Critical Overview

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Before publication of her first book, Bambara had already made a reputation for herself as a short story writer, as an editor of anthologies of works by African-American writers, and as an activist in the New York African-American community. The impetus for publishing Gorilla, My Love came from a friend of Bambara's, who suggested that Bambara collect her stories, and indicated that Toni Morrison (then an editor at Random House) was interested in working toward its publication. With her first collection, Bambara established herself as a vital voice in the growing Black Aesthetic movement. Elliot Butler-Evans analyzed the collection in his Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction on Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker:

The stories in Gorilla clearly locate the collection in the broad context of Black nationalist fiction of the 1960s. Employing classic realism as their dominant narrative form, Bambara constructed organic Black communities in which intra-racial strife was minimal, the White world remained on the periphery, and the pervasive ‘‘realities'' of Black life were presented.

Published in 1972, Gorilla, My Love includes fifteen stories, mostly written between 1959 and 1970. They focus on the relationships among African Americans, primarily in the urban North of Bambara's childhood. They celebrate sassy and tough narrators—usually young girls—and explore the developmental experiences of young people as they learn about identity, self-worth, and belonging.

The backdrop for Bambara's tales is the African-American community. Martha Vertreace wrote the following in her chapter in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space:

For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension . . . her characters and community do a circle dance around and with each other as learning and growth occur

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The collection drew immediate praise, both from the white and African-American audience, and for a variety of reasons. Bell Gale Chevigny of The Village Voice appreciated the stories both for their artform and for what they had to say:

I find much of the writing here wonderful and well worth anyone's attention. . . . The stories are often sketchy as to plot, but always lavish in their strokes. . . . The black life she draws on . . . is so vividly particularized you don't feel the wisdom or bite till later.

Some critics also responded to Bambara's message, which they felt was delivered in a more positive manner than similar ones given by other African-American writers of the time. C. D. B. Bryan expressed this idea in his review in The New York Times Book Review:

Toni Cade Bambara tells me more about being black through her quiet, proud, silly, tender, hip, acute, loving stories than any amount of literary polemicizing could hope to do. She writes about love: a love for one's family, one's friends, one's race, one's neighborhood, and it is the sort of love that comes with maturity and inner peace.

Many critics, both at the time of publication and since, have commented on Bambara's accurate portrayal of the African-American community and the relationships within it. The Saturday Review called Gorilla, My Love ‘‘among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time.’’

Several contemporary reviewers and literary scholars since have found ‘‘The Lesson’’ to be one of Bambara's finest stories. Nancy D. Hargrove suggested in an essay in The Southern Quarterly that it was ‘‘perhaps the best of the fifteen stories.’’

Bambara went on the publish another short fiction collection, as well as two novels, a juvenile book, and a collection of essays, interviews, and fiction, but she is still best known for Gorilla, My Love.

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Essays and Criticism