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Snapshots in a Family Album: Maud Martha, a Poet’s Narrative

Gwendolyn Brooks, Revise the Psalm Cover, cover

“It is the power of her imagination that allows her to be at once aware of her position in the world, but not complacent in accepting it.”

– Manuel Muñoz on Maud Martha

It was with great satisfaction and sighs of admiration that Quraysh Ali Lansana and I selected Muñoz’ evocative essay, “An appreciation for Gwendolyn Brooks’ Maud Martha” for inclusion in Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating the Writing of Gwendolyn Brooks.

I will openly admit that I love Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks’s only published work of fiction. I love Maud Martha Brown, the character, with her keen sense of observation borne out of self-imposed silence. I love the work’s innovative structure. And it goes without saying that I love the author, because who doesn’t love Gwendolyn Brooks? Only those who’ve never read her.

The work was first published in 1953, the same year I was born. Although I wouldn’t read it until some 25 years later, I quickly identified with the girl who Maud Martha was and the woman she became over the course of 91 pages—shy, soft spoken, somewhat ungainly, quiet and contemplative. Even her name evokes a sense of modest, restrained elegance.

I see Maud Martha as a narrative bookend to Brooks’s 1949 poetry volume, Annie Allen, which chronicles the life of a black child growing from girlhood to womanhood in 1940s Chicago. Yet despite similarities to its Pulitzer Prize-winning poetic counterpart, I don’t think the literary world knew what to make of the novella.

A blurb on the back jacket likens it to a movie popular at the time. Lilies of the Field was a filmy, insubstantial “feel good” adaptation starring Sidney Poitier as itinerant handyman to a convent of nuns. The comparison may have been meant as a compliment, but it wasn’t. It really wasn’t.

What makes Maud Martha unique is the very thing that makes it one of Brooks’s most undervalued and unappreciated works. One critic calls it a “fragmentary poetic narrative.” Yet fragmentation is the deliberate genius of its structure, those short poetic vignettes interspersed with longer narrative episodes, making up 34 chapters for each year of the protagonist’s life.

This is exactly the kind of story a poet would write. And as a poet turned fiction writer myself, I can deeply appreciate this stunning blending of genres and stylistic devices. If the novella itself represents a family album, then each chapter is a snapshot in the life of an everywoman black American heroine.

Maud Martha is not traditionally plotted and doesn’t achieve the kind of narrative arc seen in most fiction of its time. Yet I would disagree with one critic’s description of the work as nonlinear. Linearity refers to the advancing of events in chronological order, and Maud Martha certainly does that. We first meet our heroine as a diffident little girl who identifies with the “ordinary allurements” of dandelions. “It was comforting that what was common could also be a flower.”

Gwendolyn Brooks once described herself as “rather shy and inarticulate,” and so too, the young Maud Martha. She speaks little but thinks much. Hers is the rich and imaginative life of the mind. As she negotiates life passages like death, marriage and motherhood, she daydreams about escaped gorillas, the secret life of a mouse, and New York City, a place she’s never been. And what she dreams about most passionately is to “donate the world a good Maud Martha.”

Yet despite these quiet mercies and small joys, something in her inherent muteness also engenders disappointment, fleeting despair. When a neighborhood boy passes the protagonist and her sister, he gallantly offers a ride on his wagon. Maud Martha flirtatiously calls out “Hi, handsome,” to which he responds, “I didn’t mean you, old black gal…I meant Helen.”

Maud Martha discovers the price of using her voice and learns to suffer in silence. While inwardly she may seethe, self-soothe, adore, and censure, she seldom speaks up or speaks out. Even when faced with random acts of racism–a shop clerk refuses to let her try on a hat, a white saleswoman utters the “n” word to her face–she seldom confronts. She stews, she rehashes, she interrogates these incidents, but often in her mind and after the fact.

Is Maud Martha’s story a thinly veiled version of Brooks’s own? Her protagonist is born in 1917, the same year of the author’s birth. Like her protagonist, Brooks grew up in Chicago, a shy, dark skinned and brilliant young woman. Maud Martha also endured some of the same struggles her creator may have experienced: colorism (internalized racism based on complexion), marital infidelity, economic struggles, and racism.

Yet we should be careful of reading the work as autobiography, since we have two memoirs that elucidate Brooks’s life story much more fully. What Maud Martha does most eloquently is the project of bildungsroman, the chronicling of a character’s emotional maturation and coming of age. It is Maud Martha’s voluble muteness that clarifies the costs of silence, her kindness that teaches compassion.

“Eating apples after school…getting her hair curled for her first party…washing dishes by summer twilight with the back door wide open.” These discrete snapshots capture some of the happiness, heartbreak, measured disappointments, and small triumphs in the heroism of ordinary black life.

In today’s troubled and divisive political climate where issues of self-image and self-esteem, political divisiveness, racism, and other injustices still prevail, the messages of Maud Martha resonate as clearly today as they did 65 years ago.

“Maud Martha was born in 1917. She is still alive today.” —Gwendolyn Brooks
Originally Published: June 27th, 2017

Sandra Jackson-Opoku is a poet, novelist, screenwriter, and journalist. Her novels include The River Where Blood Is Born (1997), which won an American Library Association Black Caucus Literary Award, and Hot Johnny (and the Women Who Loved Him) (2001). With Quraysh Ali Lansana, she edited Revise the Psalm: Work Celebrating...