That No Performance May Be Plain or Vain: Self as Art in Gwendolyn Brooks' Bronzeville
by Z. Michael Jack
If a single issue could be said to dominate Gwendolyn Brooks' early work it would be the importance of beauty, of artistic expression, to everyday life. Broadly stated, the question occupying A Street in Bronzeville is, 'how important is the outside to the inside?' To what extent do we, as a society, or in particular the residents of Bronzeville, like what they see when they look in the mirror?
In most cases, Brooks' speakers are frustrated in their attempt to live up to their, or the dominant culture's, concept of attractiveness. Whatever the outcome of their search, however, their quest for beauty remains beautiful in and of itself. Their gesture, in the most fundamental sense, is to make themselves into art, conceiving an improvement in their personal aesthetic as a contribution to the betterment of a collective.
Critic R. Baxter Miller has argued that Satin Smith, the protagionist of Brooks' "The Sunday of Satin-Legs Smith" is "socially blind" and that his flair "conceals his sordid environment" (Miller 106). Miller is mistaken: It is the external environment that conspires to subdue Satin Smith's joie de vivre , making self-glorification his only recourse. Miller argues further that, after first admiring Smith, the reader becomes increasingly distant from him as his character develops. Evidence supports the contrary: "Sundays" evolves and self-contextualizes, Smith's spirit and resiliency make him more, rather than less, beautiful.
The narrator in "Sundays" asks explicity that the reader/critic understand "His heritage of cabbage and pigtails, / old intimacy with alleys, garbage pails . . ." (Blacks 42). Initially, it would seem unfair to context Smith socially and historically‹to do so, it seems, would be to reduce his singular flamboyance. Brooks has this to say about her man's origins:
"You probably don't remember the zoot-suiters; they were still around in the early forties. They were not only black men but Puerto Ricans, too, who would wear these suits with the wide shoulders, and their pants did balloon out and then come down to tapering ends, and they wore chains‹perhaps you've seen them in the movies. That's the kind of person I was writing about in "The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith." (Report from Part One 155).
Clearly, Brooks intended Smith as a type‹a zoot-suiter, a hep cat, in Harlem fashion. Though we are not given a specific setting for "Sundays," Satin Smith clearly locates himself within the hep cat tradition. Though he is every bit an individual, Smith is also, in many respects, a product of his world. Similarly, everything about Black Renaissance Harlem, for the outsider, was difficult to comprehend, and strangely attractive. Satin dresses in "wonder-suits in yellow and wine, / sarcastic green and zebra-stripped cobalt / . . . with shoulder padding that is wide / And cocky and determined as his pride; / Ballooning pants that taper off to ends . . ." (Blacks 43). Though Smith does not speak in the poem, we can presume, in keeping with his hep cat stripes, he would jive if he did. Jive was a means of selection and a method of familiarization. The outsider was left no recourse but to try to approach the syntax on an analytical level. The following is an excerpt from an issue of Esquire magazine dated 1944:
"Jive has etymology, formal rules, a constantly expanding vocabulary currently estimated at over a thousand words and an infinite number of phrase combinations. . . you can't understand the idiom unless you understand the people who use it. Jive . . . is the Negro's defense mechanism." (qtd. in Anderson 316)
Among the whites who mastered Harlem jive was the jazz clarinetist/saxophonist Milt Mezzrow. In fact, Mezzrow became so fully assimilated into the hep culture that "Mezz" entered into the jitterbug vernacular to mean "anything supreme, genuine" (Anderson 316). Mezzrow wrote the following explanation of hep cat lingo:
"This jive is a private affair, a secret inner-circle code cooked up partly to mystify the outsiders, while it brings those in the know closer together, because they alone have the key to the puzzle. The hipster's lingo is a private kind of folk poetry, meant for the ears of brethren alone." (qtd. in Anderson 317)
Satin-Legs Smith's Sunday morning stroll, taken in its cultural context, is far from unprecedented and, therefore, less than farcical, as some critics would have it. The Sunday stroll was a Harlem ritual. Black magazines like The Age documented the Sunday tradition where "the creme de la creme" mingled with the "has-beens" and the "would-bes" (Anderson 322). It is difficult to know exactly how to categorize Smith, but we may judge from his choice of prostitutes and dining locations that he is closest to a 'would-be,' what Harlemites would call a "striver" (339).
