's longing to return to Barbados and Silla's eagerness "to make a down payment on the old brownstone in which they live" (191) and which focused on ancillary characters (and thus on the community) while oddly claiming that the chapters devoted to the protagonist are less powerful. A 1975Negro American Literature Forum article by Marcia Keizs stresses the novel's individualism, claiming that Selina rejects the organization most representative of the Barbadian community (The Association of Barbadian Homeowners) and seeing the tension between Selina's parents merely as symbolic of "the existing ten- sion within her" (71). In the same issue, Kimberly W. Benston acknowledges the novel's "clash of values (material versus spiritual, pragmatism versus dreaming, old versus young, white versus Black)" (67), but he closes by saying that "it is the expression of self that [Selina], like Stephen Dedalus,

prizes above all" (TO), thus comparing Brown Girl, Brownstones to the classic Bildungsroman entirely devoted to realization of self. Adam David Miller, in a Black Scholar review of 1972, focuses on the relationship between individual and community in pointing out that "Marshall succeeds in inter- locking the lives of her main characters so thoroughly. . .that. . . it is hard to think of them except in relation to one another" (54). However, his review nicely mirrors the forces at work in the novel while exemplifying the external dynamics surrounding the composition of the novel: When commenting on the protagonist's reaction to a racist inci- dent, Miller objects that "Selina's reac- tion was personal" (57) in order to note with approval that the novel depicts the Barbadians' opening "themselves up more to intercourse with U.S. blacks. . . . All of which constitutes enlightenment, especially since even now a great many people in the black community are thinking of personal rather than group solutions" (58). Miller castigates Selina for her individ- ualism, while the novel tries to make the reader understand that Selina responds to (and eventually comes to terms with) what she experiences at first as oppressive community demands. In a way, the review illus- trates how justified Marshall was in writing her novel.

Brown Girl, Brownstones tells the coming-of-age story of Selina, the daughter of Barbadian immigrant parents, in the context of the people who surround her, and especially in relation to her mother Silla. Selina's life is lived partly in response to what she sees as the model of ethnicity which Silla embodies for her. Silla dominates her household: She determines eco- nomic matters, even against the resis- tance of the other parent, and attempts to mold her children's lives. The novel depicts her at times as ruthless and cruel. Resistance against her is appar-

ently futile-but also becomes a mark of the protagonist's growth and charac- ter. In her attempts at resisting Silla's influence, in her fears of being or becoming like Silla, and in her ability to reach a kind of peace with her, Selina establishes her individuality and her relationship to her ethnicity.

onestrategy by which the novel accomplishes the equal affirmation of individualism and communalism involves Marshallrs establishing her heroine as a character a little apart fromher family. ~h~~~-,,

as a Selina immerses herself fully in family and community, she also appears somehow older or wiser. This strategy bases itself on the assumption of the constructedness of ethnicity, since it allows individuals to differ from a group norm (which the novel establish- es at a later point) without calling into question their oethnicness.u hi^ difference is also expressive of selinafssetand-generation status: Unlike her par- ents, Selina has not experienced Barbados, yet both family and commu- nity expect loyalty to "Barbadiamess." Simultaneously, there is also the lure of the "paradigm of embodied by [the] host society, capitalist America." In negotiating a way between the two, Selina has to prove whether she has the strength to realize

the potential inherent in her second- generation status to "harmonize past with present to create a truly revolu- tionary l~ew

old worldf presence in the United statesn ( ~ ~129).t

Selina shows strength of early on and appears old beyond her years, while also harboring a wish to escape from her environment. These traits are made explicit when she first appears in the novel as

a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore, A haze of sunlight seeping down from the skylight through the dust and dimness of the hall caught her wide full mouth, the small but strong nose, the eyes deep set in the darkness of her face. They were not the eyes of a child. Something too old Iurked in their centers. . . . 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. (4)

Selina's thinness suggests an ascetic side of her character and foreshadows her anti-materialistic outlook on life, which fully emerges later in the novel. Her scuffedlegs and strong "toughness," an orientation toward action also emphasized by the last sen- tence of the quotation, which alludes to her curiosity about the world. But the conflict between these traits, which turn out to be her mother's, and her father's sensuality, hinted at through her "wide full mouth," is already out- lined here. This conflict makes her a dynamic character and sets up a dialec- tic OU~of which will emerge Selina the grown as

