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Female and Male and Black

Growing Up Black and Female, Black and Male in Chicago in Gwendolyn Brook's Maud Martha and Ron Fair's Hog Butcher

Maria K. Mootry,
Historical Research and Narrative

Chicago has been a source in American literature of many profound and eloquent explorations of young people in transition, of coming of age in particular eras and with the dangers of the street. In their writings, Gwendolyn Brooks and Ronald Fair join the company of such eminent novelists as Upton Sinclair, James Farrell, Nelson Algren, and Saul Bellow who deal with the transitions of youths to adults. Brooks and Fair add their unique voices with vivid characters who pursue their dreams in the homes and streets of black Chicago. We see the characters who perhaps awkwardly but earnestly struggle in a range of settings involving Chicago's black lower-middle class, middle-class, and upper-middle class. The major theme in these works is the universal one of the individual and society. On Chicago's South Side in housing projects, bungalows, department stores, nightclubs, and on college campuses, we see the individual working with or against society; we see family unity and family conflicts; we see community togetherness and community conflicts. Most of all we read about struggles of an individual for group identity and dignity and for self-fulfillment. We see the individual learning uncomfortable truths about himself or herself. It is called growing up.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks
by John J. Crisp, Jr.

Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha

We know Gwendolyn Brooks, of course, primarily as Illinois' Poet Laureate. Her brilliant novel, Maud Martha (originally published in 1953; reprinted in 1993), however, is a small jewel, filled with finely polished episodes telling the story of a young black girl growing up in the late 1920s through the 1940s in Chicago. A marvelous black bildungsroman (story of a young person who grows into maturity), this novel features its heroine, Maud Martha Brown, as a plain, black girl acutely aware of how others feel about her. This is neither the romantic racialism of the Harlem Renaissance nor the "Black is Beautiful" mode of the 1960s Black Arts Movement, but rather a novel of psychological realism that veers toward gentle satire and understated humor that demythologizes, or exposes, many comforting myths about race, class, and gender.

"I like to vivify the commonplace," Gwendolyn Brooks once explained to an interviewer. Much of the action in Maud Martha lies in the description of Maud's thoughts by a sympathetic third-person narrator. We learn in the novel's opening chapter how Maud cherishes plain things such as the dandelions in her parent's backyard and how she is painfully aware that it is hard for others to have the same aesthetic appreciation of the "commonplace." The everyday events that make up Maud's story illustrate Brooks's theory that art can and should focus on the ordinary. Maud Martha reminds us that the sweeping canvas of social movements-the Depression, World War II, and racial injustice-must be balanced with attention to the individual who is seeking to make sense of an often baffling


world. How do you cope, for instance, with the fact that your own family prefers your lighter skinned sister, Helen, while you are kindlier, have nice hair, and are smarter?

Charcoal Drawing of Maud Martha

How painful, the narrator shows us, to love your father so deeply yet to hear him openly express, along with your mother and brother, preference for a sister who, out of a need for security, follows her mother's advice and marries a much older man, and the family doctor, at that!

Meanwhile, others do not overlook Maud. A series of comic visits from well-meaning beaus illustrate various aspects of Chicago life. The sardonic visit by a young white student is one example. He is determined to use Maud as proof of his liberal views, while Maud, cleverly aware of this, plays the game, but only up to a point. Brooks's narrator shows how, ironically Maud begins to see her surroundings with the viewpoint of her visitor: her beloved home suddenly seems shabby when graced by the presence of one who is "being so good." She experiences in herself some of the very superficiality against which she struggles in others to come of age as a black woman and person of talent.

Maud's bookish, daydreamy childhood is spent in the safe shelter provided by her dad, a janitor who manages to buy his modest home, although in one bittersweet chapter they come close to losing it. Approaching womanhood, Maud finds herself drawn to



Paul Phillips, a man with lighter skin than hers, and even as she understands his "prejudice" against her, she understands that he is attracted to her "goodness." Paul and Maud set up housekeeping in a drab, crowded kitchenette building, fantasizing that Ebony will drop in to photograph their chicly decorated apartment. Reality soon sets in, but at least Maud has a home of her own where she can make her wonderful cocoa when her critical mom comes to visit.

Maud, in a word, grabs her dignity and self-respect in little increments. In the process we see the comic snobbery of her small-minded mother, the elitist pretensions of her friends, the indifference of her easily-made-happy husband—all of whom may be wiser than Maud gives them credit for! The novel is a mini-picaresque, showing Maud in different settings that reveal the variety of Chicago locations: Maud and her husband downtown at a movie theater where they are just barely tolerated; Maud and a friend who "bump" into one another on the University of Chicago campus, and Maude lunching with a white couple, with Maud all the while acutely aware of how her "friend" is itching to "dump" her because she does not meet his intellectual pretensions; Maud at the beauty parlor, where a white saleswoman lets slip a nasty racial epithet, and given the racial etiquette of the 1950s is not "called on it." At the kitchenette apartment when Maud gives birth to her daughter, she is visited by neighbors she had taken for granted in her own somewhat smug stuck- up attitude. "People can be kind," she decides. Giving birth and hearing her baby cry gives Maud a sense of power, agency, and voice.

