19 pages 38 minutes read

Gwendolyn Brooks

A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1960

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Written in response to the 1955 brutal slaying of Emmett Till, Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon” comments upon racist and patriarchal systems within the United States. The poem’s use of perspective is particular within Brooks’s body of work for its focus on a white woman. In “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters,” Brooks breaks down the false, idealized notions of her speaker’s point-of-view in order to analyze the divisions of power between men and women, white and Black.

“A Bronzeville Mother Loiters,” first published along with “The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till” in Brooks’s 1960 The Bean Eaters collection, are Gwendolyn Brooks’s artistic response to the tragedy of Till’s murder five years earlier. Brooks, the first African American winner of the Pulitzer Prize and former US Poet Laureate, predominately writes about life in her community on the South Side of Chicago. Many of her poems are set in the Bronzeville area of Chicago and deal with the social, political, and racial strife of the late-20th century. Brooks’s first published collection, A Street In Bronzeville (1945), profiles the Black urban experience in detail, and her later poetry, including “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters,” continues to expand upon that theme through an intense focus on political division and inequality. Brooks’s poetry is untethered to specific form—she experiments in her work with both free-verse and metrical forms, but her voice is marked by the cadence and experience of urban life. As Brooks’s writing matured, her voice tightened, and her work became more politically focused in the 1960s.

“A Bronzeville Mother Loiters” stands out in Brooks’s volume of work because of its use of a white female narrator, as well as its secondary focus on femininity, southern culture, and domesticity. The perspective of the white woman, who fancies herself the “milk-white maid” in a chivalric tale of good and evil, undercut by the harsh details of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s 1955 murder, makes a specific comment about the nature of white femininity and the socio-political problems of the modern world. Allusions to fairy-tale archetypes meet the harsh realities of murder, racism, and “innocence,” both real and imagined, and the archetypes’ obvious failure to stand-up to reality make a subtle and brutal statement about the white woman’s complicity in racial violence and the costs of racism in the United States.

Poet Biography

Born in 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, poet Gwendolyn Brooks started writing at an early age. When she was an infant, her family moved to the South Side of Chicago, and the city came to define Brooks and her writing. Brooks’s father, David Anderson Brooks, worked as a janitor for a music company. In his youth, he had aspired to become a doctor but chose to follow a different career path in order to support his family. Brooks’s mother, Keziah, was a schoolteacher and concert pianist. Brooks’s family was involved from the beginning in the fight for civil rights for African Americans in the United States; Brooks’s mother taught at the school associated with the Brown v. Board of Education case for desegregation, and Brooks’s paternal grandfather fled slavery to join the Union during the Civil War. Brooks attended several different schools, integrated and segregated, while growing up in Chicago, and her experiences at those schools inspired her writing and activism.

Brooks began writing poetry as a teenager, first publishing in children’s magazines and local publications like the Chicago Defender. Early on in her career, she received feedback and support from well-known African American writers like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. While working as a poet, Brooks also established a career as a typist and met and married Henry Lowington Blakely. Blakely and Brooks went on to have two children together.

Brooks’s first collection of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville, was published in 1945, and the collection subsequently elicited much acclaim. In 1950, Brooks’s award-winning second collection, Annie Allen, won her the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Although Brooks primarily wrote poetry, she also published a novella, Maud Martha, in 1953, which dealt with racism, sexism, and perceptions of beauty.

In the late sixties, Brooks met and became involved with some of the key people and writers associated with the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. These encounters encouraged her to write more purposefully in support of Black cultural nationalism. In 1968, Brooks wrote and published one of her more famous poems, In the Mecca, which was nominated for the National Book Award.

During her life, Brooks served as the Poet Laureate of Illinois. Brooks was the first African American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize, and she was the first African American woman to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She died in 2000 at age 83, but her work has continued to be studied and admired well into the 21st century.

Poem Text

Summary

The first stanza opens with a reference to a poetic form, the ballad, an older form of verse that is often romantic in nature and set to music. The first stanza is a vague introduction; the “it” referenced three times in the first few lines is not described in detail, and it is unclear whether the “it” is an event, situation, thing, or idea. What is clear from the first stanza is that the “it” is somehow contradictorily violent and bloody, and also supposedly in line with the romantic ideals of a ballad. The second stanza provides a bit more context. The speaker casts three roles in the second stanza; she is the maid, the damsel in distress from some romantic tale, and there are two other characters, presumably male, and in conflict with one another because of their desire for the “maid”: the “Dark Villain” and the “Fine Prince.” The speaker further mentions that it is “good” to be the maid because “That made the breath go fast” (Line 12).

