Gwendolyn Brooks

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The first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, Brooks is considered a major poet of the twentieth century. She is known for her sensitive representations of black urban life and for combining African American vernacular speech with the poetic conventions of traditional verse.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, on June 7, 1917, to Keziah Wims Brooks, a schoolteacher, and David Anderson Brooks, a janitor who had once hoped to become a doctor. She was raised on Chicago's South Side where, although she encountered racial prejudice in her neighborhood and in her school, her home life was stable and loving. Her enthusiasm for reading and writing was encouraged by her parents, and she published her first poem in a children's magazine at the age of thirteen. Her early work was influenced by Emily Dickinson, William Cullen Bryant, and the English Romantic poets—William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. She was later steered toward the work of more modern poetry through her correspondence with the poet James Weldon Johnson. Brooks made regular contributions to the Chicago Defender, which had published seventy-five of her poems by the time she graduated from Englewood High School in 1934. She attended Wilson Junior College, graduating in 1936, and worked briefly as a maid and then as a secretary for a "spiritual advisor" who sold worthless potions and charms to the residents of a slum tenement known as "The Mecca." Both of these employment experiences were later recounted in her poetry. In 1939 Brooks married Henry Lowington Blakely II, and a year later gave birth to a son, Henry Lowington III; their daughter Nora was born in 1951.

In 1944 and again in 1945, Brooks won the Midwestern Writers Conference Prize for individual poems. She published her first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, in 1945. Over the next several years, she received numerous awards, among them the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the Eunice Tietjens Memorial Prize, and the Robert F. Ferguson Memorial Award. She was awarded a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, as well as two Guggenheim fellowships, and in 1950 won the Pulitzer Prize. In the 1960s Brooks began teaching at a variety of institutions of higher learning in her home state of Illinois, and served as the Rennebohm Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Distinguished Professor of Arts at New York's City College. She mentored several young poets and established numerous poetry prizes and workshops, including one for the members of the Blackstone Rangers street gang on Chicago's South Side. In 1968, Brooks succeeded Carl Sandburg as poet laureate of the state of Illinois.

Brooks was greatly influenced by her introduction, at the 1967 Writers' Conference at Fisk University, to the black activist poets Amiri Baraka and Haki R. Madhubuti. Her verse after this period took a more militant turn and she began producing work more specifically aimed at a black reading audience and publishing her work with black-owned presses. She eventually founded her own press, the David Company, in 1980. Brooks continued to write and garner awards and honors throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She was appointed poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1985 and received the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1989, and a National Book Foundation medal for lifetime achievement in 1994. Brooks died of cancer at the age of eighty-three on December 3, 2000.

MAJOR WORKS

Brooks's first poetry collection, A Street in Bronzeville, presents readers with characters from Chicago's South Side as well as tributes to the many black soldiers who served with courage and honor in World War II, despite the racism they encountered both at home and within the armed forces abroad. Her second collection, Annie Allen (1949), for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950, is considered by many critics to be her finest achievement. Although the work more than demonstrates Brooks's ability to master conventional literary forms, its content is devoted to exposing and denouncing American racism and injustice. One of the individual poems, "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals," praises those black women who refuse to subscribe to white standards of female beauty by straightening their hair. This same theme, encompassing color prejudice within the black community that also favored straight hair and light skin, was again explored in Brooks's only novel, Maud Martha (1953).

In 1956, Brooks published Bronzeville Boys and Girls, a volume of poems featuring the experiences of children and intended for young readers. Four years later, she produced a far more political collection, The Bean Eaters (1960), which includes "We Real Cool," a frequently anthologized poem describing the short lives of urban black males. Brooks left behind the humor and irony that characterized much of her earlier work with In the Mecca (1968), about the inhabitants of a slum tenement Brooks worked in when she first graduated from college. The title poem is a grim account of a mother's search for her missing child who has been brutally raped and murdered by another resident of the housing complex. The volume also contains tributes to Medgar Evers and Malcolm X, two slain heroes of the 1960s civil rights movement.

In her later work, Brooks made a conscious decision to abandon the poetic standards of the Western literary tradition in favor of formal features that would resonate with most African American readers. Collections from this period include Riot (1969), Beckonings (1975), and Primer for Blacks (1980). Her subject matter, still devoted to representations of the lives of blacks in urban America, also eventually included international issues and heroes including the South Africans Steve Biko and Winnie Mandela. Her collections The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems (1986) and Winnie (1988) link the oppression of Africans with that of African Americans. In addition to her novel and her many volumes of poetry, Brooks also produced two autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972), and Report from Part Two (1996).

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Despite the many honors, awards, and critical accolades Brooks has received, contemporary scholars have asserted that Brook's work as a whole has not received the recognition it deserves. In recent years her writings have been analyzed by feminist scholars, who have rekindled interest in her novel Maud Martha. However, critics disagree on whether Brooks herself can be considered a feminist, since she refused to see her treatment of gender as separate from her treatment of race and class issues. Nonetheless, the female characters in her fiction and her poetry are for the most part strong women who challenge the confines of their proper roles both within the black community and within the larger American culture. In discussing Brooks's critique of the accepted standards of feminine beauty in Maud Martha, Harry B. Shaw observed, "Maud is clearly less concerned with being thought inferior than she is with being perceived as ugly. This concern is filtered through the point of view of an insecure, self-disparaging black woman who feels that she is homely and, therefore, uncherished because she is black and has nappy hair and 'Negro features.'" Through the character of Maud, Brooks denounced not only the aesthetic standards of white America but the apparent acceptance of those standards by blacks themselves. Brooks's appropriation of the traditional sonnet form—typically associated with a privileged, white, male speaker addressing or imploring a silent female—to give voice to the black female subject was assessed by Stacy Carson Hubbard (see Further Reading) as a transformation of the sonnet into "a vehicle for her own form of complaint, a poetry of power trespassing on the restricted ground of the traditionally male, and white, sonnet." Annie Perkins contended that Brooks always displayed sensitivity to women's issues, citing in particular the poem "Gang Girls," which offers a critique of female submission to male gang members' domination. Perkins concluded that "although Brooks has not aligned herself with feminist movements to challenge white male patriarchy, she nonetheless shares the aim of achieving social equality and economic parity for women while displaying and celebrating the full range of their capabilities and achievements."

Hortense J. Spillers (Essay Date Spring 1985)

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SOURCE: Spillers, Hortense J. “‘An Order of Constancy’: Notes on Brooks and the Feminine.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr., pp. 244-71. New York: Meridian, 1990.

In the following essay, the original version of which was published in the spring 1985 issue of the Centennial Review, Spillers discusses feminist elements in Brooks’s work, maintaining that the worlds Brooks represents always include men.

The adopted procedure for this essay is neither fish nor fowl and, as such, breathes in the impure air of literary interpretation, verging on social theory. It assumes for the moment a sort of critically illegitimate stance—the literary text does point outside itself—in the primary interest of leading the reader back inside the universe of the apparently self-contained artifact. With some luck, we hope to negotiate between two different kinds of related critical inquiry: What does the writer teach us, or illuminate in us, concerning situations for which we need a name,1 in this case, the “feminine,” whose very conjuring broaches more confusion than we can comfortably settle in the course of a workday? What does the writer take with her from “experience” to the transmuting work itself?

I

The stage of interaction that arises between an audience and the visible aspects of a public performance sketches a paradigm for understanding the social dimensions of an aesthetic act, but it also brings into focus the most acute aspects of consciousness—to perceive, to be perceived. On the one hand the subject is acting; on the other, acted upon. The distance between these related grammatical properties, mobilized by a single term, is precisely the difference and overlap between subjects and objects of interrogation, neither of which can be split off from the other with integrity. To the extent that the writer and the artistic process that she or he engages are neither wholly autonomous nor dependent, but, rather, interdependent, suspended between opposing yet mutually coexistent means, both writer and process approach the “feminine,” whose elusive claims escape not only precise definition but also decided terrain. Gwendolyn Brooks’s “feminine” across the poet’s writing career is a nominative of many facets. About this still center, modifiers shift, lose and gain emphases alternately, but there is an “order of constancy” here whose active paradoxes throw light on the paradox of the “feminine.”

There are few things riskier at the moment than defining the “feminine” in a way that does not offend what, until yesterday, we thought of as its primary subject—“woman herself.” Is this complex of traits gender related and, therefore, a locus of attributions culturally conferred, biologically sustained? Can we count on its disappearance when the “revolution” comes? Is the “feminine” yet one other heterosexist hoax whose genuinely fraudulent character will be revealed as such in the figurative “new world” of widened sexualities presently upon us?2 According to the editors of a fairly recent work on feminist theory,3 feminine consciousness is only a single aspect of woman-consciousness (whatever we decide that is), but it seems difficult to specify the boundaries of either, except insofar as “woman-consciousness” and “feminine” inscribe the absence of “male” and “masculine.” Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology attempts to correct and revise our negative perspective on ideas regarding the “feminine.” For feminist theoreticians, the “feminine” is often, ironically enough, an “object of analysis rather than a source of insight.”4 Insofar as the subject is the “object of attention of another,” we might have anticipated that the “feminine” arises “from the sensation of being looked at,”5 and involves, relatedly, the dialectical tensions at work in the “double consciousness.”6 Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex describes an existential correspondence between “feminine” and “other” so that both might be seen as a negation of ego (read “male”). We would intrude on this accumulated calculus of power a point of view too often short-shrifted: I would say that the “feminine” and “other” are subjectivities who experience their being from a posture of affirmation. We would regard the exception as aberrance. A theory that maintains the aberrant at the center of its interests might answer the needs of public policy, or unwittingly serve the requirements of the dominant myth, but its responsive capacity to the living situations of the social subject is, at times, embarrassingly limited.

Trapped between the Scylla of feminist mandates on the one hand and the Charybdis of dominative and patriarchal modes of power on the other, the subject of “feminine attributes” is apparently abandoned to a useless set of traits, not unlike a sixth toe or finger in some phase of human evolution. Exactly what it is that women in history are asked to abdicate in order to achieve authentic consciousness has the elusive subtleties of a Steuben glass or a cymbidium orchid and is invested with about as much actively negotiable and comparative power, except we know when we have seen either and that it is difficult for us to say now why we’d prefer not to be without access, real or imagined, to either. The “feminine” evades definition, perhaps, because it is both ubiquitous and shadowy on the world’s body:

The nuances of sensitivity to appearances, the fine distinctions in the observance of one’s behavior and that of others, the silent exploration of the consciousness in which one functions as an “other” deserve our attention as means toward understanding human motivation and psychology as well as our condemnations as the product of asymmetrical power.7

For Keohane and the other editors of A Critique of Ideology, the “feminine” locates a disposition in the eyes of a gazer, female and male, but if the angle of seeing is obverted, how does the gazed upon see itself, see out?

For Julia Kristeva, the female body, specifically, the “maternal body” takes us to the limen of “nature/culture”: The “not-sayable,” the body of the mother escapes signification, meaning, sense because the “mother-woman”

is rather a strange “fold” (pli) which turns nature into culture, and the “speaking subject” (le parlant) into biology. Although it affects each woman’s body, this heterogeneity, which cannot be subsumed by the signifier, literally explodes with pregnancy—the dividing line between nature and culture—and with the arrival of the child—which frees a woman from uniqueness and gives her a chance, albeit not a certainty, of access to the other, to the ethical. These peculiarities of the maternal body make a woman a creature of folds, a catastrophe of being that cannot be subsumed by the dialectic of the trinity or its supplements.8

I am not entirely certain that the “feminine” and “female body” may be taken as synonymous constructs, but it does appear that the space of overlap between them is so broad that we cannot imagine one without deploying the other. For theorists of an “écriture feminine,” of which Kristeva is said to be one, the “feminine” has little to do with women in history. In fact Alice Jardine’s Gynesis (“woman-process”)9 concentrates on male writers in “modernity” and their reinstitution of the female body at a fundamental level of writing: 1) the subversion of the idea of a unified speaking subject; 2) the undermining of all authority; and 3) the figurative use of the female genitalia as a mode of decentering and deconstructing the text. The “fold,” or “pli,” the “hole,” the “gap,” or “interstice” become items of a revised critical lexis that is designed—we are led to believe—to engender a radically different ideology and practice of writing, focusing “feminine” and “female body” at the center of altered positions and dispositions.

In Jardine’s view, these changes on the textual surface of male-writing (Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, Guattari, of Anti Oedipus, specifically) invite a direct response from feminist investigation/ theory, lest the latter find itself isolated from the contemporary intellectual scene. What seems to me a fairly complete breach between matters of feminist social theory and feminist metatheory appears beyond repair. If Susan Suleiman is correct, then “the cultural significance of the female body is not only (not even first and foremost) that of a flesh-and-blood entity, but that of a symbolic construct.”10 [Emphasis Suleiman’s.] To see the issue otherwise, Suleiman thinks, is to pursue the anachronistic. The “programmatic and polemical aspect” of The Female Body in Western Culture is to claim for the “feminine,” more pointedly, the “female body,” a status of contemporaneity: “Not everything we see and hear today deserves to be called contemporary … it is not enough to be of our time in order to be with our time.”11

Risking an anachronism, with no hope at all of doing “my bit” here to rejoin “theory and practice,” I would offer that the “flesh-and-blood entity” of the female body lends itself to historical enactment—I cannot imagine a more forceful example than the “mother-woman”—whose dimensions are symbolic at those points of contact where communities of women live out the symbolicities. If we concede that discursivity manifests a worrisome element of translation, then I see no reason why we might feel compelled to jettison the terrible flesh and blood. Though I am primarily concerned here with the specific uses of a cultural construct we would designate “feminine” in the case of a particular writer/poet, it is not beyond me to imagine what practical turn a theory might take.

The stipulative definition that I would offer for the “feminine” trait of human personality takes us back to Keohane’s “Introduction” and an inquiry into the connotations of “everywhereness” and shadow. To the degree that “body” in reference to the “feminine” might be analogously read with Blake’s Tharmas,12 the principle that contains the rational will, the creative powers, the affective dispositions, the erotic centers, I mean “body” alongside the preceding terms—ubiquity, shadow. We might think of all three terms under the head of “surface” and “extensivity,” meaning by both the definition that Schiller offers in “Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man”13 (sic). If “maximum changeability” and “maximum extensivity” stand here for the “feminine,” then we would urge a sense of its application along more than a single line of stress, since neither the “feminine” nor receptivity to phenomena is alien to the masculine potential. Though Brooks’s “feminine” refers primarily to the female, the resonance of the former is not at all unlike Woolf’s “incandescence,”14 which is not gender-rigid in its artistic practice and inspiration. My aim in trying to free up the “feminine” from its wonted vocation is not to generate an hermaphroditic wonder and lose women/woman in a figurative replication of naive liberalist gestures, but to suggest that we replace our weapon in our holsters until an enemy has clearly shown itself: The idea (if it ever was) is not to be rid of the “feminine,” whose details have yet to be fully elaborated, say nothing of exhausted, but, rather, to purge the world for a wider display of its powers. According to Jardine, at least some “men” might agree. More precisely, we wish to know what the “feminine” can do from its own vantage point, and such inquiry is “gynocritical” in its profoundest impulses.15

II

Gwendolyn Brooks’s feminine landscape is clearly demarcated as heterosexual territory. Males are never far away from its female centers of attention, even when the male presence is overwhelmingly implicit and memorial, as it is in “The Anniad ” and various other poems in the volume, Annie Allen. 16 The poet’s particular address to communities of women in her audience is persistent in the canon across four decades of work, reflecting the storm and stress of this period of African-American women’s political consciousness with the 1981 publication, Primer for Blacks: Three Preachments, “To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals. ”17 Brooks’s work interweaves the female and her distinctive feelings into a delicate tissue of poetic response to the human situation, defined by a particular historical order—the African-American personality among the urban poor in the city of Chicago between World War II and the present of the poem.18 Within this body of work, the female voice, for all its poignant insistence, is a modified noun of vocality, danced through a range of appetite and desire that does not stand isolated from a masculine complement. If poetry is our teacher in this instance, not entirely estranged from theory, but subsuming it, then the “feminine” is manifest as an emphasis, neither hostile to “masculine” nor silenced by it. We are rather reminded now of an image of Jungian resolution with the circumferences of double circles overlapping to form an altered distance through the diameters of both.19 It is only by virtue of a perversion in the seeing that the overlapping circles can declare any independence whatsoever. They relinquish their imagined uniqueness to an enlarged order of circularity, as the peripheries of both now involve us at the center of each. Getting the point does not necessarily require that we embrace the idea, or the “man,” but that we acknowledge it as a viable figure in the universe of female and “feminine” representability. This involved image of circularity renders a geometry for poets, and those are the depths and surfaces that claim our attention at the moment.

