Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Salt Eaters poses questions: What has happened to the wonderful promise of the 1960’s for African Americans, and can the movement of those days be brought back on course?

Although the novel was published in 1980, it was written in the late 1970’s and depicts a time when the protagonist suffers not only a crisis in confidence and faith but also a midlife crisis. The seemingly gratuitous references to Velma’s menstruation are evidence that Velma is as concerned about lost youth as the lost promise of her cause. Many will ignore this aspect of the novel, though it in no way diminishes the larger theme of lost direction in the Civil Rights movement or the book’s pervasive feminist concerns.

Velma and Obie were once glittering role models in the early years of the Black Power movement. Now, as forty looms, Velma has turned to a man she does not love, afraid, too, that she has lost the affection of her son, Lil James.

If The Salt Eaters proclaims that a woman can meet menopause and disappointment in relationships when offered support from those who love her, may not a similar answer apply to the fragmented cause of racial equality? Such a solution is offered in the novel’s somewhat diffuse treatment of The Seven Sisters, women of color who unite amid their acknowledged diversity, presenting a solid front against oppression of all kinds, including militarism, environmental pollution, and the nuclear threat.

As a feminist, Bambara was often impatient with men—white men of authority in some places, but black men as well. In bitter pages, she describes the “boymen,” a parasitical breed who live off women while avoiding all responsibility. They haunt the periphery of the black matriarchy, fathering children, pleading for money from their women, and wasting their lives in a haze of alcohol, drugs, and empty daydreams. More despicable yet are the “boymen’s” successful brothers, vain self-serving peacocks who use the black community to boost their egos and establish their own importance. They too exploit women as foot soldiers in their political and civil rights campaigns, assigning them tedious jobs of organization and logistics while reserving for themselves glamorous roles of leadership and oratory. Often they reject their faithful female sisters, whom they treat as servants, for more alluring, less committed female companionship, even of another color.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The key to an understanding of The Salt Eaters is the realization that the narrative voice and the characters matter-of-factly accept the miraculous as part of living. The characters in The Salt Eaters live on more than one plane of reality simultaneously; the problem is that they do not always recognize that all planes of reality are equally valid. Moreover, in the novel, clock time is not real time; the past, present, and future can exist simultaneously. Nothing is inanimate. Threatening the earth, which is full of living forces inhabiting human beings, animals, trees, and rocks, are the man-made poisons and psychic negativisms symbolized by Velma’s splitting off from her whole self and by the Transchemical Company plant in Claybourne, which is poisoning the earth, air, water, and workers and which, in one possible future and novel-ending event, explodes.

Salvation, Bambara seems to say, lies in community, a joining together of people whose selves have become whole, a wholeness of mind and psyche, spirit and logic. From the beginning of the novel, and increasingly toward the end, Bambara invokes names, beliefs, and practices from world religions that share the holistic view, particularly those of Africa and the Caribbean. At the end of the healing process, both plot and metaphor for the meaning of the novel, choices are “being tossed into the street like dice, like kola nuts, like jackstones.” Fred sees Porter; the teenager Nadeen acknowledges seeing a true miracle of healing; Sophie, having seen Velma’s physical birth, now sees her rebirth and sees that Velma has found her missing other self.

Obie, falling as he races to Velma in the clinic, “couldn’t get up so he did get up.” At the clinic, “The Lady in the Chair is rising damp but replenished like the Lady Rising from the Sea.” (“Don’t they know we on the rise?” Minnie has said.) Velma, suddenly knowing the African names for Minnie’s jug and bowl without knowing how she knows, rises from her stool, her aura “two yards wide of clear and unstreaked white and yellow,” and “throws off the shawl . . . like a burst cocoon.”