Selina's independence is linked to her attitude toward values which come to be connected with her ethnic group, specifically through Silla. Because Selina is depicted as an independent and strong-willed character, it appears consistent-~articularl~ in terms of the Bildungsroman genre-that she would rebel at some point against what is out- lined as the "norm," and in this case as the "ethnic norm." She perceives this "Orm be a form a

the project a house which pervades the Barbadian in New YOrk.As a she witnesses her mother's friend Iris

htorture her mother with the latter's fail-


ure-which is attributed to Selina's

father DeightOn-tO a

naming a list

have 'lbought (73

74). The community's insistence on

"buying house" as a measure of

respectability is epitomized in a com-

munal wedding scene in

Deighton has to suffer "the rejection of

the entire community" (Washington,

"Afterword" 317) because he has spent

money frivolously on luxury items

rather than on a down-payment.2

That Selina rejects such a value sys-

tem becomes clear in a scene in which


Iris tantalizes Silla with names of house-owning families. Commenting on Selina's physical growth, one of Silla's friends brushes her hand over Selina's budding breast, remarking, " 'Tell your mother that you's no more little girl, but near a full woman like us now that you's filling out-and that you can hold your tongue

like a woman . . .' " (77).


Selina is to hold her tongue because Silla has just Brownstones announced that she will wrest land that Deighton has inherit- ex pi ores the ed in Barbados from him to sell it for a down-payment. potential of Her mother's materialism and her own physical growth are coercion thus conflated, and the value

behind the

system embraced by the that the community seems to have cast for her. Ethnicity, for her, appears to be a kind of conformity to materialism, of which the Association of Barbadian Homeowners and Businessmen is the most visible expression, an expression which she scathingly denounces when first visiting the association. The Associ-

ation, aptly called "the biggest thing since Marcus Gamey" (196), serves as the novel's most visible symbol of Selina's conflict with ethnic nationalism, and as "a testament to the dawning political con- sciousness of a small black community determined to make its presence felt" (Denniston 21). Though

adults assumes inescapable not ion of ethnic she recognizes admiringly proportions. Selina's initiate the communal force of her reaction is to strike out at solidarity. ethnic group and even

Silla's friend's hand, threaten- ing her with a broken glass. Later, she is "seized by a frenzy of rejection" and tries to rub off the "imprint," though it proves to be "indelible" (78).3

Her rebellion against materialism recurs throughout the novel, as in her assertion to her mother that there are things which cannot be bought in stores, such as love and breath (104), or in her condemnation of her friends other-determined and money-oriented career goals (195 ff.). In the latter scene, Selina's wish to develop her own goals and not follow a norm set by her ethnic group expresses itself in her observa- tion that her best friend "Beryl's face had somehow lost its individual mold, that soft pleasing form she used to gaze at" (195-96). As Heather Hathaway comments, "For Selina, as a character who is both representative of and yet also markedly different from typical second-generation immigrants, the demand to conform to community mandate is asphyxiating" (153). Unlike her peers, she does not wish to fulfill her community's expectations. Though for much of the novel Selina remains unsure of the values she wants to replace materialism with, she is certain that she does not want to fit the mold

finds its "surety of pur- pose . . . enviable," Selina also per- ceives that "they were no longer indi- viduals" (222) and rejects them at this point as " 'Clannish. Narrow-minded. Selfish' " (227).

Because the novel associates the ethnic community with materialism in a number of passages, it can be read as a critique of the strategy adopted by many African American and immi- grant novels of the first decades of the twentieth century, which suggests an "organic" link between anti-material- ism (as opposed to a materialist main- stream) and ethnicity, a suggestion which is integral to many forms of eth- nic nationalism-one may remember here Du Bois's formulation, in The Souls of Black Folk: ". . . we black men seem the sole oasis of simple faith and reverence in a dusty desert of dollars and smartness" (8). Brown Girl, Brownstones thus also writes against what William Boelhower has identified as the basic plot for most immigrant novels: "With construction [of the com- munity] as the master topic, goals are still relatively uncomplicated, cultural motives are few, simple, public in char- acter, and usually agreed upon by all. The ethnic project inspires consensus, and consensus inspires the building of

an ethnic community" (101-02). Selina

does not subscribe to this consensus

and demands room outside the vara-


meters it prescribes.