In Brooks’s poetic order of things, the “feminine” is neither cause for particular celebration nor certain despair, but near to the “incandescent,” it is analogous to that “wedged-shaped core of darkness,”20 through which vision we see things in their fluid passage between dream and waking reality, as multiple meanings impinge on a central event. The poet’s novelette Maud Martha does not exhaust Brooks’s contemplation of the “feminine,” but provides a point of illumination and departure concerning an important phase of her long and distinguished career as an American poet. If not chronologically central to the canon, Maud Martha, beside “The Anniad, ” is experienced by the reader as an “impression point.”21 In the Harper and Row edition of her poetry, Maud Martha brings to closure the poems in A Street in Bronzeville and Annie Allen, while it prepares the way for The Bean Eaters and, from the sixties, the stunning poetry of In the Mecca.

Maud Martha was published in 1953.22 The leading subject and sole consciousness of the narrative, Maud Martha Brown, comes of age during the Depression era. As the work is broadly reflective of the social issues of two American decades, it might be read as the poet’s version of a cultural synthesis. By the end of World War II, Maud Martha is expecting her second child; her brother Harry returns home in one piece from combat, and her first child Paulette grows up. Paulette is old enough to recognize that the white “Santa Claus” of a large department store in the city of Chicago does not like little black girls. Somehow, the jolly creature cannot even bring himself to look at the child, having hugged all the blond ones, Paulette observes, to her mother’s chagrin. The instances that disclose racist sentiment in the text are so muted and understated that they are rendered elements of background in which ambience the primary issues of the narrative unfold: the extent to which the female can articulate her own values of sanctity and ritual, of aspiration and desire, of order and beauty in a hierarchically male-centered world, limited by the idioms of the literal.

Insofar as Maud Martha sustains heterosexual mating, she is “male-identified,” but such identification is much less compelling than the imaginative integrity that keeps her alive and well. The woman reader of this text might well wonder how successfully Maud Martha would negotiate a sphere of influence broader than the domestic and the connubial. It is true that her talents are constrained by what we would now consider four narrow walls that provide her with neither a room of her own nor the time to miss it.23 She is not a culture heroine, is not a woman’s warrior, and the big bumbling immensities of the romantic and epic imagination—Rebellion, Bravery, Courage, Triumph, among them, those capitalized terms that Northrop Frye describes as “aureate”24 and which Brooks’s own “Strong Men Riding Horses ” humorously debunks25—do not touch her identity in any remote way. And so we wind down into an arena of choices that take us to the heart of dailiness, of the mundane and the unglamorous, or the carefully circumscribed ambition. We protest— but isn’t this the customary woman’s place?

That the distaff is, from the point of view of the narrative and the world surrounding it, the peculiar custodial property of the female is not a conclusion. It is a beginning. Maud Martha commences with the raw elaborations of realism (read also “reality”) and transforms them into a habitable space. This talent for the clean and welllighted, however, is not only the central and embattled miracle of Maud Martha’s world, but also a preeminent social value because it represents an actual living of what has been imagined, imagining what is known. We might think of Maud Martha’s “miracle” as a gifted kind of “making” that turns the inner to the outer and redeems the room as an elaboration of the human and social body.26

If we look at the structurations of Maud Martha’s character from her own place in the order of things, then we accord her special attention because of her highly developed powers to play and to play well within the framework of possibilities to which she has access. We can very well wish for her, imagine empathetically, a richer field of play; but the limitations imposed on her in no way mitigate her own considerable abilities to shape and define the world as she encounters it. In contrast to her husband, Paul Phillips, who occupies and rents space in his world, without an angle on it, or a critique of it, Maud Martha engages their common circumstance with an eye for the occasion. This looking through, for want of a better term, might be called a kind of displaced fable making so that Maud Martha might be seen as the “true poet” of the narrative and the writer herself the “imitator” of it. These functions come together under the guise of a central narrator, who speaks Maud Martha’s script through a ventriloquized medium—the poet, assigning to the leading agent the primary powers of ordering.

The central thematics of the work are made explicit in the twenty-first and twenty-second episodes:

Could be nature, which had a seed, or root, or an element (what do you call it) of constancy, under all that system of change. Of course, to say “system” at all implied arrangement, and therefore some order of constancy.

(227)

What she had wanted was a solid. She had wanted shimmering form; warm, but hard as stone and as difficult to break. She wanted to found—tradition. She had wanted to shape, for their use, for hers, for his, for little Paulette’s, a set of falterless customs. She had wanted stone.

(228)

A “stone,” a “solid,” as isolated lexical features, convey notions of the concrete and abstract at once. We can contemplate them on their own terms, apart from context to modify their function, but in relationship to “shimmering form,” to “tradition,” their meaning enriches to insinuate an indefinite specificity—a community of notions that range in weight and appeal from the architectural to the ingeniously diminutive object of decoration; from issues concerning values and aspirations to the specific questions and longings of desire. That the terms overlap on “falterless customs” and, by inference, the whole enterprise of shaping and preserving, foreshortened in the enumerated signs, renders Maud Martha a social “conservative,” as “order of constancy” implies. But the wealth of connotative markers that the narrator achieves by mixing the metaphorical referents would suggest that Maud Martha’s “conservatism” locates not only the preeminent force of intelligence at work in the narrative, but also the intelligence that tries things. I am assuming that Brooks’s narrator does not intend irony or mockery when Maud Martha’s consciousness speaks a desire for “stone,” for “solid,” or that she intends to say that Maud Martha is naive in wishing to establish “falterless customs.” I would want to see the central figure’s essentially experential character and lust for form as a necessary fable of paradox for living a life—in “literature,” or “the streets”—that is sane and rewarding. For Maud Martha, “tradition” is not a dead letter, or a reliquary of ancestral ghosts. “Tradition” here would be “founded” the hard way, on the living, on a sort of frontier of immediacy, whose ready-to-hand objects might be invested with the only force for magic that there is—that which the imagination attributes to the event of neutral or indifferent meaning.

None of the items in Maud Martha’s catalog of transmuted domestic objects can be regarded as esoteric: coffees, fruitcakes, plain shortbread, black walnut candy in “little flat white sheets,” a dinner table spread with “white, white cloth … china … in cheerful dignity, firmly arranged, upon it” (232). Despite the availability of the scene at hand, we are compelled to consider it in a new light, seeing the details as “the plenitude of plan.”27 Maud Martha’s “plan,” however, is not so much a reflection of the arbitrary as it is a retrieving from chaos or oblivion the ordinary domestic object, much like poems cut “Out of air, / Night color, wind soprano, and such stuff.”28 If we perceive that the narrator is involving us in a romance of the diurnal, there is much to support the conclusion—the central artistic purpose of Maud Martha expresses the essentially “heroic” character of the “unheroic” by altering our opinion of “heroism” in the first place. Furthermore, “art” loses its remoteness and its claim to exclusion as Brooks imposes upon it a radically democratic context and purpose.

This capacity to draw the outer into oneself, retranslating it into an altered exterior, as though fields of force magnetized by an abiding centrality, locates the process that I would stipulate as the “feminine,” finding in it the maximum exposure of surface to change. We will see shortly how the particular “epistemic habit of meaning”29 in this narrative reenforces both the artistic energies of the piece and the function of the narrative itself as suggestive “equipment for living.”30

In steady contrast to Maud Martha, there is a “husband,” both a “real” one and the idea of “husband” in its limited masculine composition: “This man was not a lover of tablecloths, he could eat from a splintery board, he could eat from the earth” (232-233). The often sardonic quality of the writing and its persistently ironical force save the narrative from pathos as it challenges our sympathies to focus on specific detail in whimsical combinations. “Tablecloths” acquires metonymic value, as it defines the whole of Paul Phillips’s inadequacies of imagination by humorously remarking a partial instance of it. Laughter here is usually ironically pointed so that antagonism to laughter falls into perspective rather than exaggeration or prominence. In that sense, the work evinces a tough-minded balance of tensions between the impinging extremes of Maud and Paul’s “reality.”

Maud Martha is herself as much an observer of her own scene as she is a participant in it, a maker of it. Alongside her dreamwork, she maintains the prerogatives of detachment so that at no point in the narrative—even when Maud Martha thinks the most harshly truthful things about herself and those around her—does the reader “feel sorry” for her. She will thrive not simply because she can bear to suffer—as traditional African-American female iconography valorizes beyond any practical use, beyond any probable endurance in the life of female progeny. Maud Martha thrives because she wills it through diverse acts of form, woven from the stuff of everyday life. Quite simply, she is smarter than Paul, who is not without desire, but rather, oppressed by the wrong ones.

Paul is not an adequate husband and lover precisely because he is lacking in “capable imagination.” To use Alice Walker’s terms for the particular etiology that blocks imaginative expansiveness in the man, Paul is a “racialist,” with an overwhelming wish to have a liaison with a “lightskinned” female; the prize of “light-skin” would release in him the fruition of a range of fantasies so elusive to his grasp that they would thrill the analyst’s heart and pocket. It is not an exaggeration to say that even now, at some years’ remove from the passions, intensities, and commitments of the sixties’ Black Nationalist movement in the United States, African-American men’s community has yet, it seems, to come to terms with its profoundest impulses concerning African-American women and their “Africanity.” The failure would appear ongoing, disquieting, repetitive, and disappointing. So close to the new century, this failure to grasp seems threatening in its political, cultural, and possibly genetic implications for an entire American community. From the vantage of the 1950s—since the tangle of issues to which I allude is not dated—the poet is not unaware of these charged and searching questions in their immediate impact on the ontological dimensions of her characters. Maud Martha is black skinned and, there but by the grace of a keen intelligence and generous affection, might have been undone by her world’s sporadically obscene response to the color of her skin.

Paul’s limitations are not solely determined by his interest in the “light-skinned” female. We can grant him whatever wishing his heart can stand, but that he sees no farther than the pointed recurrence of an imagistic symptom makes him ripe for a class of psychological subjects that we recognize as the obsessive-neurotic. That this heterosexual male would potentially love many women is not a serious crime, we finally decide, but Paul wants a figure of adoration to fill up his mind; he wants to fall into gyneolatrous31 madness at the foot of a marvelous deception, maleengendered. There is more: Having no direct route of access to the originating inspiration of the European tradition of courtly love, embodied in “the female body in the West” (and “they” never mean “us,”) Paul substitutes the fantasy’s next best thing—the “high yaller” female hybrid of his community’s peculiar American nightmare.

Two observations: First, Paul’s low-order, lowkey madness is decided not by the fictional context of his dreams but rather by their particular historical context. Traditionally, we are reminded that a lynching rope awaits the neck of the African-American male so bold as to approach his “it”—“the female body in the West.” But we are reminded not by the local narrative before us but by the one that haunts it—his fate in approaching the woman/woman-body that is not “black.”32 This terroristic imagery is muted in the contemporary period but not at all forgotten. Therefore, the “white” female acquires in Paul’s eyes an altogether exaggerated status as object of mimetic desire. Second, the amorous figures that surround the characterizations of “black” are historically determined as ideas and icons of “not freedom,” of bindings and couplings, of bondage and manipulation so complete that we can barely imagine, for example, just what Paul and Maud Martha would look like in a different universe of figuration. The liberation project would release the character from the diseased “fix” of static iconography just as surely as it would the African-American community from the planned obsolescence of national policy and economic practice. While we must ultimately encounter Maud and Paul on the terms that the story offers and for themselves, we understand, unmistakably, that an aspect of “extra-territorial” narrative so decisively shadows their tale that the genuinely agonized pairing here is not simply “male” and “female,” “feminine” and “masculine” (as though they were simple), but these binary oppositions as they have been orchestrated by the loudest and most persistent teleology, “good” and “bad,” and finally mediated, through the very force of the language, by the most fateful of culturally ascribed antinomies—“ black” and “white.” To that extent, Paul is victim. We dislike him because, contrary to Maud Martha, he doesn’t resist; obeys no individual imperatives or tested arrogance that would push through the accumulated slime of a national history.

III

Chapter 19 of the narrative, “If You’re Light and Have Long Hair,” brings home the particular social dynamics to which I refer. Married for a time, Paul gets his first invitation to the Foxy Cats’ Annual Foxy Cats Dawn Ball. Though we recognize a persistent element of parody in the descriptive apparatus adapted to these scenes, we also acknowledge their quite accurate conformity to a certain configuration of African-American middleclass upward mobility. The Foxy Cats (who resemble the undergraduate fraternity in its earnest and ingenuous allegiance to fixed notions of proper behavior, sartorial style, and brainless imitation of what its members think “class” is) bears the brunt of a well-deserved satirical commentary. The wording of the invitation to the “Dawn Ball” is humorously, nervously redundant:

He was to be present, in formal dress … No chances were taken. ‘Top hat, white tie and tails,’ hastily followed the ‘Formal Dress,’ and that elucidation was in bold type.

(205)

For Paul, the invitation represents “an honor of the first water, and … sufficient indication that he was, at last, a social somebody.” This ironical vein is underscored and nourished in Maud Martha’s thoughts by a brazen stroke of self-admission:

My type is not a Foxy Cat favorite. But he can’t avoid taking me—since he hasn’t yet thought of words or ways strong enough, and at the same time soft enough—for he’s kind: he doesn’t like to injure—to carry across to me the news that he is not to be held permanently by my type, and that he can go on with this marriage only if I put no ropes or questions around him. Also, he’ll want to humor me, now that I’m pregnant.

(207)

Days later, in the “main room of the Club 99,” Maud and Paul join the other Foxy Cats and their “foxes” at the “Dawn Ball” itself. Paul, in effect, abandons Maud Martha shortly after their arrival, having escorted her to a bench by the wall, leaving her (211). Who he’s left her for—“Maella”—is “red-haired and curved,” of the “gold-spangled” bosomness. Rhetorically kin to a “sleek slit-eyed gypsy moan” of “The Anniad ” and a “lemonhued lynx / with sandwaves loving her brow” of the “Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie, ”33 “Maella” is not so much an embodied representation as she is a structure of emblematic traits that we recognize from other textual sources. The narrator needn’t “explain.” “Maella” need not speak, does not, nor can, since an entire secondary text speaks around her. In the maelstrom of emotions released by the appearance of this Idea, to whose bosom Paul salutes, we think of “gold-spangled” as a resonance of “star-spangled” and of Paul as locked in a veritable state of adoration. Maud Martha watches, thinking

not that they love each other. It oughta be that simple. Then I could lick it. It oughta be that easy. But it’s my color that makes him mad. I try to shut my eyes to that, but it’s no good. What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I’ve got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping.

(214)

The narrator does not dwell on this aspect of the scene as we will see, in time, a cluster of intricately differentiated motives involved in it, nor is the painful resonance elaborated here repeated. We understand its perspective against the whole. My isolating it is intended to point an emphasis in suggesting the nature of schismatic tendencies that divide Paul from himself and those around him and to convey a sense of what it is that Maud Martha strives to overcome as her own imagination projects it, as others impose it.

In psychological terms, we might say that Maud Martha symbolizes a far more successfully “integrated” character than Paul, and this fluency of response is primarily captivated by narrative strategies that blend the advantages and benefits of stream-of-consciousness and concealed narration in bringing to light a character whom we know in the interstices of her thought. The stage of action in Maud Martha is embedded in none other than the landscape of its central consciousness, and from this focal point—replete with particular biases and allegiances—we come to know the “world” of the narrative.

What we discover through Maud Martha’s perceptions unfolds in a rolling chronology. In other words, the narrator is so selective in the detailing “spots of time” in reference to the character that the work may be described as episodic, paratactic, and notational, or structured from peak points, of which the Foxy Cats’ Dawn Ball is a single example. This imitative “autobiography” starts almost in the beginning, as we find out that the subject liked “candy buttons, and books, and painted music (deep blue, or delicate silver) and the west sky, so altering, viewed from the steps of the back porch, and dandelions” (127). The sentences are simple, tending toward the fragmentary, and swift on the surface of the visual, tactile world. We imagine not so much a structure of physical and physiological traits called “Maud Martha” as we do a profoundly active poetic sensibility, happily unbound in a world of marvelous color, of infinite allure.

Metaphors of painting seem especially apposite to narrative strategies here since the content of the opening episodes, in particular, is composed primarily of sensual imagery perceived through the brilliant color and texture often associated with impressionism.34 To say that the “brush strokes” are light and decidedly whimsical is to insinuate the paratactic character of the writing: episodes, if not individual sentences, are self-contained units of perceptual activity. To speak of writing as painting (and somehow, the figure never goes the other way) metaphorizes either activity, but the narrator appears deliberately involved in the apparent crossing of arbitrary artistic boundaries in order to delineate character and movement in their initial urgency. To do so, the narrator adopts loose connections between things, weak or fairly discontinuous transitions from point to point. The agent is not a studied, or deliberative body, and the narrative, consequently, inscribes a deft movement of “symbol-making,” as it starts up, we imagine, from the threshold of immediate feeling, of unchecked sensual response.

