Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1872
Toni Cade Bambara’s short fiction is especially notable for its creativity with language and its ability to capture the poetry of black speech. In a conversation that was printed in her posthumous collection Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions as “How She Came by Her Name,” she claimed that in the stories from Gorilla, My Love about childhood, she was trying to capture the voice of childhood, and she was surprised that readers received these efforts to use black dialect as a political act. Nonetheless, her writing (like her work as a teacher, social worker, and filmmaker) was always informed by her sense of social activism and social justice in the broadest sense. In her later work outside the field of short fiction (in films and in her last novel) she focused on the bombing of the black neighborhood in Philadelphia where the MOVE Organization was headquartered, the life of W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Atlanta child murders of the 1980’s, all topics that were rife with political meaning.
Nonetheless, what enlivens her writing is her originality with language and a playful sense of form which aims more to share than to tell directly. Another essay from Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, “The Education of a Storyteller” tells of Grandma Dorothy teaching her that she could not really know anything that she could not share with her girlfriends, and her stories seem to grow out of the central wish to share things with this target audience of black women peers. Her stories are usually digressive, seldom following a linear plot. Most of them are structured in an oral form that allows for meaningful side issues with the aim of bringing clear the central point to her audience. Though this technique can be daunting when used in the novel-length The Salt Eaters, it allows her to make her short stories into charming, witty, and lively artistic performances whose social messages emerge organically.
Gorilla, My Love
Gorilla, My Love was Toni Cade Bambara’s first collection of her original work, and it remains her most popular book. The stories in it were written between 1959 and 1970, and as she explains in her essay, “How She Came by Her Name,” she was trying to capture the language system in which people she knew lived and moved. She originally conceived it as a collection of the voices of young, bright, and tough girls of the city, but she did not want it to be packaged as a children’s book, so she added some of the adult material to it. “My Man Bovane,” for instance, features a matronly black woman seducing a blind man at a neighborhood political rally, while her children look on in disapproval. Similarly, among the fifteen stories (most of which are written in the first person) that make up this book is “Talkin Bout Sonny,” in which Betty and Delauney discuss their friend Sonny’s recent breakdown and assault on his wife. Delauney claims he understands exactly how such a thing could happen, and it is left unclear how this unstable relationship between Betty and Delauney (who is married) will resolve itself.
Most of the stories, however, focus on young girls determined to make their place in the world and the neighborhood. “The Hammer Man,” for instance, tells of a young girl who first hides from a mentally disturbed older boy she has humiliated in public but later futilely attempts to defend against two policemen who try to arrest him. The adult themes and the childhood themes come together best in “The Johnson Girls,” in which a young girl listens in as a group of women try to console Inez, whose boyfriend has left with no promise of return. As the young narrator listens in the hope that she will not have to endure “all this torture crap” when she becomes a woman, it becomes clear that the intimate conversation between women is a form of revitalization for Inez.
A delightful preface to Gorilla, My Love assures the reader that the material in the book is entirely fictional, not at all autobiographical, but it is hard for a reader not to feel that the voices that populate the work speak for Bambara and the neighborhood of her youth.
“Gorilla, My Love”
The title story of Bambara’s first book-length collection of her own work, “Gorilla, My Love” is also her most irresistible work. The narrator is a young girl named Hazel who has just learned that her “Hunca Bubba” is about to be married. She is clearly upset about both this news and the fact that he is now going by his full name, Jefferson Winston Vale. The story proceeds in anything but a linear manner, as Hazel sees a movie house in the background of Hunca Bubba’s photos, and starts to tell about going to the movies on Easter with her brothers, Big Brood and Little Jason. When the movie turns out to be a film about Jesus instead of “Gorilla, My Love,” as was advertised, Hazel gets angry and demands her money back, and not getting it, starts a fire in the lobby—“Cause if you say Gorilla My Love you supposed to mean it.”
What is really on her mind is that when Hunca Bubba was baby-sitting her, he promised he was going to marry her when she grew up, and she believed him. Hazel’s attempt to keep her dignity but make her feeling of betrayal known by confronting Hunca Bubba is at once both a surprise and a completely natural outgrowth of her character. Her grandfather’s explanation, that it was Hunca Bubba who promised to marry her but it is Jefferson Winston Vale who is marrying someone else, is at once both compassionate and an example of the type of hypocrisy that Hazel associates with the adult world. The example she gives in her story about going to the movie makes it clear that she has always seen her family as better than most, but she sees hypocrisy as a universal adult epidemic.
