The Narrator’s Identity in “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam”
The biography of Paule Marshall’s life in The Norton Anthology of African American Literature describes her as having “the challenge of maintaining a Caribbean identity, while succeeding in the capitalist culture of the United States” (“Paule Marshall” 2167). This struggle with preserving an identity is evident within her literary work, especially in the story “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam.” The story features a narrator and her memory of her grandmother, Da-Duh, on a trip to Barbados. As the story concludes, the narrator realizes the effect Da-Duh has had on her personal identity and how her grandmother influenced her. The bond between the two of them survives after Da-Duh’s death, despite the prominent differences between the grandmother and her granddaughter. Paule Marshall’s “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” demonstrates how Da-Duh shapes and changes the narrator’s identity through her competition with her granddaughter and her views on their homes, and how that change in identity is evident even in the narrator’s adult life.
The title of the story by alone, “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” suggests how much the narrator misses her grandmother and how Da-Duh has influenced the speaker’s life. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the phrase “in memoriam” means “to the memory of” and is often an “epitaph or commemorative inscription” (“In Memoriam”). The title and the phrase within it hint at the nostalgic tone of the story and show the reader how the narrator respects Da-Duh. Since the title describes that Da-Duh lives in the narrator’s memory, the reader assumes that Da-Duh has passed away and that she still is a prevalent influence on the narrator and on her thoughts. The narrator reflects on her life with Da-Duh and reminisces on how her grandmother changed her. When the narrator states “She died and I lived, but always, to this day even, within the shadow of her death,” she makes it clear that Da-Duh still influences her life (Marshall 2188-2189). Though Da-Duh is gone, the narrator lives her life remembering Da-Duh and their relationship. Also, the words “within the shadow” evoke two different meanings. They suggest that the narrator lives in darkness and sadness because she mourns her grandmother, which definitely contributes to the nostalgia component of the story. The phrase also suggests that the narrator lives in her grandmother’s image, as though her life would be better if she spent it like Da-Duh spent her life. The two meanings of the speaker’s words show the presence of Da-Duh on her granddaughter’s life and how the narrator did not forget her grandmother.
Along with the title of the story, the differences between Da-Duh and the narrator, and the narrator’s memory of their friendly rivalry, contribute to the narrator and her identity. For example, throughout the narrator’s trip to Barbados, she and her grandmother constantly compete to see whose homeland is superior. Da-Duh is fiercely loyal to her home of Barbados, while the narrator has a similar pride towards her home, New York City. As Da-Duh shows her granddaughter the plants and vegetation of her home, she describes the “names of the trees as though they were those of her gods” (Marshall 2185). Da-Duh is so proud of her homeland that her respect for trees is comparable to actual worship. In Barbados tropical trees like “poinciana mahogany, frangipani and cabbage palm” are common across the land and are part of the landscape that Da-Duh is so proud of (Jackson et. al.). When her grandmother points out how New York City is inferior in comparison to Barbados, she has an effect on the narrator. The narrator felt that her “world did seem suddenly lacking” (Marshall 2185). After all, New York City’s vegetation simply cannot compare to the diverse plant life of Barbados. As the city has evolved and grown, vegetation “has been reduced and destroyed with the evidence of urban sprawl” (Lankevich). The narrator begins to realize that the industry of New York is inferior to the Da-Duh’s tropical home. The way that Da-Duh reduces New York’s appeal in the narrator’s eyes shows how the narrator’s identity is contingent upon her grandmother’s opinions. At first, the narrator feels pride and loyalty to her home. She even defends the nature of New York by describing the one chestnut tree in front of her house (Marshall 2185). However, after her grandmother shows her the beauty and nature of Barbados, she begins to question her home and herself. The rivalry between Da-Duh and Barbados, and the narrator and New York demonstrates the deeper sense of ambivalence that the narrator has towards her own identity. As the two spat over their homes, the narrator starts to wonder whether her life is as good as she thinks it is. This ambivalence of identity is especially evident in a scene in which the adult narrator looks back on her memory of Da-Duh and realizes how her grandmother was right about New York. The narrator is living by herself in an apartment above a factory where “the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs” constantly disrupts her (Marshall 2189). While this passage definitely has a weary tone, there is also a hint of nostalgia. The narrator realizes the modern factories that are a part of her home are annoying and distracting. The text implicitly suggests that the narrator longs for her days at Barbados, without the noise and distraction, and understands her grandmother’s love of Barbados. The narrator would never have learned to see New York this way without Da-Duh. Da-Duh inspires the narrator to question her home and to ultimately question herself and her views.
