Hazel Parker's Attempt to Deny ‘‘false roles of femininity''

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1936

In her preface to the anthology in which ‘‘Raymond’s Run’’ first appeared, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, Bambara notes that her stories are intended to present black young people with an opportunity ‘‘to learn how to listen, to be proud of our oral tradition, our elders who tell tales in the kitchen.’’ Bambara suggests that both the form and the content of the stories, their language and their potential lessons, have something to reveal about the strengths of the African-American community. ‘‘Raymond’s Run,’’ and other stories published in Bambara’s first collection Gorilla, My Love, have been admired for the construction of vibrant African- American voices and communities. Young Hazel Parker, in ‘‘Raymond’s Run,’’ self-confidently addresses the reader in her own particular colloquial voice. Her voice reflects her character. Moving through her community of Harlem, New York City, she appears, as Alice Deck has observed about many of Bambara’s characters, ‘‘comfortably familiar with the people and each building, street lamp, and fire hydrant. . . .’’ In the course of the story, however, Hazel is faced with a source of discomfort. Interestingly, it turns out to be someone who is most like herself: a young, confident African- American girl.

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From the beginning of ‘‘Raymond’s Run,’’ Hazel’s voice and behavior reflect her strength. At the same time, her first words comment on her role as a female. Direct and outspoken, she tells the reader about herself: ‘‘I don’t have much work to do around the house like some girls. My mother does that.’’ She informs the reader of her responsibility for ‘‘mind[ing]’’ Raymond, her mentally-challenged brother who is ‘‘much bigger and older’’ but ‘‘not quite right.’’ In defining herself this way, Hazel suggests that although she does not help her mother with the housework, she has taken on a caretaking role often associated with women. This idea is immediately negated by her declaration that ‘‘if anybody has anything to say to Raymond, anything about his big head, they have to come by me.’’ She asserts that, though small and thin, she would rather act against taunts from others than ‘‘[stand] around with somebody in my face doing a lot of talking. I much rather just knock you down and take my chances even if I am a little girl with skinny arms and legs.’’ Although she is nicknamed ‘‘Squeaky,’’ Hazel is no mouse. Rather than seeing her job of looking after Raymond as a self-sacrificing female role, Hazel undertakes it with responsibility and pride. Furthermore, she enters traditional male territory by adopting the role of warrior in defense of Raymond, and she implies that she does it better than her brother George who previously had the job of ‘‘minding’’ Raymond and had been unable to prevent the insults of ‘‘a lot of smart mouths.‘‘

Hazel also claims space in the traditional male territory of athlete with her dedication to running. As she simply states, ‘‘I run. That is what I’m all about.’’ To become the champion runner she is, Hazel has taken every opportunity to practice. When she is out with her mother, she ‘‘high-prance[s] down 34th Street like a rodeo pony to keep my knees strong,’’ despite her mother’s embarrassment. While looking after Raymond, she practices her breathing and pacing while he plays his own games of being a stagecoach driver. ‘‘I never walk when I can trot, and shame on Raymond if he can’t keep up,’’ she states. Feminine modesty is not characteristic of Hazel. She is proud of what she has accomplished and proclaims her skill to herself and to anyone else: ‘‘I’m the fastest thing on two feet,’’ ‘‘I’m the swiftest thing in the neighborhood,’’ ‘‘I am Miss Quicksilver herself.’’

In practicing as an athlete, Hazel differentiates her attitudes and behaviour from what she sees as two models of falseness or inauthenticity. One is the behaviour of her schoolmate Cynthia, who acts as if her hard-earned talents are spontaneous. Cynthia pretends to play the piano because she has accidentally landed on the piano stool, although Hazel has seen Cynthia ‘‘practicing the scales on the piano over and over and over and over.’’ Unlike Cynthia, whose lacy blouses suggest the ideal of a refined, unperspiring femininity, Hazel is willing to show her sweat. She takes the risk of both failure and ridicule that openly striving for a goal and acknowledging its importance involves. The second model of inauthenticity is the participation of girls in the May Pole dancing on May Day, which involves dressing up in ‘‘a white organdy dress with a big satin sash’’ and ‘‘new white baby-doll shoes’’ and ‘‘trying to act like a fairy or flower or whatever you’re supposed to be.’’ What you’re supposed to be, as far as Hazel is concerned is ‘‘a poor Black girl who really can’t afford to buy shoes and a new dress you only wear once in a lifetime cause it won’t fit next year.’’ With these statements, Hazel states her belief in taking pride in what she is rather than pretending to be what she is not. She senses a false model of femininity that denies the varied potentials of African-American girls by reducing them to ‘‘baby-dolls.’’ As she points out, the May Pole dancing, not the track meet, is seen as ‘‘the biggest thing on the program.’’

