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Toni Cade Bambara 1939-1995
American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, editor, and author of children's books.
Lauded for her insightful depictions of African-American life, Bambara focused on representing contemporary political, racial, and feminist issues in her writing. While she garnered critical acclaim for her essays and other work, Bambara is best known for her poignant, insightful short stories.
Born Toni Cade in New York City, Bambara later acquired her surname after discovering it as part of a signature on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother's trunk. Her early years were spent in New York City—in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Queens—and in Jersey City, New Jersey. Bambara credited the variety of cultural experiences found in the New York City area, as well as the encouragement of her mother and other women in her neighborhoods, as major influences on her development. In 1959 Bambara's first published work of fiction, "Sweet Town," appeared in Vendome magazine; that same year she earned a B. A. from Queens College. Bambara also attended several European and American universities, dance schools, and the Studio Museum of the Harlem Film Institute. She traveled in the 1970s to Cuba and Vietnam, where she met with representatives from the Federation of Cuban Women and the Women's Union in Vietnam. Upon returning to the United States, Bambara settled in the South, where she became a founding member of the Southern Collective of African-American Writers. In her later years she turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops to train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change.
Bambara's first major work, Gorilla, My Love, collects stories written between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, these tales target problems of identity, self-worth, and belonging. "Raymond's Run" concerns a young girl who excels as a runner and takes great pride in her athletic prowess; in the course of the tale, she learns to appreciate the joy of sport, her competitors, and her ability to train her retarded brother as a runner and thereby endow him with a similar sense of accomplishment. Also featuring a strong-willed girl as a protagonist, the title story of Gorilla, My Love emphasizes themes of disillusionment, self-awareness, betrayal, and familial bonds. Bambara's next book of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, is heavily influenced by her travels and her sociopolitical involvement with community groups and collective organizations. The tales in this collection take place in diverse geographical areas and center chiefly on communities instead of individuals. "For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension," observed Martha Vertreace, adding "her characters and community do a circle dance around and within each other as learning and growth occur."
Bambara's work is often praised for its insights into youth and the human condition, its political focus, and its representations of African-American culture and feminist concerns. Many critics have noted the musical nature of Bambara's language, which she likened to "riffs" and "bebop." Others have studied Bambara's deceptively simple narrative skill, engaging style, and overall craftsmanship.
As Toni Morrison argued, "Although her insights are multiple, her textures layered and her narrative trajectory implacable, nothing distracts from the sheer satisfaction her story-telling provides."
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Gorilla, My Love 1972
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive 1977
Other Major Works
The Salt Eaters (novel) 1980
If Blessing Comes (novel) 1987
Raymond's Run (juvenile) 1990
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations [edited by Toni Morrison] (short stories, essays, and interviews) 1996
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SOURCE: "Stories of Solidarity & Selfhood," in The Village Voice, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, April 12, 1973, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Chevigny offers a positive assessment of the stories comprising Gorilla, My Love.]
Readers following at least two movements will welcome more writing by Toni Cade, who edited The Black Woman two years ago. There she deplored stereotyped sex roles ("merchandising nonsense") and called "for Selfhood, Blackhood," and the study of alternatives buried in Third World history. And she urged especially that the revolution begin at home:
It'll take time. But we have time. We'd better take the time to fashion revolutionary selves, revolutionary lives, revolutionary relationships. Mouth don't win the war. Not all speed is movement. Running off to mimeograph a fuck-whitey leaflet, leaving your mate to brood, is not revolutionary. Hopping a plane to rap to someone else's "community" while your son struggles alone with the Junior Scholastic assignment on "The Dark Continent" is not revolutionary. Sitting around murder-mouthing incorrect niggers while your father goes upside your mother's head is not revolutionary. . . . Ain't no such animal as an instant guerrilla.
In Gorilla, My Love, she takes time for a wide range of black relationships at home and in the neighborhood and for the discovery of complexity in black unity. It is interesting that none of these 15 stories, written in the last 13 years, center on relations between black men and women (though in two, women deal with separation from their lovers). The characters of whom she writes most often and with the greatest tenderness and subtle invention are adolescents and old people, mostly female. It is as if before treating the fraught relations between men and women she must draw in her writing on the knowledge of those for whom sexual conflict is past and those for whom sexual differentiation has not yet become rigid.
I find much of the writing here wonderful and well worth anyone's attention. The stories are often sketchy as to plot, but always lavish in their strokes—there are elaborate illustrations, soaring asides, aggressive sub-plots. They are never didactic, but they abound in far-out common sense, exotic home truths. The black life she draws on—mostly in New York City but sometimes in the rural South—whether bizarre, poignant, or hilarious, is so vividly particularized you don't feel the wisdom or bite till later.
The collection begins, as if in a caveat for ideologues, with the story of Mama Hazel in her 60s being scolded by her nouveau radical children for dancing too close and humming with the old blind man Bovanne at a "grass roots" dance. "I was just talking on the drums,' I explained when they hauled me into the kitchen. I figured drums was my best defense. They can get ready for drums what with all this heritage business. And Bovanne stomach just like that drum Task give me when he come back from Africa. You just touch it and it hum thizzm, thizzm." Affronted, she takes off with Bovanne and plans a showdown by which her family will learn that "old folks is the nation."
Like the old folks, the adolescents are scrupulous about truth to feeling and are surrounded by careless adults and white folk. "Gorilla, My Love" is what it said on a theatre marquee one Easter, but it turned out to be "this raggedy old brown film 'King of Kings'" they show every year. When the manager won't give back her money, the narrator, a young black girl, sets a fire under the candy stand. "Cause if you say Gorilla, My Love, you suppose to mean it. I mean even gangsters in the movies say my word is my bond."
But truth to feeling in adolescent black girls is elusive because their fantasy life lies aslant the real world and partly motivates it—they obey compulsions based on movie melodrama or cause bedlam by slanders based on sexual speculation or draw confidence from their great granny's dream books. These girls move in the world with wise eyes and sassy mouths and bravado. If your opponent gets too threatening, you can always lie up in bed and let it out you have yellow fever.
In the stories I like best of this group, the real world makes some claims that threaten the balance. In "The Lesson," the young narrator, her resources stripped, flees from a bitter demonstration of ill-distributed wealth in a visit to F. A. O. Schwarz. In "The Hammer Man," the tomboy narrator is on her "last fling" before committing herself to young womanhood. She watches her old antagonist, the crazy boy of the neighborhood, talking to himself and shooting baskets on a court at night. When the cops try to interfere, she defends him, but they take him away. By the time she learns he was sent to a state hospital, she is already competing in a fashion show. Here the role of woman is narrow, but safer.
But in "The Johnson Girls," a story extraordinarily rich in funny talk and true pain, the teenage narrator is forced to confront the choices facing strong black women. She watches Inez, a clear, proud woman, surrounded by women friends like Job's comforters, as she packs to go after her man, who has left only a note. Above the battle, Inez has always offered "a tax-free relationship, no demands, no pressure, no games, no jumpin up and down with ultimatums"; one friend points out that this "is the heaviest damn pressure of all." The friends discuss black men. "'One day,' say Sugar, lickin the tomato sauce off her arm, 'what I want's goin to be on the menu. Served up to my taste and all on one plate, so I don't have to clutter up the whole damn table with a teensy bowl of this and plate of extra that and a side order of what the hell.' She shimmy her buns on top of the dresser and plants her feet in the bottom drawer. 'Cause let Sister Sugar hip you bitches, living a la carte is a trip,' Inez says only, 'It's either a la carte of half a loaf.'" But finally she permits her sisters to help her think through what she wants and how to get it. This compromise between solidarity and an impossible ideal of selfhood is instructive for the black women's movement and beyond.
The story ends with swift changes for Inez and the teenager:
"O. K.," said Inez like she never said before and drew her chair up to the suitcase It halted me in my tracks and Gail looked dumbfounded. "O. K.," she said again and something caught me in my ribs. Love love love love love. We all sat down and Inez opened her fist and the keys and the crumpled note fell out on the suitcase. Sugar look at Gail and Gail look at Marcy and Marcy look at me. I look at Inez and she's sittin so forward I see the tremor caterpillar up her back. And I can't breathe. Somebody has opened a wet umbrella in my chest. And I shudder for me at the preview of things to come.
"O. K.," I say, takin command: "Let's first deal with the note."
"Right," say Gail, and lights my cigarette.
Footnote on style. One reviewer wrote of this collection, "Black English is spoken here." It's a term that has not been around for many years, but I know I'll be very tired of it the next time it is used in reviewing serious prose. By itself, it is dismissive, a fence over which a lot of different sorts of writing will be thrown, and work distinguished only by current jargon or ghetto grammar will be classed with things like Toni Cade's that—witness the last quotation—play in and out of an idiom which is itself subtle and untranslatably characterizing. And at moments she risks, by classical standards, over-writing of a curious sort. She fools with an excess of understatement that makes her tone unique—zealously cool, ardently tough.
But once you're won by its rhythms, it runs on with a breathless ease and self-acceptance that needs no more authority. And raises the question: where is the novel?
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SOURCE: An interview with Toni Cade Bambara, in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1983, pp. 12-38.
[In the following interview, Bambara discusses her writing philosophy and the ways in which being an African-American woman influences her work.]
Revolution begins with the self, in the self. The individual, the basic revolutionary unit, must be purged of poison and lies that assault the ego and threaten the heart, that hazard the next larger unit—the couple or pair, that jeopardize the still larger unit—the family or cell, that put the entire movement in peril.
—"On the Issue of Roles," from The Black Woman p. 109.
[CLAUDIA TATE]: What has happened to the revolutionary fervor of the sixties?
[TONI CADE BAMBARA]: The energy of the seventies is very different from that of the previous decade. There's a different agenda and a different mode of struggle. The demystification of American-style "democracy," the bold analytical and passionate attention to our condition, status and process—the whole experience of that era led us to a peculiar spot in time, the seventies. Some say it's been a period of retreat, of amnesia, of withdrawal into narcissism. I'm not so sure. I'd say the seventies is characterized by a refocusing on the self, which is, after all, the main instrument for self, group and social transformation.