Ironically, the novel's critique of coercive ethnic solidarity brings it clos- er to the ideology of individualism, which is a feature of an "Americanism" or mainstream nationalist self-defini- tion the ethnic community finds itself excluded from. Yet the novel is not assimilationist because, rather than accept the definition of ethnicity repre- sented by the strong parent or reject ethnicity as a whole, the novel creates new ethnic boundaries, illuminating, as Werner Sollors has said in a discussion of Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee, "Frederick Barth's thesis that ethnicity rests on the boundary, not on the 'cul- tural stuff it encloses' " ("Ethnicity" 299). Selina's status as child of immi- grant parents more or less forces her into this position, since her parents' definitions of ethnicity, arising from their cultural exveriences and their


expectations in immigrating to the U.S., cannot be the same as hers. She shares neither the same sense of "alienness" nor the same urgency to acquire a sense of material and cultural securitv


in a new environment. This shifting of

ethnic boundaries, however, while cre-

ating distance between Selina's and

Silla's version of ethnicity, does not

result in an uncritical embrace of indi-


The protagonist attempts to estab- lish her independence from the coer- cive aspect of her ethnic community through a refusal to conform to one of its main tenets, namely acquisitiveness. However, this refusal is not equivalent to a renunciation of ethnicity. Brown Girl, Brownstones vrovidescharacters located between ab'solute ethnic soli- darity and unmitigated individualism, and these characters are depicted in positive or sympathetic terms. This strategy becomes necessary because Selina has to establish some kind of truce with her ethnic group since eth- nicity, as the novel makes clear, goes into the making of her personality. As

Barbara Christian has said of Brown

Girl, Brownstones, "an appreciation of

one's ethnic and racial community

becomes necessary for black women in

their commitment to self-develop-

ment" (Feminist 178).~

One character located between

individualism and the demands of eth-

nic solidarity is Deighton, who does

not meet the approval of his ethnic

community because he does not save

money for-a house. Percy Challenor,

who is something of a community

leader, pronounces what the communi-

ty thinks of Deighton: " 'I tell you those

men from Bridgetown home is all the

same. They don know a thing 'bout

handling money and property and

thing so. . . .I tell you, he's a

disgrace!' " (55). Deighton fully

embraces his Barbadian upbringing,

but he does not meet all the standards

for full community membership.

Suggie, one of the tenants in Silla's house, is another influence on Selina. She, too, fully adheres to Barbadian culture and fondly remembers the island. Yet she, too, is regarded as an outsider by the community because of her promiscuity. Eventually, Silla evicts Suggie, though she is one of Selina's best friends. Sensing her own marginality but refusing to give in to community pressure, Suggie comments to Selina:

"My people! 1's hiding from them with tears in my eyes. . . .Y'know what they want me to do? . . . I must put on a piece of black hat pull down over my face and go out here working day in and day out and save every penny. . . . I mustn't think 'bout spreeing or lov- ing-up or anything so. . . . But they's sadly mistaken.. . . I gon spend my money foolish if I choose." (80-81)

Both Deighton and Suggie provide Selina with examples of following the course of life one has chosen for one- self. Though they end up tragically- Deighton commits suicide and Suggie moves on to an uncertain existence- they give Selina the warmth, affection, and sense of enjoyment of life that is missing in a community focused solely


on work and acquisition. Their exis- tence confirms for Selina that being Barbadian is not defined by a kind of value es~entialism.~

However, Selina discovers that she is very much like the mother she rebels against, who is repeatedly represented as an embodiment of the Barbadian community. At first, she cannot bring herself to acknowledge her mother's heritage-a strong will and inex- haustible energy-having defined her- self as "Deighton's Selina" in opposi- tion to her mother and the Barbadian community.6 Since Selina perceives the ethnic community as a monolithic block, she derives a deviating self-defi- nition from those whom that commu- nity explicitly condemns, namely char- acters like her father and Suggie. Her choice of a boyfriend confirms this direction: Clive is a struggling artist who does not subscribe to the work ethic of the Barbadian community, but who is paralyzed by self-doubts and unable to create, much like Deighton. Thus, when he perceives similarities between Selina and her mother, Selina has to confront the painful possibility that her oppositional course might have brought her full circle to the ruth- less pursuit of goals that is her moth- er's mark, even though their goals may differ.

