Domestic epic warfare in Maud Martha.
Further sharpening the focus on one particular narrative conflict in Maud Martha, Harry B. Shaw explores the title character's "War with Beauty," as he subtitles a landmark essay, rendering militaristic the dark-skinned black woman protagonist's fight against Eurocentric paradigms of physical appearance. Shaw's essay delineates the effects of this biased, color-conscious system on Maud's psyche, and emphasizes its role in spawning internal battles with self-hatred and self-doubt (255-56).
While I agree with Washington's and Shaw's arguments regarding the psychological battles faced by Brooks's protagonist, I also find that the conflicts and turmoil that encapsulate Maud Martha's life coalesce into a comprehensive pattern of domestic epic warfare. This domestic epic warfare extends beyond Shaw's "war on beauty" and incorporates all areas of household and familial ties. Domestic warfare precisely describes Maud Martha's struggles to obtain and maintain her home and relationships with family members as she strives to retain a sense of identity within this confining structure.
Maud Martha captures the conventional literary epic's spirit of battle by encapsulating the metaphorical representations of domestic warfare as female epic with Maud Martha as the hero of her home/land. Like with traditional epic, Maud Martha emblematizes the cultural paradigms of a critical moment in history, revealing 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. Through the course of the novel, Maud Martha fights a war against sexism, classism, and racism to establish her identity. Winning this war is of paramount importance and of epic heroic dimensions because at stake for Maud Martha, as representative woman, are home and family, as well as autonomy, creativity, and self-expression.
Particularly during the early 1950s, the time in which Maud Martha was written and set, the domestic realm was one of tension and flux as women worked to balance their roles as wives, mothers, and artists. With World Wars I and II only recently past, and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts on the horizon, (white) women workers found their roles in society changing. (1) They had entered the US workforce during the wartime era, providing the nation with a much-needed source of labor. Yet after the war, the return of their male counterparts forced working (white) women's return to the domicile and to domestic duties. The post-war decades of the 1950s and 60s also brought on the Red Scare--a crazed fear of worldwide domination by Communism. In reaction to these uncertain times, the nation placed increasing emphasis on maintaining the sanctity of the home. Elaine Tyler May reads this "containment ideology" as a defense in the wake of potential dangers of the Cold War and nuclear conflict (10-11). The US patriarchy mandated that women of all ethnic identities symbolize domesticity and concentrate their energies on the home.
To combat and counteract these scripts of domesticity, in Maud Martha Brooks encapsulates a distinctly feminine pattern of metaphoric warfare that destabilizes patriarchal and societal structures, and asserts the primacy of new visions of feminine growth and creative expression. To construct her epic of domestic warfare, Brooks employs such narrative strategies as encoded meanings within names, shifts in narrative voice, and conflations of birth and death imagery; thus, she subverts and redefines traditional definitions of domesticity, of marriage, and of motherhood. Significantly, for Brooks, these institutions become sites of both agency and complicity for women. She complicates the realm of the domestic beyond a sphere of binary and competing gender functions to critique the roles of men and women in creating and maintaining the social structures that limit female growth and to critique how race, class, and gender inform the relative perspectives of the heroine.
Notably, the tensions inherent in the domestic position are encoded within Maud Martha's name, with Maud representing the impetus towards warfare, as indicated by its Germanic derivative, meaning "powerful in battle" or "battlemaid." In contrast, the name Martha, with its Aramaic origins and meaning of "mistress" or "sorrowful," positions the protagonist within the realm of the domestic. (2) In particular, the word mistress emphasizes the female's centrifugal position as domestic head of the household. Moreover, the descriptor "sorrowful" hints at the anguish and distress that are often byproducts of US women's domestic experience. Thus, with the juxtaposition of the two names Maud and Martha, Brooks lays the foundation for the domestic epic warfare at the core of the novel.