I travel around the country a lot, and I am continually struck by the differences between the two decades. There's a difference between the apathy/retreat characterization of the seventies and what's actually going on, at least as I'm experiencing it on campuses, in prisons, in community groups. We didn't seem to be in a period of intense political activity as we defined its terms in the sixties. We were trained by the sixties to perceive activity, to assess movement and progress, in particular modes—confrontation, uncompromising rhetoric, muscle flexing, press conferences, manifestoes, visible groups, quasi-underground groups, hitting the streets, singing, marching, etc. On the other hand, the workings of the seventies, while less visible and less audible and less easy to perceive, to nail down and define, were no less passionate and no less significant. People attempted to transform themselves cell by cell, to organize block by block. Both seem to me essential prerequisites to broad-based organizing and clearheaded strategizing.
Unfortunately, we still have not moved toward establishing an independent black political party. We still haven't clarified the issue of alliances or independent struggle. We still haven't identified the social and political imperatives of this moment or gotten a consensus regarding our domestic and foreign policy. And the eighties are now upon us—a period of devastating conflicts and chaos, a period that calls for organizing of the highest order and commitment of the most sticking kind, a period for which the sixties was mere rehearsal and the seventies a brief respite, a breathing space. Most of us are still trying to rescue the sixties—that stunning and highly complicated period from 1954 to 1972—from the mythmakers, still trying to ransom our warriors and theorists from those nuts who would cage 'em all up, crack their bones, and offer us some highly selective media fiction in place of the truth. The eighties . . . a lotta work ahead of us.
You look at what the mythmakers have done in extravaganzas like Roots and King, playing with people's blood and bones. But you just can't get overwhelmed by the massive ignorance that characterizes this racist, hardheaded, heedless society. It's a tremendous responsibility—responsibility and honor—to be a writer, an artist, a cultural worker . . . whatever you want to call this vocation. One's got to see what the factory worker sees, what the prisoner sees, what the welfare children see, what the scholar sees, got to see what the ruling-class mythmakers see as well, in order to tell the truth and not get trapped. Got to see more and dare more.
I read an awful lot—major-house books, small-press journals, offset manuscripts from local writers' workshops. I don't see the fiercesome fearlessness yet that I'd hoped to see in this period. A lot of talented, brilliant, sharp folks are out there writing. But ah . . . lotta work ahead of us.
How does being black and female constitute a particular perspective in your work?
As black and woman in a society systematically orchestrated to oppress each and both, we have a very particular vantage point and, therefore, have a special contribution to make to the collective intelligence, to the literatures of this historical moment. I'm clumsy and incoherent when it comes to defining that perspective in specific and concrete terms, worse at assessing the value of my own particular pitch and voice in the overall chorus. I leave that to our critics, to our teachers and students of literature. I'm a nationalist; I'm a feminist, at least that. That's clear, I'm sure, in the work. My story "Medley" could not have been written by a brother, nor could "A Tender Man" have been written by a white woman. Those two stories are very much cut on the bias, so to speak, by a seamstress on the inside of the cloth. I am about the empowerment and development of our sisters and of our community. That sense of caring and celebration is certainly reflected in the body of my work and has been consistently picked up by other writers, reviewers, critics, teachers, students. But as I said, I leave that hard task of analysis to the analysts. I do my work and I try not to blunder.
How do you fit writing into your life?
Up until recently, I had never fully appreciated the sheer anguish of that issue. I never knew what the hell people were talking about when they asked, "How do you manage to juggle the demands of motherhood, teaching, community work, writing and the rest?" Writing had never been a central activity in my life. It was one of the things I did when I got around to it or when the compulsion seized me and sat me down. The short story, the article, the book review, after all, are short-term pieces. I would simply commandeer time, space, paper and pen, close the door, unplug the phone, get ugly with would-be intruders and get to work for a few days. Recently, however, working on a novel and a few movie scripts—phew! I now know what that question means and I despair. I had to renegotiate a great many relationships that fell apart around me; the novel took me out of action for nearly a year. I was unfit to work—couldn't draft a simple office memo, couldn't keep track of time, blew meetings, refused to answer the door, wasn't interested in hanging out in any way, shape, or form. My daughter hung in there, screened calls, learned to iron her own clothes and generally kept out of my sight. My mama would look at me funny every now and then, finding that days had gone by and I hadn't gotten around to combing my hair or calling her to check in and just chat. Short stories are a piece of time. The novel is a way of life.
I began the novel The Salt Eaters the way a great many of my writings begin, as a journal entry. I frequently sit down and give myself an assignment—to find out what I know about this or that, to find out what I think about this or that when I am cozy with myself and not holding forth to a group or responding to someone's position. Several of us had been engaged in trying to organize various sectors of the community—students, writers, psychic adepts, etc—and I was struck by the fact that our activists or warriors and our adepts or medicine people don't even talk to each other. Those two camps have yet to learn—not since the days of Toussaint anyway, not since the days of the maroon communities. I suspect—to appreciate each other's visions, each other's potential, each other's language. The novel, then, came out of a problem-solving impulse—what would it take to bridge the gap, to merge those frames of reference, to fuse those camps? I thought I was just making notes for organizing; I thought I was just exploring my feelings, insights. Next thing I knew, the thing took off and I no longer felt inclined to invest time and energy on the streets. I had to sort a few things out. For all my speed-freak Aries impulsiveness, I am a plodder; actually, my Mercury conjunct with Saturn is in Aries, too, so I like to get things sorted before I leap. I do not like to waste other people's time and energy. I will not waste mine.
I have no shrewd advice to offer developing writers about this business of snatching time and space to work. I do not have anything profound to offer mother-writers or worker-writers except to say that it will cost you something. Anything of value is going to cost you something. I'm not much of a caretaker, for example, in relationships. I am not consistent about giving vibrancy and other kinds of input to a relationship. I don't always remember the birthdays, the anniversaries. There are periods when I am the most attentive and thoughtful lover in the world, and periods, too, when I am just unavailable. I have never learned, not yet anyway, to apologize for or continually give reassurance about what I'm doing. I'm not terribly accountable or very sensitive to other people's sense of being beat back, cut out, blocked, shunted off. I will have to learn because the experience of The Salt Eaters tells me that I will be getting into that long-haul writing again, soon and often.
I've had occasion, as you can well imagine, to talk about just this thing with sister writers. How do the children handle your "absence"—standing at the stove flipping them buckwheats but being totally elsewhere? How does your man deal with the fact that you are just not there and it's nothing personal? Atrocity tales, honey, and sad. I've known playwrights, artists, filmmakers—brothers I'm talking about—who just do not understand, or maybe pretend not to understand, that mad fit that gets hold of me and makes me prefer working all night and morning at the typewriter to playing poker or going dancing. It's a trip. But some years ago, I promised myself a period of five years to tackle this writing business in a serious manner. It's a priority item now—to master the craft, to produce, to stick to it no matter how many committee meetings get missed.
My situation isn't nearly as chary as others I know. I'm not a wife, and my daughter couldn't care less what the house looks like so long as the hamper isn't overflowing. I'm not a husband; I do not have the responsibility of trying to live up to "provider." I'm not committed to any notion of "career." Also, I'm not addicted to anything—furniture, cars, wardrobe, etc.—so there's no sense of sacrifice or foolishness about how I spend my time in non-money-making pursuits. Furthermore, I don't feel obliged to structure my life in respectably routine ways; that is to say, I do not mind being perceived as a "weirdo" or whatever. My situation is, perhaps, not very characteristic; I don't know. But to answer the question—I just flat out announce I'm working, leave me alone and get out of my face. When I "surface" again, I try to apply the poultices and patch up the holes I've left in relationships around me. That's as much as I know how to do . . . so far.
What determines your responsibility to yourself and to your audience?
I start with the recognition that we are at war, and that war is not simply a hot debate between the capitalist camp and the socialist camp over which economic/political/social arrangement will have hegemony in the world. It's not just the battle over turf and who has the right to utilize resources for whomsoever's benefit. The war is also being fought over the truth: what is the truth about human nature, about the human potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family and the human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain't easy. There are so few truth-speaking traditions in this society in which the myth of "Western civilization" has claimed the allegiance of so many. We have rarely been encouraged and equipped to appreciate the fact that the truth works, that it releases the Spirit and that it is a joyous thing. We live in a part of the world, for example, that equates criticism with assault, that equates social responsibility with naive idealism, that defines the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge and wisdom as fanaticism.
I do not think that literature is the primary instrument for social transformation, but I do think it has potency. So I work to tell the truth about people's lives; I work to celebrate struggle, to applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block, who've been waiting in the wings, characters we thought we had to ignore because they weren't pimp-flashy or hustler-slick or because they didn't fit easily into previously acceptable modes or stock types. I want to lift up some usable truths—like the fact that the simple act of cornrowing one's hair is radical in a society that defines beauty as blonde tresses blowing in the wind; that staying centered in the best of one's own cultural tradition is hip, is sane, is perfectly fine despite all claims to universality-through-Anglo-Saxonizing and other madnesses.
It would be dishonest, though, to end my comments there. First and foremost I write for myself. Writing has been for a long time my major tool for self-instruction and self-development. I try to stay honest through pencil and paper. I run off at the mouth a lot. I've a penchant for flamboyant performance. I exaggerate to the point of hysteria. I cannot always be trusted with my mouth open. But when I sit down with the notebooks, I am absolutely serious about what I see, sense, know. I write for the same reason I keep track of my dreams, for the same reason I mediate and practice being still—to stay in touch with me and not let too much slip by me. We're about building a nation; the inner nation needs building, too. I would be writing whether there were a publishing industry or not, whether there were presses or not, whether there were markets or not.
