Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Gorilla, My Love is a collection of fifteen short stories told in the first person by female narrators who show the daily lives of ordinary people living in the black neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Harlem, and other sections of New York City, as well as parts of the rural South. As Toni Cade Bambara celebrates the life in these communities, she captures the culture, the traditions, and the unique speech patterns of the people who make up these neighborhoods.
The first story, “My Man Bovanne,” deals with the generation gap that exists between Hazel, the older female narrator, and her children, who have become involved in the Black Power movement. In casting off their slave names for African names, the young people seem to be rejecting the values of the older people in their community. As Miss Hazel dances with Bovanne, the old blind man in the neighborhood, her children express their disapproval of their mother’s actions and style of dress. For Miss Hazel, Bovanne, who used to fix skates for the children in the neighborhood, represents a familiar presence in a changing world.
Disillusionment as a part of growing up is the theme of three stories. In “Gorilla, My Love,” Hazel, the young female narrator, must face the pain of realizing that her uncle—who jokingly promised to marry her when she grew up— is preparing to marry someone else. The story begins when Hazel and her friends are disgusted after they pay for tickets to see...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
Toni Cade Bambara is a New Yorker who grew up in Harlem. She added “Bambara” to her name after she saw the word written on her grandmother’s notebook in an old trunk. According to Webster’s Tenth New Collegiate Dictionary, the word “Bambara” means “a member of an African people of the upper Niger” or “a Mande language of the Bambara people.”
Bambara draws her material from the people living in black communities. In her commitment to portray strong female characters, she employs female narrators to tell stories that show women in a positive light. She says that she is “about the empowerment and development of our sisters and our community.” Bambara’s characters are young, hip, tough, humorous black women, much like the characters that Terry McMillan creates in her novel Mama (1987). When asked about the differences between African American male and female writers, Bambara says, “brothers generally set things out of doors, on open terrain, that is, male turf.” Bambara’s female characters, however, such as Hazel in “Raymond’s Run,” are out on the street. She creates strong female characters of different ages. The young girls are often spunky and outspoken, tough, sassy, and bright.
Bambara provides a realistic view of the world of African American communities in stories she calls “on-the-block, in-the-neighborhood, back-glance pieces.” She is a novelist, short-story writer, editor,...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Bambara employs several techniques to portray Hazel’s neighborhood realistically. By using the names of real New York theaters and streets, such as the RKO Hamilton and Amsterdam Avenue, she creates a realistic setting. Adding to the realism, she captures the unique speech patterns of the people who make up this neighborhood. Her characters speak in the rich black dialect of the street with all its vitality and humor. It is their powerful speech patterns that make Bambara’s characters come to life in expressions such as “If you scary like me” and “they dusty sometime.” She uses “ax” for “ask” and uses verb forms that are formally incorrect, such as “it do get me in trouble.” When Hazel says that the film is “not about no gorilla,” the double negative sounds typical of a child’s language. Hazel’s speech contains such slang expressions as “give her some lip” and “no lie.” She describes the matron in the theater as getting “too salty.”
The imagery that Hazel employs is fresh and believable as the expressions of a child. Hazel describes her uncle’s looking at her “real strange . . . like he lost in some weird town in the middle of night and lookin for directions and there’s no one to ask.” At one moment in his past, Hunca Bubba adopted an African name, which to Hazel sounded “very geographical weatherlike . . . like somethin you’d find in a almanac.” The pecans in the truck make a rattling noise...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Bambara, Toni Cade, ‘‘Gorilla, My Love,’’ in Gorilla, My Love, Vintage, 1992, pp. 13–20.
———, ‘‘How She Came by Her Name: An Interview with Louis Massiah,’’ in Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996, pp. 201–45.
———, ‘‘Salvation Is the Issue,’’ in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1984, pp. 41–47.
———, ‘‘A Sort of Preface,’’ in Gorilla, My Love, Vintage, 1992.
———, ‘‘What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow,’’ in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg, W. W. Norton, 1980, p. 154.
Bryan, C. D. B., Review of Gorilla, My Love, in New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1972, p. 31.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth, ‘‘From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language,’’ in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1984, pp. 48–49.
Ensslen, Klaus, ‘‘Toni Cade Bambara: Gorilla, My Love,’’ in The African American Short Story, 1970 to 1990: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993, pp. 41–44.
Hargrove, Nancy D., ‘‘Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love,’’ in the Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 81–83.
Review of Gorilla, My Love, in Saturday Review, Vol. 55, No. 47, November 18, 1972, p. 97.
Bambara, Toni Cade, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996. Toni Morrison, Bambara’s editor at Random House, assembled this collection of six previously unpublished stories and six essays after Bambara’s death. In ‘‘How She Came by Her Name,’’ an interview with Louis Massiah, Bambara discusses her childhood, her early political life, and how Gorilla, My Love came to be published.
Butler-Evans, Elliott, Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Temple University Press, 1989. Butler-Evans examines two aesthetics in the works of...
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Neo-Black Arts Movement
Bambara is often associated with the Neo- Black Arts Movement (also called simply the Black Arts Movement), a movement in art, literature, and literary criticism that grew out of the Black Power Movement and thrived during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Power Movement worked to establish a separate black state within the United States after many people came to believe that the mostly nonviolent Civil Rights movement was not achieving its goals. Nonviolent resistance, they believed, depended too much on the generosity of the oppressors, and loving those oppressors demanded too much of the oppressed. Further, they observed that the Civil Rights movement had focused on solving problems of segregation in the South, but had not done much to improve the lives of African Americans in the northern cities. They called for direct political and economic action by the oppressed, and made it clear that they were willing to use violence if necessary to win equality for African Americans.
