Maud Martha Brown is the protagonist of Gwendolyn Brooks's first novel, Maud Martha (1953). Set in the 1930s and 1940s, the novel treats the impact of the era on a group of people, but most especially on Maud Martha herself. Through a series of vignettes, the reader follows an impressionistic rendering of Maud's ordinary life from childhood through adolescence to womanhood. The novel runs counter to the historic black female character in fiction who is usually blessed or cursed (depending upon one's point of view) with a series of tragic incidents that render her life remarkable. Maud Martha is so ordinary, having ordinary problems, leading a life that is not beset by periods of great highs or impenetrable lows, that she is almost forgettable if one is accustomed either to the fictional black mammy or the tragic mulatto. Or, for those who are accustomed to some overpowering black woman in fiction or to one who is so pitiful as she suffers in silence or whimpers when no one is around to hear her, Maud Martha seems a fictional aberration. Certainly she seems different from many of the popular fictional female characters.
A dominant concern of the narrative is an examination of the effect of color upon characters. Maud Martha is from the days before the “black-is-beautiful” movement of the 1960s, and within the context of this brief, almost quiet, piece of fiction, Brooks comes to grips with issues of color. Through much of the story, the character thinks she is “ugly” because she does not fit a standard accepted by both black and white communities. Her dark skin becomes a defining characteristic for her. She realizes that Helen, her sister who “is beautiful,” seems to get more attention. Maud feels inferior to Russell, her first boyfriend, and finally marries Paul Phillips who is as ordinary as Maud. When Paulette (their daughter) is born, Maud is determined to protect her from the hostile world; but even she cannot shield the child from a white Santa Claus who does not feel like petting a black child. Yet, in the midst of her struggles, she demonstrates an ability to hold on to her sense of dignity and exhibits her method of achieving self-esteem through what would be insignificant incidents to most people.
Like Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville (1945), the setting is important in Maud Martha (1953). There are the inevitable kitchenette buildings, corner taverns, vacant lots, and crowded streets as well as beauty parlors that are the social centers of the daylight hours and pitiful nightclubs that attempt to provide a night of forgetfulness. Then there are quick glimpses of “white” Chicago. There is a downtown theater and the University of Chicago that abuts the Black Belt but that is as much foreign territory as downtown. Outside of the South Side, Chicago seems almost like a foreign land that one visits as a tourist but not as a resident of the city. By including these contrasts, Brooks gives a sense of the racial polarization in America's major cities, a separation that was very much a part of the era about which she writes. Yet, urban though this novel is, there is a general sense of quiet reflection that seems to prevail in this world. The cacophony of the city does not exist.