I began writing in a serious way—though I can't recall a time when I wasn't jotting stuff down and trying to dramatize lessons learned—when I got into teaching. It was a way to keep track of myself, to monitor myself. I'm a very seductive teacher, persuasive, infectious, overwhelming, irresistible. I worked hard in the classroom to teach students to critique me constantly, to protect themselves from my nonsense; but let's face it, the teacher-student relationship we've been trained in is very colonial in nature. It's fraught with dangers. The power given teachers over students' minds, students' spirits, students' development—my God! To rise above that, to insist of myself and of them that we refashion that relationship along progressive lines demanded a great deal of courage, imagination, energy and will. Writing was a way to "hear" myself, check myself. Writing was/is an act of discovery. I frequently discovered that I was dangerous, a menace, virtually unfit to move the students and myself into certain waters. I would have to go into the classroom and beat them up for not taking me to the wall, for succumbing to mere charm and flash, when they should have been challenging me, "kicking my ass." I will be eternally grateful to all those students at City College and Livingston/Rutgers for the caring and courageous way they helped to develop me as a teacher, a person, a writer . . . and a mother, too. Fortunately, for all concerned, my daughter, a ninety-nine-year-old wise woman who travels under the guise of a young thumb-sucking kid, knows when to walk away from me, close her ears, turn my rantings into a joke, call me on a contradiction. But even after she is grown, and even if I never teach again, I will still use writing as a way to stay on center, for I'll still be somebody's neighbor, somebody's friend, and I'll still be a member of our community under siege or in power. I'll still need to have the discipline writing affords, demands. I do not wish to be useless or dangerous, so I'll write. And too, hell, I'm a writer. I am compelled to write.
Do you see any differences in the ways black male and female writers handle theme, character, situation?
I'm sure there are, but I'd be hard pressed to discuss it cogently and trot out examples. It's not something I think about except in the heat of reading a book when I feel an urge to "translate" a brother's depiction of some phenomena or say "amen" to a sister's. There are, I suppose, some general things I can say. Women are less likely to skirt the feeling place, to finesse with language, to camouflage emotions. But then a lot of male writers knock that argument out—James Baldwin trusts emotions as a reliable way to make an experience available; a lot of young brothers like Peter Harris, Melvin Brown, Calvin Kenley, Kambon Obayani have the courage to be "soft" and unsilent about those usual male silences. One could say that brothers generally set things out of doors, on open terrain, that is, male turf. But then Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, angled from the point of view of a man, is an exception to that. I've heard it said that women tend to aim for the particular experience, men for the general or "universal." I don't know about all that. The notion of a street, though, is certainly handled in particular ways. To walk down the street as a woman is a very particular experience. I don't find that rendered in Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, or John A. Williams the way I feel it in Gayl Jones, Sonia Sanchez, etc. But then Ann Petry's The Street draws me up short; I don't recognize anybody walking down that street. I've never been on that block; I've not felt that kind of out-of-itness. Finally, I guess, I just don't believe that woman.
In writing "The Tender Man," I couldn't wait to get Cliff and Aisha off the street and into the restaurant. I kept losing the point of view, kept sliding into the way the street resonates for Aisha, who is not the character over whose shoulder the camera looks. A brother writing that story, I suspect, would have handled the setting very differently. Aisha probably would have been less ambivalent, and Cliff's attitude toward his white wife and his child would have been rendered with a lot less ambiguity, too.
Of course, one of the crucial differences that strikes me immediately among poets, dramatists, novelists, storytellers is in the handling of children. I can't nail it down, but the attachment to children and to two-plus-two reality is simply stronger in women's writings; but there are exceptions. And finally, there isn't nearly as large a bulk of gynocentric writing as there is phallic-obsessive writings. I'll tell you—there was a period, back in 1967 or '68, when I thought I would run amok if I heard one more poem with the unzipped pants or the triggered gun or the cathedral spire or the space-missile thrust or the good f—. I'd love to read/hear a really good discussion of just this issue by someone who's at home with close textual reading—cups, bowls and other motifs in women's writings. We've only just begun, I think, to fashion a woman's vocabulary to deal with the "silences" of our lives. I'd like to see Eleanor Traylor—to my mind, the best reader/seer we've got—bring her mind to bear on the subject.
Do you attempt to order human experience? Or, do you simply record experience?
All writers, musicians, artists, choreographers/dancers, etc., work with the stuff of their experiences. It's the translation of it, the conversion of it, the shaping of it that makes for the drama. Tve never been convinced that experience is linear, circular, or even random. It just is. I try to put it in some kind of order to extract meaning from it, to bring meaning to it.
It would never occur to me to simply record, for several reasons. First, it is boring. If I learn in math class that the whole is the sum of its parts, I'm not interested in recording that or repeating that. I'm more interested in finding out whether it is axiomatic in organizing people, or if, in fact, the collective is more than or different from the mere addition of individuals. If I learn in physics that nature abhors a vacuum, right away I want to test it as a law. If it is law, then my cleaned out pocketbook ought to attract some money. Secondly, mere recording is not only boring, it is impolite and may be even immoral. If I wrote autobiographically, for example, I'd wind up getting into folks' business, plundering the lives of people around me, pulling the covers off of friends. I'd be an emotional gangster, a psychic thug, pimp and vampire. I don't have my mother's permission to turn her into a still life. I wouldn't ask a friend to let me impale her/him with my pen or arrest them in print. I wouldn't even know how to ask permission; it seems so rude. Frequently, when I hear a good story, I will ask, "Hey, mind if I use that?" By the time, though, that I convert it my way, it's unrecognizable. Not only because I do not think it's cool to lock people into my head, my words, the type, but also because a usable truth can frequently be made more accessible to the reader if I ignore the actual facts, the actual setting, the actual people, and simply reset the whole thing. I think I hear myself saying that the third reason is that lessons come in sprawled-out ways, and craft is the business of offering them up in form and voice, a way of presenting an emotional/psychic landscape that does justice to the lesson as quickly and efficiently as possible.
I used to assign my students a writing/thinking exercise: remember how you used to get all hot in the face, slide down in your seat, suddenly have to tie your shoe even though you were wearing loafers back then in the fourth grade whenever Africa was mentioned or slavery was mentioned? Remember the first time the mention of Africa, of Black, made your neck long and your spine straight, made the muscles of your face go just so? Well, make a list of all the crucial, relevant things that happened to you that moved you from hot face to tall spine; then compose a short story, script, letter, essay, poem that make that experience of change available to the young brothers and sisters on your block.
Oh, the agony, the phone calls I got in the middle of the night, the mutterings for days and days, the disrupted whist games, the threats to my life and limb. It was hard. The notes, the outlines, the rough drafts, the cut-downs, the editing, the search for form, for metaphor. Ah, but what wonderfully lean and brilliant pieces they produced. And what they taught themselves and each other in that process of sifting and sorting, dumping, streamlining, tracing their own process of becoming. Fantastic. And I'm not talking about seasoned writers or well-honed analysts. I'm talking about first-year students from non-writing background at the City College of New York, at Livingston/Rutgers, folks who were not college-bound since kindergarten, folks who had been taught not to value their own process, who had not been encouraged, much less trained, to keep track of their own becoming. Ordering is the craft, the work, the wonder. It's the lifting up, the shaping, the pin-point presentation that matters. I used to listen to those folks teaching younger kids at the campus or at neighborhood centers, giving those kids compact, streamlined "from point A (hot face) to point B (proud)" lessons. Fantastic.
I'm often asked while on the road, "How autobiographical is your work?"—the assumption being that it has to be. Sometimes the question springs from the racist assumption that creative writing and art are the domain of white writers. Sometimes the question surfaces from a class base, that only the leisured and comfortable can afford the luxury of imagination. Sometimes it stems from the fact that the asker is just some dull, normal type who cannot conceive of the possibility that some people have imagination, though they themselves do not, poor things. I always like to dive into that one. It was once argued, still argued, that great art is the blah-blah of the white, wealthy classes. Uh huh. And what works have survived the nineteenth century? The landed-gentry tomes or Frederick Douglass's autobiography? The gentle-lady romances or the slave narratives? After I climb all over that question and try to do justice to those scared little creative writers asking out of sincere concern and confusion, I usually read my "Sort of Preface" from Gorilla, My Love, which states my case on autobiographical writing; namely, I don't do it . . . except, of course, that I do; we all do. That is, whomsoever we may conjure up or remember or imagine to get a story down, we're telling our own tale just as surely as a client on the analyst's couch, just as surely as a pilgrim on the way to Canterbury, just as surely as the preacher who selects a particular text for the sermon, then departs from it, pulling Miz Mary right out of the pew and clear out of her shouting shoes. Can I get a witness? Indeed. But again, the tales of Ernest J. Gaines, of Baldwin, of Gwen Brooks, whomever—the particulars of the overall tale is one of the tasks of the critics, and I am compelled to say once again that our critics are a fairly lackluster bunch. I'm always struck by that when I compare articles and speeches done by this one or that one to what comes tumbling easily and brilliantly out of the mouth of Eleanor Traylor. Do watch for her work. If there is anyone who can throw open the path and light the way, it's that sister.
What I strive to do in writing, and in general—to get back to the point I was making in direct response to your question—is to examine philosophical, historical, political, metaphysical truths, or rather assumptions. I try to trace them through various contexts to see if they work. They may be traps. They may inhibit growth. Take the Golden Rule, for example. I try to live that, and I certainly expect it of some particular others. But I'll be damned if I want most folks out there to do unto me what they do unto themselves. There are a whole lot of unevolved, self-destructive wretches out there walking around on the loose. It would seem that one out of every ten people has come to earth for the "pacific" purpose, as grandma would say, of giving the other nine a natural fit. So, hopefully, we will not legislate the Golden Rule into law.
The trick, I suspect, at this point in time in human history as we approach the period of absolute devastation and total renewal, is to maintain a loose grip, a flexible grasp on those assumptions we hold to be true, valid, real. They may not be. The world Einstein conjured or that the Fundamentalists conjure or your friendly neighborhood mystic or poet conjures may be a barrier to a genuine understanding of the real world. I once wrote a story about just that—a piece of it is in the novel, The Salt Eaters. A sister with a problem to solve is dawdling in the woods, keeping herself company with a small holding stone, fingering it like worry beads. It falls into a pool; she tries to retrieve it—clutching at water, clutching at water. Better to have pitched it in and stood back to read the ripples—the effects of her act. The universe is elegantly simple in times of lucidity, but we clutter up our lives with such senseless structures in an effort to make scientific thought work, to make logic seem logical and valuable. We blind ourselves and bind ourselves with a lot of nonsense in our scramble away from simple realities like the fact that everything is one in this place, on this planet. We and everything here are extensions of the same consciousness, and we are cocreators of that mind, will, thought.
