Image Credit: Martino Fine Books, 2014
Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones explores the issues of cultural identity within the community of Barbadians who emigrated to the US between 1900 and 1940. Escaping brutal colonial exploitation within the West Indies, Marshall gives voice to a generation of Barbadian immigrants who have their racial and cultural inferiority assumed.
Told from the unique perspective of the passionate and stubborn Selina Boyce, the narrative follows her from the age of ten, right through to the end of the novel where she rejects her Mother’s wishes for her to go to college and instead makes the political choice to go to Barbados.
Throughout the novel, Marshall presents Selina as being caught between the aspirations of her lazy but charming father and the cold ambitious nature of her mother Silla.
Most of the novel revolves around the land Deighton (Selina’s father) has inherited in Barbados; while Deighton wants to move back to Barbados to build on the land, Silla wishes to sell it in order to buy the Brownstone they lease in Brooklyn, New York. Through this contentious issue, Selina is forced to navigate the taught relationship between her parents as she grows up. By highlighting the importance of land within the migrant community, Marshall demonstrates the sacrifice many made, leaving land in the West Indies in order to chase opportunity in America. Gravitating towards a place known for immense wealth and unlimited opportunity.
The third chapter titled ‘WW2’ offers a fitting background to the domestic war which progresses throughout the novel, coming to the surface at the wedding of Gatha Steed’s daughter. The wedding is an elaborate show of satin dresses and bridesmaids, yet with hardly a hint of traditional Bajan life. The wedding becomes a presentation of the successful imitation of white America and consequently becomes a suitable location for the announcement of the divorce between Silla and Deighton.
Silla fights for the American Dream and the ability to be accepted into American society. In a discussion with Silla who criticises her materialism, claiming money cannot buy love, Stella replies ‘Lord! Give me a dollar in my hand any day.’
Despite this fight for acceptance within the American community, Marshall’s decision to focus the narrative around the conscious, interior life of Selina offers a unique perspective which gives the reader access to issues of race, gender and identity. In an interview in Essence magazine in May 1979 Marshall says that women feature predominantly in her writing because their power shapes her words as she said ‘I wanted women to be centres of power. My feminism takes expression through my work.’ By placing Selina in the centre of the novel, Marshall creates a uniquely compelling narrative style, focussing on the inner tribulations of a young black female growing up.
The end of the novel is as tragic as it is empowering. Rejecting the social pressure to go to college, Selina exercises her conscious political power making the choice to go to Barbados. Renouncing a community focussed on money, possession and authority, Selina claims her own identity by rebelling against the path forged out for her. It is only by taking and accepting both the dreams of her parents that she truly comes to terms with her own identity.