Toni Cade Bambara was one of the first writers to approach the search for black identity from a feminist perspective. In her fiction, as in the anthologies she edited, Bambara explored the world of black women, encouraging them to defeat sexism and social injustice through the exertion of their own powerful wills within a larger community.
While she was still in elementary school in New York City, Bambara was already writing stories, skits, and plays. As a student at Queens College in New York, she essayed everything from novels to film scripts. After graduation in 1959, Bambara pursued various interests, studying theater in Florence and Paris, holding various positions in areas of social work and community service, and, after receiving her master’s degree in 1964 from the City University of New York, teaching on the college level.
Throughout those years, Bambara also continued to write, producing and publishing many of the stories later collected in Gorilla, My Love (1972). Bambara described the works in this collection as “on-the-block, in-the-neighborhood, back-glance pieces,” which she said were inspired by a specific concern, the need to “insure space for our children.” What Bambara means by space, of course, is much more than playgrounds, which in high-rise ghettos have disappeared or turned into no-man’s-lands; she means also room for the spirit, room for children to dream, and, most important, to achieve the sense of self-worth that will enable them to realize those dreams.
In these early stories, Bambara’s abiding interest in black women is already evident. Typically, her protagonist is a young girl who lives in the ghetto, and the barricades to her full development have been erected not only by a white-ruled establishment but also by the black males within her own society. For example, “Sweet Town” (1959), the first story of the collection to have been published, dramatizes the disillusionment of the narrator, Kit, who in her fifteenth spring had been swept away by a Dionysian ecstasy, diagnosed by her mother as simply “sex.” With her equally mad companions, the handsome B. J. and his friend Eddie, Kit races through the summer, unaware that as a female she is not a full member of their little group. She participates fully in their dreams of going to California. Then B. J. awakens Kit, literally and symbolically, to tell her good-bye. B. J. and Eddie are going west; Kit will be left behind. At this point, she can find no consolation in knowing that she is intellectually superior to most of her friends, including these boys, or even in looking forward to college. She feels that she has been betrayed, as women are so often betrayed by the men who enjoy them and abandon them.
Betrayal is also the theme of another early story, “The Hammer Man” (1966). Again the narrator is a young black girl, and again the situation involves her relationship with a boy. From the first line of the story, in which the narrator expresses her happiness about his fall from the roof, one might think that she hates Manny, who, as she says repeatedly, is crazy. Her fights with him are clearly just a part of her tomboy existence, however, a kind of life that is far more interesting than the girlish conduct her mother keeps urging upon her. Her real admiration for Manny becomes evident when she describes his skill with a basketball. When the police interrupt his play and insult him, she defends Manny, all the while expecting him to bring out his hammer and fight, undoubtedly getting them both shot. After a brief resistance, however, Manny proves to...
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be docile, and he permits the policemen to haul him away. Later, the narrator hears that he is in a mental institution, but she never sees him again. Thus, the boy who had almost mythical stature in his neighborhood has been first emasculated in her presence, then imprisoned. If Manny has been destroyed by white society, however, the narrator has been just as surely betrayed by her own society, which finally has confined her within its narrow definition of what a woman should be. She has given up her struggle for independence, discarded her blue jeans for dresses, and set her mind on an upcoming fashion show.
The adult world’s offenses against its children may be sins not of commission but of omission. In “Happy Birthday” (1969), no one intends to mistreat the orphan girl, Ollie. It simply happens that her birthday falls on a summer day when her usual haunts are deserted and her adult friends are away or too busy to talk to her. The two authority figures who might have been expected to take an interest in her both fail her. Her grandfather has passed out, and she knows that he will be drunk for days, while the minister, who hates children, chases her away from the church. Even Miss Hazel dismisses Ollie’s unhappiness, shutting out the child’s howls in order to hear her television.
The title story of Bambara’s volume, “Gorilla, My Love” (1971), illustrates the fact that adults often underestimate a child’s capacity for moral outrage. Instead of the film that he has advertised on his marquee, the manager of a theater shows a religious film. When the children whom he has cheated protest, he threatens them; when they demand their money back, he raises the sound level to drown out their voices. He has not reckoned with the narrator, young Hazel. She may not get her refund, but she does set a fire that causes the theater to close down for a week. As Hazel says, she has been taught to believe that a person’s word should mean something.