How have your creative interests evolved in terms of your writing?
I don't know how to chart the evolution of my creative interest. Suffice to say that the lens has widened, the scope broadened, and the demands on myself have increased. How do we insure space for our children was a concern out of which the stories in the first collection, Gorilla, My Love, grew. When my agent in those days, Hattie Gossett, nudged me and said I ought to put together some of the old stories for a collection, I thought, aha, I'll get the old kid stuff out and see if I can't clear some space to get into something else. Most of those stories are what I would call on-the-block, in-the-neighborhood, back-glance pieces, for the most part.
How are we faring now that the energy is shifting? How do we sustain ourselves between the sixties and the eighties? Out of that concern some of the stories in the second collection, The Seabirds Are Still Alive, sprang. Stories like "Broken-Field Running" and "Am I Spoiling You," also known as "The Apprentice" in other anthologies, speak directly to that issue. They are both on-the-block and larger-world-of-struggle pieces, very contemporary, and much less back-glance.
How do we rescue the planet from the psychopaths? Do we have a future as sane, whole, governing people? Do we realize we are a people at the crossroads? The Salt Eaters is a thrown-open sort of book generated by those questions. It's on-the-block, but the borders of the town of Claybourne, Georgia where the story is set, do not contain or hem in the story. It gets downright cosmic, in fact, in the attempt to sound the alarm about the ineptness and arrogance of the nuclear industry and call attention to the radical shifts in the power configurations of the globe and to the massive transformations due this planet in this last quarter of the twentieth century.
What seems to inform the works I'm up to my eyebrows in now—a script (whose not-so-hot working title is "Ladies-in-Waiting") about a group of women of color in 1979, 1968, 1942, 1933, getting ready to rescue or ransom their husbands, lovers, fathers, brothers from various hostage-keeping institutions; and a new collection of short stories about "families" of blood, of struggle, traveling troupes, etc.—are questions like: what alliances make sense in this last quarter? Where are the links of resistance to be forged, the links of vulnerability to be strengthened? Once again, I'm exploring ways to link up our warriors and our medicine people, hoping some readers will fling the book down, sneer at my ineptitude, and go on out there and show how it's supposed to be done. Too, I'm staying with a group of women from my novel, The Seven Sisters—a group of performing artists from the African-American, Asian-American, Chicano, "Puertoriquena," and Native American communities—also in hopes that sisters of the yam, the rice, the corn, the plantain, might find the work to be too thin a soup and get on out there and cook it right.
What is noticeable to me about my current writing is the stretch out toward the future. I'm not interested in reworking memories and playing with flashbacks. I'm trying to press the English language, particularly verb tenses and modes, to accommodate flash-forwards and potential happenings. I get more and more impatient, though, with verbal language, print conventions, literary protocol and the like; I'm much more interested in filmmaking. Quite frankly, I've always considered myself a film person. I am a fanatic movie watcher, and my favorite place to be these days is in a screening room, or better yet, in the editing room with those little Mickey Mouse gloves on. There's not too much more I want to experiment with in terms of writing. It gives me pleasure, insight, keeps me centered, sane. But, oh, to get my hands on some movie equipment.
An awful lot of my stories, particularly the first-person riffs and bebop pieces, were written, I suspect, with performance in mind. I still recall the old days, back in the fifties, looking for some damn thing to use in auditions. There's just so much you can do with Sojourners' "Ain't I a Woman" and trying to recast Medea as a New Orleans swamp hag. It does my heart good to have Ruby Dee swoop down on me—which she manages to do somehow, that Amazon of small proportions—for writing things like "Witchbird," an eminently performable story about a mature woman—as they say in the fashion ads—tired of being cast as mammy or earth mother of us all. I've started a lot of plays, mainly because I can't bear the idea of sisters like Rosalind Cash, Gloria Foster, Barbara O. Jones—the list goes on—saddled with crap or given no scripts at all. But finally, I think I will be moving into film production because I want to do it right; I want to script Marie Laveau for Barbara O. Jones and do Harper's Ferry with the correct cast of characters—Harriet Tubman, Mary Ellen or Mammy Pleasants, Frederick Douglass, the Virginia brothers and sisters waiting to be armed. Now can't you just see Verta Mae and Maya Angelou and William Marshall and Al Freeman, Jr., in a movie such as that?
My interests have evolved, but my typing hasn't gotten any better. I no longer have the patience to sit it out in the solitude of my backroom, all by my lonesome self, knocking out books. I'm much more at home with a crew swapping insights, brilliances, pooling resources, information. My main interest of the moment, then, is to make films.
I recall that the comment about being antagonized by black writers struck me as funny. There were other white reviewers who went off their nut because I didn't get on their case, didn't seem to be paying them due attention. What the hell? The feedback, though, that has mattered is that which comes through letters or in reviews in periodicals like Freedom Ways and First World and that wonderful review—my God, it was so much better written and thought out than my book—Michele Russell did of Sea birds in The New American Movement. Children still write and call about the Doubleday book. Tales and Short Stories for Black Folks, which convinced me that they are good readers and not the remedial compensatory-education, basket-case students their teachers swear they are. And every once in a while, some mama will put her hands on my shoulders, the way Alice Childress did some ten years ago—and the grip still resonates—and said, "Daughter, what you tried to do with The Black Woman was mighty fine. Try it again."
I'm very fortunate in that my readership is not anonymous and the feedback is personal. I meet readers on the bus, in the laundromat, at conferences, in the joint, damn near everywhere. I get letters, calls, reviews here and there, and even appear in an occasional CLA [College Language Association] or MLA [Modern Language Association] paper. It keeps me going. I've been told, of course, everything from A to Z—that all my political polemicizing is destroying whatever gift for storytelling and conjuring characters I have, or that my work is too soft, too much about ordinary people and that I ought to tackle "big" figures and "big" revolutionary events, or that it's a pleasure to read about my men and women, who don't seem to be all up in each other's face, or that I am not fearless enough, angry enough about sexist behavior in the community. Of course, everyone has a story that I should write for them. I appreciate all the feedback. Keeps me going. So finally, primarily and ultimately, I'm not at all concerned about whether white reviewers are comfortable or ill at ease with my work. I've been told this is a foolish attitude on my part. But while I may not be very shrewd about my, ah, "lit-tur-rary car-rear," I am quite clear and serious about my work in the world. It's a very big place, the world. There are actually readers out there who do not take their cue from The New York Times; and, of course, there are millions right here in our community who don't read books at all. That's okay. I plod ahead. I do my work. I try to stay centered and not get poisoned, or intoxicated, as they say, with whatever success I've had.
Who has influenced your writing?
My mama. She did The New York Times and The London Times crossword puzzles. She read books. She built bookcases. She'd wanted to be a journalist. She gave me permission to wonder, to dawdle, to daydream. My most indelible memory of 1948 is my mother coming upon me in the middle of the kitchen floor with my head in the clouds and my pencil on the paper and her mopping around me. My mama had been in Harlem during the renaissance. She used to hang out at the Dark Tower, at the Renny, go to hear Countee Cullen, see Langston Hughes over near Mt. Morris Park. She thought it was wonderful that I could write things that almost made some kind of sense. She used to walk me over to Seventh Avenue and 125th Street and point out the shop where J. A. Rogers, the historian, was knocking out books. She used to walk me over to the Speaker's Corner to listen to the folks. Of course, if they were talking "religious stuff," she'd keep on going to wherever we were going; but if they were talking union or talking race, we'd hang tough on the corner.
I wasn't raised in the church. I learned the power of the word from the speakers on Speaker's Corner—trade unionists, Temple People as we called Muslims then, Father Divinists, Pan-Africanists, Abyssinians as we called Rastas then, Communists, Ida B. Wells folks. We used to listen to "Wings Over Jordan" on the radio; and I did go to this or that Sunday school over the years, moving from borough to country to city, but the sermons I heard on Speaker's Corner as a kid hanging on my mama's arm or as a kid on my own and then as an adult had tremendous impact on me. It was those marvelously gifted, extravagantly verbal speakers that prepared me later for the likes of Charlie Cobb, Sr., Harold Thurman, Revun Doughtery, and the mighty, mighty voice of Bernice Reagon.
My daddy used to take me to the Apollo Theater, which had the best audience in the world with the possible exception of folks who gather at Henry Street for Woodie King's New Federal Theater plays. There, in the Apollo, I learned that if you are going to call yourself some kind of communicator, you'd better be good because the standards of our community are high. I used to hang out a bit with my brother and my father at the Peace Barber Shop up in Divine territory [An area in Harlem around Father Divine's church] just north of where we lived, and there I learned what it meant to be a good storyteller. Of course, the joints I used to hang around when I was supposed to be walking a neighbor's dog or going to the library taught me more about the oral tradition and our high standards governing the rap, than books.
The musicians of the forties and fifties, I suspect, determined my voice and pace and pitch. I grew up around boys who carried horn cases and girls who couldn't wait for their legs to grow and reach the piano pedals. I grew up in New York City, bebop heaven—and it's still music that keeps that place afloat. I learned more from Bud Powell, Dizzy, Y'Bird, Miss Sassy Vaughn about what can be communicated, can be taught through structure, tone, metronomic sense, and just sheer holy boldness than from any teacher of language arts, or from any book for that matter. For the most part, the voice of my work is bop. To be sure, pieces like "The Survivor" [Gorilla] and others that don't come to mind quickly because I can never think of titles, show I can switch codes and change instruments; and since moving South, I've expanded my repertoire to include a bit of the gospel idiom. Certainly, "The Organizer's Wife" [Sea Birds] and sections of The Salt Eaters are closer to gospel than to jazz. The title story of the last collection, "The Seabirds Are Still Alive," would not have worked in bop, as it is set in Southeast Asia with a cast of characters that are Asian, European, South American, Euro-American, and a narrator who must remain as close as possible to a camera lens and stay out of the mix.