The Sunday stroll became an unquestioned tradition, and one did not have to look far to find its practical benefits. Smith's mission must have been to socialize, to fraternize, to strut his stuff. It was the relaxed, neighborly quality of the stroll that mattered most (Anderson 322). James Wendell Johnson detailed the custom in the following manner:
"One puts on one's best clothesand fares forth to pass the time pleasantly with friends and acquaintances and, most important of all, the strangers he is sure of meeting. One saunters along, he hails this one, exchanges a word or two with that one, stops for a short chat with the other one . . . . He passes on and arrives in front of one of the theatres, studies the bill for a while, undecided about going in. He finally moves on a few steps farther and joins another group and is introduced to two or three pretty girls who have just come to Harlem, perhaps only for a visit; and finds reason to be glad that he postponed going into the theatre. The hours of a summer evening run by rapidly. This is not simply going out for a walk; it is like going out for an adventure." (qtd. in Anderson 322)
Johnson's description captures the flavor of the event, but quite possibly mystifies it at the same time. The point of the exercise, as it is on Sundays everywhere in the Christian world, is to look well before the Maker, whether it be Jesus Christ or Joe of the poem's Joe's Eats. The instinct to beautify, to make oneself a moving, breathing piece of art.
"The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith" is all about the dignity of its title character. Smith feels good about himself. He is his own man, at least, as he fits into the legions of hipsters. He is not a yes-man; he is not a white-worshipper; he is proud of his race, as his showboating demonstrates. Critics who believe that Brooks is using her narrator to ridicule Satin-Legs Smith are misguided. Those who see in the poem the utter condemnation of Western culture are given to exaggeration. "Sundays" does not ask us to make judgments of relative cultural worth; it asks us simply to be aware that we, as readers, are making judgments continuously, often unaware, and often misinformed.
What is there not to like about Smith? Granted, he entertains prostitutes. In fact, a less-advertised function of the Sunday morning stroll was to do some 'window shopping,' as it were. Men and women, zoot-suiters and whores, took to the streets to see and be seen. Prostitution in 'Negro Bohemia,' as Harlem was sometimes called, was so pronounced that it would not be unusual to see prostitutes standing across the street looking for new clients when Sunday services let out (Anderson 20). Ministers, whose congregations were located in "the most notorious red-light district in New York City" (20), would have to pick their way through hordes of "unrepentant sinners" on their way home. It was principally the upper-class Harlemites living up on Sugar Hill, those whose habits were most white, who roundly condemned the habits that typified Satin Smith and his cronies. Brooks demonstrates not only that such culturally-biased judgments are tainted but also that judgments within cultures are less than uniform.
Where else can we find fault with Satin-Legs Smith? Consider his alleged oblivion‹to the misfortune of the neighborhood children, his own immorality, the supposed helplessness of his existence. His field of vision, so the story goes, is profoundly retarded. He does not even know the likes of Grieg and Tschaikovsky. . . tsk, tsk. Hardly into the second page of the poem, and Brooks has already caught us in the act of ethnocentrism. She does this "by proposing‹insisting‹that the reader/critic join in the making of the poem, and then constructing her narrative so that the reader/critic can only come away having failed, the narrator . . . entraps the reader/critic" (Stanford 169). Brooks' poem asks the question, 'How can Smith be expected to idolize Old World composers when he must 'bring to music what his mother spanked him for?' (Blacks 46). Satin's scene is the blues; that is what he would have been raised with, what was all the rage in the clubs, what seemed real.
