Brown Girl, Brownstones: Sixty Years Later

November 6, 2019



Before there was Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, there was Paule Marshall.


Sixty years ago, the Brooklyn native released her debut novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. Explore the complex performativity of Blackness, the tale follows ten-year-old Selina Bryce and her Barbadian family in the early 20th century.


Paule Marshall made headlines this summer when she unexpectedly passed at the age of 90. Writer Richard Sandomir in his New York Times article wrote, “ ‘Ms. Marshall’ created strong female characters, evoked the linguistic rhythms of Barbadian speech, and forged an early link between the African-American and Caribbean literary canons.”


Marshall appears to be something of a literary pariah living in the shadows of her contemporaries. Tales of run ins with Langston Hughes and Bill Kelley also seem to set apart the extraordinary life of such an enigmatic writer.


Dialect and the complexities of Blackness became themes in Marshall’s works. Much like her predecessor Zora Neale Hurston, who by 1959 was living in a state of obscurity, had taken the literary world by storm with here linguistic bending in her works Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God. An anthropologist as well as a writer, Hurston wove together dialectical tales of the Negro experience to introduce a new variety of storytelling. In Marshall’s semi-autobiographical work, Marshall does the same thing with her Barbadian coming of age story.


1959 certainly was the year of #BlackGirlMagic in African American literature. Lorraine Hansberry released her well-known play, A Raisin In The Sun.  Like Marhsall, Hansberry’s work profiled a Black American family and their quest for the American Dream. Other African American female writers such as Sonia Sanchez and Audre Lorde also began to emerge.



A new voice in literature was calling out. And she was female.


Marshall’s work could not be any more relevant today. The complexities of Blackness are still a phenomenon today.  Beyond the identity of African Americans lies a melting pot of several shades of Blackness. Blackness transcends many places and people, from Jamaica to Barbados, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Brazil, Panama, Haiti, and more. The Caribbean influence in Blackness reveals another level of melanin magic.


Sixty years after this masterpiece hit the shelves, Marshall’s tale of triple jeopardy still holds true. Examining the state of race, gender, and ethnicity  earns Paule Marshall a place amongst one of the most transparent and thought-provoking writers of our time.



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