Brooks, Gwendolyn: Title Commentary
GWENDOLYN BROOKS: TITLE COMMENTARYMaud Martha
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 bear5
Across an autumn freezing everywhere.
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)
- Arthur P. Davis, "The Black-and-Tan Motif in the Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks," College Language Association Journal 6 (Dec. 1962): 90-97.
- Davis, "The Black-and-Tan Motif," p. 90.
- William Grier and Price Cobbs, Black Rage (New York: Basic Books, 1968), pp. 40-41.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, The World of Gwendolyn Brooks (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 100. Hereinafter cited in the text as WGB.
- Grier and Cobbs, Black Rage, p. 52.
- Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (New York: Random House, 1969), pp. 1-3.
- Angelou, I Know Why, p. 2.
- Gwendolyn Brooks, Report from Part One (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972).
- Harry B. Shaw, Maud Martha in Gwendolyn Brooks (Boston: Twayne Publishing, 1980), p. 165.