Is it, then, possible to reproach Smith for his lack of polish, for his lack of "education in the quiet arts of compromise" (Blacks 47)? Certainly, many of the fair-skinned members of Harlem's high society would denounce Smith as a philistine. E. Franklin Frazier wrote of the black bourgeoisie, "Although they [blacks] may pretend to appreciate 'cultural' things, this class as a whole has no real appreciation of art, literature, or music (Anderson 337). Modern critics, too, have written that Smith is "pathetically blameworthy because he has style without the living memory" (Miller 105). Admittedly, blacks of the time concentrated on the living arts: the Sunday stroll, the killer suit, the night at the club, but therein lies no reason for apology. Harlem's black culture was extroverted, outward-pointing, demonstrative. Despite the obstacles, it was a time of great optimism and energy (Anderson 346). People were doing. Art removed from life, that is, art that does not appear to be made of the stuff of everyday existence, did not usually interest the characters in places like Bronzeville and Harlem. Brooks admits, "[M]ost of us do not feel cozy with art, that it's not a thing you easily and chummily throw your arms around, that it's not huggable thing . . . Art hurts. Art is not an old shoe; it's something that you have to work in the presence of. . . you have to extend yourself. And it's easier to stay at home and drink beer" (Report 148).
Is it possible to fault the zoot-suiter for his ambition? Surely, those outrageous costumes were beyond his means. The average zoot-suit cost around $33; Cab Calloway's ran as much as $150 (Anderson 317). Satin-Legs Smith, the old guard of Harlem would say, is nothing but a died-in-wool 'striver,' an epithet reserved for those trying to upgrade from the "Strivers-Row" neighborhood to the wealthy townhouses on Harlem's exclusive Sugar Hill. Though it is doubtful that Satin would have been in on this ladder-climbing, you can bet he would have been accused of it by racists, black and white, who thought that his proverbial closet already overfull.
Leave Satin his suits, Smith's defenders say, leave him his hysterical ties and bright umbrella. What's wrong with a man wanting the finer things in life so that, on the outside at least, he can feel like a king? When Brooks' Maude Martha visits New York, she is moved by the same dream,"... to dwell upon color and soft bready textures and light, on a complex beauty, on gemlike surfaces. What was the matter with that?" (Blacks 193). "We can bear any burden," critic R. Baxter Miller notes, "but our own humanity.... Humanism is a paradox" (Miller 112-13). This instinctual drive towards self-betterment resurfaces time and time again in the Bronzeville characters. At the very least it should be tolerated; at best, it should be encouraged. The characters in Bronzeville , as in Harlem, make statements with their bodies, there being precious little with which to distinguish them materially.
For women, in particular, the advantages of being fair-skinned were enormous. Lightness of complexion meant being invited to high-society teas and admittance to the white clubs uptown. The successful and more socially inclined citizens of Harlem were, "for the most part mulattos of light brown skin and have succeeded in absorbing all the social mannerisms of the white American middle class . . . They are both stupid and snobbish as is their class in any race. Their most compelling if sometimes unconscious ambition is to be as near white as possible, and their greatest expenditure of energy is concentrated on eradicating any trait or characteristic known as Negroid" (Anderson 337).
A Street in Bronzeville is preoccupied with the issue of race as skin-deep and, as such, is an accurate reflection of a time in which "the snobbery around skin color was terrifying" (Anderson 336). In poem after poem, " within the well-observed caste lines of skin color, the consequences of dark pigmentation are revealed in drastic terms" (Smith 39). The first two vignettes in the Hattie Smith series tell of the monotony of her work and the thrilling worlds which await her after she has finished the washing up. This extended poem-in-chapters is a kind of Black Cinderella with a morbid, though realistic, twist. As Hattie leaves her job for the night she says, at least to herself, "I'm leavin'. Got somethin' interestin' on my mind/ Don't mean night school" (Blacks 52).
