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  • “Gone with the Ibos”The Blueness of Blackness in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow
  • Jonathan Howard (bio)

Now I have one radio-phonograph; I plan to have five. There is a certain acoustical deadness in my hole, and when I have music I want to feel its vibration, not only with my ear but with my whole body. I’d like to hear five recordings of Louis Armstrong playing and singing “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue”—all at the same time . . . Perhaps I like Louis Armstrong because he’s made poetry out of being invisible. I think it must be because he’s unaware that he is invisible. And my own grasp of invisibility aids me to understand his music.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

I. Black and Blue

That’s salt water coming out of Louis’s spit valve, our faithful witness to the liquid residue of the music and the way it sounds. We forget this crude matter when we attend to the poetry black and blues people make out of being invisible. Lose the sense of its relation to the music, of the saliva all bound up in the way it sounds. All five phonographs might be playing. But have we really heard unless we’ve somehow managed to hear the spit too?

Claiming “few really listen to this music,” the Invisible Man proposes and performs in the novel’s famous prologue what he calls “a new analytical way of listening to music” (Ellison 8). The newness of his method can be located in its augmented sense of what’s available to be heard. It listens not only to sound’s time, but also its space; not only sound’s sound, but its silence. To facilitate such excessive hearing, it calls for five phonographs instead of the usual one. This last detail, which, along with the Invisible Man’s aspiration to also feel the music with his whole body, suggests a desire to employ all five senses in a single but expanded act of listening. The following essay is in many ways kin to this effort of conceiving an augmented listening practice, one as suited to hear the poetry as the music. We concern ourselves here, then, with not only how we listen, but how we read.

With Louis’s spit valve as my witness, I propose that the expressive traditions of the African Diaspora are wet. Profoundly given to what Gaston Bachelard has called a “primitive material reverie” about water (3). This, I argue, is what we must ultimately come to understand and appreciate about the mind that is “gone with the Ibos,” those middle passing slaves we find songfully hovering over the face of the deep in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow (1983). But prior to any discussion of this mind or its relationship [End Page 898] to the expressive traditions of the African Diaspora, we have first to understand just where the Ibos have gone and wrestle a while with the improbable testimony about what they did there. And in that Benajaminian sort of way, flinching not to wrestle with the angels of history even when we find them underwater.

By launching an investigation into where the Ibos have gone, this article implicitly invites us to go with them, to have this mind in us that was also in the Ibos. In this way, our critical journey will mirror that to which the novel’s protagonist, Avatara “Avey” Johnson, reluctantly concedes after her long deceased great-aunt Cuney exhorts her in a dream to join her once again on their ceremonial walk to a place called “Ibo Landing.”

[T]hree nights ago, in the dream, there the old woman had been after all those years, drawn up waiting for her on the road . . . Standing there unmarked by the grave . . . beckoning to her with a hand that should have been fleshless bone by now . . .[S]he was pleading with her now to join her, silently exhorting her, transformed into a preacher in a Holiness church imploring the sinners and backsliders to come forward to the mercy seat. “Come/O will you come . . .?”

(Marshall 40, 42)

Through a...