Maud Martha is essentially a comedy in the literary sense. Unlike tragedy, which culminates in disaster, it assures us that life will go on. At one point, Maud herself reflects that, in fact, life offers few real tragedies. Her marriage, sinking into humdrum everydayness, is not what she thought it would be. No one from Ebony will ever rush over to photograph their apartment; her husband, Paul, will never share her enthusiasm for great literature (she reads Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage at bedtime, a humorous commentary on her own sense of being suffocated). But life will go on. Bound by social mores that require marriage before sex, by a sexist double-standard that lets her husband flirt with many women while she primly discourages unwanted attentions, by racism that presents her with domestic servanthood as the only job opportunity, Maud bravely fights her little "wars," grappling with what growing up black and female on Chicago's South Side means, finding out about life beyond the shelter of her parent's reliable rituals.

City scene

As psychological realism, Maud Martha neatly illustrates one psychologist's famous "hierarchy of needs." These five needs are imaged as a pyramid: 1) life's basics: food, clothing, and shelter; 2) safety and security; 3) affection; 4) status; and 5) at the pyramid's apex, the need for self-definition and self-fulfillment. In Maud's childhood her basic needs are met, though threatened when the family almost loses their house. Her need for safety and security also are threatened when she fears her parents will split up, and she has a nightmare about a caged beast. Maud's need for affection and status are met in part by her family, but she feels a lack, knowing that she is not "cherished" as much as her sister. Maud's quest for knowledge is seen in her bookishness, even in her magazine reading which tells her about the faraway cities like New York and a more glamorous way of life. In all of these cases, we are presented with vacillations between opposites: some stability, some threat, some reliability, some delusion. Maud's ideas about New York City, for instance, give her knowledge that is dangerous, because it is the source of many fantasies. Compared with the problems we will find in Ron Fair's novel, you may ask if Maud ever really defines herself. Yet building her family gives her a sense of well-being. In the 1950s a woman's life was supposed to center on being a good wife and mother.

Maud Martha also dramatizes black sociologist W. E. B. DuBois's concept of "double consciousness"—the idea that all blacks are aware that while they are Americans, because of race they are perceived as different and must live with the consciousness of this difference. Maud Martha, however, insists on the Americanness of black America. In it, black life is not always driven by race problems, and Maud's joy in simply being alive transcends definitions others might try to impose on her.


Ronald L. Fair's Hog Butcher - 1966

Ronald L. Fair's Hog Butcher

A former hospital corpsman in the United States Navy and court reporter, Ronald L. Fair was born in Chicago, Illinois, on October 27,1932. He attended Chicago public schools and a business school. While Brooks's story of Maud Martha reflects the "quiet" period immediately following World War II and preceding the civil rights movement and deals with personal development according to an internal, personal agenda, Fair's novels deal with the turbulent 1960s when coming of age was conditioned greatly by events beyond an individual's control. Fair's work could be usefully compared to Brooks's novel for its emphasis on a different gender and time. While Brooks's novel is for a more mature audience, high school age and older, Fair writes for the younger audience.

Of Fair's several novels, his second, Hog Butcher (I966), is concentrated on here because it best elucidates the problems of growing up black and male in 1960s' Chicago in comparison to Maud Martha's growing up black and female in 1950s' Chicago. In Fair's novel, ten-year-old Wilford Robinson and his pal, Earl of Chicago, witness the accidental shooting of their friend, Cornbread, an eighteen-year-old high school basketball star, by two policemen—one black and one white. The neighborhood, incensed, erupts into a small riot, beating the policemen. The police prepare a story for the inquest to whitewash the incident and degrade Cornbread. Since the two boys are key witnesses, Wilford and his family are pressured to make Wilford change his testimony. The emphasis on "the street" in 1960s culture contrasts with Brooks's domestic drama. Fair's dramatic plot offers another window to the problems of growing up black in Chicago: the quest for food, clothing, shelter, safety, security, affection, knowledge, self-realization, and self-fulfillment.

A comparison and contrast of Maud Martha with Hog Butcher can usefully structure reflection about them. The central figures of each novel are young, they live in families, and the setting for their lives is "the street." Yet the nature of their responses to these shared traits is different because their setting—the 1950s for Maud and the 1960s for Wilford—are very different. As important to their response is that one is female and the other is male.

Other Fair novels of potential interest in this comparison and contrast could include Many Thousand Gone, an American Fable (1965) set in Mississippi, the place many African-American Chicagoans called "down-home," having migrated from there to Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s. World of Nothing (1970) contains two novellas, Jerome and World of Nothing. Jerome is the "love-child" of Father Jennings, who plots to have him put away because he seems to accuse and unsettle him. World of Nothing, told in first-person narrative, shows the narrator and his friend, Top, living from one moment to the next in the Chicago ghetto. We Can't Breathe (1971) is the story of Ernie Johnson growing up in the slums of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. Ernie and his friends experience the destructive forces of white society. After serving as the leader of a street gang, he grows into an awareness of his surroundings and their effect, and "rescues himself," becoming a writer.

The city, those who survive in it, those who go down, and those who conquer or transcend it, is the theme of many Illinois African-American fictionists. Their comparison with other great fiction writers of Chicago permits insight through the texture of personal African-American experience in that city.

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