Toni Cade Bambara American Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2539

In fulfilling her roles as teacher, social worker, filmmaker, editor, and author, Bambara always considered herself first and foremost a social activist, an agent for positive change, so it is no surprise that her characters take up this clarion call. Most of the women and many of the men who populate her stories are oppressed by the social institutions and attitudes that surround them, but few are beaten down. In situation after situation, they rise above their circumstances and triumph.

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The character of Hazel “Squeaky” Parker who appears in the stories “Gorilla, My Love” and “Raymond’s Run” is a case in point. A lanky black girl at odds with conventional standards of femininity, she does not hide her supposed eccentricities but flaunts them. Her long legs, the source of her incredible speed, are an embarrassment to her mother, who wishes she would hide them behind a skirt. Instead Squeaky glories in them:I’ll high-prance down 34th Street like a rodeo pony to keep my knees strong even if it does get my mother uptight so that she walks ahead like she’s not with me, don’t know me, is all by herself on a shopping trip, and I am somebody else’s crazy child.

The importance of knowledge for both individual growth and the collective good is often stressed in Bambara’s stories, even if the intended recipients are reluctant learners. In the widely anthologized short story “The Lesson” from Gorilla, My Love, a community activist mistakenly believes a tour of F. A. O. Schwarz, the New York toy giant, will edify the neighborhood children. As they gawk at overpriced toys, what is meant to be a lesson in the evils of conspicuous consumption backfires; instead the children realize how marginalized they are and how deep the divide is that separates the privileged from the underprivileged in the United States.

Love is the core value in Bambara’s stories about families and community. Rarely is romantic love the goal, but rather an intrinsic human love that values the dignity of neighbors, family members, and self. When the faith healer in The Salt Eaters attempts to bring a suicidal woman back to mental equilibrium, her aim is not just to cure the individual, but to bring wholeness to the entire community. A fragmented community spawns broken individuals; cure the social ills, Bambara suggests, and produce whole individuals.

Empowerment is the central theme of Bambara’s work. Empowered people have more control over their lives than those who accept the status quo. Change is positive energy in Bambara’s stories, particularly when it is the agent for expanding ideas of normalcy and broadening the scope of social acceptance. Bambara’s three constants—knowledge, love, and empowerment—are weapons in an assault on the racial, sexual, and class prejudices that divide people by diminishing their value and limiting their opportunities. Ethnic pride derives from a blending of these values. When Candy in “Christmas Eve at Johnson’s Drugs N Goods” (from The Sea Birds Are Still Alive) finds herself disillusioned by the season’s commercialism, the African American festival of Kwanza presents itself as an alternative celebration, one that she is curious to pursue.

Critics generally laud Bambara’s nontraditional structure and her experiments with form and language. She circumvents linear storytelling by allowing episodes to play in mental rather than chronological time. As characters recall situations, those events are conjured up, and readers are witness to the ebb and flow of human thought and emotion. The oral traditions of ethnic storytelling are evident in Bambara’s works. Acutely she records the sounds of the human voice and its cadences. The vibrant pulse of street talk and the nuances of intimate conversation become musical notes running through her works, rhythms and tones at once familiar and unique.

“Raymond’s Run”

First published: 1971 (collected in Gorilla, My Love, 1972)

Type of work: Short story

A younger sister finds herself the caretaker of her mentally challenged brother in a story about defying limitations and achieving victories.

“Raymond’s Run” appears in the collection Gorilla, My Love and has been published independently as a work of young-adult fiction. The story features twelve-year-old Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, who narrates the story. Nicknamed Squeaky for her high-pitched voice, she is a competitive runner, as is her older brother, Raymond, her unofficial training partner. Because he has Down syndrome, neither the community nor his family expects him to succeed in life. The Parkers seem to have accepted Raymond’s limitations, but Squeaky is cognizant of her parents’ embarrassment over her tomboyish activities. A connection is implied between Raymond’s developmental disability and Squeaky’s supposed gender deviance, both apparently aberrations of nature.

