During the summer, we often feel pressure to read the latest buzzy bestseller, but I am here to make the case for reading a backlist (not newly published) book: Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks, which came out in 1953 and absolutely blew me away when I read it last year. It can be finished in a day which makes it a special kind of summer read; a book you can finish on a lazy afternoon sitting inside in the AC or outside near the lake. It’s compact, made up of thirty-four vignettes, with little plot or dialogue, and it is very much a Midwestern story and a Chicago novella.
Maud Martha is about the mundane life of a young Black woman in Chicago, following her life from childhood to marriage. The Chicago/Midwest setting is apparent on every page, from the straightforwardness and contentedness of Maud Martha to the daily microaggressions of racism, hidden behind “Midwestern politeness.” One such example is the white folks at the movie theater, the World Playhouse, not directly telling Maud Martha and her husband they don’t want Black people in the theater, but not engaging with them either. They are able to watch the movie without incident and afterwards, “When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume, 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…”
Brooks’ writing is obviously lyrical—she’s a poet after all—but it’s also evocative. She conjures up the smells of Bronzeville, the dreariness of Maud Martha’s kitchenette, the simple beauty of dandelions, and the weariness that comes from daily interactions with racists and racism. Her sentences are lean—she says so much in very few words when she reflects upon her husband blatantly ignoring her at a party. At first, she’s not sure why he would be so hurtful, and then it dawns on her: “’It’s my color’ she thinks, that makes Paul mad, ’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.’”
Moments like this quickly paint pictures of complex subjects including colorism and beauty standards. Part of why the reader’s heart may ache for Maud Martha is because, as a dark-skinned Black woman, she seems very aware of how the world perceives her. She has subsequently resigned to mistreatment because of her appearance, but like many characters who are overlooked because of their perceived plainness, she becomes observant and introspective.
After an enraging, racist incident with a man dressed as Santa Claus, it’s clear that she’s also very aware that she could be angrier and louder, but it’s not her first mind. The book reads: “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.”
As a Black woman, there’s something so moving and timeless about those sentences that detail this feeling of pushing one’s anger down deeper and deeper, but not feeling good about it even though it’s likely keeping you alive. I think it’s a feeling most Black people can relate to, struggling to keep your anger in check in light of a microaggression or major act of racism that isn’t worth confronting in the moment. Maud Martha’s contemplative and thoughtful nature developed when she was a child. As I read, the chapters seemed to be symbolic of years of life. With this in mind, she may have been a toddler when she visits her dying grandmother with her family. She notices “How alone they were, how removed from this woman, this ordinary woman who had suddenly become a queen, for whom presently the most interesting door of them all would open, who, lying locked in boards with her ’hawhs’, yet towered triumphed over them, while they stood there asking the stupid questions people ask the sick, out of awe, out of half horror, half envy.”
Among the many heavy themes covered in this book, death kept reappearing and each time Brooks’ musings on death bowled me over in their simplicity and power. At one point Maud Martha offers this brutal thought: “She was afraid to suggest to him that to most people, nothing ’happens.’ That most people merely live from day to day until they die. That, after he had been dead a year, doubtless fewer than five people would think of him oftener than once a year. That there might even come a year when no one on earth would think of him at all.”
Maud Martha is a stunning novella and one of my favorite coming of age stories. The writing details a main character that is uncomplicated and unforgettable, while the book carries a wealth of topics such as racism, sexism, financial instability, marital infidelity, and dysfunctional families. Still, Maud Martha refuses to wallow in bitterness, and she finds small moments of joy and small acts of resistance that are beautiful to behold. She revels in being unremarkable while some of us will lead undistinguished lives we are not happy with. I wanted so much for her but what makes this book so moving is that she wants so very little for herself other than to be a “good Maud Martha” and cherished by those she loves. Read this when you need to be reminded that quiet novels and quiet people can often have the most impact on your life.
Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha. $18.99 (paperback). Third World Press, 1992. 180 pages.
Ariana V. is a communications professional from Chicago who currently resides in DC. This is her first story for the Weekly.