"She even thinks that up in heaven / Her class lies late and snores,/ While poor black cherubs rise at seven / To do celestial chores." --"For a Lady I Know" by Countee Cullen
The Harlem Renaissance poet Countee Cullen speaks of a creature of leisure in his short poem, "For a Lady I Know"--the type of person who expects those of an African-American heritage to handle matters of work even unto death. Jerome Johnson, the husband of the staid protagonist of Paule Marshall's _Praisesong for the Widow,_ Avey Johnson, lives the reality of Cullen's words. The industrious Jerome labors beneath an Irish supervisor who allows Jerome to do all the work in the department store they both work in, while the supervisor takes the credit. Jerome expresses his dismay about this in an argument he has with Avey one evening, in which she accuses him of cheating on her in the long hours he spends away from the home. He cries: "Okay, you go take my job at the store then! Go on. Go on down there and see how you like working for some red-faced Irishman who sits on his can all day laughing to himself at the colored boy he's got doing everything" (105)
When Jerome is young, newly married to Avey and living on Halsey Street, he is aware of the pressures of race working at the department store in the shipping room. Not only does he organize the store's floor so that it is efficiently run during its opened hours, he also stays after work late, slaving in the storeroom to ensure that the store will be smoothly operating during the next day. Jerome's supervisor realizes that Jerome runs shipping and receiving, although "[Jerome has] to be careful not to make it appear so" (92). This truth is known throughout the store, even to the salesgirls who secretly admire Jerome's work ethic and charm. The pretenses of the supervisor's work are just a formality, something that is probably meant to soothe the supervisor's ego and to keep Jerome's job in the Caucasian-dominated store safe.
In working as endlessly as he does, allowing another person to take the credit, Jerome is succumbing to the sway of oppression. He is aware of the sacrifices he is making and how they strip pieces of his dignity away from him, even if he does not outwardly acknowledge it often. When he does speak of it, it is in the privacy of his apartment, and only to his wife. He downplays the seriousness of what he is allowing to happen to him in order to survive in a business that favors light-skinned people. He says to Avey, trying to laugh it off: "Two jobs for the salary of one. They really got themselves a good thing in me" (92).
Jerome's attempt to find levity in the bad business practices of his supervisor seems to be his way of coping with what would otherwise fill him with anger and despair. Hints of the passion and rage burning beneath his civilized façade emerge during his lovemaking with Avey, a time when he is able to surrender from the pressures of race that are a force during his working hours and also, when he returns home. During these stolen times with Avey, Jerome alternates between an almost blind need to possess her and a desire to cleanse himself of the sins of the day. During one interlude, he cries to her, like a man stripped of his dignity and bared to the marrow: "Take it from me, Avey! Just take it from me" (129). Marshall likens the emotion of the moment to, "a burden he wanted rid of. Like a leg-iron which slowed him in the course he had set for himself" (129).
The impassioned Jerome speaks beneath the surface of their sexual liaisons and perhaps hints at the shame he feels at having to present himself a certain way for the benefit of his Caucasian coworkers. Jerome neatly grooms his mustache with oil and carefully presses his clothes, trying to affect an air of appeal and trust amongst his coworkers. He secretly takes pride in the fact that they do not regard him the way they do most African-Americans. Many African-Americans refer to this readiness to appease Caucasians as "the Uncle Tom syndrome," which relates to the title character of Harriet Beecher Stowe's _Uncle Tom's Cabin_, first published on March 20, 1852. Certainly Jerome "Jay" Johnson does not do these things for any other reason but survival. Instinctually, he realizes that he must play a certain game to move further at the store.
Later in Marshall's novel, after Jerome has scaled the proverbial ladder of success, he becomes disparaging of the African-Americans who are not as successful as he is. On one of his tirades to Avey, he shouts:
The trouble with half these Negroes out here is that they spend all their time blaming the white man for everything. He won't give 'em a job. Won't let 'em in his schools. Won't let 'em in his neighborhood. Just won't give 'em a break. He's the one keeping 'em down. When the problem really is most of 'em don't want to hear the word 'work.' If they'd just cut out all the good-timing and get down to some hard work, put their minds to something, they'd get somewhere (135).
Avey gently reminds him that he was turned away from jobs because of his colour and also overworked so another could take his credit; Jerome is not moved, showing that the strain of the past has taken quite a toll on him. Clearly, he has changed from the young, ambitious man he used to be. Where he once eagerly returned home from work to dance to his favorite records by "Coleman Hawkins, the Count, Lester Young (old Prez himself), The Duke--along with the singers he loved: Mr. B., Lady Day, Lil Green, Ella" (94), he now returns home sans his mustache, proud of his accomplishments in a world that had once denied him. Jerome fails to realize that in discovering success in the Caucasian world by pretending to be something other than himself, he has left a piece of himself behind. The burden of colour is now the mask he wears, a mask that has become his face until even Avey mourns the loss of the man he once was, compared to the man she sees before her in the final years before Jerome Johnson's death.
Written by Jewel Welter