The story pits an aging Barbadian grandmother against her youthful American granddaughter. Upon their first meeting, the two sense a similarity in each other that far outweighs the differences presented by the seventy years between them. Most importantly, each has a stubborn strength of will and a confidence that her way of regarding the world is the right way.
The characters knowingly participate in this rivalry. Da-duh has the knowledge that comes with age and experience, but the narrator has the brash confidence of youth. Da-duh has her pride of place, showing off her land with its lush plants, trees, and cane fields. The narrator has the technological superiority of the modern world, which she uses to goad her grandmother into silent submission; Da-duh is not impressed by technology, but it is so foreign to her that she cannot even conceive of her granddaughter’s descriptions of life in New York. The story ends with the narrator’s victory in this rivalry, which makes her feel somewhat sad because she knows that her success only comes as a result of her grandmother’s concession.
As the oldest and youngest characters presented in the story, Da-duh and the narrator represent the span of time and its cyclical nature. Marshall writes in the last paragraph, ‘ ‘She died and I lived”; in a sense, the role that Da-duh occupied in the family has passed on to the narrator. She dies to make way for her granddaughter and the world, period, and change that she symbolizes.
The grandmother and granddaughter also represent how the passing of time changes the world, forcing its older members to be left behind. The granddaughter’s triumph at the end of her visit illustrates that in many ways the world truly belongs to the new generation. This theme is further reinforced by Da-duh’s death soon thereafter. There is no place for Da-duh in the modern world, therefore she must leave.
Rural and Urban Worlds
Because of their stubbornness, grandmother and granddaughter participate in a rivalry in which each tries to prove that her world is superior. Daduh has the wonder and beauty of the natural world on her side, but her granddaughter has all the technological wonders of the urban world. Da-duh is frightened of the trappings of the modern world; in the truck, driving through Bridgetown, she clutches the narrator’s hand tightly. Once back in the country, among the sugar cane fields, she feels safe and comfortable again. The granddaughter, a child of one of the most vibrant cities in the world, is unimpressed by these sights, however. To her, the sugar canes—which have sustained the Barbadian economy for hundreds of years—are only giant weeds.
Da-duh and the narrator spend most of their days together walking around the land. Da-duh points out all the amazing sites of the island—the fruit-bearing trees and plants, the tropical woods, the tall royal palm. Each of these objects that are so precious to Da-duh come from the natural, rural world and represent the agricultural tradition of Barbados. In response to Da-duh, the narrator shows off the dances she learns from the movies and the songs that play on the radio. She brags about all the machines and technology New York offers—kitchen appliances, trolleys and subways, electricity—technology of the urban, modern world. She finally wins the rivalry by telling Da-duh about the Empire State building, which was the tallest building in the world at that time and hailed as a great wonder of architecture.
Slavery and Colonization
Barbados was a British colony for hundreds of years. Historically, the lands of Barbados belonged to the privileged white minority, while enslaved Africans worked the land that made them wealthy. Emancipation came to Barbados in 1838, but the whites still held the power. Conditions for Africans on the island essentially remained the same.
Many elements in “To Da-duh, in Memoriam” reflect this heritage. As Martin Japtok writes in African American Review, in this story “Marshall shows the inescapability of history by inscribing it into the very landscape.” The plants that Da-duh so proudly shows off to her granddaughter, whose names Da-duh intones “as they were those of her gods,” are not indigenous to the island, instead originating from other British colonies. Indeed, sugar cane, which brings Da-duh so much happiness, was the fundamental cause of long-lasting African exploitation. The planes that bring about Da-duh’s death also represent colonial oppression; Britain ordered these flyovers in response to a 1937 strike and riot.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Paule Marshall, Published by Gale, 2002.