Historical Context

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The Black Power Movement

When “Raymond’s Run” was published in 1971, the Black Power Movement was having a significant impact among African American artists and writers. While the Black Power movement, which extended through the decade from 1965 to 1975, grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power...

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The Black Power Movement

When “Raymond’s Run” was published in 1971, the Black Power Movement was having a significant impact among African American artists and writers. While the Black Power movement, which extended through the decade from 1965 to 1975, grew out of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power movement opposed integration and demanded economic and political power as well as equality with white people. The movement was fueled 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 after, civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael initiated the call for Black Power, and the first National Conference on Black Power was held in Washington, DC, 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 thirty-five times higher than white neighborhoods.

African American 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 attitude 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.

By the mid-1970s, organizations like the Black Panthers, targets for police and FBI surveillance, were decimated—in part because of their insistence upon achieving their goals “by any means necessary,” including armed violence. 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 constituted less than two 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 fifty-six percent of white family income, less than in 1952, and the gap remained 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 had a significant impact on American culture and politics.

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, Black Power, and antiwar movements. At the same time, many women were radicalized by their realization that they were treated as second-class citizens. 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 formed and women’s centers established, concerned about issues such as sexual discrimination and harassment, spousal abuse, rape, and the right to freedom of choice concerning abortion. In “Raymond’s Run,” Bambara challenges conventional female roles through Hazel’s self-assertive and openly competitive behavior. Unlike her classmate Cynthia Proctor, Hazel doesn’t hide her passion for running or her abilities with false modesty. She resists her mother’s attempts to make her “act like a girl” and insists on defining herself: “I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about.”

Women in African American communities, however, did not necessarily fight for the same issues as the mainly white, middle-class women who composed the majority of the women’s movement. As Toni Cade Bambara did in her anthology, The Black Woman, Black women tended to connect issues of race and class with sexual equality. The struggle for welfare rights and decent housing were also seen by women in the Black community as women’s issues.

Style and Technique

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Bambara uses a first-person narrator to show the neighborhood through the eyes of a child. Use of the present tense creates a sense of immediacy. Bambara’s choice of words, sentence structure, and manner of expression are all simple. Of the thirteen sentences that make up the first two paragraphs, six begin with “and” and three begin with “but.” The result is a colloquial style appropriate for the young narrator. The young characters speak in the language of the playground with all its vitality and humor. The children banter and exchange insults, referring to other children as “Fatso,” “her freckle-face self,” or “Mary Louise Williams of Raggedy Town, Baltimore,” and call Mr. Pearson “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

Bambara paints her characters with a few deft strokes. Squeaky’s father is described as a “thirty-five-year-old man stuffing himself into a PAL pair of shorts” to race his daughter down Amsterdam Avenue. He gives her a “two-hydrant head start” and runs “with his hands in his pockets and whistling.” Cynthia clutches “the lace on her blouse like it was a narrow escape.” Mr. Pearson, with his clipboard, cards, and whistles, is both a symbol of authority and an object of ridicule. Bambara speaks of the “high standards our community has regarding verbal performance.” Surely, the language of “Raymond’s Run” meets those standards.

Setting

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Since the reader sees the story through Hazel’s eyes, there are few descriptive passages of setting. However, the story does contrast an urban and a pastoral setting. The most striking description of Hazel’s urban environment occurs when she enters the “jam-packed” park to race. She describes “Parents in hats and corsages and breast-pocket handkerchiefs peeking up,” “kids in white dresses and light-blue suits,” “the parkees unfolding chairs and chasing rowdy kids from Lenox,” and “big guys with their caps on backwards, swirling their basketballs on the tips of their fingers.” Hazel comments that “even the grass in the city feels as hard as a sidewalk.” This urban scene contrasts with Hazel’s dreamy meditations just before running, when she imagines “the smell of apples, just like in the country when I was little and used to think I was a choo-choo train, running through the fields of corn and chugging up the hill to the orchard.” The two settings indicate an earlier, more peaceful time in Hazel’s life that she is able to invoke by running, yet both settings suggest the vitality associated with Hazel.

Literary Style

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Narration

The most prominent stylistic aspect of “Raymond’s Run” is the narrator’s voice. Hazel Parker, narrating in the first person (“I”), recounts her experiences on the city streets and at the May Day races with verve and flair. The immediacy of an oral voice is communicated by the use of colloquial expressions (the everyday language of a community), as in Hazel’s declaration “I don’t feature a whole lot of chit-chat, I much prefer to just knock you down from the jump and save everybody a lotta precious time.”