When Hazel confronts the newcomer Gretchen, however, she also comes face to face with her own inauthenticity. Gretchen ‘‘has put out the tale that she is going to win the first-place medal this year.’’ Hazel is ‘‘strolling down Broadway’’ with Raymond at her side on the day before the May Day races, practicing her breathing, when she comes upon Gretchen and her ‘‘sidekicks.’’ Gretchen’s follower Mary Louise has abandoned Hazel for Gretchen, and her other cohort Rosie ‘‘has a big mouth where Raymond is concerned.’’ Quelling her first instinct to duck into a store, Hazel decides to confront them in a ‘‘Dodge City’’-style showdown. Gretchen and her friends do not draw sixguns, however, but rather smiles. First of all Mary Louise hypocritically ‘‘smiles’’ her question to Hazel: ‘‘You signing up for the May Day races?’’ Hazel does not bother to respond to either Mary Louise or Rosie but says ‘‘straight at Gretchen’’: ‘‘I always win cause I’m the best.’’ In answer, Gretchen smiles and Hazel observes ‘‘but it’s not a smile, and I’m thinking that girls never really smile at each other because they don’t know how and don’t want to know. . . .’’ She admits to herself that ‘‘there’s probably no one to teach us how, cause grown-up girls don’t know either.’’ As it turns out, a physical confrontation is avoided and the rivals go their separate ways. Hazel is not bested by Gretchen either physically or verbally, but a personal defeat is implied. With the word ‘‘us,’’ Hazel includes herself among the ‘‘girls’’ who can only exchange phony smiles.

Hazel’s inability to be real with Gretchen seems of little import at the time; after the incident, Hazel strolls with Raymond towards 145th ‘‘with not a care in the world because I am Miss Quicksilver herself.’’ The incident, however, allows the reader to glimpse Hazel’s Achilles heel. In many ways, Hazel can overcome her society’s stereotyping of women: she can talk with people, she can fight, she can become a champion runner. Her experience with Gretchen, however, suggests that the tendency to belittle and dehumanize women occurs not only externally but also internally. The phony smiles girls exchange mask real feelings of fear, contempt and hostility. In a society in which women are infantilized as ‘‘baby-dolls’’ and have little share of the power, they learn to devalue themselves and compete against each other for what advantage they can get. At the same time, open competition is often branded as unfeminine—do fairies or flowers compete?— and occurs indirectly, disguised by a smile. Distrust and rivalry between women become the norm. That these feelings exist among the women of Hazel’s community and are passed on to the young girls is suggested by Hazel’s insight that there is ‘‘no one to teach’’ girls how to smile with true feeling. However, someone from an unexpected quarter does teach Hazel. That someone is her brother Raymond, who has also been belittled and dehumanized.

The idea that girls should manipulate events and each other indirectly rather than compete openly and honestly is reinforced by Mr. Pearson’s hint before the May Day race begins that Hazel should let Gretchen win. It is hard to imagine him asking this behaviour of a young boy. The incident sug gests that Mr. Pearson does not consider ‘‘Squeaky,’’ as he calls her, a real athlete who needs to test herself and deserves the recognition that comes from winning. That Hazel wants to test herself against a worthy rival is suggested by the way she looks for Gretchen as soon as she and Raymond enter the park and by the incipient admiration in her description of Gretchen at the starting line ‘‘kicking her legs out like a pro.’’

