- “Will You Come and Follow Me?”Walking Literacy and Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow
And at least twice a week in the late afternoon, when the juniper trees around Tatem began sending out their cool and stately shadows, she would lead them, grandchildren and visitors alike, in a troop over to the landing. “It was here that they brought them,” she would begin—as had been ordained. “They took them out of the boats right here where we’re standing.”—Paule Marshall, Praisesong for the Widow
True knowledge depends on the confirmation of stories in personal experience and to achieve this one must travel the trails and visit the places of which they tell, in the company of already knowledgeable elders. Between hearing the stories and walking the land, there is therefore a traditional stage in children’s learning.—Tim Ingold and Jo Lee Vergunst, Ways of Walking: Ethnography and Practice on Foot
I am convinced that, as a people, we have not as yet really engaged our past….I think that until you do, you really can’t begin creating your own proper image and proper self.—Paule Marshall, Conversations with Paule Marshall
In Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall draws a connection between walking, literacy, and African diasporic cultural rituals and myths. The novel chronicles the physical and psychological movement of Avey Johnson, a [End Page 51] sixty-four-year-old African American widow, who finds her luxury Caribbean cruise interrupted by a disturbing dream involving her Great Aunt Cuney. In the dream, Great Aunt Cuney beckons Avey to join her on their weekly walks across Tatem, a sea island off South Carolina’s coast and the family’s home-place. Until the cruise, the walks that marked Avey’s childhood summers are buried in her memory along with the great aunt whom she “couldn’t remember ever having dreamed of before.”1 Memories of walking, in the opening chapter of Praisesong, although they are relatively brief, are critical to the novel and help initiate Avey’s cultural rebirth, her physical awakening, and the unearthing of suppressed spatial knowledge by the novel’s end. Memories of past bodily movement, particularly guided walking, also enable Avey to comprehend the bodily movement of her ancestors, recounted in folklore and oral recollections, as an affirming and empowering model to navigate contemporary physical displacement and cultural alienation.
When the reader meets Avey at the beginning of the novel, she is not an illiterate walker, one completely lacking literacy, unable to read geography as a text, or recall personal or communal narratives intertwined with landscapes. She is, however, unwilling to employ the skills of walking literacy and is unpracticed. As a result, she must awaken her suppressed knowledge of walking literacy. Walking literacy, the process by which diasporic subjects read geography as text, navigate spatial dispossession, and render visible the impressions left by earlier walkers is central to the peripatetic scenes that Marshall constructs. By detailing Avey’s process of awakening and recalling the moments walking literacy was formed, Marshall underscores key components of this critical practice and demonstrates walking’s transformative potential to render the individual and cultural past visible.
My construction of walking literacy is an extension of Abena Busia’s concept of diaspora literacy, the act of reading “cultural icons and codes” in the landscape and assembling cultural fragments into a legible text.2 Both engage acts of reading and understanding a “text full of signs and allusion”; however, in the case of walking and walking literacy, the text is not only produced through oral tradition or storytelling, but also through place—geography and movement.3 Yet walking literacy—the ability to read and register the world, its present and past, through one’s body—takes into account the very challenges of any act of reading, what Busia astutely calls the distances between “what we can read and what we can no longer read, or never could.”4
Walking literacy in Praisesong is also shaped by what Oyèrónké Oyĕwùmí has referred to as a “world-sense.”5 It underscores a sensory mode of engaging the world not only...