In fulfilling her roles as teacher, social worker, filmmaker, editor, and author, Bambara always considered herself first and foremost a social activist, an agent for positive change, so it is no surprise that her characters take up this clarion call. Most of the women and many of the men who populate her stories are oppressed by the social institutions and attitudes that surround them, but few are beaten down. In situation after situation, they rise above their circumstances and triumph.
The character of Hazel “Squeaky” Parker who appears in the stories “Gorilla, My Love” and “Raymond’s Run” is a case in point. A lanky black girl at odds with conventional standards of femininity, she does not hide her supposed eccentricities but flaunts them. Her long legs, the source of her incredible speed, are an embarrassment to her mother, who wishes she would hide them behind a skirt. Instead Squeaky glories in them:I’ll high-prance down 34th Street like a rodeo pony to keep my knees strong even if it does get my mother uptight so that she walks ahead like she’s not with me, don’t know me, is all by herself on a shopping trip, and I am somebody else’s crazy child.
The importance of knowledge for both individual growth and the collective good is often stressed in Bambara’s stories, even if the intended recipients are reluctant learners. In the widely anthologized short story “The Lesson” from Gorilla, My Love, a community activist mistakenly believes a tour of F. A. O. Schwarz, the New York toy giant, will edify the neighborhood children. As they gawk at overpriced toys, what is meant to be a lesson in the evils of conspicuous consumption backfires; instead the children realize how marginalized they are and how deep the divide is that separates the privileged from the underprivileged in the United States.
Love is the core value in Bambara’s stories about families and community. Rarely is romantic love the goal, but rather an intrinsic human love that values the dignity of neighbors, family members, and self. When the faith healer in The Salt Eaters attempts to bring a suicidal woman back to mental equilibrium, her aim is not just to cure the individual, but to bring wholeness to the entire community. A fragmented community spawns broken individuals; cure the social ills, Bambara suggests, and produce whole individuals.
Empowerment is the central theme of Bambara’s work. Empowered people have more control over their lives than those who accept the status quo. Change is positive energy in Bambara’s stories, particularly when it is the agent for expanding ideas of normalcy and broadening the scope of social acceptance. Bambara’s three constants—knowledge, love, and empowerment—are weapons in an assault on the racial, sexual, and class prejudices that divide people by diminishing their value and limiting their opportunities. Ethnic pride derives from a blending of these values. When Candy in “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (from The Sea Birds Are Still Alive) finds herself disillusioned by the season’s commercialism, the African American festival of Kwanza presents itself as an alternative celebration, one that she is curious to pursue.
Critics generally laud Bambara’s nontraditional structure and her experiments with form and language. She circumvents linear storytelling by allowing episodes to play in mental rather than chronological time. As characters recall situations, those events are conjured up, and readers are witness to the ebb and flow of human thought and emotion. The oral traditions of ethnic storytelling are evident in Bambara’s works. Acutely she records the sounds of the human voice and its cadences. The vibrant pulse of street talk and the nuances of intimate conversation become musical notes running through her works, rhythms and tones at once familiar and unique.
First published: 1971 (collected in Gorilla, My Love, 1972)
Type of work: Short story
A younger sister finds herself the caretaker of her mentally challenged brother in a story about defying limitations and achieving victories.
“Raymond’s Run” appears in the collection Gorilla, My Love and has been published independently as a work of young-adult fiction. The story features twelve-year-old Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, who narrates the story. Nicknamed Squeaky for her high-pitched voice, she is a competitive runner, as is her older brother, Raymond, her unofficial training partner. Because he has Down syndrome, neither the community nor his family expects him to succeed in life. The Parkers seem to have accepted Raymond’s limitations, but Squeaky is cognizant of her parents’ embarrassment over her tomboyish activities. A connection is implied between Raymond’s developmental disability and Squeaky’s supposed gender deviance, both apparently aberrations of nature.
Squeaky’s independent spirit refuses to bow to social constraints, however, and she ignores maternal advice that would retard her pace. Recalling how she danced in a school pageant, Squeaky critiques her parents and the social norms they attempted to enforce: “You’d think they’d know better than to encourage that kind of nonsense. I am not a strawberry. I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about.” Confident in her self-knowledge, Squeaky pushes the boundaries of socially prescribed norms.
Readers are privy to the thoughts, emotions, and attitudes of the unabashed Squeaky, a skinny black girl whose sole ambition is to cross the finish line first. Among the challenges she faces preparing for the annual May Day event are sexist notions of appropriate behavior, particularly as they apply to a young girl on the verge of adolescence. Squeaky is encouraged to trade her gym shorts for a skirt and to adopt a slower, less assured stride. Even her school principal suggests she let another student win the race, perhaps the nice new girl whose dress and demeanor the principal approves. However, false modesty is a virtue that Squeaky rejects. In her eyes, girls should not diminish their...
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