Although Hazel does avenge herself on the theater manager, however, she can do nothing when her beloved uncle breaks his word to her. Unfortunately, she has taken seriously his promise to marry her when she grows up, and when he announces that he is in love with another woman, Hazel can only interpret his action as a betrayal. She is not deceived by the specious argument with which the adults attempt to placate her—that because he is no longer “Hunca Bubba” but “Jefferson Winston Vale,” her uncle is not the person who made the promise. To Hazel, this proves that adults are liars.
In part, it is their very howls of anguish and anger that make Bambara’s girl children so appealing. Unlike male characters such as Manny, they argue and protest. Moreover, while, like the protagonist in “The Hammer Man,” some of these very young women eventually submit to their mothers and to society, it is obvious that others, such as Hazel, will always maintain their independence. Hazel is lucky in having a role model such as her mother, who is the terror of P.S. 186 when she walks in “with her hat pulled down bad and that Persian lamb coat draped back over one hip.” It is such strong black women that Bambara offers as role models for the young people who may be reading her stories. Though they may be as different as the ebullient Miss Hazel in “My Man Bovanne” (1971) and the activist Miss Moore in “The Lesson” (1972), these characters are determined not to submit to life but, through their strength and their determination, to attain some power over it.
From their first appearance, Bambara’s short stories were praised for accurately capturing the realities of African American life. It is not only the facts that the author has right but also the language. The everyday speech of Bambara’s ordinary African Americans has the richness, the repetitiveness, and the exhortatory effectiveness of the spiritual, the thematic complexity of improvisational jazz. As the critic Eleanor W. Traylor points out, in a jam session the jazz musician may refer to all of the ways a melody has ever been heard and then present a new version of the theme. In language, Bambara’s characters do much the same thing. Their words and their thoughts are full of fits and starts, rapid changes in direction and mood, colorful chords and dissonances. For example, in “The Hammer Man,” the narrator describes not only the event that is taking place—Manny’s harassment by a police officer—but also the maternal warnings that go through her mind (“Oh God here I am trying to change my ways, and not talk back in school, and do like my mother wants”) and the tragic scenario that she can imagine, “getting shot in the stomach and bleeding to death in Douglas Street park.” She alternates between concern for “poor Manny” and for herself: “It just wasn’t no kind of thing to happen to a small child like me.” With such accurate use of language, Bambara seems to efface herself as an author, producing the immediacy of oral history.
Two stories in Gorilla, My Love forecast the direction that Bambara was to take in her later work. In “The Johnson Girls” (1972), women of various ages gather to help a family member make a decision about a philandering man. In “The Lesson,” a woman activist and teacher teaches a group of children how unjust their world is. The first of these stories reflects Bambara’s feminism, the second her social activism. In their different ways, however, both of these stories suggest that a group can achieve far more than an individual can. Furthermore, both stories show women not as followers but as leaders, demanding change. This synthesis of feminism and activism, which was suggested in Bambara’s early stories, was firmly established in The Black Woman, the important and influential anthology that Bambara published in 1970. In her second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), the political and social messages are explicit.
According to Bambara, many of the stories in this collection are “both on-the-block and larger-world-of-struggle pieces.” One of the works she mentions in this connection is “The Apprentice” (1977), which tells the story of a part of one day in the life of a black woman revolutionary, as seen through the eyes of her admiring but apprehensive young woman trainee. The revolutionary, Naomi, is not only courageous but also canny. For example, when she sees a police officer harassing a black man, she stops and very politely offers to make any necessary telephone calls for her brother, making it evident that the two women will remain as witnesses until the matter is resolved. Then Naomi shows her apprentice how to make a record of the incident, including a description of the police officer, and even how to leave the scene safely. Throughout the story, Naomi continues to teach in this way, showing the narrator how to function and punctuating her own actions with a running commentary, like a master mason showing an apprentice how to lay bricks.
Naomi, however, is doing more than merely transmitting skills; she is also transforming her student in spirit and in will. Whenever the narrator complains, Naomi pulls her up, sometimes shaming her by pointing out that others have sacrificed their lives for the cause, sometimes frightening her with a glimpse of a horrifying future, and sometimes simply hugging her to remind her that she is not alone but is one member of a sisterhood and of a resolute people. Like Bambara herself, Naomi is an educator in the most comprehensive sense. Even her methods are important. Since her student will eventually be tested not on paper but in action, Naomi, like her predecessor in “The Lesson,” teaches not by lecturing but by questioning and commenting. Her goal, like Bambara’s, is not simply to transmit ideas but to produce new leaders for the revolution.