Men, too, bought into the beauty myth. For men, the craze was to 'conk'‹to straighten the hair with anti-kink ointments and hair-growing preparations, special soaps, and shampoos (Anderson 94). In fact, it would not be jumping to conclusions to bet that Satin Smith's sacred lavender and pine were some part of an elaborate conking ritual. The following passage, excerpted from a 1911 newspaper, reports on the 'latest fad':
Up and around 135th Street and Lenox Avenue . . . colored men can be seen in large numbers who are wont to take off their hats repeatedly, even on the street when the temperature is far from freezing, and stroke their glossy hair with their hand in an affectionate manner (qtd. in Anderson 94).
Women suffered similar indignities in pursuit of straight hair. In the language of "The Chicago Picasso:" "we must cook ourselves and style ourselves for Art, who / is a requiring courtesan" (Blacks 442). Among the hair care products advertised in Harlem was a "magnetic-metallic comb which helps straighten the hair" (Anderson 94). The first stanza of "Sadie and Maude" begins: "Maude went to college / Sadie stayed home / Sadie scraped life / With a fine-tooth comb. Stanza two: "She didn't leave a tangle in / Her comb found every strand / Sadie was one of the livingest chits / In all the land" (Blacks 32). But Sadie can not sustain the level of artificiality for long, before nature seeks her revenge. She dies, leaving two, fatherless babies and a fine-toothed comb as her legacy. Her sister's fate might be considered even more frightening to many a young, female Harlemite. Maude goes off to college, but ends up an old maid, "a thin brown mouse" (32).
The idea behind the beautification movement was to appear more white, or at least more like the fair-skinned Negroes who constituted a distinct, and higher, social class. Black newspapers of the period were crowded with quick-fix beauty solutions like Black-No-More, or Cocotone Skin Whitener which advertised "Don't envy a clear complexion, have one." Golden Brown Ointment took a more realistic approach, declaring "Don't be fooled by so-called 'skin-whiteners.' But you can easily enhance your beauty, lighten your dark or sallow skin by applying Golden Brown . . . . It won't whiten your skin‹as this can't be done" (Anderson 93). Hattie and Satin and his hepsters bought these products knowing full well that they were, at the very least, partially ineffective, and certainly impermanent. The reader, too, senses "that [Hattie's] cosmetic changes . . . will end in marginal success" (Smith 44). Still, the beauty cremes did a brisk business, making legends of same-race beauticians like C.J. Walker (Anderson 94).
In "Sundays" Gwendolyn Brooks appreciates the ironies of self-beautification, but transforms them as mostly blameless necessities of self-expression. Much has been written about Brooks' supposed attitude towards the enigmatic Satin Smith, the lion's share focusing on her satire of Western culture and her negative portrayal of Smith as a grotesque. Ann Folwell Stanford is particularly inflammatory in her reading of Brooks' protagonist. She refers her readers to George Kent's claim that "it [the poem] comes down hard on the shortcomings of Smith and the addressed white observer, whose oppression has reduced the reach for beauty and evoked a response of grotesqueness" (Stanford 164). Certainly, Brooks' "Sundays" engages the white reader in a dialogue of self-criticism, but Brooks certainly refuses to attribute Smith's desire for beauty to the demands of the aesthetic majority.
One thing we can be absolutely sure of is that Satin Smith is his own man, existing on his own terms. He represents, as George Kent rightly notes, the expression of the individual life in the form of revolutionary will (Report 32). What Brooks does condemn in the poem is our readerly tendency to judge Smith rather than to accept him. Brooks asks her readers to consider the following analogy: "We don't ask a flower to give us special reasons for its existence. We look at it and we are able to accept it as being something different, and different from ourselves. Who can explain a flower? But there it is . . ." (Report 148). Maude Martha is such a flower, whose "ordinary allurements‹if the allurement of any flower could be said to be ordinary‹[were] as easy to love as a thing of heart-catching beauty" (Blacks 144).
