Brooks’s primary intention in Maud Martha is to provide an extraordinary look into an ordinary woman’s life. She has crafted a tale of an African American female trapped by very real and very common restraints of family, husband, neighborhood, and society. True to the author’s purpose, the final chapter, with its paradoxical and open-ended structure, posits a questionable future, as Maud reads “in the Negro press” the stories of the ongoing lynchings in Georgia and Mississippi and contemplates the new life growing within her body. Brooks’s novel shows how one woman survives life’s injustices and disappointments with little personal, political, or economic power. To give her character more than a sense of humor and goodness would be a lie.
Brooks illustrates how African Americans held on to their humanity in spite of deplorable treatment by whites. When Paul is laid off, Maud goes to work for a bigoted society woman who asks her to use the back entrance and to refrain from using a mop, saying, “You can do a better job on your knees.” The final indignity comes when Mrs. Burns-Cooper sets out to prove that she is not a snob by coming into the kitchen and “talking at” Maud about her debut, the imported lace on her lingerie, and the charm of the Nile. Maud listens in silence and assures herself when she hangs up her apron that she will never go back. As she endures the racist stupidity and cruelty for one afternoon, she understands what Paul endures daily: “As his boss looked at Paul, so these people looked at her. 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.” By the early 1950’s, African American men had served in two world wars; in fact, the final chapter shows Maud’s brother returning home from the war. In spite of this, those men were still not being treated as human beings. Brooks is equally concerned about the damaging effects of racism on women and children in the black community.
The society portrayed in Maud Martha is certainly racially oppressive, but Brooks makes it clear that other oppressions can be just as deadly. For women, the experience of growing up in a world dominated by male power and privilege can be devastating. Maud is an ordinary girl who becomes an ordinary woman. Much of her life is spent trying to find a place in a patriarchal society that denies her very existence. Her father makes clear his preference for pretty, not smart, women. He discourages her intellectual pursuits, instead worrying incessantly about Helen and her boyfriends. After her repressive childhood, men stifle and silence Maud later in life. When she goes to hear the newest young black author speak on the university campus, she runs into an old boyfriend, David McKemster. She decides to talk with him even though she suspects he will be cold. After all, she is in his world, his element, the university. She is right; only moments later he yawns, “I’ll put you on a streetcar. God, I’m tired.” Maud’s embarrassment is not over; in fact, her disillusionment with the academic community is just beginning. David spies some white friends and proceeds to regale them with comments about Aristotle, subjecting her not only to his...
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- Critical Essays