During the race, however, it is not Gretchen but Raymond who compels Hazel’s attention. Although Raymond is on the other side of a fence from Hazel, he runs the race alongside her. Glancing out of the corner of her eye Hazel sees him running and ‘‘it’s the first time I ever saw that and I almost stop to watch my brother Raymond on his very first run.’’ The language here is ambiguous–it could be the first time Hazel has seen Raymond because it is the first time he has run in that way, or it could be the first time Hazel has ever been able to see Raymond’s ability to run. In any case, Raymond has revealed himself to be a complex being, not reducible to a ‘‘pumpkin head’’ or someone who is ‘‘not quite right.’’ In many ways, Raymond is like Hazel. Raymond runs well, and he runs despite society’s labels. While she will ‘‘prance’’ like a pony for the sake of running, he runs ‘‘with his arms down to his side and the palms tucked up behind him.’’ Furthermore, with no ulterior motives or attempts to manipulate, Raymond simply runs ‘‘in his very own style.’’ For a moment, Raymond becomes a mirror for Hazel, and, more than that, a model. Raymond’s run, in spite of all the forces that attempt to bind and reduce him, communicates to Hazel in a wordless fashion the diversity and possibility of human potential beyond social expectations, including that of girls like herself and Gretchen. Joyfully, Hazel welcomes Raymond over to her side of the fence.

When the winner and runner-up of the race are announced, ‘‘Miss Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker’’ and ‘‘Miss Gretchen P. Lewis,’’ Hazel and Gretchen share ‘‘this great big smile of respect between us.’’ The use of the girls’ full names suggests not only that they have won respect as athletes but that Hazel is ready to accept and value her full self and therefore to be curious about rather than threatened by Gretchen’s potential—‘‘I look over at Gretchen wondering what the ‘P’ stands for.’’ The reader has every reason to believe that the girls, at last able to exchange smiles of respect, will also learn how to exchange smiles of joy for and in each other, as Hazel and Raymond have done.

Source: Lalage Grauer, ‘‘Overview of Raymond’s Run,’’ for Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2000.

Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run'

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2507

Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘‘Raymond’s Run’’ (1971), reprinted in her first collection of tales, Gorilla, My Love (1972), seems an exuberantly straightforward story: the first person, present tense narration of specific events in the life of a particular Harlem child, ‘‘a little girl with skinny arms and a squeaky voice,’’ Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, usually called Squeaky. Squeaky is assertive, challenging, even combative, and concerned to display herself as she is—at one point stressing her unwillingness to act, even in a show, ‘‘like a fairy or a flower or whatever you’re supposed to be when you should be trying to be yourself’’. Above all, she’s a speedy runner, ‘‘the fastest thing on two feet’’, and proud of it. ‘‘I run, that is what I am all about,’’ she says.

Squeaky’s narrative records the movement towards a race she has won easily in previous years, the May Day fifty-yard dash. This year she is pitted against a new girl, Gretchen, and the organizing teacher, Mr. Pearson, comes close to suggesting that, as ‘‘a nice gesture’’ towards the new girl, she might consider losing the race. (‘‘Grownups got a lot of nerve sometimes,’’ Squeaky snorts.) Earlier, when out with and looking after her older brother Raymond—a boy with an enlarged head who is ‘‘not quite right’’ and often lost in his own world of mimicry, games and make believe—Squeaky has to confront Gretchen and her ‘‘sidekicks’’ in what she calls ‘‘one of those Dodge City scenes’’ of verbal barracking and incipient physical violence, a showdown in which, though outnumbered three to one, she bests the opposition without needing to resort to fisticuffs. Similarly, on May Day itself, though it is literally a close-run thing and there is marked suspense as she waits for the official announcement of the result, feisty Squeaky breaks the tape first. Even before the loudspeaker broadcasts her victory, honoring her with her full and proper name (‘‘Dig that,’’ she says), Squeaky grants Gretchen increased respect for such things as the way the new girl runs and then gets her breathing under control ‘‘like a real pro,’’ so that at the actual announcement Squeaky can sincerely ‘‘respect’’ her rival and exchange ‘‘real smiling’’ with her. Thus one of the story’s technical feats is the registration of Squeaky’s enlarged awareness despite the use of the first person present tense, a perspective which does not permit the speaker—who, of necessity, is always limited to the here and now—any distance from which to reflect upon events.