Squeaky’s independent spirit refuses to bow to social constraints, however, and she ignores maternal advice that would retard her pace. Recalling how she danced in a school pageant, Squeaky critiques her parents and the social norms they attempted to enforce: “You’d think they’d know better than to encourage that kind of nonsense. I am not a strawberry. I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about.” Confident in her self-knowledge, Squeaky pushes the boundaries of socially prescribed norms.

Readers are privy to the thoughts, emotions, and attitudes of the unabashed Squeaky, a skinny black girl whose sole ambition is to cross the finish line first. Among the challenges she faces preparing for the annual May Day event are sexist notions of appropriate behavior, particularly as they apply to a young girl on the verge of adolescence. Squeaky is encouraged to trade her gym shorts for a skirt and to adopt a slower, less assured stride. Even her school principal suggests she let another student win the race, perhaps the nice new girl whose dress and demeanor the principal approves. However, false modesty is a virtue that Squeaky rejects. In her eyes, girls should not diminish their abilities but work as ambitiously as boys to develop their talents.

Running is a metaphor for transcending limitations of race, gender, and disability. In the act of crossing the finish line a mere step ahead of the new girl, Squeaky notices that Raymond, in a lane of his own devising on the other side of the playground fence, has beaten them both. For the first time she shifts her vision away from her own goals and expands it to include those of another. She realizes that Raymond can be a competitor in life, and Squeaky vows to help him in his personal race. Ultimately this is a story about dismantling barriers to form a more inclusive and tolerant society.

“Gorilla, My Love”

First published: 1971 (collected in Gorilla, My Love, 1972)

Type of work: Short story

A passenger in her grandfather’s car, a young girl navigates the lies adults tell children and the untrustworthiness of words in general.

Hazel is a reappearing character in Bambara’s collection Gorilla, My Love, and in this title story, she is perturbed that her Hunca Bubba is getting married and changing his name back to its original Jefferson Winston Vale. The source of her dismay is delayed until the end of the story when it is revealed that Hunca Bubba had vowed to wait for Hazel to grow up in order for the two of them to marry. Whether the young girl ever took her uncle’s proposal seriously is unclear, but the deception has consequences. The sole female passenger in the company of three generations of male relatives, Hazel spends the drive time skeptically reexamining all the promises that adult males make to female children and all their specious claims, including religious ones.

She recalls an outing to a movie theater with her brothers in tow, again the lone female in a male group. In place of the thriller “Gorilla, My Love” advertised on the marquee, a film about the life of Jesus is projected onto the screen. Feeling swindled, the children scream their displeasure in the dark auditorium. Caught in the halo of the theater matron’s flashlight, they are escorted outside. Unable to recoup their money, a vengeful Hazel sets fire to the concession stand. Threatened with a beating, Hazel talks her father out of administering her punishment by proclaiming “if you say Gorilla My Love, you suppose to mean it.”

Hazel is assigned the task of guiding the men’s drive home after a day of pecan picking, but it is an adult responsibility she rejects. Positioned in the passenger seat beside her grandfather who steers, she holds the map but offers no directions. The adult males call her pet names like “Peaches” and “Scout” in an effort to get her to assist them, but she dismisses their efforts at appeasement. Instead she claims her own identity and independence by pronouncing herself “Hazel” and lets them drive where they will.

Trust is a central issue in this story about the disillusionment of youth. When lies are commonplace and deceit practiced openly, adults and their sugar-coated words cannot be trusted. Hazel’s extreme anguish at story’s end is her response to the news of her uncle’s impending marriage and to her perceived abandonment, but it indicates her greater loss of faith in men’s honor. Skeptical of their promises, she plots a new course through their world, proceeding cautiously and navigating solo.

The Salt Eaters

First published: 1980

Type of work: Novel

A woman suffers a severe emotional breakdown, the result of sexist and racial oppression, and a faith healer attempts a cure.

The Salt Eaters chronicles the mental crisis of Velma Henry, a community activist, and efforts to restore her to health. Minnie Ransom is the faith healer who employs nontraditional methods to mend her disturbed client. The treatment takes place in a medical facility where skeptical interns and traditional medical professionals witness the healing as if in attendance at a theatrical performance. Velma, shaky, dirty, vulnerable, and underdressed in a hospital gown, is seated before the aged healer Minnie, who is swaddled in flowing robes and adorned in handcrafted ornaments. Face to face they appear in stark contrast: young and old, naked and clothed, insane and sane. The initial response of their audience to the scene is one of boredom as changes do not occur quickly enough for them to record on their clipboards, but the slow pace of the healing allows Velma, in a series of flashbacks, to review events leading up to her breakdown.

