Toni Cade Bambara Long Fiction Analysis
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.
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...
(The entire section is 1,260 words.)