The Salt Eaters Additional Summary

Toni Cade Bambara


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Two women are seated on stools in the middle of a circle of onlookers in the Southwest Community Infirmary in Claybourne, a town in the American South. One of the women is Velma Henry, a woman with a husband, a son, a full-time job as a computer programmer and an avocation for community organizing. She has been a strong political and artistic force in her community, but strains in her marriage as well as exhaustion caused by continuing a struggle that seems to promise no results have led her to attempt suicide. Now she sits, dirty and unkempt, wearing only a hospital gown, facing but withdrawn from Minnie Ransom, a healer who sits on the other stool.

Minnie is dressed in a bright red dress, a hot-pink head scarf, two waist bands of kenti cloth, a fringed shawl, and several wrist bangles. She warns Velma that spiritual healing can come only to those who truly want it; as she coaxes Velma, a prayer group, a medical doctor, and visiting interns and nurses look on.

As Velma fades in and out of awareness, she thinks about her activities at the Academy of Seven Arts, a community center she and her husband, James Lee “Obie” Henry had founded to preserve African American arts and culture and to teach job skills and home economics. Typically, at the center, the men have been the loudest voices in meetings devoted to politics, while the women have quietly done most of the organizing, clerical work, cooking, and cleaning. It is the late 1970’s in the United States, and the community is concerned about job equality, apartheid in South Africa, and pollution caused by the local chemical company. Feminism remains a powerful but largely unspoken idea among the activists. As the 1970’s draws to a close, the community is coming apart, pulled in too many directions at once—just as Velma is herself. It will soon be time for the annual Claybourne Mardi Gras Festival, and...

(The entire section is 770 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Salt Eaters traces the past, present, and alternate futures of the African American inhabitants of Claybourne, Georgia, in the time of two hours. The novel focuses on two women sitting on stools in the Southwest Community Infirmary. On one stool sits Velma Henry, the former activist sparkplug of the community, who has become “uncentered” and has tried to kill herself. On the other stool sits Minnie Ransom, the spiritual center of the community, healer, herb woman, mother of all, in tune with the forces of nature and the universe.

Through Velma’s errant mind and psyche, readers enter the minds of her family and friends: her husband, Obie, and son, Lil James; her godmother, M’Dear Sophie; the Women for Action, a group presided over by Velma until her breakdown; and the Seven Sisters, a performing arts group that includes Velma’s best friend, Palma. The Seven Sisters are first seen as passengers on a bus driven by Fred Holt. They are traveling to Claybourne to perform at the black community’s annual spring festival.

As he drives, Fred Holt is thinking of his failed second marriage and of his dead friend Porter. Holt apparently follows a suicidal impulse to drive the bus through a railing into swamp water. Two women passengers, however, think the bus back on the road, and it arrives in Claybourne, where Fred goes to the infirmary to await his passengers for the return trip, medical people who have come to watch the...

(The entire section is 511 words.)