Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1260
Toni Cade Bambara’s work reflects her experiences with political action committees and her belief in the necessity for social responsibility. The political activism of the 1960’s and 1970’s provides the subject matter for her work, as she explores the consequences of the Civil Rights movement and divisions in the African American community. In describing this community, Bambara portrays the individual characters with affection and humor.
The Salt Eaters
Set in the 1970’s, Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters focuses on the effects of the Civil Rights movement on the inhabitants of the small town of Claybourne, Georgia. The plot centers on the attempted suicide of the novel’s main character, Velma Henry, a community activist who has tried to kill herself by slitting her wrists and sticking her head in an oven. The other major character is Minnie Ransom, a conjure woman who uses her healing powers to restore Velma to health. Minor characters include Fred Holt, the bus driver; Obie, Velma’s husband; and Dr. Julius Meadows. These members of the African American community are suffering from the fragmentation and alienation that have occurred in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. Velma has been so filled with rage that she has sought death as an answer to her pain. The novel traces Velma’s journey from despair to mental and spiritual health. Bambara’s own experiences with political activism provided her with the background for the events of the novel.
Throughout the novel, Bambara stresses the importance of choice. In the opening line, Minnie Ransom asks Velma, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” Freedom of choice requires acceptance of responsibility. If Velma is to heal herself, she must make a conscious choice of health over despair. Characters in the novel are seen in relationship to the larger community. Godmother Sophie M’Dear reminds Velma that her life is not solely her own, but that she has a connection and obligation to her family and community. Other characters are reminded of their responsibility to others. When Buster gets Nadeen pregnant, her uncle Thurston arrives with a gun, ordering Buster to attend parenting classes. Doc Serge tells Buster that abortion is not a private choice but a choice that involves the whole community. The characters echo Bambara’s belief that membership in a community entails responsibilities to that community.
For most of the novel Velma sits on a stool in a hospital, suffering from depression, overwhelming fatigue, and mental collapse. She remains immobile and seemingly frozen as scenes from the past and present play in her mind in no particular order. Other characters seem to whirl past Velma and blend into one another, reflecting the problems that have brought Velma to this hospital room. Bambara shows that these problems are a result of alienation from the community. Because of his light skin, education, and profession, Dr. Julius Meadows has lost touch with his roots. Through a chance encounter with two young black men, Julius begins his journey back to the black community. Reflecting on the encounter, Julius feels that “whatever happened, he wasn’t stumbling aimlessly around the streets anymore, at loose ends, alone.”
Meadows’s journey back into the black community parallels Velma’s journey to health. Alienation from the community had brought Velma to the brink of destruction, and realignment with the community heals her. Velma’s journey is similar to the spiritual journey of Tayo, the Native Americanprotagonist in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977). The horrors Tayo experienced as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II and the sense of alienation he experiences when he returns to his Laguna reservation have nearly destroyed his will to survive. Through immersion in the Native American culture, traditions, beliefs, and stories, Tayo finds his way back to health. Like Tayo, as Velma embraces her cultural heritage, she begins to heal.
The predominant image in the novel is the vision of the mud mothers painting the walls of their cave. This recurring vision haunts Velma until she sees the cave as a symbol of cultural history and identity. Other characters reflect on the responsibility of the older generation to educate and nurture the children of the community. If the children are forgetting the values of the community, it is because the elders have failed in their responsibility to instill community values in the young.
Bambara demonstrates in the novel that to keep traditions alive, every generation has to be nurtured and educated, has to be taught the old stories. At times the novel seems to be a catalog of African American cultural history, which includes African tribal customs and rituals, slave ships, and names of famous leaders. In the early part of the novel, Ruby, one of the most politically active characters, laments the loss of leaders and causes: “Malcolm gone, King gone, Fanni Lou gone, Angela quiet, the movement splintered, enclaves unconnected.” Near the end of the novel, Velma realizes how much she has learned from the leaders and influences that are part of her background, “Douglass, Tubman, the slave narratives, the songs, the fables, Delaney, Ida Wells, Blyden, Du Bois, Garvey, the singers, her parents, Malcolm, Coltrane.”
Bambara enriches the novel with background from folk legends and literary works. At times she merely mentions a name, such as Shine, the famous African American trickster, or the legendary Stagolee, who killed a man for his hat. Fred’s friend Porter, borrowing a term from Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man (1952), explains his feelings about being black: “They call the Black man the Invisible Man.Our natures are unknowable, unseeable to them.” The following lines show how Bambara packs cultural, historical, and political history into one sentence: “Several hotheads, angry they had been asleep in the Sixties or too young to participate, had been galvanized by the arrival in their midst of the legless vet who used to careen around Claybourne fast and loose on a hot garage dolly.”
In contrast to the positive images, Bambara shows the negative side of society in describing the “boymen” who hang around women in grocery stores begging for money in a ritual she calls “market theater.” In another scene, Ruby complains about the way women have had to carry the burden of improving society, “taking ondrugs, prisons, alcohol, the schools, rape, battered women, abused children,” while the men make no contribution.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Bambara’s style is her use of black dialect, with its colorful vocabulary, playful banter, and unique phrasing and speech patterns. At times the rhythm and rhyme of phrases give a musical quality to the prose: “Cause the stars said and the energy belts led and the cards read and the cowries spread.” At other times Bambara describes the atmosphere in musical terms: “the raga reggae bumpidity bing zing was pouring out all over Fred Holt” and “the music drifted out over the treesmaqaam now blending with the bebop of Minnie Ransom’s tapes.”
The major theme of the novel is that identification with one’s cultural history can be liberating and empowering. In The Salt Eaters, loss of cultural identity has brought despair. Bambara provides flashbacks to the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and the legacy of slavery. As they fight for political power, African Americans must remember the past and maintain their best traditions. As Velma begins to heal, she thinks that she knows “how to build resistance, make the journey to the center of the circlestay centered in the best of her people’s traditions.”
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