The painting metaphor further suggests the poet’s attempt to invest the diurnal with vibrant color. Even the “grays” of this “universe” invite lyrical play, as Maud Martha roams her kitchenette for our benefit, building with a passionate eye for the unique angle in human and object relations. As a result of these self-conscious stylistic moves, the narrator intimates a confluence of thematic and strategic modes so thoroughgoing that Maud Martha stands in synecdochic relationship to the surround. Merging into an untrammeled equality of means, agent and scenic device are reversible.

Though the episodes are arbitrarily connected, they are logically sequential: Narrative traces lead from childhood and early years at school through adolescence, to young womanhood and the adult years that follow. Maud Martha’s first beaux, the death of her paternal grandmother, the quality of her dream life, the special nature of her relationship to her father and brother, the affective ambivalence that prevails among the women of the immediate family, for instance, become discrete moments of perception that take on even weight and intensity. Significant elements of the tale are, therefore, dispersed and accumulative, rather than dense and elaborated. In fact, the weakened copulatives create an aesthetic surface without “bulges”—the “peaks” and “valleys” of a schematic plot structure—or syntactic elements that do not adhere in a relationship of subordination and coordination. To that extent, the narrative voice speaks in the concisive rhythms of the contemporary poem. I have in mind symptoms of alignment rather than particular instances.

It doesn’t matter, for instance, that the seeds of Maud Martha’s troubled “femininity” are planted early on in her own awareness and, consequently, the reader’s, because such information assumes no unusual or immediate focus: Two years older than Maud, sister Helen is “almost her own height and weight and thickness. But oh, the long lashes, the grace, the little ways with the hands and feet” (128-129). We will know more in time about Helen, the beautiful sister, but this clue, closing the inaugural scene, so casually intrudes itself that we register it only later as crucial. Even though the bulk of the narrative concerns Maud Martha’s marriage and maternal career, these emphases fall into solid perspective with the whole. Relatedly, the narrative is unplotted (or not obviously plotted), pursues no climactic surprises, and resolves in syntactic and dramatic rhythms that evade rigid closure: “And in the meantime, she was going to have another baby. The weather was bidding her bon voyage” (306). The agreeable sense of an ending here could just as easily mark the beginnings of the next excursive phase of “autobiography,” since pregnancy announces new life as well as the anticipation of one kind of finish; “bon voyage,” analogously, situates a valedictory and salutatory marker. This strategic ambiguity, with its teasing abeyance of resolution, brings us back to questions concerning the “feminine.”

IV

Virginia Woolf conjectured that the woman text adapted to the rules of interruption—by the female writer’s children, lovers, and general imperatives of caretaking; it was, then, of necessity, short. An “écriture feminine,” apparently hinting the functions of the female body—with its fluidities, secret passageways and escape routes, or those convoluted folds along the uterus and vaginal vault—releases the “feminine,” as a corporeality turned trope, onto a wider human path, not blocked by the specificities of female reproductive process. Once upon a time, in a cackle of rage, a Boston-not-so-lady declared to me what might well serve as a point of overlap between Woolf and latter-day theoreticians on the body writing: “Anything that takes more than nine months to bear is a joke!” She was talking about novels. But is it true that the vital, concentrated intensities of the pregnant body place on urgent notice the artist everywhere—“study long, study wrong”?

I would exercise the greatest caution in supporting a “feminine writing” as practice, if not as theory, however, since we presently have no acceptable name for the same individual writer— female or male—when she or he does not write in the suspension of authority, in the subversion of the hierarchical, in the shameless assertion of the vibrant mood. Is “Gwendolyn Brooks,” for example, of “In the Mecca, ” the similar body that produced Maud Martha ? No outer markings, or facings of the surface suggest it. And it is precisely this protocol of radically divergent aims that comes home in the singularity of an artist’s career (or even a writing) that would challenge a rigorous notion of trophic determinism. There is in my reading of this novelette, however, symptoms of a program that I would designate “feminine,” and it is embedded in the work’s insistence on self-involvement; if this constant reference and return to the “inner” surrenders to figurative movement, then we might offer that female person’s having to “listen” to her body and its cyclical rhythms dictates “stillness” as a redoubtable human and cultural value. This “serenity,” replete with its own active turbulences through the whole being, recovers “invisibility,” or the mental “calibrations,” as a supremely active domain of the human. “Mrs. Ramsey” provides an insight:

To be silent; to be alone. All the being and the doing, expansive, glittering, vocal, evaporated; and one shrunk, with a sense of solemnity, to being oneself, a wedge-shaped core of darkness, something invisible to others.35

[Emphasis mine.]

I emphasize the latter half of the sentence in order to suggest that the “active”/“passive” split is as culpable in any discussion of the “feminine” as the other patriarchal/patriarchist oppositions that we already know too well to repeat. In a remarkable episode from Maud Martha, the narrator provides another example of what I would call a paradoxical nesting of being-impulses—the personality drawn into the pluralities of a self, “shrunk,” as it were, opens, capably, outward: As a young woman, Maud Martha essentially preserves her sense of childhood wonder. Walking down a Chicago street, taking in the rich scenes of store windows, she experiences so palpably the objects that she confronts that the reader is not completely sure (and no longer cares to be) if her body remains in Chicago or actually goes off to New York:

When she was out walking, and with grated iron swish a train whipped by, off, above, its passengers were always, for her comfort, New York bound. She sat inside with them. She leaned back in the plush. She sped, past farms, through tiny towns, where people slept, kissed, quarreled, ate midnight snacks; unfortunate folk who were not New York bound and never would be.

(174)

This complex of desire, through which the encounters of the subject are refracted, measured, considered, consumed, is poised in brazen contrast to the “actual” world of Maud Martha; that the “imagined” and the “real” abrade unrelentingly is intended, because we gauge Maud Martha’s internal resources in even bolder relief against the brute “facts.” We could go so far as to say that the poet’s insistence on the narrative strategies of the piece and its rhetorical energies that plumb the interior world of the character spares Maud Martha the peculiar burdens of the “naturalistic” agent. In other words, if Maud Martha were read through eyes not the character’s own, as would an omniscient voice, bent on imposing a content from the “outside,” already made to order, then we would not only lose Maud Martha’s complexity, but would also conclude that victimage alone determines her. By forcing the reader, or inducing her, to confront Maud Martha as the primary and central consciousness of the work, its subject and object of gazing, speaking through the redoubled enunciations of her own stream-of-thought and a translation of it, the poet reclaims the territorial rights of an internal self and strikes for our mutual benefit a figure of autonomy. Despite her “blackness,” her “femaleness,” her poverty-line income, and perhaps because of these unalterable “facts” of mensuration, Maud Martha is allowed access to her own “moment of being,” and the narrative renders its record.

It is beside the point that Maud Martha speaks few quoted or dramatic lines in the narrative, or that her private ways are quiet and unspectacular, or that she tolerates more of Paul than we think she ought; she is not a feminist, fifties’ style. The demonstration, I believe, of woman-freedom is the text itself that has no centrality, no force, no sticking point other than the imaginative nuances of the subject’s consciousness. Maud Martha’s drama remains internal, and that interiority engenders the crucial aesthetic address of the work. We might want to alter drastically her “environment,” change her clothes, where she lives, grant her a broader sphere of contact, but such is our fiction. In spite of it, we suspect that the character already has the capacity to disclose larger and even more refined versions of a fictional self on her own terms. Perhaps we could argue that the most impassioned attention to the drama of the interior self exposes the “feminine.”

When young Maud Martha looks at magazines that say “New York,” describing

good objects there, wonderful people, recalled fine talk, the bristling or the creamy or the tactfully shimmering … her whole body become a hunger, she would pore over its pages.

(174)

That “looking” is governed here by “hunger” in the young Maud Martha reinforces the severe privacy of the perceptual act and provides a remarkable stroke of synaesthesia in the conflating tactile and visual sensation. The subject is not a mere looker, but looks with the entire ingestive range. Maud Martha’s “good objects” are placed alongside objects of melancholy or objects of the nakedly furnished within a range of semantic valences that gain distinction solely by her capacity to imbue them with polyvalent meaning. We gather this stylistic trait on the basis of lexical items apparently chosen from two widely divergent arrays of things that operate in a kind of binary adhesion—those “good objects” of the above-quoted passage and those that belong with her kitchen sink, or the radiators in her parents’ house, “high and hideous. And underneath the low sink-coiled unlovely pipes, that Helen said made her think of a careless woman’s underwear, peeping out” (164). But then there are also natural objects that show the humble in special atmosphere and that persist as the contrapuntal assertion against the ravages of time. From two excerpts of the narrative: The house the Browns fear they might lose to the Home Owner’s Loan Association, the one in which Maud Martha and her siblings have grown up, materializes an enamored object of the entire family, but for Maud Martha, “house” abstracts into an object of lyricism—of “writing”:

with the snake plant in the jardiniere in the southwest corner, and the obstinate slip from Aunt Eppie’s magnificent Michigan fern at the left side of the friendly door … and the emphatic iron of the fence and … the poplar tree … Those shafts and pools of light, the tree, the graceful iron might soon be viewed possessively by different eyes.

(154-155)

From the ending:

But the sun was shining, and some of the people in the world had been left alive, and it was doubtful whether the ridiculousness of man would ever completely succeed in destroying the world—or, in fact, the basic equanimity of the least and commonest flower: for would its kind not come up again in the spring? come up, if necessary, among, between, or out of—beastly inconvenient!—the smashed corpses lying in strict composure, in that hush infallible and sincere.

(305)

In the first instance, the vocabulary of natural objects so overwhelms the house of the living that the latter takes on a spirit of timelessness, enters a domain of the immutable. It is noteworthy that Maud Martha believes that the western sky acquires a certain unique aspect only from the back of this house: “the little line of white, somewhat ridged with smoked purple, and all that cream-shot saffron”. (156). In the second instance, the natural objects—sun and earth—submerge the human deed in a grandly absurd and irresistible carnival of folly. In its concise reverberations of the strangely ridiculous and rhetorical questions of the disembodied voice from The Waste Land,36 Brooks joins Eliot in adopting closural images from the iconic grotesquery of war—World War I for Eliot, World War II for Brooks. For both poets, the corpse loses its gothic and horrible magnificence as it is brought low, so to speak, into the stream of diachronous, even vegetal, being. This collapse of hierarchy in the poetic status of objects is entirely consonant with the principles of writing that order the whole of Maud Martha.

Whether or not the objects in Brooks’s binary array are human contrivances or aspects of the natural order, both articulate and embody an impression of eternal forms. Their varied aspects and illuminations of the immanent would suggest not only the indeterminacy of their occurrence, but also the fluent nature of Maud Martha’s stunning perceptual powers in the combinations, recombinations, and juxtapositions that the objects achieve on her site. A suggestion from the linguists as an insight into “making”: If the objects that claim our attention are to the senses what words are to the vertical columns of the dictionary, then the stuff of seeing is the lexis of “experience”; their various combinations and laws of revision and recombination, its “syntax”; and the meanings and their arrangements, its “semantics.” By calling the “feminine” a power that operates under concealment, I mean primarily the ability it grants us to stand still and see, or in one’s perceptual place, await a content, arrange a consequence.

V

Returning momentarily to the scene of the Foxy Cats Ball will provide us, in a final example, with several crucial and interlocking points concerning the subject’s consciousness and the study in subtleties that the “feminine” reveals as a theme of convergence between the beholder and the beheld. The rapidly alternating currents through which the reader watches the simultaneity of opposing rhetorical, aesthetic, and dramatic functions in this scene are translatable into the “feminine” beyond this text inasmuch as they express the intricacies of the “double consciousness.” If Maud Martha cannot escape the implications of her mirror, or the pretexts that impinge on her, then she is fully capable of exploiting such captivity to the degree that the scene itself, the other agents on it, its purposes and motivations are reflected in her looking glass, whose thaumaturgic properties can bless or damn the occasion as the subject sees fit. Intent on neither, the voice of the interior monologue mobilizes a plenitude of terms that evoke the fundamental ambivalence at the core of consciousness itself.

We have already examined one of the decisive psychological components of this scene as Maud Martha, suddenly not unaware of her dark skin and its dubious social uses, fixes herself as subject and object of deeply embedded public and private motives. In other words, the extra-text that speaks loudly, even when none of the agents “mouth” it dramatically, and the text of Maud Martha’s consciousness are interlarded threads cut cross the same bias. The “extra-text” to which I refer, examined at greater length in a progressive work, traces the historical implications of African-American women’s community as a special instance of the “ungendered” female, as a vestibular subject of culture, and as an instance of the “flesh” as a primary, or first-level “body.”37 Because African-American women in their historic status represent the only community of American women legally denied the mother’s access to her child, their relationship to the prerogatives of “gender” must be reexamined as the select strategem of an ethnic solidarity; of the dominant community’s strict exploitation of the gender rule as an instrument of a “supremacist” program. This systematic unfolding of iconic and epistemic violence embattles Maud Martha, without naming itself, and discloses the central impoverishment of a public naming and imagining that have not yet discovered appropriate terms for this community of social subjects. In that sense, the “mulatta”— and we might assume that “Maella” is either proximate to, or appropriates, such status, figures into this calculus as the historic “alibi” that “shields” the African-American female from sight. The weight of this textuality, or a “symbolic construct” that lives itself out, or of a corporeality-turned-trope-returned “corporeality,” falls on the historical and fictive subject with the convictions of steel. But the interconnections between “given” and “discovered” become the inseparable discretions of the tailor’s herringbone. Or, to shift metaphors, an entire central nervous system is at work so that consciousness is perceived as the stunning poise in a dual and complicated awareness.

The paragraphs that inform us that Maud Martha is escorted to a bench and left—“she sat, trying not to show the inferiority she did not feel”—descries a single pattern in the fabric, intersecting others in an arrangement that the eye takes in at once. We are aware of an emphasis of weight, color, texture, mode of design. Just so, Maud Martha wholly experiences the rich implications of her “objectivity” and “subjectivity” in their yoked occurrence. If she is seen, she also sees, as the scene before us is rendered precisely demonstrative of perceptual activity as an occasion of mutually indulged gazing.

Despite the sharp satirical underpinnings of the scene, Maud Martha acknowledges that the “ball stirred her … made toys of her emotions.” “The beautiful women in gorgeous attire, bustling and supercilious”; the overgallant young men; the drowsy lights and smell of food and flowers; the body perfumes and “sensuous heaviness of the wine-colored draperies at the many windows” conjure up notions of the sybaritic. The draped and gorgeous flesh, divided between female and male, suggests the tease of sexuality: We call it “glamour” and recognize in the scene the ritual of mating behind whose masks the actualities of lust are arrested. The scene’s drama relies on the tensions set in motion between the arrested and the enacted. We are drawn to this moment (and moments like it in “real life”) because it configures the vertical suspension of love-making as it leads, eventually, toward the bedroom, either actively or fantastically. But if “to die,” to play a moment on the range of conventional literary meanings released in the infinitive, marks the final move of the love game as well, then the narrator cunningly exploits the ambiguities of intention by bringing together objects of decoration and gaiety that evoke shades of the mortal flesh, of death.

“Wine-colored drapery” also belongs to the funeral procession, as does the terrible satiety of flowers. Even the music of the ball runs a chordal progression that describes over the course of the evening the convoluted objectives of the moment: “now steamy and slow, now as clear and fragile as glass, now raging, passionate, now moaning and thickly gray” (210). The gallant young men, “who at other times unpleasantly blew their noses,” master the required social proprieties of the occasion, but they are also the imagined subjects of promising toilet humor, darting “surreptitiously into alleys to relieve themselves” and the comedy of the private, unguarded self that sweats and swears at work and scratches its “more intimate parts.” Maud Martha’s dancing partner, another male, dispatched to entertain her while Paul celebrates the red arms of Maella, “reeked excitedly of tobacco, liquor, pinesoap, toilet water, and Sen, Sen.” [Emphasis mine.] This aggregation of disparate olfactory sensations reinforces disparity in the mild tongue-twisting assonance of the second five-syllable grouping of the line—“tobacco” / “liquor.” A deeper structural point obtains. The body, disguising from itself the deep knowledge of its own mortality, claims this scene for the grave as well as the bed. We could say that a careful consideration of the weave of the passage might suggest that their shared imagery of the horizontal posture collapses distinction. Just as the flesh is seen here in its various lights, Maud Martha dances the range of feeling in its complicated twists and turns.