The novel's first mention of domestic warfare occurs in relation to the home, the quintessential heroic battleground, in a scene in which, when faced with the threat of losing their house to foreclosure, Helen supports her mother's falsely optimistic suggestion that living in a flat is more advantageous to living in a house. The narrator reveals Maud Martha's contentious thoughts: "Yesterday, Maud Martha would have attacked her. Tomorrow she might. Today she said nothing" (171-72). In this scene, Maud Martha finds herself silently defending the domestic space--the family home--from her sister Helen, who had disparaged the house, saying: "They're [modern flats] much prettier than this old house" (171). While the entire family is upset at the prospect of losing their home, the members mask their feelings of anxiety by overplaying the advantages of a potential move to more modern quarters. For Maud Martha there is no dissembling in this situation. She smarts at her mother's and sister's false camouflaging of feeling, and smolders in silence. Significantly, as Maud Martha's thoughts reveal, battle is a deferred activity, either a vestige of the past or a projection of the future. This holding pattern in terms of overt war finds an outlet in guerrilla-type tactics in which the attack is not direct but covert. Instead of addressing the slight toward her home directly, Maud Martha pitches a battle by invoking thoughts about the positive qualities of the house, such as the fact that they could build a little fire in their fireplace when "the weather was just right" (172). She immediately makes a hit against her opponents, who look stricken and barely resist the temptation to cry.
The house, battle-weary yet solid, becomes the embodiment of Maud Martha's connection to her domestic identity. In the words of Mary Helen Washington, "The house, she understands, is like her" ("Plain, Black and Decently Wild" 275). The house, moreover, is a centrifugal force upon which she and her family pivot. Chapter eight of the novel, entitled "home," eloquently describes the domestic tranquility of the home: "What had been wanted was this always, this always to last, the talking softly on the porch.... Maud Martha and Helen rocked slowly in their rocking chairs, and looked at the late afternoon light on the lawn, and at the emphatic iron of the fence and at the polar tree" (170). The longing for permanency in the domestic is evidenced in this scene, which juxtaposes the natural world with physical markers of homeownership. In particular, the "emphatic iron" fence lends a proprietary air, inextricably linking the house with the family's identity.
Throughout Maud Martha, family signifies an important part of the domestic. Maud Martha constantly fights to protect her family and secure a lasting place in their hearts, as evidenced in the scene in which Maud Martha protects her brother Harry against neighborhood bullies who chase him home, menacingly waving bats and throwing stones. As a defensive counterattack, Maud Martha brandishes a chair above her head and screams at the bullies: "Y'leave my brother alone! Y'leave my brother alone!" (178). With this defense mechanism, she grants her brother enough time to reach the safety of the porch and then the front door. In this scene, Maud Martha acts as a sentinel for the house, maintaining the safety of the drawbridge from the marauding invaders, in this case, the bullies. Yet she receives little appreciation from her brother, who prefers their light-skinned sister Helen. Ironically, he holds doors open for Helen while slamming doors in the face of the sister who has acted as a buffer of safety for him. Even her father, with whom she shares an "almost desperate love" (179) for the old house, shows favoritism toward Helen. Maud Martha's anguish results in her "crying in the pantry when no one knew. The old sorrows brought there!--now dried flattened out, breaking into interesting dust at the merest look ..." (181). For Maud Martha, the house serves dual roles as the site of both her distress and her succor. Yet at the end of the chapter, the tensions of fighting for parity with her sister within the family structure spur Maud Martha to set out on a quest to obtain a home of her own through the traditional avenue of obtaining a husband.
This quest challenges the values of Eurocentric beauty. Maud Martha feels that her dark skin is a hindrance in her relationship with Paul, her beau, who demonstrates society's Eurocentric standards of beauty. She locates the attraction of Paul as a site of battle, internalizing feelings of inferiority and doubt because she possesses African features. Continually she reiterates that she is not pretty due to her phenotypically African features and that no beautiful offspring will result from the union. She views her color as a wall that has to be scaled in order for Paul to meet her on a psychological level: "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" (229). The metaphor of brown skin color as a wall heightens the immediacy of the domestic epic war to achieve fulfillment in the role of wife. Color remains an ever-present obstacle to the union.
Through a stream of consciousness-infused dialogue that places the two of them in oppositional positions as male and female, Maud Martha rationalizes that Paul will try to escape this union, but she imagines telling him: "your manhood will not let you concede defeat, and before you know it, you have let them steal you, put an end, perhaps to your career" (196-97). Herein Maud Martha assigns Paul the role of an object of conquest, almost against his will, as a result of his masculine pride. She predicates his eventual defeat against feminine wiles with, "He will fight, of course" (196), predicting a female victory: "But in the end I'll hook him, even while he's wondering how this marriage will cramp him or pinch at him" (197).
