Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Maud Martha is a celebration of black womanhood. At the same time, the book examines the difficulties and trials of growing up African American and female. Such trials include both the universal problems of life and those specific to Maud Martha’s race and sex: race and color prejudice (the first from Caucasians, the second from her own people, including her family and her own husband); expectations rooted in racism and sexism; and the difficulties experienced by a sensitive, intelligent woman when there is no outlet for her abilities and talents.

The novel moves between inward-looking chapters to those that stress the outside world. For example, following the birth of Paulette, which allows Maud Martha a moment of recognition as she gazes at her daughter, Brooks describes the other people who live in the building. It had been a difficult birth, attended to by a neighbor, Mrs. Cray, whom Maud Martha had not even known before, and by her mother, who prides herself on the fact that she manages to last out the whole experience without fainting. Paul returns with the doctor only after the birth is over, when Maud Martha is already feeling “strong enough to go out and shovel coal.” The chapter serves the purpose of establishing the environment in which Paul and Maud Martha live, but it also shows, from her point of view, Maud Martha’s reactions to these people and perhaps, in a limited way, a broadening of her interest in the world outside her...

(The entire section is 464 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Maud Martha is an incisive portrayal of a young black woman in the white world of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The novel also expresses a number of themes that Brooks would continue to explore in her poetry. Underlying the surface events of Maud Martha, for example, is the theme of “double-consciousness” first defined by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois believed that African Americans played a double role in life as individuals seeking their own identities and as outcast members of a racist society that forced them to act deceptively as a condition of their survival. In Du Bois’s view, the black artist was especially torn by this conflict, which could not be resolved until African Americans were accepted as fully participating members of society.

Several incidents in the novel reveal this conflict. When Paul and Maud Martha go downtown to a theater, they must buy their tickets from an usher instead of daring to enter the lobby. Maud Martha enjoys the film for its music and scenes of beautiful places, so unlike her gray apartment. When the film is over, Paul and Maud Martha hope the white people will not notice them. In a beauty shop, a white woman selling lipsticks for black women casually says the word “nigger,” apparently unaware of her rudeness. Maud Martha is deeply disturbed that neither she nor the owner of the shop is willing to confront the white woman about the insult.

When Paul is laid off, Maud Martha takes a job as a servant for Mrs. Burns-Cooper, who treats her as a child and is condescending about what she imagines to be Maud Martha’s home life. In enduring the insult, Maud Martha understands for the first time how her husband (and, by extension, all black men) feels about the treatment he receives in the working world. Neither Mrs. Burns-Cooper nor Maud Martha quite understands why Maud Martha quits at the end of the day. Brooks herself had worked briefly as a domestic; the incident is a portrayal of the hypocritical...

(The entire section is 829 words.)