Toni Cade Bambara lived a multilayered life, as a short-story writer, a novelist, a filmmaker, a dancer, a community organizer, and a critic. She is perhaps best known for her short stories, including the collection Gorilla, My Love (1972); one of its stories, “The Lesson,” is widely anthologized in high school and college textbooks. Her first novel, The Salt Eaters, also is multilayered, telling several stories simultaneously, presenting characters’ conversations, and relating their dreams, memories, and stream-of-consciousness musings. This “layeredness” is not merely structural: one of the themes of the novel is the necessity of integrating or reintegrating the layers of individuals and their communities.
As the novel opens, Velma has attempted suicide because she is overwhelmed by her many responsibilities, her husband’s infidelity, and her sense that further struggle for social justice is futile. At the same time, her community, represented by the Academy of Seven Arts, is coming apart as well—divided by sexism, power struggles, and too many causes being adopted by too many individuals. Bambara’s lesson through the story is that Velma must literally “pull herself together” by embracing her spiritual gifts and claiming the power that resides in an integrated whole. By her example and through her leadership, the community will survive as well.
In Bambara’s work, as it had been in her life, African American culture and black community activism are essential. The author believed that radical grassroots political organizations could bring change, and she was herself active in the Civil Rights movement and various Black Nationalist groups. Many of her characters in The Salt Eaters are activists, too, and are members of groups and organizations including the Academy of Seven Arts, the...
(The entire section is 758 words.)