Brooks inscribes Maud Martha's projections onto Paul her own thoughts about being "hooked" or circumscribed within marriage and by ritual of being obliged to capture a man. Hence, the actual victimization and role of the vanquished are subconsciously reversed. In particular, the clause "before you know it, you have let them steal you, put an end, perhaps to your career" (197) speaks of Maud Martha's own hesitation regarding marriage and the stymieing effect it may have. Marriage usually does not signify a state that interrupts or discontinues the career of a man, but for a woman in the 1940s and 1950s, the union typically mandated a termination of any aspirations towards professional development; indeed, marriage was presumed to signify womanly fulfillment. Not surprisingly, marriage arouses conflicting desires within Maud Martha. On the one hand, she wants to earn the sobriquet of the "good Maud Martha" (164) and to become the domesticated wife extraordinaire, excelling at cleaning, ironing, keeping house, all of the domestic arts. She imagines herself a self-sacrificing martyr, one of a breed of pioneer women "who would toil eminently, to improve the lot of their men. Women who cooked. She thought of herself, dying for her man. It was a beautiful thought" (201). Momentarily, Maud is tempted by the fantasy of fulfilling a patriarchal script, the role of idealized womanhood. Yet, the desire to develop an autonomous self also tugs at her subconscious, such that she eventually determines that, in spite of the obligations attached to the domestic role, "She was going to keep herself to herself" (163).
Reading becomes one outlet for self-expression for Maud Martha throughout the novel, for it enables her to position herself within a global sphere and to have access to information outside of the traditional domestic sphere. Interestingly, early in the novel, catching a man and reading a book are set up as oppositional, with Helen's warning: "'You'll never get a boyfriend ... if you don't stop reading' " (181). Reading may cost her a major battle--the victory of getting a man--but would prevent the loss of an even greater war that is the quest for an authentic, liberated self and the articulation of that self. Despite her sister's warning, Maud Martha continues to pore over the written word, losing herself among books, newspapers, and magazines while dreaming of a better life. The experience of reading expresses a longing for a broadened experience: "Her whole body became a hunger, she would pore over these pages" (190), connecting her to a world far removed from her own reality. The act of reading encourages her to establish clear lines of demarcation that mark her personal space apart from the obligations to the world at large, including the domestic sphere: "What she wanted to dream, and dreamed, was her own affair" (193).
Even after she is married, books still serve as sites of self-definition and sources of rebellion against gendered subjugation. The book Maud Martha reads, Of Human Bondage, becomes an emblem of her feeling of entrapment in her marriage. When her husband tries to initiate sex, Maud Martha will not surrender her autonomy and control of her body. Reading has opened another avenue of possibility for this epic heroine, possibilities that she will not surrender herself without a fight. While she placates her husband by agreeing to fulfill the domestic role the patriarchy has scripted for her, demurely making sandwiches and cocoa, she will not give up the book in order to relent to his sexual advances. She subverts the domestic role by enacting her own version of the role of ideal wife--cooking as a decoy to retain her sense of self while superficially upholding the domestic position. (3)
After she and her husband move into a small kitchenette apartment, Maud Martha begins a war to make the best of her situation, attempting to refurbish the cramped apartment. All efforts to change her environment frustrate her. First, she cannot refurbish the apartment because the owner will not allow the furniture to be moved around or changed due to the transient nature of most tenants. In addition, despite her most valiant efforts, with American Family soap and Lysol as her arsenal of weapons, she cannot keep the roaches at bay from her apartment. Thus, she finds herself stymied and unable to find fulfillment in the domestic role, and as the narrator tells us, soon has "lost interest in the place" (204).
Her frustrations and feelings of entrapment move to center stage in the chapter titled "Maud Martha spares the mouse," in which she empathizes with the plight of the trapped mouse. The narrator describes the captured rodent: "Its bright black eyes contained no appeal--the little creature seemed to understand that there was no hope of mercy from the eternal enemy, no hope of reprieve or postponement--but a fine small dignity" (212). As Malin Walther suggests, Brooks provides an alternative domestic aesthetic that finds the black female identifying with the mouse, not in opposition to it, as in her predecessor Richard Wright's Native Son, published 14 years earlier, but rather seeing commonality in the pursuit of existential survival. Maud Martha allows the rodent to escape its trap. Through this act she achieves a catharsis and achievement previously denied to her (143): "A life had blundered its way into her power and it had been hers to preserve or destroy. She had not destroyed. In the center of that simple restraint was--creation" (212-13). Saving the mouse asserts her will and her ability to affect the external world. In this domestic instance Maud Martha feels that she has achieved the goal of "new cleanness" that has previously eluded her (212).