Bambara said that the force that kept her telling stories was the need to preserve the past and to transmit the values of her people to future generations. This pattern of preservation and transmission is reflected in “The Apprentice,” when Naomi and her young friend go to a senior citizens’ complex. As the narrator notices, Naomi does not simply burst in and tell the old people what kind of action they should take. Instead, she first listens to them and learns from them. Only after that does she make her expertise available; thus, the pattern is established. As in Bambara’s later novel The Salt Eaters (1980), each generation passes on its wisdom to the next. Here, the middle-aged Naomi listens to the old people, and in turn her apprentice listens to her. Finally, like Miss Moore in “The Lesson” and Dada Bibi in “A Girl’s Story” (1977), who “even hugged the dirty kids from Mason Street,” the strong young women schooled by the Miss Moores of the movement will touch the lives of the young, giving them a sense of their own worth within a worthy community.
Another of the stories in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive that Bambara pointed to as an example of her changing direction is “Broken Field Running” (1977), which shows teachers as the leaders of ghetto children. The scene is a real war zone, an area dominated by bullies, thieves, and drug dealers. The narrator, Lacey, and her fellow teacher regularly escort a group of children from school to their homes in the projects. As they proceed through the snow, the two voice a number of Bambara’s own ideas, for example, deploring the fact that the high-rise ghettos have made it impossible for community members to watch over their own, as they could in neighborhoods with park benches, front stoops, and unobstructed views. Bambara’s teachers also speak of the change in families, which no longer provide their children with love, security, and a real sense of value but now are merely “cargo cults” in a materialistic society, teaching children to believe that everything and everyone has its price.
Ironically, although in “The Lesson” and “The Apprentice” Bambara shows her teachers transmitting their ideas by indirection, in works such as “Broken Field Running,” the author herself comes close to sermonizing, to telling rather than to showing. When she permits her characters to live rather than to lecture, as in “The Organizer’s Wife” (1977), her stories are more interesting and her messages are more effectively delivered. Although it has important political implications, Bambara called “The Organizer’s Wife” a love story. Certainly, Virginia is deeply in love with her husband Graham. She also, however, sees marriage to this highly educated, intelligent leader as a way out of her prison of poverty and ignorance. It is no wonder that Virginia is disappointed at finding herself still trapped in the country, her life relatively unchanged, except for the addition of a baby, a garden for which she is responsible, and a group of people for whom she must care as long as her husband remains in jail for his activities. The turning point of the story comes when Virginia learns that their preacher has sold the land that Graham has been trying to save. Although Virginia had been hoping that Graham would lose his battle—since then he and she could leave the area—she becomes furious when she is faced with the preacher’s perfidy. Then she discovers that she, too, is dedicated to her husband’s cause—in other words, that she loves not only Graham but also his people and his dream. Significantly, because she makes this new commitment independently, not after prompting from her husband or even because of her love for him, at the end of this story Virginia has become not less but more of a person. “The Organizer’s Wife,” then, is an example of the fusion of feminism and activism.
Bambara concludes her essay “Salvation Is the Issue” by saying that her fiction poses the question of whether people can safely “violate the contracts/covenants we have with our ancestors, each other, our children, our selves, and God.” Since the obvious answer is “no,” Bambara’s brilliant short stories have a further purpose: to show her readers how humanity can be saved, not only by listening to the old and nurturing the young but also by making the most of “our tradition of struggle and our faculty for synthesis.” This task can be achieved only if resolute black women take the lead within the black community and in the larger struggle for survival, which involves not only African Americans but also the entire planet.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “Salvation Is the Issue.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Explains Bambara’s didactic purpose and outlines her artistic development, with comments on the changing form and content of her short stories.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow.” In The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. An informal commentary on the writer’s intentions in which she explains her partiality for the short story.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. “From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Argues that Bambara’s fiction shows the “inadequacy of language and the powers of the spirit” in the tradition of African American religious practice. Burks supports her thesis with references to many of the short stories. Interesting.
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. The chapter devoted to “Desire, Ambivalence, and Nationalist-Feminist Discourse in Bambara’s Short Stories” is particularly useful. Essential reading.
Holmes, Linda Janet, and Cheryl A. Wall, eds. Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Collection of reminiscences, critical analyses, and tributes to Bambara, detailing the effects of her work as a fiction writer, filmmaker, and public figure.
Traylor, Eleanor W. “Music as Theme: The Jazz Mode in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Argues persuasively that jazz is basic to Bambara’s fiction, both in form and content. A fascinating study.
Vertreace, Martha M. “Toni Cade Bambara: The Dance of Character and Community.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Concentrates on the relationship between community and identity in Bambara’s writing. The strength of her heroines is not inborn but is developed in communal interaction. Helpful bibliographical references.