Indeed, as several seminal discussions of narratological problems have insisted, this narrative perspective imposes much responsibility on the reader. All intimations must be disposed in and through the story, with the reader left to assess their import. Raymond, his nature and the burden he must represent to a young girl, forms one locus for such speculation. In the very first paragraph Squeaky tells the reader this: ‘‘All I have to do in life is mind my brother Raymond, which is enough’’. And it is. Minding him, coming to terms with the insults his condition provokes, gets her into scrapes and actual scraps—‘‘I much rather just knock you down and take my chances,’’ as she puts it—including the one with Gretchen and her two pals. And by the end of the story Squeaky is planning to quit running herself in order to concentrate on training Raymond—who, she has just realized, can also run. If she carries out such a decision Squeaky will not be just looking after Raymond but truly ‘‘minding’’ him: he will be considered, in her mind, no longer merely running alongside ‘‘and shame on [him] if he can’t keep up.’’ That is, without making it the obvious center of concern, indeed without even fully focusing on it, the story charts Squeaky’s acceptance of Raymond.

This in itself constitutes a closer, more intimate and charged issue than might initially seem the case. In a detail which could be taken primarily as an admission of vulnerability on Squeaky’s part, a rounding out, so to speak, of her character, she confides that her father is even faster than she is: ‘‘He can beat me to Amsterdam Avenue with me having a two fire-hydrant headstart and him running with his hands in his pockets and whistling. But that’s private information’’. Later, in Squeaky’s description of Raymond’s running, he has ‘‘his arms down to his side and the palms tucked up behind him’’ in ‘‘his very own style’’; this is a style which contrasts with Squeaky’s running, arms ‘‘pumping up and down,’’ and is very much Raymond’s ‘‘own,’’ but it is also subtly reminiscent of the ‘‘private’’ image of Mr. Parker’s relaxed-arm racing prowess. Squeaky has always accepted her duty to mind Raymond, she has monitored him and even fought for him, but at the end of the story she ventures a step further: rather than simply knowing him as her brother, she accepts and acknowledges him as such—a child, like her, of the same father. She renders this explicitly when she declares him ‘‘my brother Raymond, a great runner in the family tradition’’.

When Squeaky outlines her idea to make Raymond ‘‘her champion’’ she adds,

After all, with a little more study I can beat Cynthia and her phony self at the spelling bee. And if I bugged my mother, I could get piano lessons and become a star. And I have a big rep as the baddest thing around. And I’ve got a roomful of ribbons and medals and awards. But what has Raymond got to call his own?

This constitutes both full consciousness of Raymond and a catalogue of the relativities of their relationship. There is a sense in which the whole tale works similarly: while in her own unmistakable voice it undoubtedly and overtly tells the reader much of Squeaky’s life, including her insistence on her own identity and authenticity (especially in comparison, say, with Cynthia’s ‘‘phony self’’), it is also, as its title indicates, the story of Raymond’s run, Raymond’s life.

Running, in fact, has an attested pedigree as a metaphor for life’s passage, as in such semi-folk sayings as ‘‘life’s race well run, life’s work well done.’’ Interestingly, this usage often includes an injunction to live the good life; thus Isaiah’s prophe sy that ‘‘they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary.’’ [Isaiah, XL, 31] Saint Paul, as might be expected, was fiercer: ‘‘let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us’’ [Epistle to the Hebrews, XII, I]—a sentiment that the famous Victorian hymn ‘‘Fight the good fight’’ rendered into cliche: ‘‘run the straight race through God’s good grace.’’

The May Day fifty-yard dash signals the childrens’ situations precisely: as Squeaky zooms towards the tape, ‘‘flying past the other runners,’’ Raymond runs alongside, level with her, but literally ‘‘on the other side of the fence’’. Just before Squeaky resolves to ‘‘retire as a runner and begin a whole new career as a coach with Raymond as [her] champion’’, Raymond is imaged as ‘‘rattling the fence like a gorilla in a cage like in them gorilla movies’’, and the reader intuits that Squeaky’s determination is complex: she wants to bring him over the fence and into the race of life; she hopes to lay aside his impediments and grant him the good life; she also seeks to free him from his anthropoid but King-Kong-like status and enter him into the human race. Hence, too, the subliminal logic in the deft inclusion of the detail of the means by which Raphael Perez ‘‘always wins’’ the thirty-yard dash. ‘‘He wins before he even begins by psyching the other runners,’’ Squeaky discloses, ‘‘telling them they’re going to trip on their shoelaces, etc.’’. Raymond merely imitates his sister’s performance— before the race, for instance, he bends down ‘‘with his fingers on the ground just like he knew what he was doing’’—because, until the hope at the very end of the story, he has been ‘‘psyched,’’ psyched out of his own authentic identity and out of the race altogether. This narrative of Raymond’s ‘‘first run’’ and his climbing of the fence ‘‘nice and easy but very fast’’ towards Squeaky is the story of a humanizing love; its double focus takes in both of its two protagonists.