Who have been your mentors?
There have been a great many inspirational influences, and they continue to be so. I'm still in first gear. Addison Gayle, for example, a friend and colleague back in the early sixties, urged me to assemble a book on the black woman rather than run off at the mouth about it. It was Addison who got me the contract to do the second book, Tales and Short Stories for Black Folks. I can't remember who clubbed me over the head to start doing reviews for Dan Watts's Liberator, but that experience certainly impacted on what and how and why I write; and the support I get now from my editor and friend, Toni Morrison—well, I just can't say what that does for me. She'll feed me back some passage I've written and say, "Hmm, that's good, girl." That gives me a bead on where I am and keeps me going.
I suspect the greatest influence now, what determines the shape and content of my work, is the community of writers. While black critics are woefully lagging behind, it seems to me, not adequately observing trends, interpreting, arguing the value of products for both practitioner and audience, there is, nonetheless, a circle, if you will—not to be confused with clique, coterie, or even school of writing. But writers have gotten their wagons in a circle, which gives us each something to lean against, push off against. It's the presence on the scene of Gwen Brooks, Ron Milner, Alice Walker, and Lorenzo Thomas that helps me edit, for instance, that helps me catch myself when I blunder in the elements of the craft—a slip of voice or mask, a violation of spatial arrangement, a mangling of theme, a disconnectedness to traditions. I'm influenced by Ishmael Reed, Quincey Troupe, Janet Tolliver, Lucille Clifton, Ianthe Thomas, Camille Yarborough, Jayne Cortez, etc., in the sense that they represent a range and thus give me the boldness to go headon with my bad self. The found voice of writers from other communities—Leslie Silko, Simon Ortiz, Rudy Ananya, Sean Wong, Wendy Rose, Lawson Inada, Janice Mirikitani, Charat Chandra, etc.—also influences my reach, my confidence to plumb our traditions, do more than just scan our terrain but stretch out there.
It's a dismally lonely business, writing. It has never given me a bad time in and of itself. I love the work; but to keep at it, I need to slap five every now and again with Pearl Lomax, Nikki Grimes, Victor Cruz, Toni Morrison, or Verta Mae, whether they're in slapping distance or not. It's not well enough appreciated, I think, what the presence or absence of certain spirits in the circle mean to keep one energized and awake. I'm always stunned, appalled, by reviewers and interviewers who don't realize this is not a popularity contest or a tournament. Not long ago, some crazy TV person was running off at the mouth about how wonderful it was to read my work as compared to this writer, that writer, as though I'd be overjoyed to hear my colleagues "murder-mouthed." It took me three beats to plant my hands safely in my pocket before taking off on the assumption, not to mention his head. That we keep each other's writing alive is the point I'm trying to make. The literature of this crucial time is a mixed chorus.
Would you describe your writing process?
There's no particular routine to my writing, nor have any two stories come to me the same way. I'm usually working on five or six things at a time; that is, I scribble a lot in bits and pieces and generally pin them together with a working title. The actual sitdown work is still weird to me. I babble along, heading I think in one direction, only to discover myself tugged in another, or sometimes I'm absolutely snatched into an alley. I write in longhand or what kin and friends call deranged hieroglyphics. I begin on long, yellow paper with a juicy ballpoint if it's one of those 6/8 bop pieces. For slow, steady, watch-the-voice-kid, don't-let-the-mask-slip-type pieces, I prefer short, fatlined white paper and an ink pen. I usually work it over and beat it up and sling it around the room a lot before I get to the typing stage. I hate to type—hate, hate—so things get cut mercilessly at that stage. I stick the thing in a drawer or pin it on a board for a while, maybe read it to someone or a group, get some feedback, mull it over, and put it aside. Then, when an editor calls me to say, "Got anything?" or I find the desk cluttered, or some reader sends a letter asking, "You still breathing?" or I need some dough, I'll very studiously sit down, edit, type, and send the damn thing out before it drives me crazy.
I lose a lot of stuff; that is, there are gobs of scripts and stories that have gotten dumped in the garbage when I've moved, and I move a lot. My friend, Jan, was narrating a story I did years ago and someone asked, "Where can I find it?" Damned if I know. It was typed beautifully, too, but it was twenty-four pages long. Who can afford to print it? It'll either turn up or not. Nothing is ever lost, it seems to me. Besides, I can't keep up with half the stuff in my head. That's why I love to be in workshops. There are frequently writers who get stumped, who dry up and haven't a clue. Then, here I come talking about this idea and that scenario—so things aren't really lost.
The writing of The Salt Eaters was bizarre. I'll spare you the saga of the starts and fits and stutterings for the length of a year. I began with such a simple story line—to investigate possible ways to bring our technicians of the sacred and our guerillas together. A Mardi Gras society elects to reenact an old slave insurrection in a town torn by wildcat strikes, social service cutbacks, etc. All hell breaks loose. I'm sliding along the paper, writing about some old Willie Bobo on the box and, next thing I know, my characters are talking in tongues; the street signs are changing on me. The terrain shifts, and I'm in Brazil somewhere speaking Portuguese. I should mention that I've not been to Brazil yet, and I do not speak Portuguese. I didn't panic. It was no news to me that stuff comes from out there somewhere. I dashed off about thirty pages of this stuff, then hit the library to check it out. I had to put the novel aside twice; but finally, one day I'm walking out in the woods that some folks here call a front yard, and I slumped down next to my favorite tree and just said, "Okay, I'm stepping aside, y'all. I'm getting out of the way. What is the story I'm supposed to be telling? Tell me." Then I wrote The Salt Eaters. It was a trip to find the narrator's stance. I didn't want merely a witness or a camera eye. Omniscient author never has attracted me; he or she presumes too much. First person was out because I'm interested in a group of people. Narrator as part-time participant was rejected, too. Finally, I found a place to sit, to stand, and a way to be—the narrator as medium through whom the people unfold the stories, and the town telling as much of its story as can be told in the space of one book.
This business of narrating is a serious matter. Oftentimes I've been asked, "Where's your narrator?" or told, "Your narrator is alway so unobtrusive unless the story is first person." Most of the time it seems that way because the narrator speaks the same code and genuinely cares for the people, so there's no distance. That suits my temperament. I am not comfortable conjuring up the folks and then shoving them around like pawns. I conjured them up in order to listen to them. I brought Virginia out, for example, the sister in "The Organizer's Wife," because I wanted to know what those quiet-type sisters sound like on the inside. It was always the quiet, country students that slipped my grasp in the classroom. When I get back to teaching, I want to be able to service them better than I have, so I have to get the narrator out of the way. One way to do that is to have the narrator be a friend, be trustworthy.
The work in The Salt Eaters was far more difficult. The narrator had to be nimble, had to lend herself to different voices and codes in order to let the other characters through. There are only two sections in the whole book where something is being said, viewed, pondered, that is not in some particular character's terms: once, when we get the history of the Southwest Community Infirmary and the tree the elders planted as a marker in case the building was destroyed—originally, that section was narrated by the tree; in rewriting I had one of the loas sing it. . . either was a bit much, given all the other goings-on in the book; and then, in the cafe during a storm when the future of Claybourne is glimpsed—originally, the rain narrated that section, but that also got to be a bit much.
In my current work I'm far more disciplined and orderly. I've mapped out a collection of stories. Some are from the point of view of young men, some from elders; some are set in the States, others in the Caribbean. One is narrated by Pan—every time I see Nick Ashford, I want to do a movie about Pan and rescue that bro', Pan I mean, from the bad press the early Christian church gave him—another by an angel. I've gotten more regular of late in my habits because my daughter asked me when, if ever, I'm going back to work. I discovered that I'd rather hang around the house so I must look like I'm working, you see.
The name Hazel recurs in your work. Is there any particular reason for that? Also, the image of a gorilla is very curious.
The first time I heard those sounds, "hay zil," my mother was stretching out on the couch, putting witch hazel pads on her eyes, and I thought, "Hmmm, witch hazel." I was fond of witches, still am, the groovy kind. I once had a belt made out of shellacked hazel nuts. But the combination—witch hazel—I was off and running. It's a powerful word, "hazel," a seven, and the glyph we call "zee" is ancient and powerful. The critic—I should say aesthetic theorist or something fancy to suit her style—Eleanor Traylor, calls me "Miss Hazel" and maintains that the Miss Hazel we meet in the story "My Man Bovanne" is the central consciousness in the whole Bambara canon. Ahem!
As for gorilla—the term has always been one of endearment. It comes up in "Raymond's Run," [Gorilla, My Love] and in "Medley" [Sea Birds] in different ways. In "Medley" it signals macho, but the charge is made with affection. While I was typing up "Raymond's Run" to send out years ago, I noticed I had the boy shaking the fence like a gorilla; and I thought, "Oh, my God, Cade! What the hell are you doing? How pro-racist!" I kept juggling that passage around. I felt uncomfortable with it but ran with it anyway. People get on my case about it— "What kind of thing is that to say about a young Blood?"—shades of King Kong and the nigger-as-ape and all. What kind of thing, indeed? They're right. I was wrong. I've some nerve expecting my personal idiolects to cancel out, supersede, or override the whole network of racist name-calling triggered by that term.
What impact has the women's movement had on black women?
What has changed about the women's movement is the way we perceive it, the way black women define the term, the phenomena and our participation in it. White bourgeois feminist organizations captured the arena, media attention, and the country's imagination. In the past we were trained to equate the whole phenomena with the agenda, the concerns, the analysis of just those visible and audible organizations. Black women and other women of color have come around to recognizing that the movement is much more than a few organizations. The movement is exactly what the word suggests, a motion of the mind.