When resolving to leave town with Clive, a plan which will never be car- ried out, Selina finds a way to come up with the necessary funds: winning the scholarship offered by the Barbadian Association. However, this scholarship is intended to fund schooling. Knowing this, Selina decides to be duplicitous, to "be contrite, dedicated, the most willing worker they've ever had" and is convinced that she will "get the money. It'll take some doing but I'll get it . . ." (267).Her phrasing resembles Silla's vow to obtain the money for Deighton's land, no matter what it takes: " 'I gon do it. . . . Some kind of way 1gon do it' " (75).Here Selina most fully reveals how she has been influenced by her mother's ruth- less determination. But her mother's influence is not only negative. Selina's maturation is marked by her recogni- tion of a multiplicity of viewpoints and value systems, without her necessarily condemning one and extolling others. Paradoxically, it is her individualism that, in the end, allows her to respect or at least regard with more tolerance the values of her mother and her ethnic group, even though these values do not really allow for individualism but demand ethnic ~oherence.~

She can declare to her mother, " 'I'm not inter- ested in houses!' " But she adds, " 'I don't scorn you. Oh, I used to. But not any more. . . . It's just not what I want' " (306).By being clear about what she does not want and insisting on this as her right, she also has to respect that others want things differ- ent from her. Through her emerging selfhood, she may begin to be able to see that the "dispossessed gain affirma- tion through possession because own- ing . . .is an economic as well as a political and personal declaration of one's humanity, one's humanness, one's reality" (Dickerson 4), even though Selina wishes to express her own humanity differently.

The circle is complete when Selina recognizes that her mother, a symbol of ethnic conformity, was once driven by her own individualism. At this point, ethnic communalism and individual- ism do not appear as incompatible:

"Everybody used to call me Deighton's Selina but they were wrong. Because you see I'm truly your child. Remember how you used to talk about how you left home and came here alone as a girl of eighteen and was your own woman? I used to love hear- ing that. And that's what I want. I want it!" (307)

Interestingly, Selina uses a slight Barbadian English inflection in this passage ("was your own woman") that is not typical for her speech, which is otherwise American English. This phrase denotes an embracing of ethnicity at the time that she verbalizes the possible co-existence of ethnicity and individualism, citing as an example her mother-for Selina, the symbol of the understand the acquisitiveness ot the

Barbadian. communitv. he veace she Barbadian community as a defense makes with her moth& maks also the mechanism against racism, the wish to synthesis of the diametrically opposed own things as an attempt to fight back ways of being she envisioned before: against exclusion. As Barbara Christian Either you are like your father-i.e., says, this defensiveness results in the completely different from your moth- community's "compelling, urging, er-or you become like your m~ther.~ insisting that every one of its parts Her world view has become more com- bend to the common goal: the owning plicated. But what made this process of a brownstone, the possession of possible? property, as a bulwark against poverty,

Two factors play an important role racism, failure" (Novelists 82). The

here: One is a fuller experience of the pressure to conform can thus be under- world outside the home and outside stood as a wish to protect and shelter the ethnic community; the other is the the younger generation against an

experience of racism. Once Selina essentially hostile white world.9 Silla's leaves her immediate environment to gesture when hearing of Selina's plan go to college, the world there, at least to leave home bespeaks this wish: "Her

at first, seems empty and shallow to arms half lifted in a protective gesture, her in comparison to the drama of the and her warning sounded. 'Girl, do

ethnic home life she knows, which she you know what it tis out there? How perceives as more dramatic and real: those white people does yuh?' " (306)."The chill feel of utter desertion she At the same time, the ethnic

had watching Suggie leave persisted group's coerciveness expresses its inse- through her first year of college. This

cure position and the resulting recogni- was real while everything that hap- tion that "individuality can be detri- pened at school had the unreality of a mental to a group needing to cohere in play viewed from a high balcony" order to survive in a [hostile] nation" (212). But only after having been treat- (Hathaway 132). Thus, there is some- ed with cold, racist condescension by thing paradoxical about the fact that the mother of a fellow dancer at a post- Selina's experience of racism-which performance cast party does Selina makes clear to her that "American

reflect on her relationship to the racism makes no distinctions in cul-

Barbadian community:

ture," that her color rather than her .. . she was one with them: the mother culture will determine her social and and the Bajan women, who had lived economic status (Denniston 24-25)- each day what she had come to know.

