Callahan Crawford, Chloe Gandy, Megan Howarth and Kate Wilson of ENGL 471 discuss Gwendolyn Brooks’ novel, Maud Martha and tease out themes from the book found in music.
The Sound of Black Life in America: Domestic Spaces and Identity in Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha
“What, what, am I to do with all this life?”
-Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha
Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks’ lyrical novel, is composed of vignettes which chronicle the life of Maud Martha, a black woman living in Chicago. In the 1950s, when Maud Martha was written and set (Frazier 134), there was a “particularly intense emphasis on traditional values of home and family. Women […] were encouraged to bear and raise children, [and] be good wives” (Miller et al. 566). Maud Martha’s life revolves primarily around domestic spaces and the pressure to perform her role within them. In these spaces, she develops her sense of self which is informed by systemic racism and sexism. This systemic racism and sexism, as purported by Katherine McKittrick’s “The Last Place They Thought Of: Black Women’s Geographies”, which connects the history of black women in the transatlantic slave trade in the United States to more contemporary understandings of black womens’ bodies. McKittrick argues that “Objectified black female sexualities represent the logical outcome of a spatial process that is bound up in geographic discourses, such as territory, body/land possession, and public property” (45). In Maud Martha, these geographic discourses about black womens’ sexuality and autonomy take place largely in the domestic sphere. By looking at Maud Martha’s experiences in the domestic sphere as a wife and mother, we see how it becomes a complicated site of identity and oppression as she struggles to reconcile her internalized gender roles and racism with her desire for agency. The idealized domesticity conflicts with the reality of her situation and leads her to find methods of escapism as she is forced to give up her intellectuality, even while she is empowered to be vocal in her domestic role as a mother. Maud Martha’s experiences will be considered in relation to ten songs by Black American artists. These songs, like the text itself, deal with themes of resistance and struggle and incorporate aspects of storytelling, painting images of black life in America. By interweaving the songs with our analysis of the text and McKittrick’s argument, we can trace how these themes, presented in Maud Martha, are not isolated but instead contribute to a larger discourse about the positionality of Black women living in the United States.
“Compared to What” by Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack’s “Compared to What” exemplifies Maud Martha’s struggle to establish her own identity, where Maud Martha’s entertainment of an idealistic perspective of place cannot co-exist with the reality of her environment. Maud Martha frequently romanticizes her environment by viewing each location through the context of her relationship to it. Maud Martha links her identity to her family home by seeing “herself there, up and down her seventeen years” (Brooks 38). Her alignment of identity in spatial context becomes problematic when she romanticizes spaces. Maud Martha’s entertainment of a fancified concept over reality parallels the opening line of “Compared to What.” There is an implication that the love of a falsified object will cause a problematic relationship with love, where Maud Martha’s focus on an imagined concept will lead to her presenting fake love for anything which doesn’t live up to her ideal. Maud Martha romanticizes New York and as a byproduct, an idealized life, viewing New York as “a symbol. Her idea of it stood for what she felt life ought to be” (Brooks 49-50). When Maud Martha is faced with the “the small hates, the large and ugly hates” of her and Paul’s apartment in Chicago, the “silver” (Brooks 47) of her idealized life forces a focused perspective on the inferior “gray” of her reality.
“Still” by Macy Gray
The burning candle simile in the chorus of Macy Gray’s “Still” parallels Maud Martha’s initial idealization of domesticity, and her following dissatisfaction when actually participating in gender-centric domestic tradition. Maud Martha imagines the struggle of providing for a husband with a romanticization, viewing the eternal struggle to please her husband as “bold” and “praiseworthy” (Brooks 58). Line 1 and 3 of “Still” encapsulate Maud Martha’s desire to suffer for Paul: “In my last years with him there were bruises on my face,” “No more dawn and new days, I’m goin’ back to stay.” In Kathrine McKittrick’s “The Last Place They Thought Of: Black Women’s Geographies”, she describes the way that “black femininity [serves] as ‘only the body’ and ‘service’ (McKittrick 47). Maud Martha internalizes this institutionalized sense of her body as being something to be used. When Paul kicks his shoes off in the kitchen, Maud Martha “refus[es] to look at him.” (Brook s 67) Maud Martha’s “conscious” (Brook 67) decision not to reciprocate Paul’s smile demonstrates her unhappiness when putting idealized domesticity into practice. Maud Martha’s “beautiful thought” (Brooks 59) of herself as a traditional domestic woman turns out to be harmful, elevating the juxtaposition between dangerous idealism and reality past the spacial and into the interpersonal.