Repetitive, rhythmic phrasing is another technique which contributes to the oral quality of the narration, such as when Hazel describes her mother’s reaction to Hazel’s “high-pranc[ing]” down 34th Street “like a rodeo pony” to strengthen her knees: “she walks ahead like she’s not with me, don’t know me, is all by herself on a shopping trip, and I am somebody else’s crazy child.” Hazel also makes asides to the reader (“Oh brother”) and commands a range of tones from confident to defiant to lyric, as in her dreamlike visions before the race: “I dream I’m flying over a sandy beach in the early morning sun, kissing the leaves of the trees as I fly by.” Through these techniques, the narration of “Raymond’s Run” engages the reader and reflects the exuberant vitality of a young girl and her particular community.

Point of View

Like the language, the point of view of “Raymond’s Run” is that of Hazel Parker. The first-person point of view (“I”) and the use of the present tense involve the reader in the preadolescent Hazel’s perception of the world in the present moment. This point of view also limits the story’s perspective; it does not allow the reader to enter the minds of other characters besides Hazel and does not allow Hazel the hindsight to consider the meaning of her experiences. The reader is invited to look beyond these limitations and evaluate Hazel’s observations and declarations and consider what is left unsaid. For example, Hazel describes her own and Raymond’s actions in the present, but it is up to the reader to assess and interpret the complexities of their relationship.

Epiphany

An epiphany is a sudden flash of insight, during which an ordinary object or person becomes illuminated with meaning. Hazel does not describe in any detail an experience of epiphany, but she implies that such a moment occurs during the race when she says “on the other side of the fence is Raymond . . . running in his very own style, and it’s the first time I ever saw that and I almost stop to watch my brother Raymond on his first run.” This important epiphanic moment in which Hazel’s perception of her brother suddenly shifts is suggested in the title of story, “Raymond’s Run.”

Themes and Meanings

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“Raymond’s Run” first appeared in 1971 in Tales and Stories for Black Folks and was published in Redbook in June 1971. In her works, Toni Cade Bambara seeks to portray the positive side of African American family life and the strengths of the African American community. In discussing her work, Bambara has said, “I work to tell the truth about people’s lives; I work to celebrate struggle, to applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block . . . characters we thought we had to ignore because they weren’t pimp-flashy or hustler-slick or because they didn’t fit easily into previously acceptable modes or stock types.”

In “Raymond’s Run,” Bambara portrays a child’s world with sensitivity and understanding. Squeaky engages the reader’s interest because she allows the reader to see this world through her eyes. She is spunky and outspoken, tough, sassy, and bright, with a big reputation, but she is also a responsible and caring person. Other children in the story serve to further define Squeaky’s character. She is a hard worker and not ashamed of it. In contrast, her classmate Cynthia does not want anyone to know how hard she works. Cynthia practices the piano at home but at school acts surprised that she is able to play Chopin waltzes. On the other hand, Gretchen, like Squeaky, is an honest competitor, who takes running seriously.

The story is set in the streets and parks of Harlem, the area in which Bambara herself grew up. Bambara places the action on specific streets as her characters race down Amsterdam Avenue, stroll down Broadway, and prance down 34th Street. Squeaky knows that she must be on guard and survives in the neighborhood because she is always ready to protect herself and Raymond. This is a place where people may take Raymond’s allowance or ask where he got “that great big pumpkin head.” Squeaky does not go in for chitchat; she says she would rather “just knock you down right from the jump and save everybody a lot of precious time.”

Another characteristic of Bambara’s fiction is her portrayal of different generations interacting within a neighborhood. Squeaky’s neighborhood is peopled with characters of all ages. Old people sit in the sun “getting upset with the pigeons fluttering around them, scattering their newspapers and upsetting the wax-paper lunches in their laps.” Parents come to the park wearing corsages and breast-pocket handkerchiefs. Young men with baseball caps on backwards lean against the fence twirling basketballs on their fingertips.

Bambara’s characters typically are decent people who care about each other and respect other people for their unique contributions. Squeaky accepts Raymond for what he is, cares for him, and enjoys his company. For example, when she studies for her spelling test, she asks Raymond to quiz her even though it slows her down. She realizes that this builds his confidence and believes that helping each other is important. Later in the story, she looks beyond his limitations to see his potential as a runner and vows to help him succeed.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources

Bambara, Toni Cade. “Salvation Is the Issue,” in Black Women Writers (19501980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984, pp. 13–38.

———. Interview: “Toni Cade Bambara,” in Black Women Writers At Work, edited by Claudia Tate, New York: Continuum, 1988, pp. 13–38.