Having a baby also connects Maud to the acts of creation and self-empowerment. With her first mention of pregnancy in the chapter "if you're light and have long hair," she ushers in a new world order, one in which Paul will, as she terms it, "humor" (223) her and adapt himself to her needs and desires. This agency is a marked change from Maud's earlier daydreams of selflessly sacrificing her personal needs in favor of those of her husband. She now determines that she will let nothing encroach upon her domestic space, particularly not another woman. Viewing the light-skinned woman with whom Paul dances at the Foxy Cats Dawn Ball as a sexual threat to her own domestic conquest, she ruminates: "'I could,' considered Maud Martha, 'go over there and scratch her upsweep down. I could scream. 'Listen,' I could scream, 'I'm making a baby for this man and I mean to do it in peace'" (230). Maud considers and then rejects the idea of violence against another woman because she considers that the power to create life inextricably unites them. It is as if reproduction makes a truce between the two women in metaphoric combat over one man, the father of one woman's child. Being pregnant also seems to elevate and empower Maud in her domestic position as wife and mother-to-be. It is when she delivers the baby that she asserts her voice loudly, demanding attention and respect for her wishes from both her husband and her mother. She commandeers her husband to remain with her during labor, and demands that her mother accede the stage, telling her: "Listen. If you're going to make a fuss, go on out. I'm having enough trouble without you making a fuss over everything" (237). Having a baby is shown as a battle that requires all of the skill and maneuvering of the female. Other battles become secondary to the creation of life.
As Maud Martha matures, she increasingly reveals herself to be a master strategist in terms of deciding when to strike out against threats to her domestic and existential self. When a white cosmetics woman uses the word "nigger" disparagingly in the black-owned beauty shop she frequents, Maud Martha opines: "I'm too relaxed to fight today. Sometimes fighting is interesting. Today, it would have been just plain old ugly duty" (282). As a commanding general would, Maud Martha weighs the benefits and risks involved in asserting her voice and selectively decides the battles she will enter. During a later scene, on the contrary, she decides to mount an attack against a white saleswoman, who, in efforts to persuade her to purchase a becoming hat, extols the virtues of the hat but refuses to acknowledge Maud Martha's beauty. Maud Martha's refusal to purchase the millinery concoction, even at a substantially discounted price, reaffirms her sense of self.
Later in the novel, Maud Martha locates war as a panacea for the discontent that has infiltrated her marriage. She thinks of her husband: "Do you want to get into the war?" (288). She projects the role of combatant on him: "She knew that he believed he had been born to invade, to confront, to inspire like the flapping of flags, to panic people" (289, my emphasis). Brooks thus depicts a woman whose creative opportunities have been stifled in marriage, and examines female fears of the permanency with which women have conventionally been denied the chance to develop outside of the realm of the domestic as a creator or artist.
Maud Martha shows her ability to cope with the challenges of the domestic scene in the chapter "brotherly love," which opens, "Maud Martha was fighting with a chicken" (293), the embodiment of all of the frustrations and difficulties of domestic conflict. Despite her distaste for the chore, she must clean and gut the chicken for dinner, just as despite her disappointment with her marriage, she has no apparent choice but to continue to fulfill her obligations as wife and mother. In this scene, Maud Martha desperately works to salvage as much as possible out of something that has failed to meet her own expectations.
The encounter with the chicken echoes Maud Martha's earlier encounter with the mouse. Just as she existentially anthropomorphizes the mouse and empathizes with its maternal responsibilities, she ruminates on the question of the commonalties and differences between a dead chicken and a dead man, thus investing a sort of shared humanity between the two: "And yet the chicken was a sort of person, a respectable individual, with its own kind of dignity. The difference was the knowing" (295). Brooks suggests that human treatment of creatures depends on our ability to relate to their experiences. Without a common ground, there is a rupture in the cosmic scheme binding all living things, one that makes violence permissible. She thinks: "What is unreal to you, you could deal with violently. If chickens were ever to be safe, people would have to live with them, and know them, see them loving their children, finishing the evening meal, arranging jealousy" (295). We can substitute the disenfranchised woman (or even minority group), thus establishing that only when men can empathize with the plight of women will they discontinue the destruction of women's existential selves as perpetuated through the domestication of females.