VI

That the fictional subject disperses across an “inner” and “outer”—differing angles on a mutually concurrent process—fits well with coeval theories of reading that posit “division” at the center of knowing; je est un autre—there is no subject, only a “barred subject,” in a constant oscillation of deferments. But reading counter to the current, we would claim for Maud Martha a subject’s singularity that contains “division,” in fact, generates it, through a female body, who, among social bodies, is the only one who can reproduce sameness and difference at once: The child resembles the begetters, “borrows” their tendencies, yet describes its own features of uniqueness. If we regard the “feminine,” in the artistic instance, as a trope of the reproductive process, we might argue that it, like the female body, locates the convergence of antithetically destined properties—“female,” “male,” “mind,” “body,” “same,” “other,” “past,” “future,” “gazer,” “gazed upon.” Inscribing a notion of containment— in rooms, in the serene and vibrant spaces of the interior, in the intimacies that pass from lovers to enemies and back—the narrator suggests that the “feminine” constitutes the particular gifts of a materialized interior. Treating the text as a “strategy for encompassing a situation,”38 we think of it—in its brevity, in its fluent movement among textures of feeling—as a figure of the “feminine,” writing itself into articulate motion.

Notes

1. In discussing the social uses to which literature may be put, Kenneth Burke identifies the art work as a strategy for naming situations for which we need a name, “for selecting enemies and allies, for socializing losses, for warding off evil eye, for purification, propitiation, and desanctification, consolation and vengeance, admonition and exhortation, implicit commands or instructions of one sort or another.” In “Literature as Equipment for Living,” The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), 304. The “feminine” as an embattled idea offers a single example of a mandate for strategy.

2. Adrienne Rich, “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Experience,” Catharine R. Stimpson and Ethel Spector Person, eds., Women: Sex and Sexuality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). 62-92. Rich’s article is addressed primarily to the experiences of lesbian women as they are refracted through the dominant cultural patterns of heterosexuality; implicit in her argument is the idea that the heterosexual synthesis represents an aspect of the oppression of women.

3. Nannerl O. Keohane, Michelle Z. Rosaldo, and Barbara C. Gelpi, eds., Feminist Theory: A Critique of Ideology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

4. Ibid., ix.

5. Ibid.

6. For an American audience, Du Bois’s concept of the “double consciousness” (Souls of Black Folk) in reference to African-American cultural apprenticeship remains the preeminent concept and icon for explicating the dual and conflicting character of the misplaced person “at home” in an alien context. Originally published three years after the turn of the century, this collection of essays has undergone a number of editions. (New York: Fawcett Publications, 1963).

7. Keohane et al, Critique of Ideology, ix.

8. Susan Rubin Suleiman, ed., The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986); “Stabat Mater,” 115.

9. Alice Jardine, Gynesis (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985).

10. Suleiman, The Female Body, 2.

11. Ibid.

12. One of the poet’s “prophetic books,” Vala, or the Four Zoas offers a preromantic view of the “fall” of human society. “Tharmas,” or the human body, represents one of four characters in Blake’s work, suggesting the various ordering principles of the human personality. David V. Erdman, ed., The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982).

13. The excerpts from Schiller to which I refer are taken from his “Letters” in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972). The distinction that Schiller draws between sensuality (the sensations) and form (the reason) in “Letter 13” and their mutual reconciliation and repose in the play-drive has been considerably influential on my own thinking about this topic.

Not wishing to confine “sensual/sensuality” to the “feminine” (since I believe that the “feminine” engenders its own forms and formalities), I have, nonetheless, been struck by the evidence of the “common sense” in speculating that the woman’s intimate proximity to the theme of human continuance and nurture offers prime material for her cultural apprenticeship in the feelings and notions of receptivity. While I would agree with Dorothy Dinnerstein’s position in The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1976) that the responsibility of human nurture must be shared by female and male, I shudder to think what might happen if the contest for “equal time” leads to women’s abandonment of the site of the child, as has men’s renunciation too often, and with absolutely fatal results.

14. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1957). “Perhaps a mind that is purely masculine cannot create, any more than a mind that is purely feminine … Coleridge … meant, perhaps, that the androgynous mind is resonant and porous; that it transmits emotion without impediment;’ that it is naturally creative, incandescent and undivided” (102).

15. Elaine Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” in Elizabeth Abel, ed., Writing and Sexual Difference (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 9-37. The displacing of male bias by various evidence of female experience generates the gynocritical enterprise that Showalter elaborates in this essay.

16. Gwendolyn Brooks, The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (New York: Harper & Row, 1971). During the 1970s, Brooks switched her publishing allegiance from the New York house to Detroit’s Broadsides Press and, later on, to the Third World Press of Chicago as testimony to her commitment to the political ideas of the Black Nationalist movement. Riot, Family Pictures, and Beckonings were all volumes published under the Broadsides logo.

17. Gwendolyn Brooks, Primer for Blacks: Three Preachments (Chicago: Brooks Press, 1981). “Black Love,” first published in Ebony, (August 1981), appeared in 1982 under the auspices of the Brooks Press.

18. Brooks, The World of GB, 125-307.

19. Showalter, “Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness,” 30-31. Showalter’s discussion and diagram of the work of British anthropologist Edwin Ardener poses a useful paradigm for perceiving the relationship between dominant and muted groups. The Ardener diagram is also a circle, reminiscent of a penumbra, in which case the y circle (muted) falls within the dominant circle x. The crescent of the y circle outside the dominant boundary might be called “wild.” Showalter proposes that we can think of the “wild zone” of women’s culture spatially, experientially, or metaphysically. Spatially, it stands for an area that is literally no-man’s land.

In this imagined relationship between Brooks’s “feminine” and “masculine,” both circles bear crescents on their periphery. These equally “wild zones” are mutually exclusive, by inference, and we have no idea what the characters who live there utter. My guess is that their “wild” is a spiralling crescent to Ardener/ Showalter’s so that we would have to draw a far more elaborate configuration in order to address the realities of “color.”

20. Woolf’s central consciousness in To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay, provides an astonishing association for what I later explore here as a “severe privacy.”

21. Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979). From Dilthey, Kermode adopts this formulation to explain the hermeneutical relationship between interpreter and work. I borrow it here to offer that Maud Martha punctuates a significant period of work in the poet’s career and that after it Brooks seems to turn increasingly toward the meditative poetry that we associate with In the Mecca and After the Mecca.

22. Brooks, The World of GB. (All references to Maud Martha come from this edition, page numbers noted in the text.)

23. For a full discussion of Brooks’s projected sequel to Maud Martha, the reader should consult “Update on ‘Part One’: An Interview with Gwendolyn Brooks,” by Gloria T. Hull and Posey Gallagher, College Language Association Journal, XXI, No. 1 (September 1977), 26-28. Brooks points out that the extant Maud Martha “has much autobiography though I’ve twisted things” (27).

For a complete autobiographical sketch, Brooks’s Report From Part One (Detroit: Broadsides Press, 1973) is indispensable. The poet explains to Claudia Tate in a series of recent interviews that she is at work on a second volume of autobiography. Cf. Black Women Writers at Work (New York: Continuum, 1983), 39-48.

24. Northrop Frye, in a description of Emily Dickinson’s poetic diction, takes the term “aureate” from medieval poetics: “big soft bumbling abstract words that absorb images into categories and ideas.” Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1963) 202.

25. Brooks, The World of GB, from “The Bean Eaters,” 313.

26. A remarkable study of the human and social body as a site of contracted or expanded ground, Elaine Scarry’s Body in Pain (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985) offers an unusual reading of aspects of Holy Scripture and excerpts from the Marxian canon as speculative inquiry into the principles of “making” and “unmaking.”

27. From Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Womanhood: The Children of the Poor,” Selected Poems(New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 53.

28. Brooks, “The Egg Boiler,” The World of GB, 366.

29. Richard Ohmann’s discussion of narrative/prose style as the writer’s “epistemic choice” offers a richly suggestive study in the behavior of the rhetoric of fiction, in “Prolegomena to the Analysis of Prose Style,” in Essays in Stylistic Analysis, ed. Howard S. Babb (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 35-50.

30. Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in Philosophy of Literary Form, 293-305.

31. The term is taken from W. J. Cash’s classic study of the mythic operations of the “white male mind” of the South: The Mind of the South (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941). It is not altogether surprising that “mind” in this case is confined to the male, while the female becomes the object of investigation.

32. I have placed these typically descriptive words for two American races in quotation marks here because the terms are often inadequate for what we actually mean. As we know, “color” in American is “washable” since “black” registers along a range of genetic traits, and so does “white,” or the notion of “passing” would have no value whatsoever, either as an actual deed, or a trophic possibility. “Race” should be an anachronism, or dead, but it is neither. We await, in the meantime, a vocabulary that gets us through the complexities that we sometime observe.

33. Brooks, The World of GB.

34. Mary Helen Washington’s “Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha” in Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland, eds. The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, (Hanover, New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 1983), 270-286 gives a good account of the coeval critical opinions of the work.

35. Compare with note 20.

36. “Stetson! / You who were with me in the ships at Mylae! / That corpse you planted last year in your garden, / Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year? / Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?” from Valerie Eliot, ed., A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), 136.

37. In two separate studies, I examine these historical/ terministic issues with an eye to locating African-American women’s community in relationship to questions of feminist investigation: “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” and “‘The Tragic Mulatta’: Notes on an Alternative Model— Neither/Nor.” These pieces anticipate a longer work that examines the rift between “the body” and “the flesh” as means of social and cultural production.

38. Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” in Philosophy of Literary Form.

Annie Perkins (Essay Date 2001)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6711

SOURCE: Perkins, Annie. "The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks (1970s-1980s)." In Women Making Art: Women in the Visual, Literary, and Performing Arts since 1960, edited by Deborah Johnson and Wendy Oliver, pp. 43-63. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2001.


In the following essay, Perkins offers an in-depth analysis of Brooks's life and works.

Gwendolyn Brooks (b. 1917) was born in Topeka, Kansas, and was reared in Chicago, her lifelong home. With the support and nurture of her parents, Brooks began writing poetry at age seven. She was first published at age thirteen, and by the time of her graduation from Englewood High School, had published seventy-five poems in the Chicago Defender.

In 1936, Brooks graduated from Wilson Junior College. In 1939, she married and settled happily into domesticity with her husband, Henry Lowington Blakely II, and later Henry III, their baby son. During this period, Brooks continued to write, first winning the 1943 Midwestern Writers' Conference Award and then publishing her first volume, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Her second volume, Annie Allen (1949), earned the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, the first to be awarded to a Black writer. A year later, Brooks's daughter, Nora, was born.

Balancing home, family, and writing, Brooks published within a decade Maud Martha (1953), a novel; Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a book of children's poetry; and The Bean Eaters (1960). In 1968, she received a National Book Award nomination for In the Mecca, written in the aftermath of the Martin Luther King assassination.

In honor of her distinguished body of work, Brooks has received many awards, including the Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, the National Book Awards Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, the Sewanee Review 's Aiken-Taylor Award, and the National Medal of Arts from the President of the United States.

From 1985 to 1986, Brooks served as the twenty-ninth (and final) Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. In 1988, she was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. More recently, in 1994, she was a Jefferson Lecturer. Brooks holds seventy honorary doctorates and has taught at several institutions.

A poetry promoter, Brooks has sponsored poetry prizes throughout the country and has mentored and influenced scores of writers. Two tributes, To Gwen with Love (1971) and Say that the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks (1987), attest to the devotion and admiration she has inspired among younger writers. Her reminiscences and observations appear in two autobiographies, Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996). Among her recent poetry is Children Coming Home (1991).

Gwendolyn Brooks—Pulitzer Prize winner, Illinois Poet Laureate, and poetry ambassador—has earned popular and critical acclaim for a body of work that spans more than five decades. Rich in ideas, complex in form, and centered in the Black experience, Brooks's poetry celebrates human aspiration and the push for empowerment nourished and sustained by respect for self, community and heritage. Through striking poetical sketches, Brooks offers an inspiriting and expansive vision which affirms the necessity for Black unity. However, readers of any race, class, gender, or nationality can identify with her gallery of women, men and children who reflect attitudes and aspirations common to humankind, and who experience life's ordinary—and extraordinary—triumphs and trials.

Critic Dan Jaffe maintains that "the purpose of art is always to communicate to the uninitiated, to make contact across seemingly insurmountable barriers" (54-55). Indeed, Brooks's family pictures do speak across boundaries, for as James N. Johnson observes, "The excellence of Gwendolyn Brooks is that she is able to tell it like it is while speaking to the basic humanness in us" (48). That she sparks this human connection is evident in her sustained popularity among diverse audiences. Brooks enjoys enthusiastic receptions at colleges and universities, at prisons and public schools, at churches and community festivals, at conferences and conventions, wherever she travels—reading, lecturing, mentoring, teaching, and always promoting poetry.

During her distinguished career, Brooks has written prose pieces, including a novel, Maud Martha (1953), and a two-volume autobiography—Report from Part One (1972) and Report from Part Two (1996). But her literary reputation rests principally upon some twenty volumes of poetry, beginning with her debut collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), and including other volumes such as her 1950 Pulitzer Prize winner, Annie Allen (1949). Much of Brooks's poetry is collected in The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (1971), To Disembark (1981), and Blacks (1987).

In her early years, Brooks was primarily an artfor-art's sake poet, who appealed to her largely white audience for equal treatment of Blacks by depicting their lives with dignity and pathos. Like most Black people of that era, Brooks shared the hope that racial equality and equal opportunity could be achieved, but as the civil rights struggles grew more confrontational, her poetry began to reflect the racial tensions of the times. Noting the overly political nature of Brooks's work, a reviewer of The Bean Eaters (1960) posed this rhetorical question: "In times as troubled as ours, what sensitive writer can avoid a certain obsession with contemporary ills that may be temporary? … Of course she writes of Emmett Till, of Little Rock, of Dorie Miller, of a white [woman] disgusted to see her child embrace the Negro maid.…Increasingly, in each of her books, [social poems] have appeared" (Webster 19).

Brooks might have continued writing about social problems had she not attended a writers' conference at Fisk University in Nashville in 1967, where she met a group of Black poets, including Imiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones). This encounter transformed Brooks's perception of her art and her audience. She was amazed by this group of young, self-affirming writers who were declaring in their poetry what James Brown was commanding in his music: "Say it loud: 'I'm Black and I'm proud.'" This talented group—nurtured in the turbulent decade of civil rights struggle and antiwar sentiment; of marches, demonstrations, and assassinations; of political upheaval, social protest and national trauma—had clarified themselves as BLACK and were shouting it from the ghettoes of the inner-city and from the halls of academia. Feeling as if she were "in some inscrutable and uncomfortable wonderland," Brooks experienced an incipient sea change: "I didn't know what to make of what surrounded me, of what hot sureness began almost immediately to invade me. I had never been, before, in the general presence of such insouciance, such live firmness, such confident vigor, such determination to mold or carve something DEFINITE [capitalization hers]" (Report from Part One 85). These young, mostly college-educated Blacks, who combined a Black Power 'Black-is-beautiful' aesthetic with a Black Panther self-help activism, were looking at themselves through their own eyes and celebrating the view. They had rejected totally the integrationist stance of their parents. Presented with this different perspective, Brooks, then in her early fifties, began to reevaluate her own views:

What I saw and heard … was of a new nature to me … I had been asleep. If I had been asleep. If I had been reading even the newspaper intelligently, I too would have seen that [the integration effort] simply was not working, that there was too much against it, that blacks kept exposing themselves to it only to get their faces smacked. The thing to stress was black solidarity and pride in one's brothers and sisters. People didn't instruct me [in this idea] … I just picked it up by osmosis, listening to [the young poets] and watching what they did. I went around with them sometimes and heard them giving readings. Listening to them was wonderful.

(Report from Part One 176)

While "apprenticing" with these young artists, Brooks also became involved in her community at the grassroots level, conducting writing workshops for a youth gang (the Blackstone Rangers) and participating in neighborhood and cultural events. These experiences eventually transformed her conception of her artistic role and of her audience. In 1972, she wrote, "Today I am conscious of the fact that—my people are Black people; it is to them that I appeal for understanding" (Report from Part One 177). She announced that her intention would be

to write poems that would somehow successfully "call"…all black people: black people in taverns, black people in gutters, schools, offices, factories, prisons, the consulate; I wish to reach black people in pulpits, black people in mines, on farms, on thrones; not [italics hers] always to "teach"—I shall wish to entertain, to illumine. My newish voice, which I so admire, but an extending adaptation of today's [Gwendolyn Brooks] voice.