serves as a kind of "Americanization"

in that it blurs ethnic distinctions.

remembered the mother striding

through Fulton Park each late after- While the racist incident helps Selina to noon, bearing the throw-offs under her understand the motivation for ethnic arm as she must have borne the day's

solidarity, it also points out that color

humiliations inside. How had the

may assume greater significance than

mother contained her swift rage?-and then she remembered those sudden, ethnic culture. uncalled-for outbursts that would so Ambiguity prevails at the end. In stun them and split the serenity of the

rejecting the scholarship from the

house. (292-93)

Barbadian Association because she

Recognizing that her mother, too, has acquired it through pretending false experienced racism, Selina not only motives, Selina feels the burden of love acknowledges unity vis-8-vis a com- and experiences a strong sense of eth- mon oppression but also concludes nic solidarity, maybe for the first time. that she has no right to judge her moth- On her way to the podium to receive

er or the community: "Who are we to the scholarship award, Selina reflects scorn them?" (293). She begins to on her community:


Selina moved . . . down the aisle, scan- ning those myriad reflections and vari- ations of her own dark face. And sud- denly she admired their mystery. No, not mystery . . . but the mysterious source of endurance in them, and it was not only admiration but love she felt. A thought glanced her mind as Cecil Osborne held her face between his ruined hands and kissed her: love was the greater burden than hate. The applause burst afresh and she gazed wonderingly over the smiling faces, which resembled a dark sea-alive under the sun with endless mutations of one color. (302-03)

Her newly reached admiration of her communitv's resilience in the face of


adverse circumstances happens at the moment that she recognizes herself to be one of them, her own purposeful- ness rooted in theirs ("reflections. . . of her own dark face"), 'so that her indi- vidualism can now be understood as a variation on a theme rather than stand- ing in opposition to it.

At the same time, however, she knows that she is not willing td do the community's bidding and thus feels utter alienation. Somewhat paradoxi- cally, recognizing her own strength and her community's strength to be the same "underpin[s] her purpose" to reveal that she does not share in their goals. This revelation, coming at the moment of greatest harmony between the community and herself, opens up the divide between communalism and individualism afresh. After having:


declined the award as meaning "some- thing I don't want for myself" Selina leaves the hall:

The words rang hollow throughout the hall as she hurried down the platform and through the perplexed and unfor- giving silence. The loud rustle of her gown . . . bespoke her final alienation. And as the familiar faces fell away behind her, she was aware of the lone- liness coiled fast around her freedom.


Here it seems as if individualitv can only be bought at the price of rejecting ethnic solidarity and communalism. However, her final gesture at the end of the book-the flinging away of one of the silver bangles signifying ethnici- ty ("silver bangles. . . which every

Barbadian-American girl wore from birth" [5])while keeping the other- bespeaks a more complex relationship between those two concepts and puts Selina on a middle ground: While eth- nicity is accepted as inevitable, some- thing new and different emerges, a kind of hybrid ethnicity that is the product of Old World ethnicity vari- ously represented by Silla and Deighton and the influences of the New World environment.1°

However, U.S. influences are not specified. Selina lives mostly in an eth- nic environment. The influence of U.S. society mostly comes to Selina in an already ethnically mediated form through "the members of Marshall's Barbadian Association [who] represent the sector of the West Indian communi- ty that most eagerly embraced the American ideal of steadily progressing up the socioeconomic ladder" (~athawa~

146), so much so and by such a majority of the community that reducing this acquisitive tendency of the Barbadian community in the novel to U.S. influences alone seems prob- lematic. Indeed, Joyce Pettis remarks upon the "middleman" role the Barbadian Homeowners' Association plays: "The association becomes a mediative group intended to assist the Barbadians in their transformation from recent immigrants . . . to property owners. They will educate their young people with American values and accelerate their union with the domi- nant economics" (44). Brown Girl indicates what one might call the "ethni- cization" of materialism, in that acqui- sition is a communal goal rather than exclusively an individual one. In addi- tion, as noted above, the non-ethnic world is, at times, perceived as shallow or even as hostile, and first-generation ethnic models for individuaiist striving do exist in the novel, thus making even an "American" derivation of individu- alism less compulsory. Nonetheless, the presence of this almost stereotypi- callv American value as an American


value cannot be ignored in a story which tells of a second-generation pro- tagonist moving away from "Old World" definitions of ethnicity.