It is in the vignette "at the Burns-Coopers'" that Maud Martha must battle the domestic script on a front that she has never dealt with previously: as a hired domestic in another woman's home. Particularly for the black woman of the 1940s and 1950s, the role of domestic was one filled with conflicting meaning. Discrimination in hiring made domestic work as maids, nurses, and cooks one of few avenues available for black women seeking employment. The conditions were poor and exploitive: black domestic workers were customarily paid low wages for long hours. (4) Black women's labor was often bartered on street corners, reminiscent of the slave auctions of the nineteenth century and earlier. Thus the domestic sphere, on one level, represented a dehumanizing experience for black women who were often mistreated. But we might argue that work done at the black women's home for loved ones instilled a sense of dignity and purpose. (5)
Economic difficulties force Maud Martha to accept a job as maid temporarily. The litany of domestic tasks that Mrs. Burns-Cooper assigns to Maud Martha reinforces the constricting nature of such tasks. Martha tries to shift the power on her job by focusing upon a subject of the kitchen that employer and employee have in common as women in a patriarchal society. Ever the upper class matron, however, Mrs. Burns-Cooper responds to Maud Martha's observation that the kitchen is large with the remark, "'I'll bet ... you're comparing it to your own kitchen'" (302). Thus the kitchen becomes a space of demarcation, a material expression of the disparity between the lifestyles of Maud Martha and her wealthy employer. Moreover, it is at the site of the kitchen that the battle of domestic warfare comes to a head. Battles of kitchens become a synecdoche of the battles of and for lands and worlds. Mrs. Burns-Cooper joins Maud Martha in the kitchen, regaling her with tales of expensive material possessions and trips abroad, yet all the while Maud Martha plots her battle plans: "Shall I mention my own social triumphs, my own education, my travels to Gary and Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio? Shall I mention my collection of fancy pink satin bras?" (303) Maud Martha decides against an immediate attack, and waits in silence to strike. Mrs. Burns-Cooper, spurred by her mother-in-law, escalates the attack by criticizing Maud Martha's potato parings as too thick. The chastisement of the two women prompts Martha to empathy for her husband's position in the labor force: "But for the first time, she understood what Paul endured daily" (304). For a moment, despite the obviously imperative differences in gender, they emerge as the twin epic heroes on the same side, fighting the same war against a common foe. She recognizes the common struggle to define one's role through the eyes of others. This foray into domestic warfare outside her own home results in the deconstruction of the binary between the feminized domestic sphere and the male-dominated workforce. The same battles for parity in the face of class and racial prejudices form common ground for the husband and wife.
After the difficult experience with Mrs. Burns-Cooper, Maud Martha resolves to quit this battlefield as a tactical counterattack against her patronizing employer. She contemplates Mrs. Burns-Cooper's probable reaction to her decision, "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?" (305). This passage marks one of Maud Martha's strongest stances against oppression. By writing her own domestic script, she reinforces a shared humanity that crosses racial and class boundaries. Maud Martha reflects: "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" (305).
Throughout the novel, Maud Martha finds it necessary to defend her domestic position, striking the enemy swiftly and decisively. When the Santa slights her daughter Paulette as she tries to tell Santa what she wants for Christmas, Martha asserts her voice and forces Santa to hear her daughter's request. In the past, Maud Martha has selectively avoided battles that she felt she could not win, but with her daughter's happiness at stake, she does not hesitate to use all the weapons at her disposal to bring comfort to her offspring. She fields Paulette's questions regarding Santa's cold treatment, downplaying the slight and assuring the child that Santa's affection will be evidenced through the fulfillment of her toy list on Christmas day. She tries to spare her child from the knowledge that race prejudice colored the Santa's treatment. Internally, she expresses her ire, contrasting her feelings of anger with the calm composure of her sister Helen: "Helen, she thought, would not have twitched, back there. Would not have yearned to jerk trimming scissors from the purse and jab jab jab that evading eye. Would have gathered her fires, patted them, rolled them, and blown on them" (317). Notably, in this metaphoric battle against a foe who threatens her child's happiness, Maud Martha envisions employing trimming scissors, symbolic of domesticity and home.