(Report from Part One 183)

The contemporary voice of Gwendolyn Brooks is populist, realistic, and celebratory, often hortatory, but always grounded in and attuned to the conditions and sensibilities in Black people. Blackness is what I know very well," she explains. "I want to talk about it, with definitive illustration, in this time, in this time when hostility between races intensifies and swirls." "I go on believing," Brooks observes, "that [Blacks who have little allegiance to Blackness] will, finally, perceive the impressiveness of our numbers, perceive the quality and legitimacy of our essence, and take sufficient, indicated steps toward definition, clarification, connection" (Report from Part Two 143). Thus, Brooks's post-1967 poetry became a vehicle for declaring and disseminating a new Gospel—the affirmation of Blackness, group solidarity, self-respect, and a sense of cultural heritage among an "entire range of categories: South Africa, South State Street, the little babe just born in the South Bronx" (Melham, Heroism 26).

But in spite of its new impulse, intent, and message, Brooks's poetry remained rooted in the tradition of well-wrought, polished verse. It continued to manifest what Jaffe calls a "dedication to craft, to the business of making" (50). Having studied Black poets like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen at an early age, Brooks had developed an appreciation for craftsmanship. Furthermore, after completing high school, she had received training in the techniques of modern poets—T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Robert Frost—during classes at the Chicago Southside Community Art Center conducted by Inez Stark Boulton, a wealthy Chicagoan and reader for Poetry Magazine (Melhem 7-9). With excellent training and natural talent, Brooks developed and cultivated a masterful technique that fuses exquisite diction with allusion, ironic contrasts, juxtaposition, repetition, alliteration, and other devices to create poems in which language, form, and idea happily coalesce. Poems selected from Brooks's collected works will enable readers to experience the artistry of a remarkable poet to apprehend the values informing her art, and to revisit issues of race and gender through her eyes.

As a female poet, a wife, and a mother, Brooks has been sensitive to issues affecting women and families throughout her career. As a matter of fact, her first published volume, A Street in Bronzeville, included "The Mother," a monologue exploring the psychological effects of abortion. And although Brooks has not aligned herself with feminist movements to challenge white male patriarchy, she nonetheless shares the aim of achieving social equality and economic parity for women while displaying and celebrating the full range of their capabilities and achievements. As Brooks has stated, "Black women, like all women, certainly want and are entitled to equal pay and 'privileges,'" but, in her view, the issue of female equality is complicated by a "twoness" that Black women feel, relating to race and gender. Therefore, she continues, "Today's black men, increasingly assertive and proud, need their black women beside them, not organizing against them" (Report From Part One 199). Womanist1 critic Chikweye Okonjo Ogunyemi elaborates upon this view: "The black woman instinctively recoils from mere equality because … she has to aim much higher than that to knit the world's black family together to achieve black, not just female transcendence" (69). Or as scholar Barbara Omolade explains, "Black women have united with black men to struggle for national liberation from white male rule" (253). However, espousing racial unity to achieve liberation does not mean accepting Black male rule, for as Alice Walker avers in this context, "Silent, uncritical loyalty is something you don't usually inflict on your child" (353). Brooks herself speaks plainly on the matter of male domination:

Black women must remember, through all the prattle about walking three or twelve steps behind or ahead of "her" male, that her personhood precedes her femalehood … She is a person in [emphasis hers] the world with wrongs to right, stupidities to outwit, with [emphasis hers] her man when possible, on her own when not. And she is also here to enjoy. She will be here, like any other, once only.

(Report from Part One 213)

One can understand, then, Brooks's subtle critique of male domination and female submission in the poem "Gang Girls" from In the Mecca (1968). In her poetry workshops, Brooks had interacted with the Blackstone Rangers, a male gang, and although her portraits of the group are mostly sympathetic, she does not romanticize the lifestyle and its effects upon young women. In the poem, the narrator describes gang girls as "sweet exotics," suggesting that they are alien to their tough, male-circumscribed neighborhood. Although Mary Ann, a typical gang girl, "sometimes sighs for Cities of blue and jewel / beyond [the] Ranger rim of Cottage Grove," her longings will not be fulfilled because male rivalries curb her mobility. Excursions beyond the neighborhood are dangerous, the poem states; therefore, Mary Ann, a sensitive, imaginative girl, is restricted by male-imposed boundaries to a stifling, unstimulating environment. The narrator aptly describes her as "a rose in a whiskey glass." This image strikingly reveals the disadvantaged position of gang girls in their relationships with gang members. To escape the deadening effects and frustrations of her confinement, Mary Ann turns to the few diversions her neighborhood offers: "bugle-love," "the bleat of not-obese devotion," and "Somebody Terribly Dying, / under the philanthropy of robins."

In a male-controlled Cottage Grove, gang girls acquiesce to their boyfriends' sexual demands. The narrator describes a passionless encounter in which Mary Ann simply responds as if following a script:

… swallow, straight, the spirals of his flask
and assist him at your zipper, pet his lips
and help him clutch you.
Mary, the Shakedancer's child
from the rooming-flat, pants carefully, peers at
her laboring lover … (In The Mecca 48)

The phrases "pants carefully" and "peers at her laboring lover" illustrate Mary Ann's lack of interest and involvement during this intimate encounter. Much like Langston Hughes's Harlem dancer, the real Mary Ann is not in that place. The shift in the mood from declarative to imperative lends a coercive quality to the "love-making," thereby implying that Mary Ann is not a consenting partner but a sexually exploited servant. Traditional notions of male authority along with peer influence, negative self-images, and nonaffirming family dynamics can condition young women to act against their interests. The narrator warns that the result of female submission will most likely be a blighted future:

Settle for sandwiches! Settle for stocking caps!
For sudden blood, aborted carnival
the props and niceties of non-loneliness—
the rhymes of Leaning.

This poem suggests that thwarted female potential, arising in this instance from a system of male domination and female submission (complicated by race and social class) is antithetical to Brooks's goal of racial unity and solidarity. Mutual respect and trust, the cornerstones of unity, cannot flourish within a climate of oppression. In this climate, females are unlikely to reach "Cities of blue and jewel," and, ultimately, the creative potential of the human family is diminished.

Gang girls like Mary Ann are not likely to blossom into self-respecting women, but in her gallery, Brooks provides models of self-empowered females worthy of emulation. Blacks includes the poem "To Those of My Sisters Who Kept Their Naturals," which praises Black women like Brooks herself, who did not abandon the natural hairstyle once it had become unfashionable. The "natural," or Afro, as it was called in the 1960s, symbolized racial solidarity and Black pride, but because it was worn by outspoken activists like Angela Davis and Rap Brown, it represented to the mainstream a threatening militancy, an unsettling statement of willfulness, self-affirmation, and political radicalism, which many were unprepared to accept. Within this context, Brooks salutes those Afro-wearing women who faced social ostracism and economic disadvantage within and beyond their communities. The speaker begins dramatically, announcing,

Sisters!
I love you.
Because you love you.
Because you are erect.
Because you are also bent.
In season, stern, kind.
Crisp, soft—in season. (Blacks 459)

The opening words trumpet forth like a musical flourish, with the exclamation point in the first line signaling a stentorian call and indicating excited anticipation. To imitate this effusiveness, Brooks lengthens each line so that the first boasts a single word; the second, three; the third, four. The speaker appears to love her "sisters" because, even in their literal difference or their varying postures, they accept and appreciate themselves. Brooks reinforces their heterogeneity by employing metrical diversity—iambs, spondees, and anapests—and she emphasizes their shared qualities through repetition (Because you; in season) and antithesis (stern, kind; Crisp, soft).

The speaker commends the actions of these self-respecting women:

And you withhold.
And you extend.
And you Step out.
And you go back.
And you extend again.

You reach, in season.
You subside, in season.
And All
below the richrough righttime of your hair. (459)

The lilting regularity of the "And you" lines—mostly iambic diameter except for the final line in iambic trimeter—highlights the common quality of radical pride these women exhibit. Furthermore, the rhythm of the lines suggests the literal and metaphorical acts described in the poem, namely, withholding and extending, stepping out and going back. In addition, the luxuriant alliterative compounds "richrough" and "righttime" mirror the dense texture of the women's natural hair.

Brooks employs a series of negative statements, featuring repetition and rhythm, to convey the speaker's admiration and delight at the "'sisters'" acceptance of Blackness:

You have not bought Blondine.
You have not hailed the hot-comb recently.
You have never worshiped Marilyn Monroe.
You say: Farrah's hair is hers.
You have not wanted to be white. (460)

Recognizing that Caucasian looks are ethnically incorrect for most Black women (although many women classified as Black because of the "one drop" rule look European), the speaker is pleased that her "sisters" accept what is natural for them. Women's studies scholar Rita Dandridge explains that for Brooks, "having a natural … is emblematic of being true to one's nature" (294). Therefore, she disdains efforts to "wriggle out of the race" (Melham, Heroism 26). It disturbs her that "hordes of Black men and women straighten their hair and bleach their complexions and narrow their noses and spell their eyes light grey or green or cerulean—thereby announcing: What nature afforded is poor, is substandard, is inferior to Caucasian glory" (Report from Part One 127). To the contrary, Brooks asserts in her poem that Black hair is "the rough dark Other music!" is "the Real / the Right. / The natural Respect of Self and Seal!" She assures her "sisters" that their natural hair is a "Celebration in the world!" (460).

The self-affirmation lauded in Brooks's poem originates in the sassy, self-assertive attitude many Black girls begin to display in adolescence. Alice Walker characterizes their "audacious, courageous, and willful behavior" as "womanist" (xi). Scholar Tuzylane Jita Allan observes that this attitude "is a rich, self-affirming psychological resource that facilitates survival advantage in the social pecking order." Indeed, this "womanist audacity," she continues, "becomes in the wider social context an unbidden demolisher of arrogant authority" (10-11). In the seventies and eighties, as Blacks entered the marketplace to assume positions opened as a result the civil rights struggles, the natural hairstyles mentioned earlier were unacceptable in some quarters. Many Black women resisted the dress codes banning natural hairstyles. Until their resistance (coupled with court challenges) changed the workplace culture, many Black women risked reprimand, censure, or even termination because of their womanist determination to be themselves. These Black women, psychologically empowered and sustained by their courage and boldness, demolished the status quo and at the same time, exemplified the authentic Black womanhood that Brooks praises in her poem.

Other poems among Brooks's family pictures depict Black manhood as Brooks has observed it among her family, friends, and national figures. Like other Black female writers, Brooks honors exemplary Black manhood as a corrective to and a shield against the steady assaults the Black male often faces in the wider society. Ogunyemi observes that "the intelligent black woman writer, conscious of black impotence in the context of white patriarchal culture, empowers the black man. She believes in him" (68). Brooks strongly supports the figures she includes in her gallery, beginning with her late brother-in-law, Edgar William Blakely, whom she tenderly praised in his elegy "In Memoriam: Edgar William Blakely," the dedicatory poem in To Disembark. The two-line opening stanza affirms, "A friend is one / to whom you can [italics mine] say too much." The formal elegiac mood, indicated by "to whom," is sustained in the second stanza by the sermonic opening line: "That was the title and the text of Edgar Blakely" (v).

Shifting to colloquial language, Brooks describes Blakely as "our / rich-humored, raw and ready, / righteous and radiant running-buddy." These alliterative phrases, which appeal to the ear, eye, and intellect, are neatly juxtaposed to the more formal line, "responsible to / community and heart," which conveys both the earthiness and virtue of the late Blakely. Colorful folk and slang expressions like "raw and ready" and "running-buddy" combine with the sedate adjectival-phrase construction "responsible to / community and heart" (linked by the alliterated r) to show a vigorous, fun-loving man who had substance, wit, and community spirit. Jaffe says that Brooks "can stir the grits or stroke the rococo" (To Disembark 56). Actually, she is at her best when she blends both—the colloquial and the formal—as she does in this poem. Brooks's choice of the word "heart" where one might expect "family" or "friends" conveys not only the compassion of the deceased but also the warmth of the in-laws' relationship. The elegy closes with a summing up of Blakely's virtues:

The document of his living is
out and plain,
level and direct. "Be sane. Be
neighbor to all the people in the world." (v)

The word "document" recalls "text and title" in the second stanza just as "neighbor" relates to "friend" in the opening lines. Brooks's effective use of diction and juxtaposition combine with the theme to create a unified impression of an admired and dearly loved brother-in-law and friend.

Another family picture introduces Walter Bradford, whom Brooks scholar D. H. Melhem describes as "a man of solid merits, pragmatic, dedicated, a worker in the social field of the young, specifically the Blackstone Rangers" (Poetry and the Heroic Voice 204). Having worked closely with Bradford on several community projects, Brooks grew to admire and respect him because of his talent, his dedication, and his effectiveness with young people. Speaking in supportive voice of the experienced elder, Brooks advises, encourages, and commends Bradford:

Just As You Think You're "Better Now"
Something Comes To The Door.
It's a Wilderness, Walter.
It's a Whirlpool or Whipper.


THEN you have to revise the messages
and, pushing through roars
of the Last Trombones of seduction,
the deft orchestration,
settle the sick ears to hear and to heed and to hold:
the sick ears a-plenty.


It's Walter-work, Walter.
Not overmuch for
brick-fitter, brick-MAKER, and wave-
outwitter;
whip-stopper.
Not overmuch for a
Tree-planting Man.

Stay.

(33)

First, Brooks speaks of the never-ending challenges facing Bradford and, by extension, others who try to steer young people in constructive directions. Reflecting the activism and energy of Bradford himself, Brooks chooses motion-charged images. Wilderness, Whirlpool, and Whipper—evoking predators, Charybdis, and slavery, respectively—symbolize the new problems that occur "Just As You Think You Are Better Now." Bradford as "brick-fitter, brick-MAKER, wave-/ outwitter" and "whip-stopper"—shrewd master craftsman, maker of men and women—is equal to the task, Brooks asserts. He can handle the delicate and difficult problems of "[settling] sick ears to hear and to heed and to hold." Brooks reinforces this fact through typography. The capital letters of the first stanza indicate the looming threats to progress and stability, while the lower-case letters of the third stanza indicate Brooks's confidence that Bradford, like the biblical David, can slay any Goliaths. Further, by identifying Bradford as a "Tree-planting Man," Brooks calls forth literal and metaphorical associations of Johnny Appleseed, the nineteenth-century American tree planter, along with the unknown composer of these lyrics: "Just like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved." Brooks appeals to Bradford, the cultivator of young men and women, not to be moved but to stand steadfast, to "Stay." Scholar William Hansell states that Black heroes have always figured prominently in Brooks's poetry (79). Whether these heroes are friends like Walter Bradford, relatives like Edgar Blakely, or national figures like Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, Brooks honors those who demonstrate integrity and an unwavering commitment to Black people around the globe. In the section "To the Diaspora" from To Disembark, she includes "Music for Martyrs," a tribute to Steve Biko, the slain South African anti-apartheid activist. Its epigraph declares that Biko was slain "for loving his people." The poem itself contrasts the person's sincere personal grief with orchestrated public memorials. Deeply affected by Biko's martyrdom, the poet mourns:

I feel a regret, Steve Biko.
I am sorry, Steve Biko.
Biko the Emerger laid low. (42)

Brooks employs repetition, rhyme and sound devices to establish a funereal tone; Biko's name repeated, the assonantal o rhymed, and the I alliterated combine to create a lugubrious chant. The anguished "I feel a regret" and "I am sorry" convey turmoil, indicating perhaps the poet's guilt feelings about not having been active enough against apartheid. Alluding to Biko's unfulfilled potential, the title "Biko the Emerger" invests the slain leader with dignity and stature; the mournful euphemism "laid low" implies that the word "murdered" is too inelegant to refer to one so noble.

A catalogue of meaningless tributes contrasts with the poet's heartfelt sorrow:

Now for the shapely American memorials.
The polished tears.
The timed tempest.
The one-penny poems.
The hollow guitars.
The joke oh jaunty.
The vigorous veal-stuffed voices.
The singings, the white lean lasses with streaming yellow hair.
Now for the organized nothings,
Now for the weep-words.
Now for the rigid recountings
Of your tracts, your triumphs, your tribulations. (42)

Brooks very effectively conveys the hollowness of the tributes through damning images—"polished tears," "timed tempests," "vigorous veal-stuffed voices," and "organized nothings"—all of which the poet views as sacrilegious. The bitter tone in this section of the poem extends to the conclusion, which identifies Biko's legacy—his "tracts," his "triumphs," and his "tribulations"—and suggests that the "shapely" memorials dishonor the young hero's memory.

Along with the men and women who comprise Brooks's gallery are children, whose varying situations exhort families and communities to commit themselves to the young and vulnerable. Like William Blake's "Infant Joy," the first poem. "A Welcome Song for Laini Nzinga" from To Disembark, celebrates the arrival of new life. Laini, the child of Brooks's spiritual son, poet Haki Madhubuti, and his wife, enters "through the rim of the world" to parents and friends eagerly awaiting her arrival: "We are here!" they exclaim, "To meet you and to mold and to maintain you." The word "we" appears five times in this eight-line lyric to signify the unity of this extended family and the necessity for its crucial supportive role. "With excited eyes we see you," the personae say. This baby, bringing "the sound of new language," ushers in renewal and hope. The poem ends, "We love and we receive you as our own."