“Cold Weather Blues” by Muddy Waters
Weather and nature are used as a metaphor to represent opportunity and freedom in both Muddy Waters’ “Cold Weather Blues” and Brooks’ Maud Martha. Muddy Waters links the prosperity of nature in warmer weather to hope, contrasting his discontent with his current situation in the cold weather and the lack of opportunity it presents as even the birds are unable to fly (16). Maud Martha looks to nature as an escape from her confined and limited position in society, employing nature as a way to recognize the constructs of her own reality. Maud Martha sees nature as a consistent force (Brooks 101), which makes her recognize the social construction of her own domestic life which is therefore unnatural but inescapable. For Maud Martha, nature becomes quintessential to her understanding of freedom. This juxtaposition of nature and the domestic sphere highlights the unnatural construct of a black woman’s subservient place in society. Kathrine McKittrick argues that “terrains outside black women’s bodies […] produced by and through black femininity are also […] socially produced” (51). Similarly to Maud Martha, Muddy Waters’ song idealizes fruitful nature as a way of representing prosperity and the hope of freedom. Because Maud Martha’s position in society is socially constructed, nature allows her to find the lack of confinement that she desires.
“I Am the Blues” by Muddy Waters
The song “I Am the Blues” by Muddy Waters depicts the speaker’s relationship to music and the Blues as an escape, much like Maud Martha uses nature as a way of escaping her role in the domestic sphere. In “I Am the Blues”, the singer is both using conventional tropes of the (Chicago) Blues to express his discontent with the state of his life while simultaneously working as an outlet for him to escape these hardships. Maud Martha often intersects her descriptions of nature with man-made spaces in a way that makes light and nature appear as a small glimmer of hope in her confining role as a homemaker. Toward the end of the text, Maud Martha narrates that “the sunshine had broken through the dark green of that shade and was glorifying every bit of her room” (Brooks 178). In this passage, the sunlight is pushing its way through Maud Martha’s dark, oppressive curtains, that limit her ability to access this freedom of nature and light that exists outside of the domestic sphere. In McKittrick’s “The Last Place They Thought Of: Black Women’s Geographies”, she argues that “black women and their sense of place […] indicates their struggle with the […] social […] structures imposed on them” (McKittrick 51). These social structures imposed upon black women are conveyed in Maud Martha as traditional gender roles, and it is these struggles between black women and their sense of place that pushes Maud Martha towards escapism.
“Little Girl Blue” by Nina Simone
The song “Little Girl Blue”, written by Richard Rodgers and Lorenzo Hart for the 1935 musical Jumbo, was adapted and performed by Nina Simone in 1958. The soulful melody and lyrics of Simone’s version laments disappearing dreams, telling the “little girl blue” to give up on her dreams as the world will never allow them to come into fruition. The last two lines of the song encourage the “little girl blue” to find a man to console her, suggesting that the only thing that is achievable for the little girl is romantic love. The notion that aspirations outside of the home are unachievable and that women should turn instead toward heteronormative conceptions of romantic love resonates with Maud Martha’s decision to prioritize marriage in her life. The text tracks Maud Martha’s inevitable discovery of the societal expectations placed upon black women, which frustrates her affinity for learning. At the end of the vignette “Helen”, Helen tells Maud Martha: “You’ll never get a boy friend […] if you don’t stop reading those books” (Brooks 39). This interaction serves as a turning point for Maud Martha. The next few chapters describe Maud Martha turning away from her intellectuality: she thinks less about books and learning, and focuses on finding a husband. However, the domesticity that Maud Martha is forced into is ultimately unfulfilling for her, as seen through her marriage with Paul.
“Weary” by Solange
Solange’s song “Weary” articulates a desire to create space for female conceptions of agency. Featured on her 2016 album, A Seat at the Table, “Weary” contributes to the album’s discussion of black life in America. In the song, the singer looks for a sense of belonging that is free from the weariness she feels in the patriarchal society she lives within. This concept of female weariness and unfulfillment as being connected to the patriarchy can also be seen in Maud Martha’s frustration with her life with Paul. In the vignette “the young couple at home”, Maud Martha describes her life with Paul, saying: “She read Of Human Bondage. He read Sex in the Married Life. They were silent” (Brooks 68). The contrast between their texts underlines Paul’s inability to offer her a life that stimulates and excites her, further suggesting that for Maud Martha, fulfilling domestic duties and fulfilling self-interest are mutually exclusive. Additionally, Paul’s choice of reading material, and his attempt to push it onto Maud Martha (Brooks 67), gestures towards the way that marriage creates sexualized expectations of her body. As Kathrine McKittrick writes, “race/gender informs the white and patriarchal logic of visualization … the black woman is seen, rather than heard” (49). Maud Martha’s position as a black woman is connected to “historio-racial schema” (McKittrick 49), and Paul functions in the text as a reminder of the way in which society values her body and not her voice.
