Blues Ain't No Mockingbird

by Toni Cade Bambara

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What does the mockingbird represent in "Blues Ain't No Mockingbird" by Toni Cade Bambara?

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The usual spelling of mockingbird author Toni Cade Bambara uses in her title "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird," as seen in her volume of short stories the work was first published in, tilted Gorilla, My Love, shows us that she is using the word mockingbird in a symbolically unusual way. Mockingbirds are highly intelligent, trainable birds; they are also highly protective of their young. Therefore, mockingbirds typically symbolize intelligence and courage, especially in Native American folklore ("Native American Mockingbird Mytholoy"). They also bring pleasure through their music, so they are known to symbolize joy and communication. However, Bambara is using mockingbird in her title to point to the wrongdoings of the men in her story trying to photograph the Cains in their state of poverty. In doing so, she emphasizes her central themes concerning lack of respect for others and lack of compassion. The key is noting that her chosen unusual spelling of "mockin bird" emphasizes the word mocking rather than just pointing to the actual bird.

To mock is to make fun of someone, to laugh at someone, and to ridicule the person for doing stupid things. We can mock people by "saying unkind things about them" (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online). We further mock people by showing them contempt, which is the feeling of meanness that stems from thinking people are unworthy or worthless, a feeling that goes hand in hand with racial prejudices (Random House Dictionary). We can also mock others by imitating them (Random House Dictionary), just as the mockingbird imitates the cries of other birds, even of cats and dogs.

A film can be seen as a facsimile of reality. The men in the story with the camera trying to film the Cains in their state of poverty are trying to create a copy of the Cains' life thereby trying to capture an imitation of them, an imitation they intend to show to the county officials. In trying to imitate the Cains, they are behaving like mockingbirds. More importantly, they are mocking the Cains through their feelings of contempt for the Cains.

We see the men's sentiment that the Cains, as well as others in the same socioeconomic class as the Cains, are worthless and unworthy individuals when we see the men say they are there filming for the county as part of the food stamp campaign. One of the men makes the following very important statement:

I see you grow your own vegetables ... . If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--

Though he doesn't finish his sentence because Granny silences him with her facial expression, the reader can easily see he was about to say that if more people in Granny's socioeconomic class grew their own vegetables, there would be "no need" for the county to waste its money by spending it on food stamps for the poor. From his statement, the reader can infer the two men think people of Granny's socioeconomic class are unworthy of care and assistance, a sentiment that fits the definition of mocking someone.

Hence, "mockin bird," as Bambara spells it in her title, represents cruel mockery, and she is using her title to say that the blues, or people's states of depression from poverty or otherwise, cannot be truly captured by imitation and are nothing to mock.

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What is the theme of "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird," by Toni Cade Bambara?

The title of Toni Cade Bambara's short story "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird" is a good indicator of the central theme. Mockingbirds are entertaining birds who spend the whole day singing by imitating other birds. The word mock is used to describe the act of making fun of someone, especially by imitating them (Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English). In speaking of the blues not being mockingbirds, the title is saying that sorrows are not for other people's entertainment; sorrows are not to be mocked and enjoyed. Bambara uses her title and short story to depict her central theme criticizing the innate human tendency to make a mockery of other people's suffering.

Bambara relays her central theme through the character Granny. Granny drives men with a camera off her property the moment she understands they are filming her family's poverty in order to prove to the county that poverty in the area isn't so bad that the county needs to spend extra money on food stamps to take care of the poor. Granny and the reader reach this realization the moment one man says to her, "I see you grow your own vegetables ... . If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--" In other words, the man is saying if more people of Granny's social class grew their own vegetables, then the county would not have to pay for food stamps. Yet, despite Granny's flower and vegetable garden, we know Granny and her family represent the poorest social class because, if they didn't, the men wouldn't be on their property filming.

But, Granny is wise enough to know how immoral it is to film another person's poverty or another person's suffering of any sort. We see her wisdom in the story she relays to her grandchildren of the man about to commit suicide. According to her story, while the minister, his wife, and the townspeople were trying to convince him not to jump off the bridge, a random stranger approached the crowd and captured the whole moment on film. As Granny wisely shows, "Takin pictures of the man in his misery," not doing anything to help, simply demonstrates a lack of empathy, a lack of understanding of what it truly means to suffer. Taking pictures of suffering, to publish in the news or for any other reason, is something present-day society is extremely guilty of. Through her characters, Bambara shows that just taking pictures, not offering help, does nothing but make a mockery of suffering. In portraying the cruelty of doing something as seemingly harmless as capturing on film the suffering of others, Bambara is developing a theme that criticizes people's lack of compassion and tendency to mock the suffering of others.

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What is the theme of "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird," by Toni Cade Bambara?

The theme of Toni Cade Bambara's "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird" revolves around the negative aspects of stereotyping.  Supposedly, the filmmakers are recording for the food stamp program, but it appears that they are shooting footage to use in an argument against providing the poor public aid:

"Maybe there's somethin you want to say for the film.  I see you grow your own vegetables,....If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--"

So there is a typing of Granny and Granddaddy Cain as undeserving of any help, thus stereotyping the lower class as trying to take advantage of government programs since ones like the Cains are self-sufficient. 