I argue emphatically, not simply for Satin Smith's intrinsic dignity, but also for Gwendolyn Brooks' recognition of that dignity. She allows Smith his own brand of artistry. Satin Smith is an artist like Brooks, though his chosen medium is fashion and his palette is in his closet. "His clothing style and cologne merely translate beauty into different kinds of imagery, either visual or olfactory. As critic Miller explains, "Conceptions of art, ideal in nature, are universal; but their manifestations, their concrete realities, differ" (102). Smith's power, his right, like Brooks', is to exercise his artistic judgments and invoke his aesthetic control. His composition, as he descends the hotel steps like a tawny cat, is not accidental or arbitrary. Listen to the poem's regal language: "He waits a moment, he designs his reign, / that no performance may be plain or vain" (Blacks 42). What Satin-Legs sheds, according to critic Ann Stanford, "are the private (and by his standards, less lovely) aspects of a human life‹desertedness, fear, and resentments. He readies himself for the essentially performative function his public life demands . . ." (Stanford 165). What Brooks disallows in "Sundays" is not the art, the beauty, in Smith's life (she certainly would not deprive him of his lavender and pine) but white culture's condemnation of his difference. It is the white reader's vanity that is on trial, not Smith's. And Brooks' method for our enlightenment is shear genius, as it turns our well-honed powers of discrimination against us.
The Eurocentric predisposition, in stereotypical nutshell, compels "life to conform to the symmetries of impeccable logic" (Kent in Report 32). The argument follows that the classically Eurocentric 'canon' is, in reality, exceedingly narrow, including the likes of Grieg and Tschaikovsky, but generally excluding, for example, Blues women like Smith's favorite, Big Fat Mama. We are, indeed, more comfortable with Prufrock, the professed antimodel for Satin Smith, who takes care of the rather more mundane details of where to part his hair or whether or not to eat a peach. Satin's decisions are not quite so innocuous; his choice of prostitutes and of dining establishments is foremost among his thoughts. Our vanity, our presumption, is to want something different (read: better) for Satin.
The poem's narrator, by definition, is positioned between the reader and Smith, the narrator being not so much a window as a mirror, collecting the unspoken judgments of the discerning reader and reflecting them back to their source. The reader thus confronts, in the mirror of the text, their own bias. The sensation of being watched is "transferred from Satin-Legs to the reader/critic, rendering the latter as vulnerable as Satin-Legs himself to the narrator's poetic making and remaking" (Stanford 166). Puzzled, the reader returns to the text's metaphoric mirror, seeking affirmation, asking the fairy tale question, 'Who is the fairest in the land?' Instead of flattering him with his own likeness, the mirror reveals a swinging zoot-suiter dressed in the colors of a toucan‹a black man, no less.
We must continually remind ourselves that Satin Smith loves what he sees in the mirror‹"the neat curve here; the angularity /That is appropriate at just its place;/The technique of variegated grace" (Blacks 44). However, the mirror in the text is two-way affair. Like his white readers, Smith is confronted with the unfamiliar when he goes to the movies and sees heroic "ivory and yellow" on the silver screen rather than black. In retrospect, Brooks remembers a similar feeling of disillusionment saying, " . . . A truly horrible thing was that I grew up to womanhood and went through womanhood believing that the gleaming white family life on the motion picture screens should be my model . . . . (Report 213). Of course, Smith reacts to the alien, Hollywood image in his typically bombastic fashion, shouting and heckling, but his transgression is minor compared to his white counterpart, the reader of "Sundays," who, instead of simply rejecting Satin's conflicting ideology, plots its subversion.
Smith ought to be considered autonomous, endowed with certain unalienable rights, among which are the right to zoot-suit, the right to harbor a call girl, and the right to follow his appetites, illicit and otherwise. Satin Smith is not conscious of being watched by anyone outside his fictive/literary world; certainly he is not aware of us, the reader. Whatever performance he bestows must be viewed within its own cultural context, and with its immediate audience in mind. Smith's rightful place is among Harlem's hipsters, a group for whom flash and cash, flaunt and jaunt, amounted to a currency of imperative, self-conscious pride.
Anderson, Jervis. This Was Harlem.New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1981.