Everybody has contributed to the shifts in mental attitude and behavior, certainly everybody has been affected by those shifts—men, women, children, here and abroad. We're more inclined now, women of color, to speak of black midwives and the medicine women of the various communities when we talk of health care rather than assume we have to set up women's health collectives on the same order as non-colored women have. In organizing, collectivizing, researching, strategizing, we're much less antsy than we were a decade ago. We are more inclined to trust our own traditions, whatever name we gave and now give those impulses, those groups, those agendas, and are less inclined to think we have to sound like, build like, non-colored groups that identify themselves as feminist or as women's rights groups, or so it seems to me. There's still much work to be done in terms of building protective leagues in our communities—organizations that speak to the physical/psychological/spiritual/economic/political/creative safety and development of our sisters. Also, bridges need to be built among sisters of the African diaspora and among sisters of color. I'm not adamantly opposed to black-white coalitions; there are some that speak to our interests, but I personally am not prepared to invest any energy in that kind of work. There are too many other alliances both within the black community and across colored communities, both at home and abroad, that strike me as far more crucial. . . .
What advice can you share with new writers?
Well, there's lots of advice I need to give myself and have been trying to get from others, so I'll lay it all out.
Writers ought to form workshops, collectives, unions, guilds, for several reasons. One, it is not fun to be so frequently alone. Two, there are a helluva lot of things writers need to know about markets, copyright laws, marketing, managing money, taxes, the craft itself, etc., that can more easily be mastered if people pool their resources.
Three, writers get screwed right and left in the marketplace because we are individually represented, but collectives can have as much clout with city, state, and federal arts councils as dance companies and symphonies. . . .
Get businesslike about the business of writing. Not only can you get ripped off, you can get lost. Just as musicians need to take a few law courses—not to mention karate and target practice, given the filthy nature of the recording industry—so, too, writers need to deglamorize publishing and study marketing, distributing, printing—the entire process including bookbinding.
Read a lot and hit the streets. A writer who doesn't keep up with what's out there ain't gonna be out there.
Basically, that's the advice I recite to myself at least once a month. I forced myself to organize a workshop although I hate routine in my life, and I stick closely with the development of SCAAW although it means I can't always take a gig out of the city, because I know that I will try to get it together for younger writers even if I don't for myself.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10979
SOURCE: "Desire, Ambivalence, and Nationalist-Feminist Discourse in Bambara's Short Stories," in Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade B ambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 91-122.
[In the following essay, Butler-Evans explores B ambara's attempt to synthesize African-American nationalist and feminist ideologies in her short stories.]
The several ways in which Toni Cade Bambara's short stories were produced assured them a wide audience. Collected and presented as single texts, they were widely anthologized in feminist anthologies, particularly those produced by "women of color";1 and Bambara often read them aloud as "performance pieces" before audiences. Yet they have rarely been the object of in-depth critical attention.2
Bambara's role as storyteller resembles Walter Benjamin's description of such a person, Benjamin's storyteller, a person "always rooted in the people," creates a narrative largely grounded in the oral tradition of his or her culture and containing something useful in the way of a moral, proverb, or maxim that audiences can integrate into their experiences and share with others. Hence, the story becomes the medium through which groups of people are unified, values sustained, and a shared world view sedimented.3
Benjamin's reflections on the story in general are relevant to the cultural practices that informed the production of the Afro-American short story, which is largely rooted in the Black oral tradition. Many Afro-American writers, among them Hurston, Chesnutt, Ellison, and Wright, not only produced short stories but incorporated into their novels folklore drawn from the oral culture.
Working within this framework, Bambara attaches political significance to the short story. Introducing an early collection of her short stories for Black children, she discusses the historical link between Afro-American folktales and short stories. She creates for her readers an imagined setting in which Black families gathered in kitchens to share stories that challenged and corrected representations of Blacks in the dominant historical discourse, fiction, and film. She urges young readers to "be proud of our oral tradition, our elders who tell their tales in the kitchen. For they are truth." In an interview with Claudia Tate, Bambara elaborated on her commitment to the short story, stating that she viewed it as highly effective for establishing political dialogue:
I prefer the short story genre because it's quick, it makes a modest appeal for attention, it can creep up on you on your blind side. The reader comes to the short story with a mindset different than that which he approaches the big book, and a different set of controls operating, which is why I think the short story is far more effective in terms of teaching us lessons.4
Like her works in other genres, Bambara's short stories primarily aim at truth speaking, particularly as truth is related to the semiotic mediation of Black existential modalities. Of primary importance are the construction and representation of an organic Black community and the articulation of Black nationalist ideology. Nevertheless, her two short story collections, Gorilla, My Love and The Seabirds Are Still Alive, are marked by dissonance and ruptures; in both volumes, Bambara's insertion of themes related to the desires of Black women and girls disrupts and often preempts the stories' primary focus on classic realism and nationalism.
In Gorilla, Bambara's use of the young girl Hazel as the primary narrator results in a decentering of the stories. In each narrative, a subtext focused on issues with which girls and women are confronted threatens to displace the racial discourse that is in the dominant text. The stories in Seabirds, which are generally more explicitly political than those in Gorilla, directly inscribe the tensions between racial and gender politics. The stories in Seabirds, then, signal a pre-emergent feminist consciousness. In this collection, more complex development and representations of Black women of "the community," increased marginalization and deconstruction of mythologies centered on Black males, and the general highlighting of feminine and feminist issues indicate a heightening of tensions between gender and racial politics.
Gorilla, My Love
Published as individual stories over a twelve-year period from 1959 to 1972, and issued as a single volume in 1972, Gorilla, My Love marked Bambara's debut as a spokesperson for Black cultural nationalism. The stories in this volume were generally received as innocent children's narratives that presented realistic depictions of an organic Black community. Focusing on neighborhoods of ordinary Black working-class people, they ignored larger global issues of their time—racial strife in urban areas, the Vietnam involvement, political assassinations, and independence struggles in Africa—and dealt exclusively with the "inner world" of Blacks.5
The stories in Gorilla clearly locate the collection in the broad context of Black nationalist fiction of the 1960s. Employing classic realism as their dominant narrative form, Bambara constructed organic Black communities in which intra-racial strife was minimal, the White world remained on the periphery, and the pervasive "realities" of Black life were presented. Their model readers were those who were acquainted with nationalist semiotic representations of the Black communities of the 1960s.
Throughout the stories, however, submerged narratives, or subtexts, address the desires of Black women, moving away from the focus on classic realism and nationalist ideology. A close examination of Gorilla's narrative perspective reveals a disruption of the text's apparent unity in the construction of Black female subjects and representation of Black males, particularly the displacing and demythologizing of legendary and heroic Black figures.
The privileged position of the narrator in Gorilla is reinforced by Hazel, the young Black girl, who is the first-person narrator of most of the stories in the collection. Her authenticity is underlined by her total cultural identification with the community she describes. With her mastery of the restricted linguistic code of Black urban life and her ability to evoke both the verbal and nonverbal signs of that culture, she speaks from within that world and becomes a self-ethnographer of the imaginary Black community. For readers familiar with the culture, Hazel provides a body of signs that resonate with their semiotic comprehension of the culture; for readers unfamiliar with the culture, she offers "realistic" insights. This process of narration can be understood in Werner Sollors's discussion of James Weldon Johnson's concept of the "problem of the double audience" for Black writers. Applying Johnson's concept to "ethnic writers in general," Sollors argues that such writers "confront an actual imagined double audience composed of insiders' and of readers, listeners, or spectators who are not familiar with the writer's ethnic group [functioning as] translators of ethnicity to ignorant, and sometimes hostile outsiders and, at the same time as mediators between 'America' and greenhorns."6
An episode in the title story of the collection dramatically illustrates the narrative strategy. Commenting on the manner in which her mother confronts teachers when Hazel encounters difficulties, the child reflects:
My momma come up there in a minute when them teachers start playin the dozens behind colored folks. She stalk in with her hat pulled down bad and that Persian lamb coat draped back over one hip on account of she got her fist planted there so she can talk that talk which gets us all hypnotized, and the teacher be comin undone cause she know this would be her job and her behind cause Momma got pull with the board and bad by her own self anyhow.7
What is striking here is the exclusive deployment of an alternative code, one that attempts to reproduce the nuances of Black urban speech and diverges significantly from the linguistic forms of the dominant culture; at the same time, however, the substance is accessible to those familiar with the culture and to those who are not. References to the cultural practices of Black life, all grounded in specific semiotic structures, evoke for the reader familiar with that culture a recognizable world and transmit "realistic" information to those outside it. The references to playing the dozens, semantic constructions such as "talk that talk" and "be comin undone," the use of the term "bad" as a synonym for good, and the mother's physical statement as a semiotics of the body8 all contribute to the symbolic construction of a Black community and emphasize Hazel's role as that of an authentic self-ethnographer. Moreover, the first-person narration, particularly within the context of an alternative code, places the speaker in an authoritative position. As William Riggan points out:
First person narration carries with it an inherent quality of realism and conviction based on a claim to firsthand experience and knowledge. The very fact that we have before us, either literally or figuratively, an identifiable narrator telling us the story directly, even metaphorically grabbing us on the arm, gesturing to us individually or collectively from time to time, imparts a tangible reality to the narrative situation and a substantial veracity to the account we are reading or "hearing."9
Hazel's role as narrator, then, particularly her use of a linguistic code that is largely a reproduction of Black working-class speech, allows her to construct authoritatively the implied imaginary community, block, or neighborhood. Recognition of the inner world of that community by readers is thereby contingent on their acceptance of Hazel's credibility and their ability to decode the body of signs evoked in the story. Moreover, Bambara's narrative strategy of using a young girl to tell a story about an older Black woman allows her to develop a feminine dimension that situates the narrative in race- and gender-specific contexts.
Gorilla draws on oral cultural practices that are rather commonplace in Afro-American literature; "The Johnson Girls" makes a more radical use of such practices. In this story, Hazel mediates a lively exchange in which three women offer their views about men:
"First you gotta have you a fuckin man, a cat that can get down between the sheets without a whole lotta bullshit about "This is a spiritual union" or "Women are always rippin off my body. . . ."
"Amen," say Marcy.
"Course, he usually look like hell and got no I.Q. atall," say Sugar.
"So you gots to have you a go-around man, a dude that can put in a good appearance so you won't be shame to take him round your friends, case he insists on opening his big mouth."