Yet just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—which, with its mischievous young narrator, is structured similarly—ends ambiguously, so Raymond’s Run has its further ironies. When on the last page of the book Mark Twain’s youthful protagonist tells the reader that he is going to ‘‘light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,’’ the reader knows that Huck’s perspective, however fresh and truthful, is limited: even if he gets there ‘‘ahead,’’ civilization, with all that it entails, will catch up with him. Bambara’s young speaker’s aspirations must be seen as likewise shot through with doubts—perhaps more so. It may be, for example, that ‘‘with a little more study’’ Squeaky could ‘‘beat Cynthia’’ at the spelling bee, but even after the hoped for piano lessons it would be a very chancy business for her to become, in line with her stated ambition, ‘‘a star.’’ One of the most telling effects of present tense first person narratives is the creation of such ironies: the reader must always question the teller’s version of things. Seen in this light, Squeaky’s ambitions may all be wishful thinking. The reader knows, too, that Squeaky’s blackness will also be made to militate against her in the world beyond Amsterdam Avenue. Thus, for her, this year’s May Day fifty-yard dash could well prove not the initiation but the apex of her achievements, the climax of her life’s run. And, of course, if this is so, Raymond will never be coached to become a champion. The present tense— which by definition precludes a known future—is relentless: the story tells of his ‘‘first run’’—and it is his first and only run.

Then again, perhaps such a fraught perspective does not grant enough credence to Squeaky herself, especially to her voice. The first words of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, given to Benjy, include repeated references to fences: ‘‘Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. . . . I went along the fence. . . . They [the golfers] went on, and I went along the fence . . . and we went along the fence . . . and I looked through the fence. . . . ‘Here, caddie.’ He hit . . . I held to the fence and watched them going away.’’ Benjy, the idiot Compson brother, clings to the fence, moaning and weeping for his lost sister, Caddy, whose image has been invoked by the golfer’s call for his caddie. That sister had truly ‘‘minded’’ Benjy, had been his monitor, refuge and source of warmth. Caddy, indeed, was the representation of love for each of her three brothers. But, in that she was granted no narration of her own, she was also, as at least one critic has put it, the ‘‘absent center’’ of the novel [Carey Wall, Midwest Quarterly, 1970]. In ‘‘Raymond’s Run’’ by contrast, Squeaky is not only very much present for her brother, but possesses a powerful voice of her own. Squeaky’s voice—as is so often the case with Bambara’s protagonists—is notable for its vibrancy and verve. The idiosyncrasy and sheer insistence of Squeaky’s voice impinges on, even hustles, the reader in a triumphant exhibition of will. Interestingly, that will is expressed most explicitly in Squeaky’s description of her usual pre-race ‘‘dream’’:

Every time, just before I take off in a race, I always feel like I’m in a dream, the kind of dream you have when you’re sick with fever and feel all hot and weightless. I dream I’m flying over a sandy beach in the early morning sun, kissing the leaves of the trees as I fly by. And there’s always the smell of apples, just like in the country when I was little and used to think I was a choochoo train, running through the fields of corn and chugging up the hill to the orchard. And all the time I’m dreaming this, I get lighter and lighter until I’m flying over the beach again, getting blown through the sky like a feather that weighs nothing at all. But once I spread my fingers in the dirt and crouch over the Get on Your Mark, the dream goes and I am solid again and am telling myself, Squeaky you must win, you must win, you are the fastest thing in the world, you can even beat your father up Amsterdam if you really try. And then I feel my weight coming back just behind my knees then down to my feet then into the earth and the pistol shot explodes in my blood and I am off and weightless again, flying past the other runners.