Deck, Alice A. “Toni Cade Bambara,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955, Dramatists and Prose Writers, Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp. 12–22.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Morrison, Toni. Preface to Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, by Toni Cade Bambara, edited by Toni Morrison, New York: Pantheon Books, 1996.

Vertreace, Martha M. “The Dance of Character and Community,” in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989, pp. 15–71.

Willis, Susan. “Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara’s Stories for Revolution,” in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 129–58.

Further Reading

Bambara, Toni Cade. “Salvation Is the Issue,” in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984, pp. 13–38.

In this article, Bambara discusses the creative process and her political and artistic concerns with stimulating honesty and wit.

———. Interview: “Toni Cade Bambara,” in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, New York: Continuum, 1988, pp. 13–38.

A wide-ranging interview in which Bambara discusses her life, her crafts (writing and filmmaking), and her views on art and politics from the 1960s to the 1980s.

———. Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, edited by Toni Morrison, New York: Pantheon Books, 1996. Bambara’s most recent work, published posthumously after her death in 1995, collects important interviews and short fiction never previously published.

Chevigny, Bell Gale. “Stories of Solidarity and Selfhood,” in The Village Voice, April 12, 1973, pp. 39–40.

This early review emphasizes the collection’s insightful study of the Black community and of adolescent girls, as well as its innovations in style.

Deck, Alice A. ‘‘Toni Cade Bambara,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955, Dramatists and Prose Writers, Detroit: Gale Research, 1985, pp. 12–22.

Overview of Bambara’s life and literary career.

Hargrove, Nancy. “Toni Cade Bambara,” in Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook, edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993, pp. 32–45.

A useful survey of major themes in Bambara’s writings and literary criticism of her work. Includes a short biography and an excellent bibliography of writing by and about Bambara.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing since 1970, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Contains a short but illuminating discussion of Bambara as a humorist and writer of “highly energetic prose.”

Polatnick, Rivka M. “Poor Black Sisters Decided for Themselves: A Case Study of 1960s Women’s Liberation Activism,” in Black Women in America, edited by Kim Mari Vaz, Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, 1995, pp. 110–30.

An interesting discussion regarding the participation of two key Black women’s groups in the women’s movement which looks at the differences and similarities between their concerns and those of white women.

Van Deburg, William L. New Day in Babylon: The Black Power Movement and American Culture, 1965–1975, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

A comprehensive and accessible discussion of the Black Power movement, its precursors, leaders, ideologies, and cultural impact and legacy.

Vertreace, Martha M. “The Dance of Character and Community,” in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1989, pp. 155–71.

Contains a brief but illuminating discussion of Hazel’s relationship to the community. Includes a useful bibliography of Bambara’s writings.

Willis, Susan. “Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara’s Stories for Revolution,” in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 129–58.

An interesting analysis of political issues in Bambara’s story is included in a longer analysis of stories from Gorilla, My Love; The Seabirds Are Still Alive; and Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on April 18, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 157

Alwes, Derek. “The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 30, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 353–365.

 

Bone, Martyn. “Capitalist Abstraction and the Body Politics of Place in Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child.” Journal of American Studies 37, no. 2 (August, 2003): 229–246.

 

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

 

Collins, Janelle. “Generating Power: Fission, Fusion, and Post Modern Politics in Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.MELUS 21, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 35–47.

 

Heller, Janet Ruth. “Toni Cade Bambara’s Use of African American Vernacular English in ‘The Lesson.’ ” Style 37, no. 3 (Fall, 2003): 279–293.

 

Kelley, Margot A. “ ‘Damballah Is the First Law of Thermodynamics’: Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 27, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 479–493.

 

Muther, Elizabeth. “Bambara’s Feisty Girls: Resistance Narratives in Gorilla, My Love.” African American Review 36, no. 3 (Fall, 2002): 447–459.

For Further Reference

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Last Updated on April 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 111

Doerksen, Teri Ann. “Toni Cade Bambara.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 218: American Short-Story Writers Since World War II, Second Series. Edited by Patrick Meanor and Gwen Crane. Detroit: Gale, 1999, pp. 3–10. A biography of Bambara.

Onesto, Li. “In Memory, Toni Cade Bambara: Passing on the Story.” The Black Scholar 26 (summer 1996): 42–48. An obituary of Bambara reflecting on her life and works.

Salaam, Kalamu Ya. “Searching for the Mother Tongue.” First World 2 (fall 1980): 48–54. An interview with Bambara.

Vertreace, Martha M. “The Dance of Character and Community.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space. Edited by Mickey Pearlmean. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155–71. Vertreace explores Bambara’s theme of community.

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