Poetry and the Felt Experience of Sexual Selection

Essays

Science and poetry are two forms of expression adept at identifying uncomfortable truths. Science discovers these truths by testing and measuring the physical world. Poetry draws on that same physical world, but does its testing and measuring in the heart and mind of the artist. Gwendolyn Brooks was one such artist. Though her works are varied, Brooks was a master of depicting the inner-world of her characters using imagery, symbolism, and tone. In her writing, a reader can discover what is only now being revealed by burgeoning scientific fields like evolutionary psychology. In two poems, “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” and “Sadie and Maud”, Brooks clearly depicts what evolutionary psychologists have termed sexual market value. But the underlying psychological forces have a different basis in each poem. Gwendolyn Brooks accurately and painfully describes the short-term ramifications of the sexual selection game in “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie” and expands the same theme in “Sadie and Maud” by zooming out to view the long-term consequences.

Science, unlike art, explains the dynamics of sexual selection in dispassionate terms. Researchers have observed two profound mechanisms at work. First, mate selection is intensely driven by status. Men tend to mate across and down social hierarchies while women mate across and up. This is explained by the large investment women must make in their children. Human babies make intense demands of their mothers during the first few years of life. Therefore, women seek partners for their ability to bring a sufficient amount of resources to the family. Those resources, in most cases, must be equal to or greater than what the woman’s social status implies, hence mating across and up but not down. The second mechanism also involves pregnancy. In cold, economic terms, females are the asset owners because they have the capacity to conceive and carry young. Males, then, are the consumers. They want access to the reproductive assets but can only hope to gain them if they are granted permission by the asset owner. From these understandings, the idea of sexual market value emerges.

Gwendolyn Brooks

Brooks exposes one of these uncomfortable and unfortunate truths regarding sexual market value in “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie”. The truth is skin color prejudice exists in the human experience. Within and without the African-American community, lighter skin is associated with higher social status. A narrow view of such prejudice would blame the deep roots of racism in America, but this particular prejudice is a near human universal. From China to India and Africa to the Philipines, this pattern is prevalent. Though this need not hold true in a brighter, imagined future, it has up to this point and certainly did when Brooks first penned her verse. She sets up the dynamic: “And Mabbie was cut from a chocolate bar” (Brooks 5). The reader does not know exactly how dark Mabbie is, but she is at least as brown as chocolate. This fact is made evident just prior to the introduction of her love interest, Willie Boone. Willie is on the other side of “the pearly gates”, a symbol that suggests Mabbie views him as holding a higher status than her own (Brooks 5). It is heaven versus earth. With this imagery and symbolism, the hierarchical table is set. Therefore, it is sad, but not a surprise, when Willie exits with a “lemon-hued lynx” (Brooks 5) Yellow, the color of a lemon, is often associated with light-skinned or mixed-race African-Americans. But the word lemon conveys more than skin-tone, it tells how Mabbie felt about her presence – sour. So we have Mabbie’s young awakening to the sexual selection game; she is chocolate and sweet while her competition – higher in status with access to the pearly gates – is a bitter lemon.

“Sadie and Maud” does not explore the sinister truth of skin color prejudice, but delves into a different, perhaps equally harsh, reality. Sadie and Maud take two different paths in life. Sadie is not an intellectual; she is obsessed with her looks. This is shown to the reader through the symbolism of a fine-toothed comb, an instrument for beautification that “never left a tangle in” (Brooks 6). The comb represents Sadie’s strategy which is rewarded. She finds a mate for sexual reproduction early in her life, but not a long-term partner which is why “Sadie bore two babies / Under her maiden name” (Brooks 6). Maud, on the other hand, was more conservative with her options and “went to college” instead of having children. She chose to raise her social status. This is where asset ownership and consumer behavior come into play. Sadie actively pursued consumers while her sexual market value, in terms of fertility, was high. However, once the milk was drunk for free, the consumer fled the cow. Conversely, Maud priced herself out of the market. First, she raised her social status by earning a degree. Since women tend to mate across and up social hierarchies, her new status meant a smaller pool of partners to choose from. Second, deferral of child bearing in favor of education is a good social strategy but a bad sexual one. The college years are some of the most fertile and the odds of conceiving children after age thirty drop off precipitously. While Sadie was having children, Maud scoffed at her and “nearly died of shame” (Brooks 6) Maud, ever the conservative, was holding out for a man of high stature – a man who never materialized.

What is the felt experience of Mabbie, Sadie, and Maud as players of this invisible game? Science can explain sexual dynamics but treads nowhere near the human soul. For that, the poet is needed. When Mabbie is rejected, she is consoled within herself. Brooks writes: “Yet chocolate companions had she: / Mabbie on Mabbie with hush in the heart. / Mabbie on Mabbie to be” (Brooks 5) The tone evoked by the simple word hush speaks volumes. Mabbie’s heart is not filled with rage or sorrow or disgust.  There is a hush, a sense of calm, a quiet realization. It is as if she is content to know the problem is not which side of the pearly gates she is on, but on which side she was looking for love. An element of hope remains. Unfortunately, Maud and Sadie find no such hope, because Brooks expands the scope of time in their tale to reveal a fait accomplis. Imagery and symbolism do the heavy lifting once more. Brooks brings back the comb, a symbol for beauty. After Sadie’s children become adults, she only “left as heritage / Her fine-toothed comb” (Brooks 6). Taken literally, her daughters inherited her comb. Taken figuratively, they inherited her genetic beauty but nothing more. As soon as those women stepped onto the sexual market they had the same trappings of status that Sadie had when she was in their shoes – beauty and fertility. Meanwhile, Maud became “a thin brown mouse.” The thin imagery in this case evokes sadness, whether literal or figurative, since a suppressed appetite is a symptom of depression. The last two lines of Maud’s tale are also literal and figurative: “She is living all alone / In this old house” (Brooks 6). The old house is both the building she never filled with children as well as her body, too old now to make the missing children a reality.

The dynamics of sexual selection are somewhat predictable and often cruel. Science provides the lens for prediction but cannot speak to the cruelty. In Brooks’ poetry, however, we get the felt experience. By combining elements of imagery, symbolism, and tone, Gwendolyn Brooks not only reveals the truth, but also offers visions of how we can grapple with it. We can play nature’s game like Sadie. We can reject it like Maud, fully understanding the trade-off. Or we can approach the game like Mabbie who seeks to know and love herself in the context of her circumstances, choosing to leave the bitter lemons to those who want them while quadrupling down on chocolate.

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Sadie and Maud.” The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, edited by Elizabeth Alexander, Library of America, 2005, pp. 6.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Ballad of Chocolate Mabbie.” The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, edited by Elizabeth Alexander, Library of America, 2005, pp. 5.