Blues Ain't No Mockingbird

by Toni Cade Bambara

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Critical Overview

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When Gorilla, My Love, the collection of short stories which includes ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird,’’ was published in 1972, it was hailed by critics as a powerful portrayal of the experience of blacks in America. A writer in the Saturday Review remarked that the book was ‘‘among the best portraits of black life to appear in some time.’’

No full-length study of ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ has been completed, but critical discussion of Bambara as a short story writer generally concur on one point: Bambara is exemplary for her ability to capture the dialects and speech patterns of the characters she portrays. In an essay, ‘‘Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love,’’ Nancy D. Hargrove writes that Bambara’s narrators speak ‘‘conversationally and authentically.’’ Anne Tyler, herself a fiction writer, praises ‘‘the language of her characters, which is so startlingly beautiful without once striking a false note.’’ In an essay in Black Women Writers, Ruth Elizabeth Burks comments of Bambara’s range and dexterity in portraying languages. According to Burks, all of Bambara’s works ‘‘uses language to particularize and individualize the voices of the people wherever they are—on a New York City street, crossing the waters of the Pacific, amid the red salt clay of the Louisiana earth. . .’’ One critic, Caren Dybek, claims that Bambara ‘‘possesses one of the finest ears for the nuances of black English.’’ In her ability to capture the particular cadences and rhythms of her character’s speech, Bambara has been compared to Mark Twain and Zora Neale Hurston.

Critics also consider Bambara’s representations of black communities and concern with the formation of black identities. Burks argues that Bambara is less concerned with issues of race and class than many other black women writers: ‘‘Bambara appears less concerned with mirroring the black existence in American than in chronicling’the movement’ intended to improve and change that existence.’’ Burks argues that Bambara’s role is comparable to that of the griot, an African term for one who preserves history through story-telling. Bambara, Burk claims, ‘‘perpetuates the struggle of her people by literally recording it in their own voices.’’ Burk also notes that Bambara considers the limits of language as a way to gain independence. An ‘‘innate spirituality’’ must accompany an awareness of the power of words if blacks are to succeed in their quest for freedom. In a study of American women writers, American Women Writing Fiction, Martha M. Vertreace examines Bambara’s definitions of identity and community. According to Vertreace, Bambara’s sense of identity, defined as ‘‘personal definition within the context of community,’’ is one of her consuming interests. The strength of her female characters stems from the ‘‘lessons women learn from communal interaction,’’ not from an essential ‘‘feminine’’ trait they are born with. Thus, Vertreace claims, identity ‘‘is achieved, not bestowed.’’ Bambara’s concern with pedagogy and teaching, the centrality of community in her stories and her portrayal of the struggle to achieve despite seemingly overwhelming situations are all evidence of this definition of identity. While other writers ‘‘paint a picture of black life in contemporary black settings,’’ Bambara’s stories ‘‘portray women who struggle with issues and learn from them.’’

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Essays and Criticism