Themes and Meanings
The Salt Eaters poses questions: What has happened to the wonderful promise of the 1960’s for African Americans, and can the movement of those days be brought back on course?
Although the novel was published in 1980, it was written in the late 1970’s and depicts a time when the protagonist suffers not only a crisis in confidence and faith but also a midlife crisis. The seemingly gratuitous references to Velma’s menstruation are evidence that Velma is as concerned about lost youth as the lost promise of her cause. Many will ignore this aspect of the novel, though it in no way diminishes the larger theme of lost direction in the Civil Rights movement or the book’s pervasive feminist concerns.
Velma and Obie were once glittering role models in the early years of the Black Power movement. Now, as forty looms, Velma has turned to a man she does not love, afraid, too, that she has lost the affection of her son, Lil James.
If The Salt Eaters proclaims that a woman can meet menopause and disappointment in relationships when offered support from those who love her, may not a similar answer apply to the fragmented cause of racial equality? Such a solution is offered in the novel’s somewhat diffuse treatment of The Seven Sisters, women of color who unite amid their acknowledged diversity, presenting a solid front against oppression of all kinds, including militarism, environmental pollution, and the nuclear threat.
As a feminist, Bambara was often impatient with men—white men of authority in some places, but black men as well. In bitter pages, she describes the “boymen,” a parasitical breed who live off women while avoiding all responsibility. They haunt the periphery of the black matriarchy, fathering children, pleading for money from their women, and wasting their lives in a haze of alcohol, drugs, and empty daydreams. More despicable yet are the “boymen’s” successful brothers, vain self-serving peacocks who use the black community to boost their egos and establish their own importance. They too exploit women as foot soldiers in their political and civil rights campaigns, assigning them tedious jobs of organization and logistics while reserving for themselves glamorous roles of leadership and oratory. Often they reject their faithful female sisters, whom they treat as servants, for more alluring, less committed female companionship, even of another color.