Brooks insists that her picture of a stable, joyous, and united Black family can be multiplied by the thousands, yet the media choose to present images of fragmented Black families in crisis. Brooks thinks that the scores of "firm families" among Blacks … must be announced, featured and credited" (Report from Part Two 134). The successful Black family of the newborn Laini serves as a prototype of the nurturing circle of family and friends that produces "durable, effective, and forward youngsters" (Report from Part Two 134). That some children are not born into warm and welcoming families or communities is demonstrated in "The Life of Lincoln West," which Brooks describes as "a poem presenting a small Black boy coming to terms with outdoor and indoor opinions of his identity" (Report from Part Two 129).

The child pictured in this popular poem is unattractive by societal standards of handsomeness. The narrator pronounces this general consensus in the opening lines: "Ugliest little boy / that everyone ever saw. / That is what everyone said." The pronoun "everyone" in the second line rather than "someone" makes the baby's ugliness an indisputable fact, which the details support:

Even to his mother it was apparent—
when the blue aproned nurse came into the
northeast end of the maternity ward
bearing his squeals and plump bottom
looped up in a scant receiving blanket,
bending, to pass the bundle carefully
into the waiting mother-hands—that this
was no cute little ugliness, no sly baby waywardness
that was going to inch away
as would baby fat, baby curl, and
baby spot-rash. The pendulous lip, the
branching ears, the eyes so wide and wild,
the vague unvibrant brown of the skin, and
most disturbing, the great head.
These components of That Look bespoke
the sun fibre. The deep grain. (22)

The details of Lincoln's appearance unfold slowly: A "blue-aproned nurse came … bearing … bending." She bore "squeals and a plump bottom," "a bundle." Synecdoche and metonymy, in this description, heighten the reader's expectation. Likewise, negation intensifies the reader's curiosity about the unfortunate baby's appearance. There is "no cute little ugliness, no sly baby waywardness / that was going to inch away." Finally, with the actual description of the baby's appearance, the narrator refers to him clinically, as if he is a specimen rather than a human being: "The pendulous lip, the / branching ears, the eyes so wide and wild." This detachment establishes a distance between the reader and the narrative which is erased as the narrator reveals the cold and unfeeling treatment the child eventually faces at home and in the community. Although Lincoln tries desperately to win his parents' affection, "His father could not bear the sight of him," and

his mother high-piled her pretty dyed hair and
put him among her hairpins and sweethearts,
dance slippers, torn paper roses.
He was not less than these,
he was not more. (23)

Rejected by his father, Lincoln receives neither love nor attention from his mother, a flighty, vapidly sentimental, self-absorbed woman with little capacity for maternal affection. To her, Lincoln is another acquisition—hardly a treasured one. But the narrator suggests that even if he had been attractive, he would have been only an object for display, not a child to be loved and nurtured. As the mother of two children whom she reared with unconditional love and support, Brooks, through the narrator, is understandably critical of this mother. For as she has shown in poem after poem—most notably in the sonnet sequence "Children of the Poor," from A Street in Bronzeville—mothering entails loving, protecting, and training a child. Viewed in this context, Lincoln's mother is not among those Black women who "create and train their flowers." Lincoln, who is a weed in his parents' sight, experiences continual rejection. The narrator says that "even Christmases and Easters were spoiled" because of him:

He would be sitting at the
family feasting table, really
delighting in the displays of mashed potatoes
and the rich golden
fat-crust of the ham or the festive
fowl, when he would look up and find
somebody feeling indignant about him. (24)

This snapshot of the sumptuous feast, the animated child, and the disapproving parents starkly reveals a central point of the poem: that senses can be stirred but not hearts.

As if parental rejection were not enough, the narrator reports that Lincoln's kindergarten teacher showed "a concern for him composed of one / part sympathy and two parts repulsion." Playmates "turned their handsome backs on him" when better-looking children appeared. Consequently, Lincoln "spent much time looking at himself / in mirrors. What could be done? / But there was no / shrinking his head. There was no / binding his ears." An answer arrives unexpectedly while Lincoln and his mother are at the movies. He overhears a comment about himself from a nearby moviegoer, who is whispering to his companion,

"THERE! That's the kind I've been wanting
to show you! One of the best examples of the specie. Not like
those diluted Negroes you see so much of on
the streets these days, but the real thing.


Black, ugly, and odd. You
can see the savagery. The blunt
blankness. That is the real
thing." (27-28)

Although the mother is outraged, Lincoln, misinterpreting the insult, discovers a new self-image, and whenever he is hurt by others or lonely, the narrator says, he takes comfort in knowing that he is "the real thing."

Brooks's artful narration and vivid language point out the pain that rejected children experience and the necessity for ego-building experiences. Whereas Lincoln, a lovable, good natured child, finds a positive outlet for his pain, other children have resorted to acts of violence against others and themselves. Pioneering Black studies scholar Arthur P. Davis considers this poem a parable (in Wright 103). If so, Lincoln may represent the Black community, whose family members have subverted the negative definition of Blackness imposed by society—"Black, ugly, and odd"—and transformed it into "quality and legitimacy."

The final poem, "The Boy Died in My Alley" from Beckonings (1975), comments on public and personal indifference to violence among and against children. In the poem, the persona, representing an apathetic community, moves beyond deliberate isolation and indifference to communal responsibility. The opening lines are chilling: "Without my having known. / Policeman said, next morning, / Apparently died alone." The word Apparently emphasizes the tragedy of the anonymous boy's death. The end punctuation after the opening phrase highlights the isolation of the persona from the violence surrounding her. To dramatize the point that individuals, however, are not islands unto themselves, Brooks connects the title of the poem and the opening line to form a single statement: "The Boy Died in My Alley Without my having known." This pairing links proximity and emotional distance, calling attention to the fact that the death occurs near the persona, but she is detached emotionally from it. When a police officer asks if she heard the shot, the persona responds:

Shots I hear and Shots I hear.
I never see the dead,
The Shot that killed him yes I heard
As I heard the Thousand shots before;
careening tinnily down the nights
across my years and arteries. (49-50)

The words "hear," "heard," and "Shot" in conjunction with the onomatopoeic phrase "careening tinnily" emphasize the persona's past indifference to routine violence. The persona recounts, "Policeman pounded on my door [and said] A Boy was dying in your alley./ABoyis dead, and in your alley. / And have you known this Boy before?" The conspicuous shift in tense—from the past (progressive aspect) "was dying" to the present "is," and to the present (perfect aspect) "have known"—dramatizes the actual death of the boy and suggests, as well, the pervasiveness of the violence. Acknowledging some acquaintance with "this Boy … who / ornaments my alley," the persona confesses that "I never saw his face at all." The verb "ornaments" alludes to the red blood and the persona's uncaring attitude toward children who "deal with death." The persona admits, "I have closed my heart-ears late and early." At the end of the poem, however, she recognizes her silent complicity in the boy's death: "I joined the wild and killed him / with knowledgeable unknowing." Remorsefully, the narrator confesses, "I saw where he was going. / I saw him Crossed. And seeing / I did not take him down." The word "Crossed" combined with the statement "I did not take him down" evokes the Crucifixion. Further, "Crossed" means both "placed on a cross" and "betrayed." This complex allusion manifests the persona's guilt and anguish. In street vernacular, "to take someone down" means to kill or to seriously incapacitate that person by violent means. Aware of the fact that children were being "taken down" but ignoring them, the persona feels responsible for their deaths. Brooks employs paradox ("knowledgeable unknowing"), allusion, and ambiguity to reveal the persona's feelings. Finally accepting responsibility and recognizing kinship with these children, the persona states, "The red floor of my alley / is a special speech to me." Likewise, this blood is a special speech to readers who have been pulled into the narrative and forced to look at the pain and destruction around them. Such truth-telling, with Brooks's "quiet and merciless accuracy" (Johnson 47), leaves readers no hiding place.

The boy in the alley, Lincoln, West, little Laini, Steve Biko, Walter Bradford, Edgar Blakely, the sisters, and the gang girl are creations of a master artist. Although Brooks paints family pictures, the impulse from which they spring embraces all humanity. As Brooks herself has said, "I cite, star, and esteem all that which is of woman—human and hardly human. And I want the people of the world to anticipate ultimate unity, active [italics hers] interest in empathy." (Report from Part Two 131). The unity to which Brooks subscribes is

a unity of distinct proud pieces. Not a stew.… Because each entity is lovely-amazing-exhilarating [italics hers] in ubiquity and boldness of clear distinction, good design. I hope that in the world, always, there will be Black, brown, yellow, white, red. (And if time has some surprises let us welcome those too.)

(Report from Part Two 131)

The poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks depicts and celebrates the variegated life of one community within the human family. This Black community, with its prismatic family pictures, has inspired, nourished, and sustained her art. Although directed to this community, her canvases of family pictures, like portraits by the Old Masters, hang in full view of the human family for their enrichment, for their illumination, and for their delight.

Note

1. For a discussion of "womanist" and "womanism," see Walker (In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, 1983) and Ogunyemi ("Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English," Signs: Journal of Women and Culture 11.1 (Autumn 1985): 63-80). In her essay, Ogunyemi says a womanist "will recognize that, along with her consciousness of sexual issues, she must incorporate racial, cultural, national, economic, and political considerations into her philosophy" (64).

Works Cited

Allan, Tuzylane Jita. Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. Beckonings. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1981.

——. Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.

——. In The Mecca. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

——. To Disembark. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1981.

——. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.

——. Report from Part Two. Chicago: Third World Press, 1996.

——. The World of Gwendolyn Brooks. New York: Harper and Row, 1971.

Dandridge, Rita, ed. Black Women's Blues: A Literary Anthology, 1934-1988. New York: G. K. Hall, 1992.

Davis, Arthur P. "Gwendolyn Brooks." Dark Tower: Afro-American Writers 1899-1960. Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, (1974). Rpt. in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ed. Stephen Wright, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996: 97-105.

Hansell, William H. "The Poet-Militant and Foreshadowings of a Black Mystique: Poems in the Second Period of Gwendolyn Brooks." Concerning Poetry 10 (Fall 1977): 37-45. Rpt. in Mootry and Smith 71-80.

Jaffe, Dan. "Gwendolyn Brooks: An Appreciation from the White Suburbs." The Black American Writer: Volume 2 Poetry/Drama. Ed. C. W. E. Bigsby. Deland, FL: Everett/Edwards, 1969: 89-98. Rpt. in Wright 50-59.

Johnson, James N. "Blacklisting Poets." Ramparts 7 (1968): 53-56. Rpt. in Wright 45-49.

Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1987.

——. Heroism in the New Black Poetry: Introductions and Interviews. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1990.

Mootry, Maria, and Gary Smith. A Life Distilled. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Ogunyemi, Chikwenye Okonjo. "Womanism: The Dynamics of the Contemporary Black Female Novel in English." Signs: Journal of Women and Culture 11.1 (Autumn 1985): 63-80.

Omolade, Barbara. "Black Women and Feminism." The Future of Difference. Ed. Hester Eisenstein and Alice Jardine. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980: 248-257.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983.

Webster, Harvey Curtis. "Pity the Giants." Review of The Bean Eaters, Annie Allen, and A Street in Bronzeville, by Gwendolyn Brooks. The Nation (1 September 1962). Rpt. in Wright 19-22.

Wright, Stephen, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Principal Works

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A Street in Bronzeville (poetry) 1945

Annie Allen (poetry) 1949

Maud Martha (novel) 1953

Bronzeville Boys and Girls (juvenilia) 1956

The Bean Eaters (poetry) 1960

Selected Poems (poetry) 1963

In the Mecca (poetry) 1968

Riot (poetry) 1969

Family Pictures (poetry) 1970

Aloneness (poetry) 1971

A Broadside Treasury [editor] (poetry) 1971

Jump Bad: A New Chicago Anthology [editor] (poetry) 1971

The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (poetry and novel) 1971

Aurora (poetry) 1972

Report from Part One (autobiography) 1972

The Tiger Who Wore White Gloves; Or, What You Are You Are (juvenilia) 1974

Beckonings (poetry) 1975

Primer for Blacks (poetry) 1980

Young Poet's Primer (nonfiction) 1980

To Disembark (poetry) 1981

Mayor Harold Washington and Chicago, the "I Will" City (poetry) 1983

Very Young Poets (nonfiction) 1983

The Near-Johannesburg Boy, and Other Poems (poetry) 1986

Blacks (poetry and novel) 1987

Gottschalk and the Grande Tarantelle (poetry) 1988

Winnie (poetry) 1988

Children Coming Home (poetry) 1991

Report from Part Two (autobiography) 1996

Primary Sources

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SOURCE: Brooks, Gwendolyn. “To Black Women.” In Blacks, p. 502. Chicago, Ill.: The David Company, 1987.

In the following poem, Brooks addresses her African American sisters, praising their ability to prevail despite hardship and lack of recognition.

“TO BLACK WOMEN”

Sisters,
where there is cold silence—
no hallelujahs, no hurrahs at all, no handshakes,
no neon red or blue, no smiling faces—
prevail.
Prevail across the editors of the world¡
who are obsessed, self-honeying and self-
crowned
in the seduced arena.

It has been a
hard trudge, with fainting, bandaging and death.
There have been startling confrontations.
There have been tramplings. Tramplings
of monarchs and of other men.

But there remain large countries in your eyes.
Shrewd sun.
The civil balance.
The listening secrets.

And you create and train your flowers still.

Title Commentary

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HARRY B. SHAW (ESSAY DATE 1987)

SOURCE: Shaw, Harry B. "Maud Martha: The War with Beauty." In A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction, edited by Maria K. Mootry and Gary Smith, pp. 254-70. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.


In the following essay, Shaw discusses Brooks's treatment of conventional American standards of female beauty in her novel.

Arthur P. Davis's article of December 1962, "The Black-and-Tan Motif in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks," even after twenty years provides a fitting springboard for a discussion of the same motif in Brooks's novel, Maud Martha.>1> Davis explores the social theory that among black people the inside color line had tended "to create a problem within the group similar to that between colored and white in America.">2> He points out that this color difference within the group caused special problems for the dark girl, who during the early decades of the century was often the object of ridicule among black men.

Davis's social theory is that "as cruel as it was, the whole attitude of ridicule is a natural reaction to the premium which America by law and custom and by its uncivilized institution of segregation had placed on color.">3> To paraphrase and extend Davis's remarks and expand on the literary significance of the social theory, I contend that Maud Martha as well as Brooks's poetry makes a sharply ironic commentary on human nature by revealing that in American society rejection is caused less by deep-rooted cultural, religious, or ideological differences than by aesthetic difference, or what we think about body proportions, facial features, skin color, and hair texture. The psychological effect of this familiar and pervasive kind of ridicule and of the standard of beauty in America is explained by psychiatrists William Grier and Price M. Cobbs in "Achieving Womanhood" in Black Rage:

In this country, the standard is the blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned girl with regular features.… The girl who is black has no option in the matter of how much she will change herself. Her blackness is the antithesis of a creamy white skin, her lips are thick, her hair is kinky and short. She is, in fact, the antithesis of American beauty. However beautiful she might be in a different setting with different standards, in this country she is ugly.>4>

Brooks's conscious subscription to this social premise is epitomized by Maud's tendency, like the tendency of the mother in "the children of the poor," to shield, to protect her children from the harshness of the environment. For instance, in Brooks's poem "What shall I give my children? who are poor," when the children

… have begged me for a brisk contour,
Crying that they are quasi, contraband
Because unfinished, graven by a hand
Less than angelic, admirable or sure

the mother laments her powerlessness:

My hand is stuffed with mode, design, device,
But I lack access to my proper stone,
And plenitude of plan shall not suffice
Nor grief nor love shall be enough alone


To ratify my little halves who bear
Across an autumn freezing everywhere.>5>

The same frustration and "baffled hate" are expressed by Maud after her daughter, Paulette, has been virtually ignored by Santa Claus in a department store:

Maud Martha wanted to cry.

Keep her that land of blue!

Keep her those fairies, with witches always killed at the end, and Santa every winter's lord, kind, sheer being who never perspires, who never does or says a foolish or ineffective thing, who never looks grotesque, who never has occasion to pull the chain and flush the toilet.