“Raymond’s Run,” a short story that was also published as a children’s book, is about the relationship between the narrator, Hazel (not the same girl from “Gorilla, My Love,” but about the same age), her retarded brother, Raymond, and another girl on the block, Gretchen. Hazel’s reputation is as the fastest thing on two feet in the neighborhood, but coming up to the annual May Day run, she knows that her new rival, Gretchen, will challenge her and could win. Mr. Pearson, a teacher at the school, suggests it would be a nice gesture to the new girl, Gretchen, to let her win, which Hazel dismisses out of hand. Thinking about a Hansel and Gretel pageant in which she played a strawberry, Hazel thinks, “I am not a strawberry I run. That is what I’m all about.” As a runner, she has no intention of letting someone else win.
In fact, when the race is run, she does win, but it is very close, and for all her bravado, she is not sure who won until her name is announced. More important, she sees her brother Raymond running along with her on the other side of the fence, keeping his hands down in an awkward running posture that she accepts as all his own. In her excitement about her brother’s accomplishment, she imagines that her rival Gretchen might want to help her train Raymond as a runner, and the two girls share a moment of genuine warmth.
The central point of the story is captured by Hazel when she says of the smile she shared with Gretchen that it was the type of smile girls can share only when they are not too busy being “flowers of fairies or strawberries instead of something honest and worthy of respect you know like being people.” The honest competition that brought out their best efforts and enticed Raymond to join them in his way brought them all together as people, not as social competitors trying to outmaneuver one another but as allies.
“The Lesson” is a story about a child’s first realization of the true depth of economic inequity in society. The main characters are Miss Moore, an educated black woman who has decided to take the responsibility for the education of neighborhood children upon herself, and Sylvia, the narrator, a young girl. Though it is summer, Miss Moore has organized an educational field trip. This annoys Sylvia and her friend, Sugar, but since their parents have all agreed to the trip, the children have little choice but to cooperate. The trip is actually an excursion to a high-priced department store, F. A. O. Schwartz.
The children look with astonishment at a toy clown that costs $35, a paperweight that sells for $480, and a toy sailboat that is priced at $1,195. The children are discouraged by the clear signs of economic inequality. When Miss Moore asks what they have learned from this trip, only Sugar will reply with what she knows Miss Moore wants them to say: “This is not much of a democracy.” Sylvia feels betrayed but mostly because she sees that Sugar is playing up to Miss Moore, while Sylvia has been genuinely shaken by this trip. At the end, Sugar is plotting to split the money she knows Sylvia saved from the cab fare Miss Moore gave her, but Sylvia’s response as Sugar runs ahead to their favorite ice cream shop, “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothin’,” indicates she has been shaken and is not planning to play the same old games. However, Sylvia cannot so easily slough it off.
The most popular story from The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, “Medley” is the story of Sweet Pea and Larry, a romantic couple who go through a poignant breakup in the course of the story. Though neither of them is a musician, both are music fans, and their showers together are erotic encounters in which they improvise songs together, pretending to be playing musical instruments with each other’s body. Sweet Pea is a manicurist with her own shop, and her best customer is a gambler named Moody, who likes to keep his nails impeccable. Because he goes on a winning streak after she starts doing his nails, he offers to take her on a gambling trip as his personal manicurist, for which he pays her two thousand dollars. Sweet Pea takes the offer, though Larry objects, and when she gets back, he seems to have disappeared from her life. Nonetheless, she remembers their last night in the shower together, as they sang different tunes, keeping each other off balance, but harmonizing a medley together until the hot water ran out.
Though Sweet Pea is faced with the choice of losing two thousand dollars or her boyfriend and chooses the money, the story does not attempt to say that she made the wrong choice. Rather, it is a snapshot of the impermanence of shared lives in Sweet Pea’s modern, urban environment. This transience is painful, but is also the basis for the enjoyment of life’s beauty.
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