In addition to inspiring the narrator to question herself, Da-Duh also contributes to the narrator’s identity by helping her define herself as an adult. Marshall wrote the story during a movement in the literary world where a community of black women would help each other to “define themselves” (“Community” 2131). The relationship between the two female characters of Da-Duh and the narrator is similar to this community. Da-Duh shows her granddaughter aspects of Barbados that are significant, and the narrator learns about who she is with Da-Duh’s help. Da-Duh, her lessons about Barbados and her pride in her home all influence the narrator and cause her to question who she is and whether she feels pride in her own hometown. Long after her visit to Barbados and Da-Duh’s death the narrator lives alone “like one doing penance, in a loft above a noisy factory in downtown New York” (Marshall 2189). In this home, the narrator “painted seas of sugar-cane…and palm trees” while the “thunderous tread of the machines downstairs jarred the floor beneath my easel, mocking my efforts” (Marshall 2189). The words “penance” and “mocking” suggest to the reader that the narrator sees the flaws in her hometown, just like Da-Duh did. This doubt in the place that she once loved shows how the narrator takes Da-Duh’s opinion seriously and how her grandmother persuaded the narrator to take a closer look at New York compared to Barbados. The narrator’s new opinions about New York are just one way Da-Duh helped to define her.
Along with seeing the flaws in New York, the fact that narrator paints pictures of sugar-cane and palm trees is very significant. During the narrator’s trip to Barbados, her grandmother shows her sugar-cane and tells her “these canes here and the sugar you eat is one and the same thing” (Marshall 2185). Also, Da-Duh shows the narrator “an incredibly tall royal palm which rose cleanly out of the ground” (Marshal 2187). The narrator’s experience with both of these plants in Barbados contributes to her identity as an adult. Even though she is living in New York City, Barbados and her grandmother are still constantly in her thoughts and end up in her artwork. The narrator’s work that depicts the vegetation of Barbados demonstrates how so much of her identity is from Da-Duh’s influence. If Da-Duh had not shared her love of the sugar-cane and palm trees of Barbados, the narrator would have a completely different identity in New York City. While the narrator is her own person in New York, she still shows her memories of Barbados, Da-Duh and their experiences together.
The struggles of maintaining a clear identity are prevalent in Paule Marshall’s work and are a significant part of her short story, “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam.” The title of the story, the constant rivalry between the narrator and her grandmother, and the narrator’s adult experiences in New York all demonstrate how the narrator’s identity is connected to Da-Duh and Barbados. Da-Duh’s constant belittlement of New York and her pride in Barbados cause the narrator to question her home and end up having a lasting effect on how she views New York and her own life. The question of identity is the most important and longest-lasting effect that Da-Duh has on her granddaughter and on how the narrator remembers her grandmother.
“The Community of Black Women Writing.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 2131-2132. Print.
“In Memoriam.” Oxford English Dictionary. Web. 9 Nov 2011.
Jackson, Christopher Stewart, Woodville K. Marshall and Anthony De Vere Phillips. “Barbados.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 9 Nov 2011.
Lankevich, George. “New York City.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 9 Nov 2011.
Marshall, Paule. “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 2182-2189. Print.
“Paule Marshall.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. 2nd ed. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton & Company, 2004. 2167-2169. Print.