(WGB [The World of Gwendolyn Brooks], p. 203)

Although Maud Martha herself is accepting and supporting as a parent, she never forgets the mild reinforcement of the American standard of beauty by her family. Closely paralleling Brooks's own depiction, Grier and Cobbs further point out the devastating effect when parents wittingly or unwittingly reinforce the standard: "When the feeling of ugliness is reinforced by the rejection of family and society, the growing girl develops a feeling not only of being undesirable and unwanted but also of being mutilated—of having been fashioned by Nature in an ill-favored manner.">6>

Color and color prejudice are also treated from strikingly similar perspectives in the literature of other black writers, particularly black female writers. In her autobiographical novel, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, for example, Maya Angelou reveals the debasing effect that the pervasive white standard of beauty has on the self-image of black girls. Aware from an early age of the exclusive nature of the standard, Maya thinks that her "new" Easter dress would make her "look like one of the sweet little white girls who were everybody's dream of what was right with the world.">7> As she continues to fantasize, the extent of the demoralization is evident:

Wouldn't they be surprised when one day I woke out of my black ugly dream, and my real hair, which was long and blonde, would take place of the kinky mass that Momma wouldn't let me straighten? My light-blue eyes were going to hypnotize them.… Because I was really white and because a cruel fairy stepmother … had turned me into a too-big Negro girl, with nappy black hair, broad feet and a space between her teeth that would hold a number-two pencil.>8>

Maud's own attention to color, features, and hair are paralleled in Brooks's autobiography, Report from Part One, and in her poetry.>9> The novel portrays a woman with doubts about herself and where and how she fits into the world. Maud is clearly less concerned with being thought inferior than she is with being perceived as ugly. This concern is filtered through the point of view of an insecure, self-disparaging black woman who feels that she is homely and, therefore, uncherished because she is black and has nappy hair and "Negro features." This perspective leads her to give a disparaging although undue deference to white people and to society's invidious standard of beauty. As I point out in the chapter "Maud Martha" in my introductory study, Gwendolyn Brooks:

She measures herself and her work against the standards of the world and feels that she comes out short inevitably—that white or light beauty often triumphs, though somehow unfairly—and that the deprivation of the beholder is to blame. The book is also about the triumph of the lowly. She shows what they go through and exposes the shallowness of the popular, beautiful, white people with "good" hair. One way of looking at the book, then, is as a war with beauty and people's concepts of beauty.>10>

One of the first casualties of the war is Maud's self-assurance about her own image. Self-doubt is an important part of the novel, providing a rather constant backdrop to almost every vignette. However, the situations where doubt is presented are not simple. Rather, in most cases Brooks holds out something positive such as hope, promise, or comfort, which is then assaulted by the American standard of beauty, leaving a condition of doubt and insecurity that itself often gives way to a grudging deference to whites. Occasionally the positive aspects prevail, leaving a sense of small but sweet victories in individual isolated battles in a larger lost war. This dialectic provides the main tension of the novel.

In "Description of Maud Martha" the stage is set for the war with beauty that is waged throughout the novel by Maud's ready identification with the dandelion, her favorite flower. She refers to them as "yellow jewels for everyday," and "she liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness.…"Inso describing the dandelion, she is comparing it to herself, "for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower." In this description the word "demure" is important, because it fits the shy, weak nature of Maud's image of her own "prettiness." The everyday or common prettiness of the dandelion contrasts with the more exotic or exquisite beauty of rarer flowers even as Maud's own shy prettiness contrasts with white beauty. Although she thinks the dandelion is pretty, she is aware that others consider it plain or ugly—a weed.

The dialectic potential of this vignette extends to Maud's desires, for "to be cherished was the dearest wish of the heart of Maud Martha Brown.…" Because the plain, common dandelion could be cherished, Maud had hope that she, too, could be cherished, although plain. The reader, however, is immediately aware of the tenuous nature of this hope, because it lasts only while Maud is looking at the dandelions. Otherwise, she has doubts that the ordinary dandelion is "as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty." Ironically, it is in Maud's own everyday life when she cannot look at the dandelions to boost her morale that she has the greatest doubts about herself:

And could be cherished! To be cherished was the dearest wish of the heart of Maud Martha Brown, and sometimes when she was not looking at dandelions (for one would not be looking at them all the time, often there were chairs and tables to dust or tomatoes to slice or beds to make or grocery stores to be gone to, and in the colder months there were no dandelions at all), it was hard to believe that a thing of only ordinary allurements—if the allurements of any flower could be said to be ordinary—was as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty.

(WGB, p. 128)

Doubt about the ability to be loved is a permeating theme in the novel, affecting Maud's relationship with her friends and family.

The prime example of a familiar relationship affected by Maud's doubt is that with her sister, Helen. From the earliest descriptions of Helen she is presented as the exquisite, "heart-catching" beauty—a foil and frequently an adversary to Maud. "Helen" suggests Helen of Troy, the ideal beauty, to contrast the common plainness of a girl whose very name suggests drabness. Helen was not one of those "graven by a hand / Less than angelic, admirable or sure." The rub, however, is that Helen is "easy to love" simply because she is "a thing of heart-catching beauty." The relationship between beauty as it is perceived in the Western world and being loved or cherished is very positive. To further emphasize the importance of beauty in the formula for being loved, Maud points out that in all other considerations, she and Helen were about equal:

a thing of heart-catching beauty.

Such as her sister Helen! who was only two years past her own age of seven, and was almost her own height and weight and thickness. But oh, the long lashes, the grace, the little ways with the hands and feet.

(WGB, pp. 128-29)

These are not terms of endearment.

Helen's natural proximity as a sister facilitates discussion of the efficacy of beauty. One of the numerous instances that helps to convince Maud that being beautiful brings favors as categorically as being ugly brings rejection is Maud's experience of being rejected by Emmanuel for a ride in his wagon while Helen is accepted. Emmanuel, riding his wagon, approaches the two young girls and asks, "How about a ride?" When the shy Maud uncharacteristically responds with, "Hi, handsome!" Emmanuel scowls and says, "I don't mean you, you old black gal.… I mean Helen." Helen gets the ride because she is beautiful—not because she otherwise deserves it any more than Maud. This experience visits and revisits Maud many times during her life. Years later the memory hurts as Maud observes that Helen makes $15 a week as a typist while she, Maud, makes $10 a week as a file clerk. She realizes that the basic situation has never changed. "Helen was still the one they wanted in the wagon, still 'the pretty one,' 'the dainty one.' The lovely one."

Helen remains the favored one because of her beauty. Maud makes the efficacy of Helen's beauty clear by removing all of the other variables:

She did not know what it was. She had tried to find the something that might be there to imitate, that she might imitate it. But she did not know what it was. I wash as much as Helen does, she thought. My hair is longer and thicker, she thought. I'm much smarter. I read books and newspapers and old folks like to talk with me, she thought.

But the kernel of the matter was that, in spite of these things, she was poor, and Helen was still the ranking queen, not only with the Emmanuels of the world, but even with their father—their mother—their brother. She did not blame the family. It was not their fault. She understood. They could not help it. They were enslaved, were fascinated, and they were not at all to blame.

(WGB, pp. 160-61)

Maud is more than merely equal to Helen in all other variables. She deserves Harry's loyalty, but Helen gets it. Their father prefers Helen, although Maud really works harder at getting love and respect by doting on her father and sympathizing with him. Even against these odds, however, Helen's beauty triumphs, making Maud the pauper and Helen the "ranking queen."

One result of continually having life's situations assailed by measurement against an alien and artificial standard is not merely to doubt the possibility of positive evaluations, but to develop the inclination to project the likelihood of negative evaluations. Maud Martha begins as a young girl to project toward the portentous rather than the propitious. In observing those around her, she begins to attribute thoughts and motives to them that are not always self-evident from their behavior. For example, as her thoughts dwell on Helen and her advantages, she assumes that she knows her father's thoughts: "It did not please her, either, at the breakfast table, to watch her father drink his coffee and contentedly think (oh, she knew it!), as Helen started on her grapefruit, how daintily she ate, how gracefully she sat in her chair, how pure was her robe and unwrinkled, how neatly she had arranged her hair. Their father preferred Helen's hair to Maud Martha's (Maud Martha knew) … (WGB, pp. 162-63). Maud's doubts progressively give rise to more elaborate and more depreciative thinking about her physical appearance. Chapter 13, "low yellow," consists almost entirely of her thoughts like the following about Paul Phillips's thoughts about her color, hair, and features:

I know what he is thinking, thought Maud Martha, as she sat on the porch in the porch swing with Paul Phillips. He is thinking that I am all right. That I am really all right. That I will do.…


But I am certainly not what he would call pretty.… Pretty would be a little cream-colored thing with curly hair. Or at the very lowest pretty would be a little curly-haired thing the color of cocoa with a lot of milk in it. Whereas, I am the color of cocoa straight, if you can be even that "kind" to me.

He wonders, as we walk in the street, about the thoughts of the people who look at us. Are they thinking that he could do no better than—me? Then he thinks, Well, hmp! Well, huh!—all the little good-lookin' dolls that have wanted him—all the little sweet high-yellows that have ambled slowly past his front door—What he would like to tell those secretly snickering ones!—That any day out of the week he can do better than this black gal.

(WGB, pp. 178-79)

The title of this chapter, "low yellow," accurately and rather bluntly reflects the subject that weighs heavily on Maud's mind for a significant portion of the novel. There are some moderately auspicious projections of Paul's assessment of Maud, such as his thinking that "she will do," or that Maud is "sweet," or that she has "nice ears." She is also optimistic that she will "hook him" in spite of his predilection for "the gay life, spiffy clothes, beautiful yellow girls, natural hair, smooth cars, jewels, night clubs, cocktail lounges, class." Still, Maud's realization that she embodies the antithesis of Paul's "idea of pretty" does not bode well for her sense of security.

In chapter 19, "if you're light and have long hair," Maud is even less subtle and more pessimistic in her projections. Whereas in "low yellow" she is able to perceive some benefit of the doubt that she feels, in "if you're light" she imputes only the most negative interpretation to Paul's behavior. When Paul is invited to attend what to him is the most important social event imaginable, the Foxy Cats Dawn Ball, Maud is filled with trepidation and doubt about whether he will want to take her. Although they are married at the time, she believes that Paul will take her only grudgingly. She does not feel that she will fit in with the "beautiful girls, or real stylish ones" at the ball. She speculates that he will take her only out of a sense of obligation, and that if he could assemble the right words, he would tell her that he could tolerate the marriage only as long as he was free. She further believes he wants to humor her only because she is pregnant.

In Maud's mind, Paul's behavior at the ball can only mean that he would rather not be with her. When after their second dance he leaves her sitting, "she sat, trying not to show the inferiority she did not feel." Maud is even more concerned when Paul dances closely with Maella, who is "red-haired and curved, and white as a white." A dark man dances with Maud, but she hardly notices him for watching Paul and Maella. The dark dance partner tries to make small talk, and even tells her, "You're a babe.…You're a real babe." Again Maud hardly notices, but she does notice Paul and Maella and begins to project: "But it's my color that makes him mad. I try to shut my eyes to that, but it's no good. What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I've got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping" (WGB, pp. 213-14).

Whether the threat to their marriage is real or generated out of Maud's insecurity, it is clear from the symbolism of the gradual demise of a snowball bush that Maud believes the threat is real. She is escorted to a chair near a rubber plant, where she sits and briefly considers violently attacking Maella. However, her final thought on the matter suggests that she perceives the problem with Paul's standard of beauty—and consequently with their marriage—to extend far beyond Maella. As she puts it, "But if the root was sour what business did she have up there hacking at a leaf?"

Maud's doubts and her self-deprecating projections attend most of the major events of her life. When her daughter, Paulette, is born, for instance, Maud notices that her mother, Belva Brown, "looked at the newcomer in amazement. 'Well, she's a little beauty, isn't she!' she cried. She had not expected a handsome child." Maud is so sensitive about color and other aspects of appearance that she interprets possibly well-meaning statements as pejorative. Another time Maud imagines that she sees Paul's eye-light take leave of her, and she projects his rejection of her and the life they live together. "She knew that he was tired of his wife, tired of his living quarters, tired of working at Sam's, tired of his two suits." She thinks that Paul's boredom occurs partially because "the baby was getting darker all the time." But that fear could be just as easily attributed to Maud herself, for Maud as mother is very concerned with the war and the battles that Paulette will have to fight as a black girl.

One such battle occurs early in Paulette's life. Maud and Paulette go to a store where there is a Santa Claus. Santa's high enthusiasm for the children suddenly dies when Paulette's turn comes. When Santa is coldly indifferent to Paulette, Maud takes her away. As they leave the store, Paulette wonders why Santa does not like her. Maud finds herself in the same position as the parent in "children of the poor," "holding the bandage ready for your eyes." She lies to Paulette, telling her, "Baby, of course he liked you." Maud views this kind of battle as something peculiar to her. She realizes that neither Helen nor Paul, two people who are very close to her, would have reacted with the same venom with which she reacted. For different reasons neither of them would have had to fight nor to appreciate the same kind of battles that Maud Martha had fought. But the problem for Maud is too real to ignore and too complex to unravel: "She could neither resolve nor dismiss. There were these scraps of baffled hate in her, hate with no eyes, no smile and—this she especially regretted, called her hungriest lack—not much voice" (WGB, p. 302).

In spite of the "baffled hate" resulting from fighting and losing many skirmishes in the war with beauty, Maud Martha, being part of the society she fights, ironically subscribes in part to the same standard of beauty that she fights. In spite of herself, she gives a kind of deference to whites and to the society's standard of beauty.

While throughout the novel Maud is overly concerned about other's perceptions of her, she is especially concerned with the perceptions that whites have not only of her, but also of black people in general. That she is aware of and concerned about their perceptions is evident in chapter 5, "you're being so good, so kind," by her hesitancy and fear concerning the visit of Charles, her white schoolmate. She feels that "she was the whole 'colored' race, and Charles was the personalization of the entire Caucasian plan." She defers to him by dashing about straightening up the house and raising all the windows because she is aware that whites often say that "colored people's houses necessarily had a certain heavy, unpleasant smell." Her inordinate concern about the general appearance of her home and the odor in the house is a product of her projecting Charles's thoughts on the situation. When he rings hesitantly, she further ascribes thoughts to Charles that further reveal her doubt that she can be considered favorably, especially by this representative white: "No doubt regretting his impulse already. No doubt regarding, with a rueful contempt, the outside of the house, so badly in need of paint. Those rickety steps" (WGB, p. 144). Her deference proceeds to the extent that she is "sickened" to realize that she is grateful for his coming to visit her "as though Charles, in coming, gave her a gift."

Although Maud is sickened at her own fawning behavior during Charles's visit, she makes no comment during David McKemster's soliloquy on the virtues of the good life—"a picture of the English country gentleman"—versus the depravity in the ghetto. This chapter, "second beau," reveals the extent to which one can become unreasonably enamored with a given standard. Beyond his wanting to master the American literary critic, Vernon Paddington, David wishes to adopt white ideals, to emulate the white-middle-class lifestyle.

McKemster's desire in "second beau" to change his style to escape his own heritage (like Satin-Legs Smith) is somewhat comparable to Maud's own desire to change whatever she can to be accepted—to be cherished. The contrast is that although McKemster can effectively affect white styles, Maud will always be plain Maud.

There are times when Maud also engages in the desire to escape her situation. The glitter and shine in Maud's perception of New York in "Maud Martha and New York" is not unlike McKemster's idealized description of the white section east of Cottage Grove. "People were clean," he says, "going somewhere that mattered, not talking unless they had something to say." Maud, meanwhile, sees the material and stylistic splendor of New York as a symbol of what life should be like—jeweled. She, like McKemster, even makes an allusion to the lustrous style of the English as perhaps the accepted pinnacle of style and class. Both McKemster and Maud are products of the ghetto, who dream, realistically or unrealistically, of escaping their situations. It is ironic that in both cases the places and things that they would escape to or through are associated with the very aesthetic that condemns them for being what they are—black Americans. McKemster would shed his black background where his mother had said, "I ain't stud'n you," and his father "hadn't said anything at all," where "he himself had had a paper route. Had washed windows, cleaned basements, sanded furniture, shoveled snow, hauled out trash and garbage for the neighbors." McKemster's dream of changing his life is more materialistic and attainable: "He wanted a dog. A good dog. No mongrel. An apartment—well-furnished, containing a good bookcase, filled with good books in good bindings. He wanted a phonograph, and records. The symphonies. And Yehudi Menuhin. He wanted some good art. These things were not extras. They went to make up a good background. The kind of background those guys had" (WGB, p. 172). The fallacy is that one comes with a background. A background is not simply superimposed with the acquisition of certain material things.

Maud's fantasy is more to escape a stultifying mental and aesthetic environment: "What she wanted to dream, and dreamed, was her affair. It pleased her to dwell upon color and soft bready textures and light, on a complex beauty, on gem-like surfaces. What was the matter with that? Besides, who could safely swear that she would never be able to make her dream come true for herself? Not altogether, then!—but slightly?—in some part?" (WGB, p. 177). Maud would keep her background, but would have others to evaluate her by a different standard of beauty.

