Dancing up a Nation: Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow
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Dancing Up A Nation:
Paule Marshall's Praisesong For the Widow

Paule Marshall's novel Praisesong for the Widow (1983) is rightly celebrated by a number of critics for protagonist Avey Johnson's journey toward self-expression and wholeness.1 In Praisesong, Marshall portrays a black woman achieving this wholeness by seizing and using her individual and collective past in terms that redefine nation. Zora Neale Hurston signals the important work done by storytellers in Mules and Men by noting that they are "lying up a nation" (19). Similarly establishing a homeland, Avey Johnson is dancing up a nation in the island spaces and water crossings of Praisesong for the Widow. As in Hurston's work, the nation Marshall charts is both imagined and real, determined by geography and a shared culture.2 The dance on Carriacou, occurring in the final section of the novel and marking Avey's success as geographer of the diaspora, is the most concrete of the many manifestations of this cultural and geographical territory in Praisesong. The dance, the "Beg Pardon," asks ancestors to forgive the transgressions of the dancers. The dance is powerful because it relies on the individual history of each dancer and the collective history of this ritual performance, which unites the dancers in a shared disaporic culture. Marshall's depiction of the Beg Pardon theorizes a diaspora that preserves difference within unity, individuality within collectivity.3 The moment of the Beg Pardon is thus an important model of diasporic nationality. Praisesong is a guide to the process of articulating and joining the disaporic homeland embodied in this dance. Avey's geographic and cultural journey to the Beg Pardon, then, bears closer examination.

Avey's journey begins when, in girlhood, she witnesses dance on the fictive South Carolina Sea Island Tatem. Difference within unity marks dancing from this first instance of it in Marshall's novel. Early in Praisesong, Avey recalls her Aunt Cuney, "caught 'crossing her feet' in a Ring Shout" and refusing to leave the dancing for this breach of conduct. Aunt Cuney is both part of the religious ritual and distinct from it. Breaking the codes of the ring shout, Cuney is pushed out of a community of dancers. Young Avey recalls the "arms shot up, hands arched like wings" of dancers in the ring (33). When Avey reenacts just these movements years later, in her sixties, thousands of miles away, she effectively restores not just her place but Cuney's as well, in the community she observed in her girlhood.

Like Gloria Naylor and Ntozake Shange, Marshall uses the Sea Islands as a space both real and imagined. This imaginative vision allows these authors, through fiction, to provide an answer to Countee Cullen's question "What is Africa to me?" By writing an African-informed space as a seat of feminine power specifically useful for black American women, these authors are able to get away from problematic, primitivizing, or essentializing [End Page 644] uses of Africa. Like Hurston's anthropological writings, these authors' novels are deeply invested in specifics and diversity of African Americans and their varied African inheritances. Accordingly, those on the excursion to Carriacou represent many nations of African origin, each with its own dance. This work of treating Africa as historically grounded and of dismantling stereotypes of Africa as a timeless monolith clearly still needs attention in the late twentieth century. Marshall and her contemporaries use the Sea Islands as a bridge, a sacred space, from which to do this work.

The further Avey strays from Tatem, the further she is from a cultural nationalism or diasporic consciousness that allows her to feel at home. Marshall introduces Avey in this state of unease, long after her last visit to Tatem, when she is figuratively homeless. According to Lebert Joseph, whom she meets in Grenada after abandoning her annual Caribbean cruise with friends, Avey is one of the "People who can't call their nation." Joseph leads her to Carriacou, site of the Beg Pardon and Big Drum dances. Joining an annual excursion to this island off the coast of Grenada, Avey learns to answer the question that haunts the novel: "What's...