Renowned for its experimental form, the novel avoids a strict chronological approach to narration. Instead it allows portions of random events to appear, some coherent and indicative of Velma’s earlier cogent sensibility, and some verging on the incomprehensible, revelatory of her break with reality. It is a journey through, and a record of, the mental landscape of a woman whose life’s mission is noble (to revive a black community through positive social action) but who faces opposition so brutal and destructive that she chooses to withdraw from reality rather than face its oppressive stasis.

While Velma struggles to regain her sanity, other citizens fear a different illness. They live in dread of nuclear residue, chemical poisons, and other industrial pollutants that may filter down into their community. In an attempt to stave of disease, some members of the community have taken to eating soil, the salt eaters of the novel’s title. However, the source of Velma’s illness is not hazardous waste; she has been poisoned by social maladies: Racial prejudice and sexual oppression have infected her body with abuse so severe that her mind cannot filter the toxins.

Events occur in the fictional southern town of Claybourne, a predominantly black community where tensions exist between the genders. Women are the workhorses in a community center where the men receive all of the political power and most of the acclaim. It is this dual oppression (beaten down as a woman and denied opportunity as a person of color) that contributes to Velma’s malady. Even as Minnie conducts her healing, a male doctor supervises from the margins, often interrupting her art with his belittling asides. In the end, however, the women triumph. Having successfully processed memories of events that led to her suicide attempt, the broken woman wills herself back to life under the encouragement of Minnie. Velma rises off her stool, spreads her fingers, and surveys her hands as if to assess their readiness for the work ahead. Whether they are the wings she will need to carry her on her journey is left ambiguous; Bambara notes only that she has shed her cocoon.

Those Bones Are Not My Child

First published: 1999

Type of work: Novel

Zala Spencer struggles to survive the disappearance of her son during an outbreak of child slayings in the city of Atlanta.

Published posthumously and edited by her friend, writer Toni Morrison, Those Bones Are Not My Child is a fictional account of the actual epidemic of child killings that plagued residents of the city of Atlanta in the early 1980’s. The plot of this historical novel is based on events surrounding the murders of those forty children by a serial killer or killers and the resultant investigation.

The central characters, Zala Spencer and Nathaniel (Spence) Spencer, are estranged when they learn that the first of their three children, Sonny, is missing and presumed a victim of the killing spree. Their shock at his disappearance reunites them as they search for answers. Initially too overcome with grief to function, Zala refocuses her sorrow into outrage, becoming a community activist in her efforts to know the truth about her son’s fate.

In addition to the personal story about a mother’s plight, the novel is also a broad critique of a city, one that held the promise of a brighter future for all it residents with its election of a black mayor in 1980. However, the number of dead children begins to mount, and rumors circulate in African American communities, murmurs about child pornography and suspected Ku Klux Klan activities. A pall hangs over the black community whose residents fear the vulnerability of their children and resent the apparent indifference of white authorities.

Central to the novel is the troubling question of unequal protection. Justice may be blind, but injustice seems to see color with great clarity. Speculation that officials delayed their investigation of the crimes because the victims were young, black, and poor leaves communities distraught, divided, and suspicious. When Wayne Williams, a black man, is charged with the murders, many are skeptical that the actual killer has been caught. They suspect Williams is the wrong man at the right time, a convenient scapegoat for the heinous crimes.

Epic in scope, the work is Bambara’s most ambitious at 669 pages. A mixture of styles, including journalistic and confessional, lends the novel its realism. However, unlike traditional historical novels that seek to provide a factual tableau upon which to unfold fictionalized versions of real events, Bambara does the opposite. In Those Bones Are Not My Child, the supposed facts of the case (information culled from newspaper accounts and legal records) are in dispute. It is the fictional Spencers who are all too real.

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