What is the theme of "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird," by Toni Cade Bambara?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The theme of Toni Cade Bambara's "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird" revolves around the negative aspects of stereotyping.  Supposedly, the filmmakers are recording for the food stamp program, but it appears that they are shooting footage to use in an argument against providing the poor public aid:

"Maybe there's somethin you want to say for the film.  I see you grow your own vegetables,....If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--"

So there is a typing of Granny and Granddaddy Cain as undeserving of any help, thus stereotyping the lower class as trying to take advantage of government programs since ones like the Cains are self-sufficient. 

With this class stereotyping, there is also racial stereotyping as the cameramen feel that they do not need to be respectful toward Granny when she steps outside.  For, they do not greet her, when they do address her, one of them calls her "Aunty," which is a condescending term.  Granny catches them in their attitudes by relating the incident of a man who planned on jumping off a bridge, and filmmakers had their cameras running as they hoped to catch his suicide on film. Callously the cameramen displayed a total lack of regard for the man's suffering.  But, the blues for this man were real; they were "no mockingbird."  Like the suffering man on the bridge, the Cains are real people--no stereotype of lower class country black folk. 

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The title of Toni Cade Bambara's short story "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird" is a good indicator of the central theme. Mockingbirds are entertaining birds who spend the whole day singing by imitating other birds. The word mock is used to describe the act of making fun of someone, especially by imitating them (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). In speaking of the blues not being mockingbirds, the title is saying that sorrows are not for other people's entertainment; sorrows are not to be mocked and enjoyed. Bambara uses her title and short story to depict her central theme criticizing the innate human tendency to make a mockery of other people's suffering.

Bambara relays her central theme through the character Granny. Granny drives men with a camera off her property the moment she understands they are filming her family's poverty in order to prove to the county that poverty in the area isn't so bad that the county needs to spend extra money on food stamps to take care of the poor. Granny and the reader reach this realization the moment one man says to her, "I see you grow your own vegetables ... . If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--" In other words, the man is saying if more people of Granny's social class grew their own vegetables, then the county would not have to pay for food stamps. Yet, despite Granny's flower and vegetable garden, we know Granny and her family represent the poorest social class because, if they didn't, the men wouldn't be on their property filming.

But, Granny is wise enough to know how immoral it is to film another person's poverty or another person's suffering of any sort. We see her wisdom in the story she relays to her grandchildren of the man about to commit suicide. According to her story, while the minister, his wife, and the townspeople were trying to convince him not to jump off the bridge, a random stranger approached the crowd and captured the whole moment on film. As Granny wisely shows, "Takin pictures of the man in his misery," not doing anything to help, simply demonstrates a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding of what it truly means to suffer. Taking pictures of suffering, to publish in the news or for any other reason, is something present-day society is extremely guilty of. Through her characters, Bambara shows that just taking pictures, not offering help, does nothing but make a mockery of suffering. In portraying the cruelty of doing something as seemingly harmless as capturing on film the suffering of others, Bambara is developing a theme that criticizes people's lack of compassion and tendency to mock the suffering of others.


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