Blues Ain't No Mockingbird

by Toni Cade Bambara

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Historical Context

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The Black Power Movement
When ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ was published in 1971, the influence of the Black Power Movement was widely felt among African-American artists and writers. While the Black Power movement, extending through the decade from 1965 to 1975, grew out of the Civil Rights movement for the dignity and equality of black people in the United States, the Black Power movement stressed the importance of self-definition rather than integration and demanded economic and political power as well as equality. The movement was fuelled by protest against such incidents as the shooting of Civil Rights leader James Meredith in 1966 while he led a protest march across Mississippi. Shortly afterward, Civil Rights leader Stokely Carmichael initiated the call for Black Power and the first National Conference on Black Power was held in Washington, D.C. in 1966. In the same year, the Black Panther Party was founded in Oakland, California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton, taking a militant stand against police brutality and the appalling conditions of black urban ghettoes, which lacked adequate municipal services and suffered crime rates up to 35 times higher than white neighborhoods.

While the unemployment, crime and lack of facilities in black urban communities were denounced, black communities were also seen as the source of a vibrant culture. By the early 1970s, Black Power had become a widespread demand for black people to control their own destinies through various means: political activism, community control and development, cultural awareness and the development of black studies and ‘‘Black Arts.’’ Pride in both African heritage and in the cultural distinctiveness of black communities in the United States, often summed up in the word ‘‘soul’’ was reflected in a variety of forms from ‘‘Afro’’ hairstyles to soul music and soul food. In the arena of sports, heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali embodied the self-confident attitudes of black pride. In the arts, black writers saw themselves as both inheritors and creators of a black aesthetic tradition. African- American writers like Toni Cade Bambara played an important part in developing awareness of a distinct African-American culture and folk tradition which emphasized the collective and maintained oral forms of expression. Bambara’s sympathetic portrayal of Granny’s resistance of efforts to patronize her and to exploit her family is typical of the concerns of the time, as is the emphasis Bambara places on the storytelling roles of Granny, Cathy, and the narrator.

By the mid-1970s organizations like the Black Panthers, targets for police persecution and FBI surveillance, were decimated. In 1976, the 4,000 black officials elected represented a larger number than had ever held office, but were still only 0.5% of all American elected officials. In the 1990s, African- Americans constitute less than 2 percent of all elected officials. Economic conditions for African- Americans suffered in the 1980s: the recessions in the early 1980s reduced black family income to only 56% of white family income, less than in 1952, and the gap remains the about same in the 1990s. Nevertheless, the cultural heritage of the Black Power movement—black self-awareness and the celebration of an African-American culture and identity—has remained.

Black Women and the Women’s Movement
The Women’s Movement developed in the late 1960s in North America partly in response to the radicalizing processes of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements and the antiwar movement. At the same time, many women were radicalized by their realization that they were treated as secondclass participants in these movements. Women analyzed their situation and advocated radical change, forming their own local organizations and national networks for women’s equality and women’s rights. Consciousness groups were...

(This entire section contains 834 words.)

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formed and women’s centers established, concerned about issues such as sexual discrimination and harassment, spousal abuse, rape, and freedom of choice concerning abortion. Bambara’s portrayal of strong, capable, and independent- minded female characters in stories like ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ challenged conventional assumptions about female roles. In particular, her emphasis on the story-telling abilities of Cathy, Granny, and the narrator insists on the ability of women to interpret reality effectively and their right to do so.

Black women, however, did not necessarily embrace the same ideology as the mainly white, middle-class women who dominated mainstream women’s groups. As Toni Cade Bambara did in her anthology, The Black Woman, black women tended to connect issues of sexual equality with those of race and class. The struggle for welfare rights and decent housing was also seen by women in the black community as a woman’s issue. As well, many black women felt that taking on the education and socialization of the young was an important role for them to play in order to strengthen their communities and empower future generations. ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ emphasizes the nurturing and teaching roles of both Granny and Cathy, whose stories impart lessons about personal and community values. Moreover, while many feminist writers white and black have been accused of vilifying men, Bambara in this story portrays a strong, positive black male character.

Literary Style

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In ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird,’’ a young black girl recounts an incident in which two white filmmakers attempted to film her home and family over the protests of her grandmother.

Dialect
Toni Cade Bambara’s use of dialect has been highly praised by readers and critics. Her ability to capture the cadences and languages of rural Southern black speech has been equated with Mark Twain’s ability to capture the dialects of nineteenth-century American speech.