This fleeting vision takes in much. In terms of space, the evocation here of beach and country gently reminds the reader of Squeaky’s actual situation, one in which she may lie on her back, ‘‘looking up at the sky,’’ but can only try ‘‘to pretend’’ she is ‘‘in the country.’’ Because, as she sees, ‘‘even grass in the city feels hard as sidewalk, as there’s just no pretending you are anywhere but in a ‘concrete jungle’.’’ (The notion of the ‘‘concrete jungle,’’ which she has heard her grandfather use, further energizes the image of Raymond’s entrapment in terms of ‘‘them gorilla movies.’’) Also, young as Squeaky is, the dream is reminiscent of a more innocent time (perhaps primordially so, with its Edenic apples) of ‘‘choochoo’’ trains and corn- fields—before, that is, she took over the particularly heavy responsibility for Raymond from an older brother and before, in general, she became conscious of the burdens of humanity. And here, as it is in the verse of Isaiah quoted earlier (‘‘they shall mount up with wings as eagles’’), flying is an exalted form of running in which, as Saint Paul phrased it, ‘‘every weight’’ is laid aside. Indeed, she can ‘‘kiss the leaves of the trees’’ as she soars by. But if flying constitutes a glorified version of running, running itself serves Squeaky, ‘‘a little girl with skinny arms and a squeaky voice’’—and may well serve damaged Raymond—as the most practical form of exaltation. And, when celebrated, tongued—embodied—in that thrusting, vital voice of Squeaky’s, running becomes its own exultation.

Source: Mick Gidley, ‘‘Reading Bambara’s ‘Raymond’s Run,’’’ in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67–72.

Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1553

In reading Toni Cade Bambara’s collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972), one is immediately struck by her portrayal of black life and by her faithful reproduction of black dialect. Her firstperson narrators speak conversationally and authentically: ‘‘So Hunca Bubba in the back with the pecans and Baby Jason, and he in love . . . there’s a movie house . . . which I ax about. Cause I am a movie freak from way back, even though it do get me in trouble sometime’’. What Twain’s narrator Huck Finn did for the dialect of middle America in the mid-nineteenth century, Bambara’s narrators do for contemporary black dialect. Indeed, in the words of one reviewer, Caren Dybek, Bambara ‘‘possesses one of the finest ears for the nuances of black English’’ (‘‘Black Literature’’). In portraying black life, she presents a wide range of black characters, and she uses as settings Brooklyn, Harlem, or unnamed black sections of New York City, except for three stories which take place in rural areas. Finally, the situations are typical of black urban experience: two policemen confront a black man shooting basketball in a New York park at night; young black activists gather the community members at a Black Power rally; a group of black children from the slums visit F.A.O. Schwartz and are amazed at the prices of toys. Bambara’s stories communicate with shattering force and directness both the grim reality of the black world—its violence, poverty, and harshness—and its strength and beauty—strong family ties, individual determination, and a sense of cultural traditions. Lucille Clifton has said of her work, ‘‘She has captured it all, how we really talk, how we really are’’ [quoted on the book jacket of Gorilla, My Love], and the Saturday Review has called Gorilla, My Love ‘‘among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time.’’

Although her work teems with the life and language of black people, what is equally striking about it, and about this collection particularly, is the universality of its themes. Her fiction reveals the pain and the joy of the human experience in general, of what it means to be human, and most often of what it means to be young and human. One of Bambara’s special gifts as a writer of fiction is her ability to portray with sensitivity and compassion the experiences of children from their point of view. In the fifteen stories that compose Gorilla, My Love, all the main characters are female, thirteen of them are first-person narrators, and ten of them are young, either teenagers or children. They are wonderful creations, especially the young ones, many of whom show similar traits of character; they are intelligent, imaginative, sensitive, proud and arrogant, witty, tough, but also poignantly vulnerable. Through these young central characters, Bambara expresses the fragility, the pain, and occasionally the promise of the experience of growing up, of coming to terms with a world that is hostile, chaotic, violent. Disillusionment, loss, and loneliness, as well as unselfishness, love, and endurance, are elements of that process of maturation which her young protagonists undergo. . . .

‘‘Raymond’s Run,’’ . . . [a] story of initiation, centers on Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, perhaps the most appealing and lovable of Bambara’s young narrators, and concerns two discoveries she makes on the way to growing up. One has to do with her retarded older brother, for whose care she is responsible, and the other with her rival in the May Day races. As in the two previous stories, both discoveries reveal the value of human solidarity, of love for family and friends.

