Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 915
The title of Toni Cade Bambara’s short story is ironic because “My Man Bovanne” is a meaningless, pat expression to all the people who utilize it in the story; to them it is merely a “hip” way to address an old, blind man for whom they have no real feeling. On the other hand, Miss Hazel, the story’s narrator, who at the story’s outset insists that Bovanne “ain’t my man, mind you,” by the end of the story has taken in Bovanne out of empathy and concern, qualities lacking in all the others who deal with Bovanne in the story.
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The story takes place at a fund-raising, consciousness-raising party held by a black coalition in the hope of organizing and unifying the African Americans of a New York City neighborhood into a politically powerful organization. Hazel, however, does not focus on the speeches or the politics of the evening; in fact she starts off her account by informing her readers that all blind people have a “hummin jones”; they are often given over to humming as a natural consequence of “what no eyes will force you into to see people.” Bovanne, a blind gentleman who has been invited to the party, is no exception to this rule. When Hazel asks Bovanne to dance, it comes as no surprise to her that they should soon reach a kind of humming, intuitive rapport on the dance floor. Hazel is not very interested in the ostensible reason for her presence at the party: to support the candidacy of her niece’s cousin, Nisi, “who’s runnin for somethin with this Black party somethin or other behind her.” She has a difficult time understanding lofty causes, but she can appreciate individuals. She sees everyone passing by poor, blind Bovanne with a glib “My man, Bovanne,” without any of them once offering to talk to him or get him a sandwich or something to drink. She therefore takes it on herself to be kind to him.
However, her dancing with Bovanne becomes a major point of controversy in the story. She admits that they danced closely, but in her account there is almost something sublime, and certainly nothing scandalous, in their closeness: “Touch talkin like the heel of the hand on a tambourine or on a drum.” Hazel’s children, however, take a very different view; in fact they physically escort her off the dance floor and into the kitchen to be reprimanded.
Hazel informs the readers why she, Bovanne, and a number of other elderly neighborhood residents have been invited to the function in the first place; it is a matter of “Grass roots, you see.” Hazel is amused by the notion that suddenly her children and others their age want to get back to their “roots.” Only a few years earlier they had complained about her “countrified rags,” but they “now can’t get black enough to suit ’em.” All during her ensuing confrontation with her three children, she reiterates or rethinks this basic irony.
In the kitchen, the reader gets his first direct look at the perspective of Hazel’s children through dialogue. They accuse her of having had too much to drink; they complain that her dress is too short and too low-cut; they note that her wig looks ridiculous, and they bluntly express their distaste for her too-close dancing with blind Bovanne: Her daughter Elo goes so far as to say that Hazel’s behavior looked no better than “a bitch in heat.” Hazel is dismayed by this reaction but insists that “I wasn’t shame.”
Hazel’s children have very specific reasons for their negative reactions to their mother’s behavior. They inform her in the kitchen that she was going to be expected to start up a “council of elders” and to ask the Reverend Trent for the use of his basement for party headquarters; clearly, in their minds, such responsibilities do not jibe with lewd dancing with a pitiful old blind man. Hazel reacts negatively to her children’s demands in part because they treat her so harshly, in part because they have no empathy for Bovanne, and in part because they tell her of their plans only at the last second: “If grass roots mean you kept in the dark I can’t use it.” She also refuses to talk to the Reverend Trent, whom she considers a hypocrite, and intentionally misunderstands the tenor if not the intent of her children’s request when she says, “You want me to belly rub with the Reven, that it?”
When further argument seems futile, the three children agree that a “family council” is needed, which they set up for the next evening’s dinner, presumably at their mother’s house, and again without her specific participation or permission. They then leave her alone in the kitchen. Bovanne wanders into the kitchen and Hazel decides to take him to buy some dark sunglasses and then to take him to her home for a “nice warm bath.” Again her ironic humor shows forth when she notes that these actions will be her way of “doing her part” for the elderly of the neighborhood. She also informs Bovanne that he will be guest of honor at the “family council” the next evening. The story ends with her ironic reply to Bovanne’s comment that she must be a “pretty woman”: “I surely am; just like the hussy my daughter say I am.”