"Course, the go-around man ain't about you, he got his rap and his wardrobe and his imported deodorant stick with the foreign ingredients listed there at the bottom in some unknown tongue. Which means you gots to have a gofor." (P. 168)
The reproduction of the rhythms and cadences of oral cultural practices links this passage to the urban Black subculture. It is also linked to oral and performance texts of Afro-American culture by the verbal exchanges between the women, which reproduce the chant-response ritual characteristic of similar exchanges between fundamentalist ministers and their congregations. Bambara appropriates "signifying," the somewhat crude banter that occurs between Blacks (usually men and boys) in working-class Afro-American communities. Central to this practice is the use of hyperbolic and scatological tropes as strategies for criticizing and disparaging an opponent.10 Traditionally, these cultural practices were the domain of Black male speakers and writers, and they are usually associated with the construction of the myth of the Black male as competitive, assertive, and combative.11 Bambara's story, then, signals an appropriation and retextualization.
Bambara relies on signifying for its traditional function: to mark the text as race specific and to conflate the oral and written modes of textual production. Bambara's use of signifying, particularly her identification of the practice with women, is an important part of a complex strategy. Laurent Jenny provides a useful theoretical tool for examining Bambara's textual strategies in his distinction between "weak" strategies (i.e., those that are largely marked by transportation of sign systems from one text to another) and strategies that produce an ideological effect. Arguing for the critical function of the latter, he says:
The author repeats in order to encircle, to enclose within another discourse, thus rendered more powerful. He speaks in order to obliterate, or cancel. Or else, patiently, he gainsays in order to go beyond. . . . Since it is impossible to forget or neutralize the discourse, one might as well subvert its ideological poles; or reify it, make it the object of a metalanguage. Then the possiblity of a new parole will open up, growing out of the cracks of the old discourse, rooted in them. In spite of themselves these old discourses will drive all the force they have gained as stereotypes into the parole which contradicts them, they will energize it. Intertextuality thus forces them to finance their own subversion.12
Bambara's narrative engages in a female appropriation of the signifying practice in order to allow feminine consciousness to assert itself The narrative is the method by which the speakers inform their readers of women's desires and the perceived deficiencies of men, and it reinforces this epistemological context by presenting it within a traditionally male cultural practice. The myth of the autonomous woman is produced here and is strengthened by the use of chant and response and signifying practices.
Central to the representations of Black adolescent girls are the traits of rebelliousness, assertiveness, and, at times, physical aggressiveness. Taken collectively, these traits signify a rejection of society's stereotypes of females as fragile and vulnerable and the construction of alternative selves that oppose and negate the ideology that structures the girls' community. In the representation of Hazel, the protagonist whose voice permeates the narratives, autonomy and self-definition are asserted forcefully.
In the title story, Hazel and not her brothers confronts the manager of the theater when the children are cheated; she assumes responsibility for physically protecting her handicapped brother in the story "Raymond's Run"; and she confronts the police officers who interrupt the basketball game that she and Manny are playing. In her rejection of behaviors specifically assigned by the culture to young girls, she directly challenges the ideological assumptions that dictate the role of the Black female "on the block." Hazel's rebellion dominates the text and manifests itself in both her actions and her implicit defiance (e.g., the street jargon and obscenities that mark her speech). Burning a theater that misled the children by misrepresenting its program, being consistently successful in athletic competition, and being able to protect herself and assert her authority on the block all mark her as a tough and independent adolescent girl who successfully rebels against traditional roles.
This toughness and independence are strongly depicted in an episode from "Raymond's Run" in which Hazel, who is walking with her handicapped brother, sees two of her rivals approaching:
So, they are steady coming up Broadway and I see right away that it's going to be one of those Dodge City scenes cause the street ain't that big and they're close to the buildings just as we are. . . . But as they get to me they slow down. I'm ready to fight, cause like I said I don't feature a whole lot of chit chat. I much prefer to just knock you down right from the jump and save everybody a lotta precious time. (P. 25)
The rejection of "approved" feminine roles is made even more explicit in Hazel's refusal to participate in the May Pole dancing. She informs the reader:
You'd think my mother'd be grateful not to have to make me a white organdy dress with a big satin sash and buy me new white baby-doll shoes that she can't be taken out of the box till the big day. You'd think she'd be glad her daughter ain't out there prancing around a May Pole getting the new clothes all dirty and sweaty and trying to act like a fairy or a flower or whatever you're supposed to be when you should be trying to be yourself, whatever that is, which is, as far as I'm concerned, a poor Black girl who really can't afford to buy shoes and a new dress you wear once a lifetime cause it won't fit next year. (P. 27)
Hazel's rebellion against socially dictated roles is further emphasized by her commentary on the hostility that the community encourages between girls and women. Referring to the difficulty she is having in establishing a real friendship with Gretchen, she observes: "Gretchen smiles, but it's not a smile, and I'm thinking girls never really smile at each other because they don't know how and don't want to know how and there's probably no one to teach us how, cause grown-up girls don't know either" (p.p. 26-27).
At the end of the race, which she wins while Gretchen finishes second, Hazel returns to this theme of separation:
We stand there with this big smile of respect between us. It's about as real a smile as girls can do for each other, considering we don't practice real smiling every day, you know, cause maybe we too busy being flowers or fairies or strawberries instead of being something honest and worthy of respect. . . . you know . . . like being people. (P. 32)
This apparently innocent "children's story" marks the emergence of a consciousness grounded in feminine and proto-feminist experiences. The questioning and challenging of gender roles, the insertion of the problem of female bonding in the text, and, most significantly, the construction of a rebellious antisocial girl protagonist produce counterdiscourses that challenge the dominant hierarchical discourse of Black cultural nationalism.
In addition to challenging gender-determined roles for girls and women, the stories in Gorilla address the plight of young girls as victims of the predatory sexual practices of the community's Black males. In "Sweet Town," the protagonist Kit romanticizes and mystifies the sexual act:
There is a certain glandular disturbance all beautiful, wizardly, great people have second sight to, that trumpet through the clothes, sets the nerves up for the kill, and torments the orange explosure. . . . My mother calls it sex and my brother says it's groin fever time. But then they are always ones for brevity. (P. 122)
Having submitted to B. J., who seduces her by pretending to share her romanticized view of the world, Kit finds herself discarded as he plans to run away with a male friend. Her idealized vision of eroticism and romance is completely shattered when she is forced to recognize the crude opportunism and cynicism that mark a vision that is antithetical to it.
"The Basement" introduces the issue of the sexual molestation of children, strongly emphasizing the vulnerability of Black adolescent girls "on the block" to the sexual desires of older men. The seriousness of the issue is suppressed by the narrative in which Hazel innocently relates the events, highlighting the comic exchanges between the two women identified as "Patsy Aunt" and "Patsy Mother." In a somewhat straightforward manner, Hazel and her friend Patsy are warned not to go into the basement of the building in which the superintendent lives because he "mess[es] with young girls." Discussing this problem with the two girls, Patsy's aunt and mother discover that the superintendent frequently exposes himself to young girls at play, and "Patsy Mother" rushes to the basement to assault him.
The incident is related lightheartedly in the story, but beneath the simplicity and the moments of vulgarity and the raucous laughter, the sexual aggressiveness of men in the community—particularly the manner in which that aggressiveness represents a threat to young girls and women—is addressed as a serious problem. Responding to Hazel's curiosity about the need to stay away from the basement, two older women discuss male sexual aggression:
"Because," said Patsy Aunt drownin [Patsy's mother] out, "some men when they get to drinking don't know how to behave properly to women and girls. Understand?" "You see," said Patsy Mother, back again [from her trip to the basement] and with only one slipper, "it's very hard to teach young girls to be careful and at the same time not to scare you to death. . . . Sex is not a bad thing. But sometimes it's a need that makes men act bad, take advantage of little girls who are friendly and trusting. Understand?" (P. 143)
The incident assumes major significance when it is seen within the context of the repressed and unspoken of the text.13 Beneath the laughter and flippancy is an alternative narrative that addresses the community as the site of the victimization of women by the aggressive sexual appetites of the males among whom they must live.
Stories that focus on the plight of older women also mark Gorilla's concern with feminine and feminist discourse. These stories address one or more of three themes: (1) the women's need to establish protective bonds with young girls in the community in order to pass on to them advice needed for survival; (2) the necessity of examining and questioning traditional male-female relationships; and (3) the necessity of challenging and rebelling against roles assigned to women in the larger society in general and "on the block" in particular.
The process by which adult women transmit the knowledge necessary for survival is most in evidence in "The Johnson Girls" and "The Basement." These two narratives detail the responsibilities assumed by older Black women in protecting young Black girls from destructive male behavior. Great Ma Drew's observation in "The Johnson Girls" emphasizes that this responsibility is part of a traditional cultural relationship between women and girls; at the time of her childhood, "the older women would gather together to train young girls in the ways of menfolks" (p. 165). In "Maggie of the Green Bottles," the older woman not only verbally transmits folk wisdom to the young girl but actually uses herself as an exemplar of female rebellion and independence. In her defiance of the community's attempts to control the lives of women through intersecting institutions of domination (the Black cultural tradition, the fundamentalist church, and male hegemony), Maggie places herself outside, and in opposition to, her society, thereby creating a free, transcendent self.