Hazel is a totally engaging character. In a narrative style entirely free of the strong language used by most of the other young narrators, she reveals a refreshing honesty as well as a dedication to hard work and a dislike of phonies. She clearly knows who and what she is. Her life centers on two things: caring for Raymond and running. At the story’s beginning she indicates that the former is a large and consuming task, but one which she accepts stoically and with love: ‘‘All I have to do in life is mind my brother Raymond, which is enough. . . . He needs looking after cause he’s not quite right. And a lot of smart mouths got lots to say about that too. . . . But now, if anybody has anything to say to Raymond, anything to say about his big head, they have to come by me.’’

If Raymond has her heart, running has her soul. She tells us honestly, but not arrogantly, ‘‘I’m the fastest thing on two feet. There is no track meet that I don’t win the first place medal.’’ She works hard to improve her skill, and she illustrates her disgust with those who pretend they never practice by describing Cynthia Procter, who always says, after winning the spelling bee, ‘‘‘I completely forgot about [it].’ And she’ll clutch the lace on her blouse like it was a narrow escape. Oh, brother.’’

She is also determined to be herself, rather than what others want her to be. Rebelling against her mother’s desire for her to ‘‘act like a girl for a change’’ and participate in the May Pole dance instead of the fifty-yard dash, she insists that ‘‘you should be trying to be yourself, whatever that is, which is, as far as I am concerned, a poor Black girl who really can’t afford to buy shoes and a new dress you only wear once a lifetime cause it won’t fit next year.’’ Although when she was younger she had once been a ‘‘strawberry in a Hansel and Gretel pageant,’’ she now asserts, ‘‘I am not a strawberry. I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about.’’

The May Day race, the central episode of the story, is thus of tremendous importance to Hazel. She is determined to win again, especially because she has a new challenger in Gretchen, who has recently moved into the neighborhood. Her descriptions of her feelings before and during the race are superb in their realism, revealing her great intensity and concentration. Yet, as she is running, she notices that Raymond is running his own race outside the fence. Suddenly she realizes that she could teach Raymond to run and thereby make his life more meaningful; thus, whether or not she herself has won the race now becomes secondary: ‘‘And I’m smiling to beat the band cause if I’ve lost this race, or if me and Gretchen tied, or even if I’ve won, I can always retire as a runner and begin a whole new career as a coach with Raymond as my champion. . . . I’ve got a roomful of ribbons and medals and awards. But what has Raymond got to call his own?’’ Her sincere love for her brother and her excitement at discovering something that he can learn to do well are so intense that ‘‘by the time he comes over I’m jumping up and down so glad to see him—my brother Raymond, a great runner in the family tradition.’’ Ironically, everyone assumes that she is elated because she has again won first place.

Almost simultaneously she realizes that, far from disliking her rival or feeling superior to her, she admires her for her obvious skill in and dedication to running: ‘‘And I smile [at Gretchen]. Cause she’s good, no doubt about it. Maybe she’d like to help me coach Raymond; she obviously is serious about running, as any fool can see.’’ The story ends with the two girls smiling at each other with sincere appreciation for what the other is.

Hazel represents the best of youthful humanity in her unselfish desire to make her brother’s life more significant, in her determination to be herself, and in her honest admiration of the abilities of a rival. But it is perhaps her wise understanding of what is most to be valued in ‘‘being people’’ that makes her such an appealing character. ‘‘Raymond’s Run’’ is a story rare in this collection, and in modern literature, in that everyone wins in one way or another, and yet it is neither sentimental nor unrealistic, but sincere and believable.

Thus, with compassion, understanding, and a warm sense of humor, Bambara portrays in many of the stories in Gorilla, My Love an integral part of the human experience, the problems and joys of youth. Told from the viewpoint of young black girls, they capture how it feels as a child to undergo the various experiences of loneliness, disillusionment, and close relationships with others. Bambara’s short fiction thus belongs to the ranks of other literary works portraying youth, such as Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Furthermore, because her protagonists are female, black, and generally pre-adolescent, these stories, like the works of several other contemporary black female writers, contribute a new viewpoint to the genre.

Source: Nancy D. Hargrove, ‘‘Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love, ’’ in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 215–32.

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Critical Overview