The informal and conversational tone of ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ allows the narrator to ‘‘talk’’ to us in her own voice, and her figurative language conveys as much of the story’s themes as any action of the plot. When the twins ask Granny what happened to the man who was going to jump off the bridge, the narrator reports: ‘‘And Granny just stared at the twins till their faces swallow up the eager and they don’t even care any more about the man jumpin.’’ The image of the faces of the young boys ‘‘swallow[ing] up the eager’’ brilliantly conveys a complex psychological process in a few words. Similarly, Bambara renders dialogue so competently that the reader can ‘‘hear’’ the words of her characters and, by so doing, better understand their motivations and values. When Granny responds to the filmmakers’s praise of her ‘‘nice things,’’ she says: ‘‘‘I don’t know about the thing, the it, and the stuff. . . . Just people here is what I tend to consider.’’’ The syntax of Granny’s words conveys the cadences in her speech, and the narrator’s comment that she ‘‘speaks with her eyebrows’’ helps the reader to visualize her. Bambara’s adept ability to capture the language of her characters in its speci- ficity and fullness enables the reader to gather the story’s themes almost entirely through the words of the characters.

Point of View
‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ is told from the point of view of a young child. In the fifteen short stories which comprise the short story collection Gorilla, My Love, in which ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ appears, ten are told from the perspective of young, female narrators. Most of the narrators are imaginative and intelligent, but many also display a considerable vulnerability and insecurity. The narrator of ‘‘Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird’’ is aware that both her grandmother and Cathy are more perceptive than she is and have a better understanding of the world. Yet the use of the point of view of a child whose language reflects her age, race, and rural Southern background allows the reader a particular advantage. We understand the events through her consciousness, and her unsophisticated yet insightful narration allows us to consider the complex issues present in the story through her subtle, questioning, and poignantly innocent eyes.

Compare and Contrast

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1970s: The Equal Rights Amendment, a proposal to change the constitution to guarantee women’s rights, particularly equal pay for equal work, becomes a central issue of political debate.

1990s: Women continue to struggle for political, social, and especially financial equality with men in the United States. Comparably educated and experienced women still earn, on average, only 75% of what men earn for performing the same work.

1970s: The broad-based civil rights movement of the early’60s gave way, in the wake of the deaths of Malcolm X (1967), and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968) to more the radicalized racial politics of a younger generation of activists, including the Black Power movement, Angela Davis and the Black Panther Party founded by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale. The more militant Black Power organizations were targeted for investigation and infiltration by the government and quickly faded from prominence.

1990s: The Black Power tradition continues with the public prominence of Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam. Alternative strategies for social integration and minority advancement are visible in the popularity of multicultural education.

1970s: A full range of government guaranteed services to the poor, known as entitlements, are instituted to guarantee a minimum standard of living for all American citizens, continuing reforms of the 1960s.

1996: President Bill Clinton signs the Welfare Reform Bill, limiting recipients to five years of benefits and ending a federal guarantee of a sustainable income through the use of food stamps, medical assistance and cash grants.

1970s: Judges begin interpreting Civil Rights legislation as requiring full racial integration of public school systems. Many efforts to integrate schools result in violence, for instance Boston in 1974, or the abandonment of public schools and mixed-race districts by middle-class whites.

1990s: Debates over the quality and equity of education continue. Many school districts remain segregated, despite twenty years of efforts at integration. New proposals for education reform include school choice, school vouchers, home schooling, charter schools, and a federal guarantee of access to higher education.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Hargrove, Nancy D. ‘‘Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love,’’ in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, 1983, pp. 81-99.

Vertreace, Martha M. ‘‘Toni Cade Bambara,’’ in American Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155–7.

Further Reading
Bambara, Toni Cade. ‘‘How She Came by Her Name,’’ in her Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, Pantheon Books, 1996, pp. 201-45. In this collection of Bambara’s later writings is included an interview with the author, discussing her early career as a writer and essayist.

Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. ‘‘From Baptism to Resurrection; Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language,’’ in Black Women Writers,edited by Mari Evans, Doubleday, 1984, pp. 48–57. Burks discusses what she sees as the spiritual power of Bambara’s use of language.

Morrison, Toni. ‘‘City Limits, Village Values: Concepts of the Neighborhood in Black Fiction,’’ in Literature and the Urban Experience, edited by Michael C. Jaye and Ann Chalmers Watts, Rutgers University Press, 1981, pp. 35-43. Morrison discusses the role of the city in the works of many African-American writers, including Bambara.

Robinson, Lillian S., ed. Modern Women Writers. Continuum, 1996. A compilation of critical writings on modern women writers, including an extensive section on Toni Cade Bambara.

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