Though Brown Girl, Brownstones does not claim that individualism completely overrules ethnic commu- nalism, the novel recognizes a struggle between these two world views. Selina's hybrid ethnicity, arrived at against the resistance of a strong parent figure symbolic of the ethnic communi- ty, is in an ironic sense the outcome of that parent's decision to flee more oppressive circumstances to allow for a fuller development of (ethnic) life, not expecting that this decision also might give her children expanded opportuni- ties to decide what shape ethnic life is to take. And it is the resulting hybridi- ty that makes necessary the simultane- ous assertion of and uneasy reconcilia- tion between communalist ethnicity and individualism. Brown Girl, Brownstones thus records ethnic adjustments in the New World. Selina figures as a pioneer who points the way for developments with- in the community which are implicitly inevitable. However, the development is not simply from ethnicity to "Americanness"-"ethnicity" and "Americanness" as Selina experiences them are already hybrids-but to a new kind of ethnicity that recognizes the necessity of solidarity in an adverse environment but rejects the absolute- ness to a communal claim to solidarity, which is the hallmark of nationalism. Because the novel supports individual- ist aspirations, it cannot construct eth- nicity in an essentialist fashion as (eth- nic) nationalism would, since this strat- egy would force the implausible claim that the individualist protagonist, in deviating from an ethnic consensus, is simply not ethnic any more but American. This, in turn, would align the novel's sympathy with "Americanness," which cannot be the intent in a work that in great detail out- lines an ethnic world with characters the reader is supposed to like, which points out that racism remains a factor in the life of ethnic groups and individ- uals, and whose major antagonist is redeemed through the movement of the plot, which has the heroine embrace the antagonist. The simultane- ous assertion of ethnicity and individu- alism must thus be accomplished through a constructionist conceptual- ization of ethnicity that allows one to see ethnic solidarity as an original response to an Old World environment that still has validity in the New World, though maybe not the same urgency. This constructionist approach allows for a wider range in definition for the ethnic character and makes pos- sible "a satisfactory synthesis of the best . . . assets where multiple heritages are involved" (Pettis 33).

At the same time, the novel responds to the ideological pressure of ethnic nationalism in that it recognizes that the course of individualism needs justification. This need to justify creates tension: Certain features of the ethnic community must appear as oppressive in order to legitimatize the heroine's quest for individualism. However, overly negative depiction of the ethnic community would put the protagonist into an almost self-destructive bind, since, having ethnic ancestry, she would have to create herself out of nothing if she wanted to acquire a posi- tive self-image while creating a nega- tive one of her own community. The resulting tension is partially resolved by the depiction of ethnic individuals outside the "ethnic norm" and by the reconciliation between Silla as symbol of the Old World ethnic community and Selina. I say "partially resolved" because Selina experiences unease with the realization that ethnicity is inescapable for her. She stands half- willingly in a tradition which holds ethnic solidarity as the highest duty. While she partly strives to alter this tra- dition, she is bound to it to the extent that her individualism requires con- stant justification. Thus, Selina accepts

ethnic communalism while pursuing conceptualization of ethnicity in the an individualist agenda, creating a new process.

Notes 1. In an article focusing on the quest of Marshall's heroines, Missy Dehn Kubitschek arrives at a similar conclusion from a different angle: "An adolescent, Selina separates from her parents without rejecting them, acknowledges her community while denying its right to determine her personality"


    1. Barbara Christian comments, "The novel . . . measures the spiritual prices that many. . . [members of the Barbadian American community] paid to advance economically or even to survive-a primary one being their need to expel or destroy any one of them who did not pursue their common goal" (Novelists 82).