The novel concludes with an armistice and an end to war. Maud Martha proclaims: "There was Peace, and her brother Harry was back from the wars, and well" (319). On the surface, this news marks the end of World War II and hints at a return to domestic normativity. And the return of the brother symbolically represents the infusion of the "brotherly love" mentioned in chapter 28 as the necessary ingredient for an end to violence against creatures, and by extension, an end to gender and race binaries that have been exacerbated by a lack of "knowing" between groups. Once more she evokes the same war imagery of mangled men, "They 'marched,' they battled behind her brain--the men who had drunk beer with the best of them, the men with two arms off and two legs off, the men with parts of faces. Then her guts divided, then her eyes swam under frank mist" (320-21). Ever present in Maud Martha's mind is the memory of the fellow soldiers who have survived, albeit not unscathed, a hard fought battle--just as she has. However varied women and men may be, they all know hell, and they quest for return. Out of this battleground, strewn with vestiges of destruction, comes hope--hope for the future and the return of love among family and friends. Thus, Maud Martha, the "mistress of battle," stands as a testament of domestic survival, one living to fight another battle in her position as shield bearer for the next generation of women and family.
Almquist, Elizabeth McTaggart. Minorities, Gender, and Work. Lexington, MA: DC Heath, 1978. Brooks, Gwendolyn. Blacks. Chicago: Third World P, 1987.
--. Maud Martha. 1953. Chicago: Third World P, 1992.
Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.
Honey, Maureen, ed. Bitter Fruit: African American Women in World War II. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1999.
Katzman, David. Seven Days a Week: Women and Domestic Service in Industrializing America. New York: Oxford UP, 1978.
Kolatch, Alfred J. The New Name Dictionary: Modern English and Hebrew Names. New York: Jonathan David P, 1989.
Lerner, Gerda. Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. New York: Pantheon, 1972.
May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic, 1988.
McDougald, Elise Johnson. "The Task of Negro Womanhood." 1925. The New Negro: An Interpretation. Ed. Alain Locke. New York: Arno, 1968. 369-82.
Schweik, Susan. A Gulf So Deeply Cut: American Women Poets and the Second World War. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1991. 116.
Shaw, Harry B. "The War with Beauty." A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Eds. Maria Mootry and Gary Smith. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987. 254-70.
Walther, Malin. "Re-Wrighting Native: Gwendolyn Brooks's Domestic Aesthetic in Maud Martha." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 13.1 (1994): 143-45.
Washington, Mary Helen. "Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha." The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development. Eds. Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1983. 270-86.
--. "'Taming All that Anger Down': Rage and Silence in Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha." Massachusetts Review 24.2 (1983): 453-66.
Winslow, Henry F. "Soft Mediations." 1953. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation. Ed. Stephen Caldwell Wright. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2001. 16.
Zafar, Rafia. "The Signifying Dish: Autobiography and History in Two Black Women's Cookbooks." Feminist Studies 25 (1999): 449-69.
(1.) Historically, black women had been (involuntary) workers since entering the New World, and oftentimes because of the financial needs of their families, many black women continued to work outside of the home long after the end of slavery, most often in the capacity of domestic workers. World War II presented new opportunities (although still limited by discriminatory hiring practices) for black women to obtain blue collar and white collar jobs. Brooks remarks the effect of World War II on the changing dynamics of the domestic realm for black women in a March 1951 Negro Digest article entitled "Why Negro Women Leave Home": "'Many a woman who had never worked before went to work during the last war. She will never forget the good taste of financial independence. For the first time, perhaps, she was able to buy a pair of stockings without anticipating her husband's curses ... without risking a hysterically shouted inquiry.... She could buy their child a new overcoat without planning an elaborate strategic plan, or undergoing the smoke and fire of a semi-revolution.... She felt clean, straight, tall, and as if she were part of the world'" (qtd. in Schweik). For more information on African American women and World War II, see Honey.
(2.) Name etymologies are available in many reference guides. I used Kolatch's.
(3.) Rafia Zafar's article "The Signifying Dish: Autobiography and History in Two Black Women's Cookbooks" addresses the issue of agency for black women as they worked to establish a sense of comfort and ownership in the domestic sphere, despite the sometimes problematic and complex history of black women and cooking both within their own homes and in domestic service to white employers.
(4.) For more on the history of black women and domestic labor, see Almquist, Katzman, and Lerner.
(5.) Trudier Harris discusses the psychological struggle for a sense of comfort and dignity that plagues black women domestic workers as they move between their own homes and kitchens and the kitchens and homes of white women employers. See her From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature.
Valerie Frazier is Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston, Charleston, SC, where she researches and teaches African American literature, women's literature, and multicultural literature. She is currently working on a book on the critical reception of Gwendolyn Brooks.
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|Title Annotation:||Maud Martha Brown|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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