A Feminist Writer of Color
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.
Tales of Young Girls Betrayed
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 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...
(The entire section is 3,097 words.)