Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)
Toni Cade Bambara’s major works of fiction between 1971 and 1980 are variations on a theme—a sense of community and communication—but different in style. Gorilla, My Love (1971), a collection of short stories set in Harlem, focuses on the importance of the family as the supportive unit for the principal character, and on the need to create family where there is none. Somewhat autobiographical, perhaps, most of the stories use the first-person narrator, often a young woman going through a rite of passage, as in the title story of the collection. (One of the most often-anthologized stories, however, is “My Man Bovanne,” in which the narrator is an older woman whose children, caught up in the Black Power movement, have taken African names and chide her for being “old timey.”) The narrators, regardless of age, are funny, strong, honest African American women. Critics and readers responded favorably to it, and it has remained in print. Bambara’s second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), broadens its scope geographically to include women of color in other parts of the world.
Bambara said that The Salt Eaters came from her attempt to find a way to build bridges among differing forces in the African American community, an attempt that is clearly demonstrated in the novel. Although some reviewers found the novel difficult, readers coming from a prior reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) and Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day (1988)—and consequently not imposing a linear mindset on the simultaneities of time in The Salt Eaters—can find a rewarding experience. Like other contemporary African American writers, Bambara felt no need to, or perhaps saw a need not to, explain African American culture, history, and language to white readers.