blackbirdonline journalSpring 2020  Vol. 19 No. 1
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Founded in 2001 as a joint venture of the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of English and New Virginia Review, Inc.

Copyright © 2020 by Blackbird and the individual writers and artists

ISSN 1540-3068


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Paule Marshall (1929–2019)

Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall called Richmond home, or home-base, from 1983 until her death in 2019, and the city was an unlikely settling point for her. She was an iconic novelist of the generation that came of age in the 1950s and an essential voice in fiction by women and African American women in particular. She was born in Brooklyn and lived in France and Africa, but Virginia Commonwealth University brought her to Richmond, and for thirty-six years she was a member of our community. We were privileged to have her among us.

I was in awe of her mind, her writing, and the purposeful life she had made for herself in her art and in her spirit. During her tenure at VCU, she practiced a rigor of work with her students, provided a determined voice for cultural reexamination, and brought writers like Toni Morrison and James Baldwin to Richmond to read. She retired from VCU when she received a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” though she continued to teach, most notably with the New York University creative writing program, and she kept her condo overlooking Fountain Lake in Byrd Park and her little red car, which was frequently parked in front.

In an “Afterword” to the Feminist Press edition of Marshall’s seminal novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, Mary Hellen Washington observes:

Collect all of Marshall's characters—Selina Boyce, Merle Kibona, Miss Thompson, Reena, Vernell Johnson—and their journeys form a kind of reverse Middle Passage, taking them, and us, from the United States to the West Indies, to Africa, and back to the states again. These women, whose lives and traditions were forever changed by the Middle Passage, emerge under the pen of Paule Marshall as central figures in that history, determined to order the meaning of their past and to find in their spiritual strivings the means to construct a future.

The following text provides a taste of Marshall’s response to Richmond and appears in Triangular Road, a memoir published by Basic Civitas Books in 2009 and originally written as a series of lectures on “Bodies of Water” at Harvard University.

from I’ve Known Rivers: The James River

 . . . where the water falleth so rudely and with such violence,
as not any boat can pass.
—Captain John Smith, May 1607

Richmond, Virginia. Labor Day, 1998. It’s a near ninety-degree September morning, summer still very much in force, but without the dog-day heat and humidity that descends like judgement on this capital city of 200,000 during July and August.

A friend and I have decided to spend part of the holiday on the north bank of the James River, close to where it flows through the heart of Richmond—or River City, as the Virginian capital is called due to the importance of the James in its creation. Spawned in the Allegheny Mountains to the west, “the ri-vah,” as the local folk call the James in an affectionate drawl, courses east some three hundred miles across the state until it reaches Jamestown, the museum of a town that was the first permanent English settlement in America. And after Jamestown, the Atlantic Ocean.

The James. It’s America’s most historic river.


Richmond, VA. It was the principal port of entry for Africans brought to the New World in the eighteenth century.


Mid-August, 1983. My first week in Richmond. Classes at the university aren’t scheduled to begin until the second week in September, but I decided to come and settle in beforehand. In need of a few items for the apartment I’ve rented near campus, I find my way downtown. The shopping done, I exit the department store only to be stopped short by the startling sight of a large group of women in great hoopskirts and beribboned bonnets approaching me down the street, all of them holding up the frilly, flirtatious little antebellum parasols.

Accompanying the women are an equal number of men in dress uniform gray, swords at their sides . . .

For a hairbreadth of a second, time reverses itself: It’s no longer the early 1980s, nor am I my present-day self: a writer and an itinerant teacher of writing. Instead, I’m suddenly chattel cargo, merchandise, goods, a commodity to be bought and sold in the Bottom, or on the Manchester Docks or in a Tidewater “scrambles,” where I’m lassoed in the shame of my nakedness and filth.

For a hairbreadth I’m caught in a terrifying time warp until my mind somehow recovers and registers the word “reenactment,” “a Civil War reenactment,” and it’s 1983 again. The Scarlett O’Hara women with the parasols, the armed men in gray, are participating in what I will soon learn is perhaps the South’s most enduring ritual.


I would spend the weeks before classes began in the campus library, taking a self-administered crash course on the Old Dominion, its defining river and its people, free and otherwise. The texts I needed were all there under the call numbers 975.5 and .6, and they offered an unvarnished account of the Commonwealth’s beginnings. It was obvious the books were seldom read or consulted, given the exhumed dust that flew up from their pages once they were opened. Early Southern History was clearly not a popular subject at the university. It proved otherwise for me. Long after the semester began, and with my classes underway, I continued my private crash course in southern history, finally able to redress the truncated, once-over-lightly, deliberately sanitized version of the antebellum South that had been standard in the textbooks of my day in high school and even college.

Mary Flinn
Senior Editor  end

Paule Marshall (1929–2019) was born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn, New York. Her father was an immigrant from Barbados. Marshall went to Brooklyn College and earned her master’s degree from Hunter College in 1955. She was the author of nine books, including a memoir, Triangular Road (Basic Civitas Books, 2009); The Fisher King (Scribner, 2000); Praisesong for the Widow (Putnam, 1983), which won the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award; Soul Clap Hands and Sing (Atheneum, 1961), which won the National Institute of Arts Award; and Brown Girl, Brownstones (Random House, 1959). Her awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Dos Passos Prize for Literature, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards. In 1993 she received an honorary LHD from Bates College. Over her long career, Marshall taught at Yale University, the University of California Berkeley, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Virginia Commonwealth University, and she was the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature and Culture at New York University.

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