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  • Southern Patriarchy and the Figure of the White Woman in Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon”
  • Molly Littlewood McKibbin (bio)

The murder of Emmett Till in 1955, and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers and public viewings of Till’s mutilated body, stirred the American consciousness and provoked outrage across the country. In 1960, Gwendolyn Brooks published her own response in the form of “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” Though the political nature of the poem is not unusual, considering Brooks’s position as a poet writing during the 1950s and ’60s, it is unusual for Brooks to use the perspective of a white American. She adopts this stance to examine Southern patriarchy and the myth of chivalry as they are implicated in Till’s death, and ultimately, to condemn both the myth and the white woman’s desire for its fulfillment. The irony of the romantic role of damsel being applied to a beleaguered housewife, that of hero to an insecure and immature man, and that of villain to a defenseless boy reveals not only the meaninglessness of using the myth as an excuse to commit violence, but also the absurdity of the myth as a fantasy in the first place. Brooks’s apparent sympathy for the white woman as the pawn of domineering white men is subverted as she deconstructs the romance within the woman’s mind and thereby holds the woman responsible for her complicity in the myth, and consequently, in the murder. This analysis of Brooks’s poem demonstrates how Brooks uses the figure of the white woman both to criticize her and to denounce Southern ideology itself. In “A Bronzeville Mother,” Brooks is not merely condemning particular white men as murderers, or attacking Southern society in general for its practice of lynching; above all, Brooks is insisting that white women shoulder some responsibility for the violence carried out in their names.

Any close reading of Brooks’s poem must first consider the context of Till’s murder and Brooks’s subsequent composition of “A Bronzeville Mother.” At the time of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Brooks “was seeing the world in a new way,” and was becoming “absorbed into the national black consciousness of rising expectations” (Kent 118). The time following Brown was also critical for African Americans in Mississippi, in part because the decision launched white Mississippians into a frenzied defense of the state’s “way of life.” In the years between the decision and the publication of Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother,” the state passed sweeping legislation that made it extremely difficult for blacks (and poor whites) to go to school, censored television broadcasts and other media, interfered with black voting rights, banned books and required white supremacist reading be provided to schools and libraries, enabled spying on critics and activist organizations, and then made it illegal to “advocate, urge or encourage ‘disobedience to any law of the State of Mississippi, and nonconformance with the established traditions, customs, and usages of the State of Mississippi’ ” (Dittmer 59). Also, since white supremacists made the state’s laws and established its customs, it is little wonder that Brown was declared “invalid” and “unconstitutional” (59), or that the following year, two men who murdered a fourteen-year-old African American boy were acquitted. Though Mississippi saw at least seven politically motivated murders in 1955 alone, it was the murder of Emmett Till that brought intense media attention to Mississippi and its [End Page 667] lynching “custom” in the early years of the civil rights era. The court case in Mississippi, the public viewing of Till’s body in Chicago, and the photographs of Till’s mutilated face heightened Americans’ awareness of the persistence of racial violence—especially in the Deep South, and particularly in Mississippi.1 White supremacist violence against African Americans was so common that it was not particularly shocking when a black man was murdered in Mississippi; Till’s age and, to a great degree, his mother’s vocal outrage and public action made his death news-worthy. Just how unusual it was for a Mississippi...


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pp. 667-685
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