      3. See also Collier, "Closing" 300-01.

  1. See also Susan Willis: "In Brown Girl, Brownstones, Silla asks her daughter the critical question that Marshall will continue to demand of all her characters: 'But who put you so?' . . . As Selina dis- covers . . . the answer to this question cannot be obtained by a simple review of personal history, because the personal is inextricably inscribed within the history of black people in this country" (63).
  2. Joyce Pettis puts Suggie's importance for the narrative in psychological terms: "Suggie Skeete . . . illustrate[s] significant variations in negotiating community. Suggie's example confirms the neces- sity for cultivating psychological space within the community of one's cultural kin if one operates con- trary to the status quo" (44). However, Suggie is ultimately forced to make more than psychological space, being literally evicted.
  3. "Because Selina sees herself as her father's daughter, she resists not only her mother's attempts to possess her but the Barbadian community's as well" (Christian, Novelists 100).
  4. While the acquisition of brownstones is an ethnic goal, Susan Willis demonstrates how this oppositional materialism is at the same time a move toward assimilation: "Marshall demonstrates deep political understanding in Brown Girl, Brownstones by showing that the desire to own property may well have represented an initial contestation of bourgeois white domination, but because proper- ty ownership is implicit in capitalist society, the momentum of opposition was immediately absorbed and integrated into the context of American capitalism" (74).
  5. As Heather Hathaway notes, "Marshall deliberately structures differences between Silla and Deighton to reveal the conflicting models on which Selina struggles to shape her own identity, both through acts of alliance and rejection" (140). Once she recognizes the complexity of her mother's motivation for her actions, however, neither one of these models of ethnlc~ty is the one she adopts.
  6. Carole McAlpine Watson has commented on the protective side of ethnic communalism: "Silla comes to represent not only a certain limited approach to life but also the protective and nurturing aspects of the ghetto. [I do not think, however, that "ghetto" is an apt description of Barbadian Brooklyn.] Silla and the striving West Indians, represented by the West Indian Homeowners and Businessmen's Association, are one" (85). Heather Hathaway sees the Barbadians' obsession with "buying house" as indicative of an understanding "that their greatest weapon agalnst poverty and dis- crimination lay in property ownership" (146).
  7. Susan W~llis has described the ambiguity of Selina's gesture: "The bracelet whose arc she traces across the moonlit sky and whose sharp clash marks its fall gives testament to Selina as she has been formed by her community; it also represents her gift to those who remain behind. The bracelet Selina keeps is her visible link to her Carribean heritage" (53). Joyce Pettis stresses the affirmative side of the gesture in that she interprets Selina as "symbolically acknowledging the people and the environment that have contributed to her development' (15). 1 think that the gesture, while one of giving, appears also to be symbolic of giving something up.

Works Anon. Rev. of Brown Girl, Brownstones. New Yorker 19 Sep. 1959: 191 -92. Cited Appiah, Kwame Anthony. InMy Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Bemton, Kimberly W. "Architectural Imagery and Unity in Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones." NegroAmerican Literature Forum 9 (1975): 67-70. Boelhower, William. Through a GIass Darkly: Ethnic Semiosis in American Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Christian, Barbara. Black Feminist Criticism: Perspectives on Black Women Writers. New York: Pergamon, 1985. -. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood, 1980.

Clarke, John Henrik. Marcus Gamey and the Vision ofAfrica. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Collier, Eugenia. "The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction." Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Ed. Mari Evans. Garden City: Anchor, 1984. 295-315. Davies, Carole Boyce. Black Women, Writing and Identity: Migrations of the Subject. New York: Routledge, 1994. Denniston, Dorothy Hamer. The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1995. Dickerson, Vanessa D. "The Property of Being in Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones." Obsidian 11 6.3 (1 991): 1-1 3.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. New York: Bantam, 1989.

Hathaway, Heather A. "Cultural Crossings: Migration, Generation, and Gender in Writings by Claude McKay and Paule Marshall." Diss. Harvard U, 1993. Keizs, Marcia. "Themes and Style in the Works of Paule Marshall." Negro American Literature Forum 9 (1 975): 67+. Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. "Paule Marshall's Women on Quest." Black American Literature Forum 21 (1 987): 43-60. Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. 1959. Old Westbury: Feminist P, 1981.

-. "From the Poets in the Kitchen." Reena and Other Stories. New York: Feminist P, 1983. 3-12.

Miller, Adam David. Rev. of Brown Girl, Brownstones. Black Scholar 3 (May 1972): 56-58.

Pettis, Joyce. Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall's Fiction. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1995.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. -. "Ethnicity." Critical Terms for Literary Study. Ed. Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990. 288-305. Washington, Mary Helen. "Afterword." Marshall, Brown Girl 31 1-24. Watson, Carole McAlpine. Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965. Westport: Greenwood, 1985. Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin

P. 1987.



How had the mother endured . . .? She

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