The Neo-Black Arts Movement created literature with a political awareness, and its critics examined literature through a political lens. Its writers believed that every work of art is political, and that every work of art featuring African Americans either helps or hurts the cause of equality. In their work, they depicted positive and powerful African Americans. They called for self-determination for African Americans, an end to global...
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The structure of ‘‘Gorilla, My Love’’ is called a ‘‘frame’’ structure, because the story of Hazel, Granddaddy Vale, Hunca Bubba, and Baby Jason bringing pecans back from the South wraps around the story of the movie theater, as a frame wraps around a picture. The opening scene moves along with no hint that the story is about to move off in another direction. Readers meet the characters through the eyes of the narrator, hear the irritation in her voice, and see the photograph in Hunca Bubba’s hand. A movie house in the background of the photo catches the narrator’s eye, and she says, ‘‘Cause I am a movie freak from way back, even though it do get me in trouble sometime.’’ Even as that line ends, the focus is on the characters in the car.
But the next line begins, ‘‘Like when me and Big Brood and Baby Jason was on our own,’’ and the narrator abruptly changes direction to tell the story of the falsely advertised movie. Because the change is so sudden, with no explanation, the reader does not see how the stories are linked in Hazel’s mind, other than the coinciding movie theaters. It seems a childish, trivial connection. When Hazel returns to the car trip near the end of the story, with another abrupt line (‘‘So there I am in the navigator seat’’), the reader still does not understand how the events are connected. Not until Hazel reminds Hunca Bubba of his earlier promise to wait and...
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Compare and Contrast
1970: Movies are primarily watched in large movie theaters, which change their offerings frequently. Still, there is relatively little choice on any given day.
Today: With video cassettes and DVDs, a movie watcher has literally thousands of choices available for little cost. Movie theaters still show big-budget movies, but studios make most of their money from the sale and rental of videos and DVDs.
1970: Most movie theaters are independently owned and operated, choosing what to show and when to show it. Managers are relatively free to show the latest big attractions from Hollywood or low-budget reruns.
Today: Most movie theaters across the country show the same movies at the same time. Smallbudget and independent movies and theaters showing movies that are not new are rare.
1970: No African American has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction or the Nobel Prize in literature.
Today: Excellent literature by African American writers is being recognized and celebrated. African American Pulitzer Prize–winning authors of fiction include James Alan McPherson (1979), Alice Walker (1983), Edward Jones (2004), and Bambara’s editor Toni Morrison, who has won both the Pulitzer (1988) and the Nobel Prize (1993).
1970: The Great Migration of African Americans that brought over two million people from the rural South to big cities in the North peaked during the...
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Topics for Further Study
What is the role of race in ‘‘Gorilla, My Love?’’ How would Hazel’s story be different if she were set in another place, another time, or in a family of a different background?
How might you film this story? Would it be difficult to capture the energy and excitement of the children disrupting the movie and still keep the audience on their side?
What age group does ‘‘Gorilla, My Love’’ seem to be written for? What aspects of Bambara’s writing lead you to this conclusion? How might children of Hazel’s age (about ten to twelve years old) see the story differently from the way an older teen would, or from the way an adult would?
Much of Hazel’s understanding of the world seems to come from the movies she watches. Are these movies a good guide? If people believed what they saw in today’s movies, what understandings or misunderstandings might they hold about the world?
Why does Hazel’s mother come down to her school? Is she a typical mother? How involved are students’ parents in the elementary schools you know about?
Hazel lives with both of her biological parents and her two brothers; her Granddaddy and various aunts and uncles live either with them or nearby. How common are extended families like this in your neighborhood? What might account for the fact that more families today are split up by divorce and by geography than in the early 1970s?
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‘‘Gorilla, My Love’’ was recorded by Listening Library and is available on at least two Listening Library short story collections. Selected Shorts from Symphony Space, produced in 1989, has six stories on two cassette tapes. Selected Shorts, Volume XVI, Fictions for Our Time, produced in 2002, has fourteen stories on three compact disks.
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What Do I Read Next?
In ‘‘The Lesson,’’ another story from the collection Gorilla, My Love, a community worker from Harlem gives the children in her neighborhood a harsh lesson in inequality by taking them on an outing to the expensive F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in midtown Manhattan.
Paule Marshall’s novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) is about a girl’s growth into young womanhood in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood populated by immigrants from Barbados.
Sherley A. Williams gives a critical analysis of heroes in African American fiction from the nineteenth century through the 1960s, focusing on what she calls ‘‘neo-black literature,’’ in Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo- Black Literature (1972).
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain, is an American classic about a white boy and a runaway slave who escape together down the Mississippi. Huck, like Hazel, narrates his own story, learns about family, friendship, trust, and human dignity.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), by J. K. Rowling, is an exciting and humorous novel about an eleven-year-old boy who learns that he is a wizard, and that he is expected to battle with forces of magic.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bambara, Toni Cade. “Salvation Is the Issue.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. In this essay, Bambara discusses her experiences as a writer and states her preference for the short story as a genre. The elements of her own work that she deems most important are laughter, the use of language, a sense of community, and celebration.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. “From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language.” In Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. Burks provides brief summaries of the individual stories. Stresses the importance of language in Bambara’s portrayal of black characters as she accurately records their experiences in their own voices. Burks notes that the rhythm and graphic descriptions of these narratives reflect the influence of Negro spirituals.
Hargrove, Nancy D. “Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love.” Southern Quarterly 22 (Fall, 1983): 81-99. Hargrove provides an in-depth analysis of individual stories, focusing on those that look at life from the point of view of a child. Notes that Bambara treats two sides of the African American experience, balancing the grim reality of...
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