“Blue” by Beyoncé
The creation and preservation of life empowers Maud Martha more than anything else in the text. This is mirrored in the lyrics of Blue, which describe how the singer feels strength and empowerment in her relationship with her daughter, Blue. The clearest example of this for Maud Martha is when she is in labour. After giving birth, “a bright delight had flooded through her upon first hearing that part of Maud Martha Brown Phillips expressing itself with a voice of its own” (Brooks 99). The way Maud Martha claims her voice by screaming is an anomaly in her character, as she typically carries her discontentment with silence and passivity. As scholar Mary Helen Washington writes, Maud Martha has learned to “conceal her feelings behind a mask of gentility, to make her silent and cold” (Washington 454). This vignette occurs, significantly, in the domestic space of her bedroom rather than in the more industrial space of the hospital where they planned to have the child. Maud Martha is able to express herself and be empowered within her oppressive circumstances by having a child.
“Promises” by Jhené Aiko
Maud Martha later struggles to find her voice in her role as a mother, but is ultimately supportive of Paulette. Similarly, in “Promises”, Jhené Aiko sings about the struggles and empowerment in her experiences of motherhood. In this vignette, Santa is friendly and affectionate with the white children at the department store but remains cold and unaffectionate with Paulette. This leaves Paulette feeling rejected and makes Maud Martha angry, as “she especially regretted, called her hungriest lack- not much voice” (Brooks 176). Maud Martha is insecure about not finding her voice and has violent thoughts in reaction to this racialized exchange. Although Maud Martha acts as a good mother, speaking out for Paulette and affirming her worthiness, she is insecure about not being a good mother, similar to the singer of “Promises”. However, despite her regret, she does assert her voice to some extent. She catches Santa’s attention to speak to Paulette and delivers the largest speech of the novel to her daughter trying to explain that Santa does love her. She also hides her rage, acting “all right” so that she can support Paulette. This mirrors how the singer describes being “all right”. Perhaps her doubt has to do with the “struggles of post-World War II America to reconcile the roles of women, in particular African American women, within the public and private realms” (Frazier 134), as well as the impetus at that time to be a mother. However, being a mother empowers her to support and affirm Paulette’s worthiness.
“To Zion” by Lauryn Hill
The song “To Zion” by Lauryn Hill articulates the fulfillment the singer feels in being a mother. The reference to Zion, a hilltop in Jerusalem significant to Christianity, reinforces the triumphant tone of the song celebrating motherhood and new life. This ability to create life is presented as a powerful position that is greater than the individual and creates a new conception of self and purpose for the singer. This sentiment is echoed in Maud Martha as in one sense, the domesticity of marriage restricts her intellectual self, but in another, her role as a dutiful wife in the domestic sphere enables access to motherhood. This provides Maud Martha with another kind of fulfillment. The text leaves Maud Martha suggesting toward a second pregnancy. She says: “in the meantime, she was going to have another baby. The weather was bidding her bon voyage” (Brooks 180). The reference to the creation of life emphasizes the hopeful tone of the last vignette. It is spring and the weather bids her “bon voyage” implying that Maud Martha is embarking on a new journey. With it, new life brings the possibility of new beginnings. Lauryn Hill effectively articulates this sense of a hopeful beginning, paralleling the ending of Maud Martha.
Throughout Maud Martha, Maud Martha struggles to reconcile her individual aspirations with the options available to her as a black woman living in Chicago in the 1950s. As Maud Martha’s idealism conflicts with the reality of her role as a homemaker, she turns to nature as a means of escapism. Surrendering herself to the domestic sphere limits her ability to enrich her intellectualism, an act that is heavily influenced by systemic prejudice. However, her participation in the domestic sphere simultaneously grants her access to the agency that she obtains in motherhood. This renders the domestic sphere as a fraught and complicated space. Brooks’ reluctance to resolve these tensions presents the domestic sphere as an ambiguous place. Maud Martha, and subsequently the reader, is provided with no answers as to how to reconcile the positive and negative aspects of domestic life. In the epigraph, Brooks writes: “Maud Martha was born in 1917. She is still alive”. This rooting of Maud Martha in a specific time by listing her birth year followed immediately by the assertion that she still lives implies that the spirit and the struggles of Maud Martha are real and pervasive, continuing to exist even today. The songs selected for the playlist testify to the enduring effects of systemic racism and sexism introduced by the transatlantic slave trade (McKittrick 44).This further implies that the domestic sphere and the role of black women continues to be unresolved in contemporary society. The undercurrents of rage and hope in Maud Martha indicate the recognition that change is necessary. Outro Song: “I’m A Mighty Tight Woman” Sippie Wallace
Segments of songs used in this educational podcast include: Roberta Flack “Compared to What”; Macy Gray “Still”; Muddy Waters Cold Weather Blues and I am the Blues; Nina Simone “Little Girl Blue”; Solange “Weary” Lauryn Hill “To Zion”; Beyonce “Blue”; Jhene Aiko “Promises” and Sippie Wallace “I’m a Mighty Tight Woman”
It is from Britannica
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