With this class stereotyping, there is also racial stereotyping as the cameramen feel that they do not need to be respectful toward Granny when she steps outside.  For, they do not greet her, when they do address her, one of them calls her "Aunty," which is a condescending term.  Granny catches them in their attitudes by relating the incident of a man who planned on jumping off a bridge, and filmmakers had their cameras running as they hoped to catch his suicide on film. Callously the cameramen displayed a total lack of regard for the man's suffering.  But, the blues for this man were real; they were "no mockingbird."  Like the suffering man on the bridge, the Cains are real people--no stereotype of lower class country black folk. 

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In "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird," what is author Toni Cade Bambara's tone?

The term tone is defined as the author's attitude toward the subject or the audience. Tone is expressed through the writer's word choices, which helps capture the way in which the writer is addressing the central theme in the work ("Tone," Literary Devices). Tone contrasts with mood in that mood is the atmosphere of the work, the emotions the writer evokes within the reader. While the mood in Toni Cade Bambara's short story "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird" is fairly comical, the story deals with very serious subject matter, and Bambara deals with that subject matter through a very serious, indignant tone, the serious subject matter being racial discrimination and treatment of the poor and suffering.

To feel indignant is to feel a strong sense of disapproval about "something considered unjust, offensive, insulting or base" (Random House Dictionary). Bambara particularly reveals her tone in Granny's speech about the treatment of the man about to jump off the bridge. After Granny tells the men to leave her property because she feels it is wrong of them to film her poverty, she turns to the children under her care and relays a story from her past about a man about to commit suicide. Everyone surrounding the man, including his wife, the minister, and the townspeople, showed genuine distress and begged him not to jump. Yet, a person with a camera decided to start photographing what many would think of as a newsworthy scene. Granny understood that, in filming the scene rather than doing anything to help, the person was doing nothing more than exploiting the suffering of the man who wanted to commit suicide. Granny expresses her righteous indignation at such exploitative behavior in her following speech:

So here comes ... this person ... with a camera, takin pictures of the man and the minister and the woman. Takin pictures of the man in his misery about to jump, cause life so bad and people been messin with him so bad. This person takin up the whole roll of film practically.

Bambara's own indignant tone echoes in the indignation Granny expresses in her speech. The phrases "man in his misery" and "messin with him" not only capture the sorrow of the scene but the author's sense of right and wrong. The author is conveying that it was because the man was made to suffer, most likely out of racial discrimination, that the man had been driven to want to jump. Taking photographs of such suffering, rather than doing anything to help, only glorifies the behaviors that had driven him to jump in the first place. In expressing her view of right and wrong, Bambara is also expressing her serious, indignant tone.

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What is the conflict in Toni Cade Bambara's "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird"?

One of the most dominant conflicts in Toni Cade Bambara's "Blues Ain't No Mockin' Bird" is character vs. character.

Granny Cain has discovered that two men are filming the fields around her property and approaching her house with the purpose of filming her house and its surrounding grounds. Granny is instantly insulted because she feels they are violating her family's privacy and rights as human beings, as she implies when she comes out onto the porch and tells the young narrator, "Go tell that man we ain't a bunch of trees," meaning that if the Cains were only emotionless trees, the men would have every right to film them as much as they wanted.

The conflict between Granny and the two cameramen intensifies when the men approach, explain they are filming for the county, and ask permission to film her home. When Granny denies permission, the men reveal their true intentions. They are filming for the "food stamp campaign" and have noticed that Granny has her own vegetable garden. One of the men asserts, "If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--." Though the man never finishes his sentence, the reader knows he is trying to say that if more people of Granny's socioeconomic class grew their own vegetables, then there would be no reason for the county to spend the money on food stamps for the poor. In other words, the men are there to not only exploit the impoverished suffering of people like Granny but to distort it so it no longer looks like suffering.

The character vs. character conflict continues to escalate as the men still refuse to leave and stop filming. The conflict resolves when Granddaddy Cain comes home, opens their camera to destroy their film, and orders them off the property.

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What inferences can be made about Toni Cade Bambara's story "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird"?

One of the main inferences we can draw from Toni Cade Bambara's story "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird" concerns the cameramen's real motive for wanting to film the Cains' home.

Though at first glance the two men with the camera seem polite, upon closer look, the reader will be able to detect disrespectfulness in their tone, disrespectfulness that directly relates to their motive. They even appear to compliment Granny's home, noting such things as her pecan barrels, trees, decorated drive way, and flower and vegetable gardens. Yet, after they explain they are filming for the county as part of the food stamp campaign, one of the men says something very offensive that reveals the men's true motive:

I see you grow your own vegetables ... . If more folks did that, see, there'd be no need--

While he does not finish his sentence because he is silenced by the look on Granny's face, the reader can easily tell he was about to say something like there would be no need for the county to spend money on food stamps for the poor. His unfinished sentence allows the reader to infer that the two men are not there filming out of a benevolent motive to push the food stamp campaign forward. Instead, they are their trying to film the lifestyles of people of Granny's socioeconomic class because they have a motive to shut the food stamp campaign down. The two men from the county don't want people of Granny's socioeconomic class to be helped by the government, most likely because the men are racially prejudiced. Instead, they want to erroneously prove to the count that people like Granny are getting by just fine on their own.

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