Maud Martha never gets to New York, but David McKemster does take steps toward the fulfillment of his dream. Several years after their first conversation about McKemster's need to acquire a new background, he is ensconced at the University of Chicago. In "an encounter," Maud meets him by chance on the campus. She is hesitant to strike up a conversation because "this was the University world, this was his element. Perhaps he would feel she did not belong here, perhaps he would be cold to her." He is cold to her because she too is part of the black past that he has illusions of shedding. He merely tolerates her company glumly for a few minutes "till they met a young white couple.… David's face lit up," and McKemster comes alive with cultured conversation as viewed by Maud Martha: "Had they known about the panel discussion? … Tell him, when had they seen Mary, Mary Ehrenburg? Say, he had seen Metzger Freestone tonight.… (He lit a cigarette.) Say, he had had dinner with the Beefy Godwins and Jane Wather this evening. Say, what were they doing tomorrow night? … (He took excited but carefully sophisticated puffs.).…Say, how about going to Power's for a beer?" (WGB, p. 255). Maud senses that he wishes to be rid of her. Having completely subscribed to the white values he had idealized earlier, McKemster views Maud as old, excess baggage.

When McKemster offers to have a cup of coffee with Maud and the young white couple, Maud assumes that he is trying to pacify her before "disposing" of her. Maud interprets the young white man's stare as saying, "Well! and what have we here!" Maud Martha's "baffled hates" make her suspect of disparaging, benign, or even friendly gesture alike. It is not easy to be kind to Maud Martha. Maud sees the young white lady as "attractive," suggesting once again that she subscribes to the prevailing standard of beauty even while she fights the effects of it. Maud sees her as bold and confident: "She leaned healthily across the table; her long, lovely dark hair swung at you; her bangs came right out to meet you, and her face and forefinger did too (she emphasized, robustly, some point)" (WGB, p. 257).

The references to health and robustness in describing the girl's behavior suggest that Maud would like to be this way. But Maud has not the white face, the "summer-blue eyes.… lovely dark hair" nor the confidence (which is itself a testimony to the efficacy of beauty) to do so. She instead describes her own behavior in terms as sharply contrasting as her own physical description would contrast that of the girl. "But herself stayed stuck to the back of her seat, and was shrewd, and 'took in,' and contemplated, not quite warmly, everything" (WGB, p. 257). Maud's discomfort is exacerbated by McKemster's attempt to "look down" on her physically as he had been socially, although "when they sat their heights were equal."

Maud's war with beauty, then, is partially internal, for not only does she rail against the standard, but she also grapples with her own ambivalent aesthetic sense in order not to see whites as beautiful and, more critically, in order not to see herself and her daughter, Paulette, as ugly. The crudest application of the standard of beauty is to see whites as beautiful and to see blacks, the antithesis, as ugly. Application of this standard, however, is complicated by the varying degrees to which blacks can approximate the physical attributes that are associated with the standard. Hence, Maud often sees her white or light-skinned rivals as "attractive," "lovely," or "beautiful." In "low yellow," little doubt is left about the deference that Maud and Paul both give to the white standard of beauty. They are contemplating marriage and the kinds of children they would have:

"I am not a pretty woman," said Maud Martha. "If you married a pretty woman, you could be the father of pretty children. Envied by people. The father of beautiful children."

"But I don't know," said Paul. "Because my features aren't fine. They aren't regular. They're heavy. They're real Negro features. I'm light, or at least I can claim to be a sort of low-toned yellow, and my hair has a teeny crimp. But even so I'm not handsome."

No, there would be little "beauty" getting born out of such a union.

(WGB, p. 180)

They both idealize light skin, wavy or straight hair, and fine or regular features. Likewise, it is clear from their conversation that black skin, nappy hair, and "real Negro features" make them less than beautiful in their own eyes.

Well after they are married Maud and Paul continue to show their perhaps unwitting but nonetheless real deference to whites. Being black in a white environment is central in "we're the only colored people here." Maud's only hesitation in asking Paul to go downtown to a movie is that he will object that there are "too many white folks." Once there, they feel conspicuous and alone. They stand in the lobby looking sheepishly about and whispering. Immediately Maud notices the refined "cooked, well cared-for" appearance of the whites and contrasts it favorably to that of the ghetto blacks. At one point Paul is hesitant to approach a white girl at the candy counter to ask about tickets. He is afraid of intruding or even of her coldness. From Maud's point of view she is described as "lovely and blonde and cold-eyed, and her arms were akimbo, and the set of her head was eloquent." Maud and Paul both defer to her whiteness, her beauty. Maud contrasts the white and black environments almost enviously but certainly qualitatively or valuatively. They attribute an uplifting effect just to being in the theater frequented by whites:

But you felt good sitting there, yes, good, and as if, when you left it, you would be going home to a sweet-smelling apartment with flowers on little gleaming tables; and wonderful silver on night-blue velvet, in chests; and crackly sheets; and lace spreads on such beds as you saw at Marshall Field's. Instead of back to your kit'n't apt., with the garbage of your floor's families in a big can just outside your door, and the gray sound of little gray feet scratching away from it as you drag up those flights of narrow complaining stairs.

(WGB, p. 203)

As they leave the theater, they are very concerned with not making the whites feel intruded upon:

the Negroes stood up … looked about them eagerly. They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. They hoped no one would look intruded upon. They had enjoyed the picture so, they were so happy, they wanted to laugh, to say warmly to the other outgoers, "Good, huh? Wasn't it swell?"

This, of course, they could not do. But if only no one would look intruded upon.…

(WGB, p. 204)

This kind of deference is associated closely with their sense of aesthetic worth. Both before and after the movie they are self-conscious and apologetic about the appearance of their color, hair, features, clothes, and even, through extension, their very habitats.

Maud continues to defer to whites in various ways such as continued projection of disparaging thoughts into the minds of white people whom she encounters. One such incident occurs in "Millinery," when Maud visits a shop and attributes the following negative thoughts to the white manager: "Oh, not today would she cater to these nigger women who tried on every hat in her shop, who used no telling what concoctions of smelly grease on the heads that integrity, straightforwardness, courage, would certainly have kept kinky" (WGB, p. 281). To Maud, the manager is yet another critic finding only fault.

In encountering the manager in the millinery shop Maud is facing her main adversary—the white woman. Therefore, she determines that she can and will win some small victory in the ongoing war with beauty. In Maud's mind the manager cannot bring herself to say that the hat Maud tries on makes Maud beautiful. "Looks lovely on you," she says. "Makes you—" She stops, perhaps searching for the right word. In her effort to sell the hat to Maud the manager assures her of what a bargain the hat would be at "seven ninety-nine," and that she is doing Maud a favor because "you looked like a lady of taste who could appreciate a good value." At another point when she "looked at Maud Martha, it was as if God looked." Maud starts twice for the door. On both occasions the manager stops her with another pitch. The last ploy is to say that she will "speak to the—to the owner," who "might be willing to make some slight reduction, since you're an old customer." Even when Maud assures the manager that she has never been in the store before, the manager "rushed off as if she had heard nothing." Maud's cynical mind completes the act: "She rushed off to consult with the owner. She rushed off to appeal to the boxes in the back room" (WGB, p. 282).

After having the manager go through the difficulty of finally agreeing on the price that Maud has indicated, Maud is delighted to calmly tell her, "I've decided against the hat." She has made a decision—a firm, unflinching decision after the white woman has tried in every way she could to make Maud feel obligated to buy the hat. The terrible frustration of the manager is captured in the final scene:

"What? Why, you told—But, you said—"

Maud Martha went out, tenderly closed the door.

"Black—oh, black—" said the hat woman to her hats—which, on the slender stands, shone pink and blue and white and lavender, showed off their tassels, their sleek satin ribbons, their veils, their flower coquettes.

(WGB, pp. 282-83)

All the while the terrible frustration is contrasted with the peaceful physical background that is unbiased and indifferent, an ironic reflection of that gentle and genteel side of the white woman that her terrible anger and frustration belie.

It is obvious that Maud's reaction is quite different from Sonia Johnson's in "the self-solace." When a young white woman comes into Sonia Johnson's beauty shop to sell lipstick, Sonia listens to her pitch and finally orders some lipstick. Maud, who is in the shop at the time, is furious for several reasons. One is that Sonia did not use the opportunity for a small victory over this young white woman with what Maud thinks of as "beautiful legs." Maud knows that some beauticians, glad to have the white saleswomen at their mercy if only for a few minutes, would make them crawl. They are sometimes insulting, brusque, and then they "applied the whiplash." "Then they sent the poor creatures off—with no orders. Then they laughed and laughed and laughed, a terrible laughter." A second reason Maud is furious is that the saleswoman sells the order to Sonia, saying that "this new shade … is just the thing for your customers. For their dark complexions." Maud wonders if the saleswoman realizes that the "Negro group" included all complexions from those lighter than her own, to "brown, tan, yellow, cream which could not take a dark lipstick and keep their poise." But Maud is primarily furious because the saleswoman has used the word "nigger" and has not been taken to task by Sonia. She has said, "I work like a nigger to make a few pennies." Sonia has an opportunity for a small victory in the continuing war, but she does not take it.

"At the Burns-Coopers" presents Maud with a chance for a small although Pyrrhic victory. Driven by desperation caused by Paul's unemployment and her not being able to find more suitable work, Maud seeks a job as a domestic. Mrs. Burns-Cooper is very superior and authoritative and particularly condescending and unwittingly insulting. Bearing her insults in silence is barely manageable for Maud. Both Mrs. Burns-Cooper and her mother-in-law complain that the potato parings are too thick and proceed to treat Maud like a child: "As though she were a child, a ridiculous one, and one that ought to be given a little shaking, except that shaking was—not quite the thing, would not quite do. One held up one's finger (if one did anything), cocked one's head, was arch. As in the old song, one hinted, 'Tut tut! now now! come come!'" (WGB, pp. 288-89).

Maud does not return to the Burns-Coopers'. She says that she cannot explain why to Mrs. Burns-Cooper. Like the millinery shop manager and the lipstick saleswoman, Mrs. Burns-Cooper does not understand that there is a war. As long as they can perceive black women as inferiors who ought to be grateful for the opportunity to work or to buy, they will not even be conscious of the war nor of any casualties on the black side. When there is "retaliation" that amounts only to failure to comply with the wishes of the white women, they are shocked and see Maud and her kind as belligerent and uncooperative. It is hard to fight a war with an enemy who does not know a war is being fought, but who nevertheless has all of the weapons and continues to inflict casualties. Maud's explanation, which would certainly have escaped Mrs. Burns-Cooper, is simply that she is a human being:

One walked out from that almost perfect wall, spitting at the firing squad. What difference did it make whether the firing squad understood or did not understand the manner of one's retaliation or why one had to retaliate?

Why, one was a human being. One wore clean nightgowns. One loved one's baby. One drank cocoa by the fire—or the gas range—come the evening, in the wintertime.

(WGB, p. 289)

The last vignette of Maud Martha, "back from the wars!" provides a fitting final comment on the various kinds of war that rage among people. Because World War II is over and her brother, Harry, has returned, she, like others, exults. She does notice, however, that some wars are continuing. "And the Negro press (on whose front pages beamed the usual representations of womanly Beauty, pale and pompadoured) carried the stories of the latest of the Georgia and Mississippi lynchings …" (WGB, p. 305). This passage, in addition to suggesting that all the wars are not over, refers to the war of black people for freedom and dignity and to the specific war that black women wage with the standards of beauty (which Brooks capitalizes for emphasis).

In the midst, however, of Maud Martha's concern with lynching and color prejudice, she is optimistic. On a sun-filled spring day her hope lies in the fact that man's foolishness cannot destroy even "the basic equanimity of the least and commonest flower: for would its kind not come up again in the spring? come up, if necessary, among, between, or out of—beastly inconvenient!—the smashed corpses lying in strict composure, in that hush infallible and sincere" (WGB, p. 305).

The "commonest flower" is the dandelion with which she identifies in the book's first vignette, "description of Maud Martha." Her war continues against "the usual representation of womanly Beauty, pale and pompadoured."

The image is like that of the Phoenix, rising from its ashes, or like the sun and the children in "spring landscape: detail," who on a gray spring day are "little silver promises somewhere up there, hinting," able to shut out all the world's inhibitions and ridiculousness. These images cause Maud to end on a note of hope and promise:

And was not this something to be thankful for?

And, in the meantime, while people did live they would be grand, would be glorious and brave, would have nimble hearts that would beat and beat. They would even get up nonsense, through wars, through divorce, through evictions and jiltings and taxes.

And, in the meantime, she was going to have another baby.

The weather was bidding her bon voyage.

(WGB, pp. 305-6)

Notes

  1. Arthur P. Davis, "The Black-and-Tan Motif in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks," College Language Association Journal 6 (Dec. 1962): 90-97.
  2. Davis, "The Black-and-Tan Motif," p. 90.
  3. Ibid.
  4. William Grier and Price Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 40-41.
  5. Gwendolyn Brooks, The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 100. Hereinafter cited in the text as WGB.
  6. Grier and Cobbs, Black Rage, p. 52.
  7. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 1-3.
  8. Angelou, I Know Why, p. 2.
  9. Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972).
  10. Harry B. Shaw, Maud Martha in Gwendolyn Brooks (Boston: Twayne Publishing, 1980), p. 165.

Further Reading

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Bibliography

Gerry, Thomas M. F. Contemporary Canadian and U.S. Women of Letters: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1993, 287 p.

Bibliographies of various North American women writers.

Loff, Jon N. "Gwendolyn Brooks: A Bibliography." CLA Journal 17, no. 1 (September 1973): 21-32.

Record of Brooks's published works and a listing of reviews and essays on her writings.

Biographies

Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990, 287 p.

Biography of Brooks, compiled with her full cooperation, by a long-time admirer of her work.

Melham, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987, 270 p.

Biography, analysis and bibliographical materials.

Shaw, Harry B. Gwendolyn Brooks. Boston: Twayne, 1980, 200 p.

Comprehensive coverage of Brooks's life with critical essays on her major publications.

Criticism

Burr, Zofia. "Reading Gwendolyn Brooks Across Audiences." In Of Women, Poetry, and Power: Strategies of Address in Dickinson, Miles, Brooks, Lorde, and Angelou, pp. 113-51. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Examination of Brooks's relationships with her white editors and the differing responses by black and white readers to her work.

Gayles, Gloria Wade, editor. Conversations with Gwendolyn Brooks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003, 167 p.

Provides various interviews with Brooks.

Georgoudaki, Ekaterini. "Black and White Women in Poems by Angelou, Brooks, Dove, Giovanni, and Lorde: Complex and Ambivalent Relationships." In Race, Gender, and Class Perspectives in the Works of Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde, pp. 143-95. Thessaloniki, Greece: Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 1991.

Compares the representations of black/white female relationships in the work of five African American poets.

Hubbard, Stacy Carson. "'A Splintery Box': Race and Gender in the Sonnets of Gwendolyn Brooks." Genre 25, no. 1 (spring 1992): 47-64.

Examines Brooks's use of the traditional sonnet form to serve a black, female voice.

Hughes, Gertrude Reif. "Making It Really New: Hilda Doolittle, Gwendolyn Brooks, and the Feminist Potential of Modern Poetry." In On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation, edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright, pp. 186-212. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Explores the way Brooks and H. D. employed the conventions of modernist poetry to challenge male privilege.

Mullen, Bill V. "Engendering the Cultural Front: Gwendolyn Brooks, Black Women, and Class Struggle in Poetry." In Popular Fronts: Chicago and African-American Cultural Politics, 1935-46, pp. 148-80. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999.

Discusses the Chicago setting of Brooks's work and the poet's contributions to the African American community on the city's South Side.

Park, You-Me Gayle Wald. "Native Daughters in the Promised Land: Gender, Race, and the Question of Separate Spheres." In No More Separate Spheres!, edited by Cathy N. Davidson and Jessamyn Hatcher, pp. 263-87. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002.

Analysis of the boundaries between public and private domains in texts by African American and Asian American writers. Includes a discussion of Brooks's novel Maud Martha.

OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:

Additional coverage of Brooks's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 3; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Black Literature Criticism; Black Writers, Eds. 2, 3; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 27; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4R, 190; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 27, 52, 75; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 5, 15, 49, 125; Contemporary Poets, Ed. 7; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 5, 76, 165; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural, and Poets; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Poetry; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 7; Poetry for Students, Vols. 1, 2, 4, 6; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Something about the Author, Vols. 6, 123; Twayne's United States Authors; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

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Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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