The third stanza removes us from the fantasy—“Her bacon burned” (Line 13), and it is clear the actual scene of the poem, the setting that the speaker is contained within, is a kitchen, and she is cooking breakfast. Breakfast items, like biscuits and jam, are mentioned with specificity. The brief interlude indicates to the reader that the speaker’s romantic description of a ballad—with her as the maid at the center of some conflict between good and evil—is a fantasy. The reality of the moment is that she is a woman cooking breakfast in a kitchen.

The fourth stanza returns to the fantasy, as if the burned bacon is only a brief pause or a distraction from the speaker’s thoughts. Her mind returns to the ballad and the romantic story she is trying to tell herself, and this time, it is clear that something about the ballad—about her casting of the characters—does not feel right: “But there was something about the matter of the Dark Villain. / He should have been older, perhaps” (Lines 18-19). The poem’s nuance begins to become obvious in the fourth stanza. The speaker is bothered by the age of the “Dark Villain.” The villain, it seems, is not old enough to have posed the danger and threat of the archetypical ballad or fairy-tale “villain,” and this seems to bother the speaker. The fifth stanza provides even more depth, going so far as to give the reader details of the actual “Dark Villain” and the “it” that was so vaguely referenced at the beginning of the poem: “The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified / When the Dark Villain was a blackish child / Of fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty” (Lines 25-27). The “Dark Villain” is only 14, with young eyes that are clean or innocent. In this stanza, The “Dark Villain,” who was painted as the “bad guy” of the tale is even compared to an infant.

The sixth stanza continues to deconstruct the characters from the ballad; not only is the “Dark Villain” young and innocent, but the “Fine Prince” is, in fact, “ridiculous,” and akin to a grown baby “full of tantrums” (Line 35). In this stanza, the longest in the entire poem, the speaker sets up several comparisons between the youthful “Dark Villain” and the large, imposing figure of the grown man, the “Fine Prince.” This is also the first stanza to reference a confrontation that is connected to a subsequent trial and acquittal. The speaker indicates that there was a confrontation between the “Dark Villain” and the “Fine Prince” that led, in real life, to a legal battle or court trial. This stanza concludes with focus on the speaker herself, who “could not remember now what that foe had done / Against her, or if anything had been done” (Lines 44-45). After admitting this, the speaker reflects upon herself and concludes that she too has been affected by the referenced violence and the part she has played in it.

The seventh stanza returns again, more strongly, to a portrait of the speaker’s real life. She sits her children down to breakfast and makes sure to doll herself up with makeup for the man, presumably her husband, the “Fine Prince” from the ballad. The speaker is afraid that the man will find her wanting and seems obsessed with the idea of being “worth” the violence the “Fine Prince” has perpetrated on her behalf. The eighth stanza provides more depth to the “Fine Prince” in real life; he is angry, bothered by headlines about the trial, and despite being handsome, his face is marred by a sneering countenance. The eighth stanza introduces more information, in the form of newspapers, with “maddening headlines. / With their pepper-words, ‘bestiality,’ and ‘barbarism,’ and / ‘Shocking’” (Lines 68-70). Although Brooks leaves the implication vague, the references to the trial, when taken alongside the newspaper headlines, imply that the “it,” the event that happened between the “Fine Prince” and the “Dark Villain” was violent in nature—shocking and barbaric.

The ninth stanza follows with a dramatic pronouncement of the “Fine Prince” and his true character. His anger over the trial is palpable when he claims, “What he'd like to do…was kill them all” (Line 73). The 10th stanza adds more explanation of the event and the trial by placing the action in the state of Mississippi. The scene in the kitchen mixes domesticity and cruelty; the 10th and 11th stanza elaborate on the “Fine Prince” and his conversation with his family, all culminating in more violence, this time delivered to one of the couple’s young children, who the “Fine Prince” slaps in the face for fighting with his brother at the table.

The 12th stanza takes a dark turn, along with the speaker’s thoughts, and it becomes clear that the speaker fears her husband and his violence. In the 13th stanza, the speaker, unable to handle her own fear, and either unwilling or incapable of standing up to her husband, the “Fine Prince,” leaves the table,

Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That
Was one of the new Somethings—
The fear,
Tying her as with iron (Lines 105-08).

“A Bronzeville Mother Loiters” ends with the speaker, a mother, who feels like she is unable to protect her children from their own father, the “Fine Prince,” who wields violence dangerously against those smaller and weaker than himself. The speaker finds that she is disgusted by the role she has played in her husband’s violence. She is disgusted by the “Fine Prince” and hates him for his cruelty. The poem culminates with a return to the ballad reference—the speaker’s hatred for the “Fine Prince,” his control of her, her body, and that of their children, and the continued cycle of violence becomes “the last quatrain” (Line 136) of the false ballad.

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