Hazel's role as first-person narrator results in the suppression of direct ideological statements, but the spiritual bond between woman and girl is uppermost in the story. Reflecting on her grandmother's life, Hazel suggests that Maggie embrace a view of the world that is not only antithetical to the values of the community but also represents a consciousness that questions that value system and places her outside it:
I am told by those who knew her . . . that Margaret Cooper Williams wanted something she could not have. And it was the sorrow of her life that all her children and theirs were uncooperative, worse squeamish. Too busy taking in laundry, buckling at the knees, putting their faith in Jesus, mute and silent in their storm, to make history or even to appreciate the calling of Maggie the Ram, or the Aries that came after. . . . They called her crazy. (P. 153)
This representation of the bond between Hazel and her grandmother, and the similar bonds I have cited earlier, carries traces of the writings of Afro-American women from Zora Neale Hurston to Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Moreover, the textual construction of such bonds is grounded in a pretexrual ideology that views mothers, as well as mother surrogates, as sources of wisdom for young Black girls. Commenting on this practice, Gloria Joseph writes:
Black women play integral roles in the family, and frequently it is immaterial whether they are biological mothers, sisters, or members of the extended family. From the standpoint of many Black daughters it could be: my sister, my mother, my aunt, my mother, my grandmother, my mother. They are all daughters, and they frequently "mother" their sisters, nieces, nephews, or cousins, as well as their own children.14
In its focus on male-female relationships, Gorilla addresses the issue of rejection, which is the inevitable fate of the independent woman. In "Maggie of the Green Bottles," this issue is stressed in the "eulogy" delivered by Reverend Olson at Maggie's funeral. He points to her violations of the unwritten but implicitly understood rules of the community governing women's behavior, of her challenging arbitrarily constituted male authority and her overall rebelliousness. He suggests to a receptive congregation that she "must have been crazy." The "eulogy" becomes a medium through which the community's ideology, which defined and prescribed desirable female behavior, is reinforced and a warning is directed to those women who might be tempted to emulate Maggie's transgression.
In "The Johnson Girls," the small community of women discovers that their strengths make them undesirable to the men in their lives, that their refusal to accept passive roles alienates men. Self-assertion "on the block" is viewed as solely within the province of males. Sugar, one of the women, reflects:
A man, no matter how messy he is, I mean even if he some straight up basket case, can always get some good woman. . . . But a woman, if her shit ain't together, she can forget it unless she very lucky and got a Great Ma Drew working roots. If she halfway together and very cold blooded, then maybe she can snatch some sucker and bump his head. But if she got her Johnson together, is fine in her do, super-bad in her work, and terrible, terrible extra plus with her woman thing, well she'll just bop along the waves forever with nobody to catch her up, cause her thing is so tough, and it's so crystal clear she ain't going for bullshit, that can't no man pump up his boyish heart good enough to come deal with her one on one. (P. 172)
"My Man Bovanne," one of the stories in which a defiant, rebellious older Black woman is represented, is told from the point of view of an older woman named Hazel (thereby linking her with the rebellious younger Hazel). It focuses on a seemingly banal situation in which the woman is berated by her children for her "backwards" behavior, which includes dancing suggestively with a blind man at a political fundraiser.
Hazel's refusal to allow her critics to dictate her behavior clearly places her rebellion among those of other autonomous women and girls in the narratives. More important, through her commentaries on the social and political practices of "the block," she embodies a challenge to the dominant theme of the text, Black cultural nationalism, and thus creates a rupture in the narrative.
Pointing to behaviors she considers inconsistent and exploitative, Hazel communicates her uneasiness with cultural nationalism and her perception of its weaknesses. Disillusioned, she explains why she feels that she and other working-class Blacks have been invited to the fundraiser:
Grass roots you see. Me and Sister Taylor and the woman who does heads at Mamies and the man from the barber shop, we all there on account of we grass roots. And I ain't never been souther than Brooklyn Battery and no more country than the window box on my fire escape. And just yesterday my kids tellin me to take them countrified rags off my head and be cool. And now, we ain't got black enough to suit them. (P. 4)
Such ridiculing and questioning of nationalist ideology and cultural practices permeate the story. Reprimanded for dancing too seductively with Bovanne, Hazel explains that she "was just talkin' on the drums," for her children "can get ready for drums with all this heritage business" (p. 5). In a scene in which she reflects on the pain she feels when her "politically correct" daughter seems to have lost all capacity for warmth and affection, Hazel observes:
"Oh, Mamma," Elo say, puttin a hand on my shoulder like she hasn't done since she left home and the hand landin light and not sure it supposed to be there. Which hurt me to my heart . . . I carried that child strapped to my chest till she was nearly two. We was close is what I'm trying to tell you. . . . And how did things get to this, that she can't put a sure hand on me and say Mamma we love you and care about you and you entitled to enjoy yourself cause you a good woman? (Pp. 7-8)
This critique of practices associated with cultural nationalism differentiates the story from others in its genre, particularly those written by Black males. The narrative's dominant themes—the rejection of stereotypical roles for women and elderly people, an emphasis on the need to balance political commitment with intimacy and warmth, and the highlighting of contradictions in the nationalist movement—mark the emergence of a dissonant voice in Bambara's oeuvre, a voice somewhat analogous to Helen Cixous's view of the emergence of a feminist structure of feeling as "the precursory movement of a transformation of social and cultural structures."15
If Black women in the collection are largely represented as having an emerging consciousness of their situation, as well as wanting autonomy and participating in rebellion, Black male figures are characterized by subordination, vulnerability, and demystification. Generally absent from the text are the familiar Black male cultural heroes of the period in which Gorilla was produced. Whereas Black male writers of the time generally romantized rebellious ghetto youth, "militants," and Black spokesmen in general, Bambara, referring to them only in passing, creates a startling contrast. Along with the primacy of women's desires in the narratives, she reinforces the feminine and proto-feminist dimensions of the work.
Generally, when men and boys do appear in the narratives, they are dependent on women and girls. Hazel's brother, Raymond, who is handicapped, depends on Hazel for support; Manny in "The Hammer Man" is emotionally disturbed; the helpless and blind Bovanne is nurtured by Miss Hazel; in "Talking About Sonny," the protagonist kills his wife because "something came over me." There are few exceptions to these representations of male weakness and imperfection. In only two stories are male figures predominant, and even in those, the men's stories are mediated by women narrators. "Mississippi Ham Rider" evokes a seemingly romanticized portrait of an archetypal Black blues singer, and "Playing with Punjab" sketches a streetwise Black ghetto male. The representations of both men have apparently legendary or mythical dimensions, but they are deconstructed and undermined by dissonant moments in the narratives.
In "Ham Rider," for example, the young Black woman who accompanies her white companion to the rural South to attempt to persuade the old blues singer Ham Rider to come to New York for a recording session is impressed by the blues singer's "jackboots, the original War-One bespoke overcoat, razor scar, gravel voice, and personality to match" (p. 50). These items are signs of Ham Rider's "authenticity." Nevertheless, this mystification of an "authentic artifact" of Black culture is cut down in the text when the narrator reflects on Rider's probable plight in New York:
And what was the solitary old blues singer going to do after he had run the coffee-house circuit and scared the living shit out of the college kids? It was grotesque no matter how you cut it. . . . Ole Ham Rider besieged by well-dressed coffee drinkers wanting his opinion on Miles Davis and Malcolm X was worth a few feet of film. And the quaint introduction by some bearded fool in tight across-the-groin pants would justify more footage. No amount of drunken thinking could convince me that Mr. Lyons could groom this character for popular hootnanies. On the other hand, if the militant civil liberties unions got hold of him, Mr. Charlie was a dead man. (P. 54)
The narrator totally dismantles the romanticized and mystified representation of Ham Rider that she has constructed. He becomes, not a larger-than-life embodiment of Black malehood, but a quixotic figure, manipulated and exploited by those around him. Her ambiguous reference to the blues singer's having about him "a legendary air and simply not being of these times" strongly reinforces that demystification.
A similar demystification of a mythical Black male figure occurs in the story "Playing with Punjab." Punjab, whose very name is a sign of ferocity, represents a commonplace character in the literature and film of the 1960s and 1970s. Flamboyant, streetwise, and tough, he is a metaphor for the rebellious Black youth of the urban ghettoes. On the margins of the dominant culture, as well as the Black middle class, he is seen as a hero "on the block." The inhabitants view him with reverential awe. Hazel's description of him evokes that attitude:
First of all, you don't play with Punjab. The man ain't got no sense of humor. On top of that, he's six-feet something and solid hard. And not only that, he has an incredible memory and keeps unbelievably straight books. And he figure, I guess, that there ain't no sense of you dying from malnutrition when you can die so beautifully from a million and one other things and make the Daily News centerfold besides. (P. 69)
Punjab's vulnerability surfaces when he becomes infatuated with Miss Ruby, a white social worker the city has assigned to direct a community center on the block. Punjab's involvement with her interferes with his ability to see that her actions are not in the community's best interests. When she manipulates a local election so that the least effective residents of the community will hold positions of responsibility, Punjab destroys the community center, forcing its closure. Like other serious issues in Gorilla,the incident is narrated casually, but the mystification of Punjab, earlier supported by the narrator's stance, is significantly undermined.
What occurs in Gorilla is a subversion of the paradigms of representation that generally characterize the fiction produced by Black males committed to the discourse and ideology of cultural nationalism. Their works usually construct a Black male figure who embodies self-sufficiency and heroism; in Bambara's stories, these traits are subjected to a radical deconstruction. The male figure is demythologized and ultimately displaced by an alternative mythical construct: a questioning and assertive Black female, who signifies an emergent feminine-feminist consciousness.
Beneath the surface realism that marks Gorilla, My Love as a race-specific celebration of Black life "on the block," then, is a submerged text informed by an awakening feminine and proto-feminist consciousness. B ambara appropriates the signs of Black nationalist discourse and employs them as strategies by which women are empowered. Consequently, the apparent centeredness of the stories is dismantled, the nationalist and feminist themes standing in a relationship of tension and attempting to achieve conciliation.
The Seabirds Are Still Alive
Published five years after Gorilla, The Seabirds Are Still Alive significantly departs in both form and theme from the earlier work, but the tensions, ambivalences, and irresolution endemic to the attempt to synthesize Black nationalist and feminist ideologies are even more dramatically represented. In its insistence on addressing cultural nationalist issues, Seabirds carries all the traces of a nostalgic text, evoking a past removed by nearly a decade from its historical moment. Its intersection with a burgeoning feminist movement locates it within the matrix of one of the dominant political phenomena of the period. This juxtaposition of two antithetical ideologies produces narrative tensions between the nationalist enterprise and the surfacing of feminine-feminist desire and ambivalence. Even the dedication in the text—"This manuscript, assembled in the Year of the Woman and typed by Kenneth Morton Paseur and Lynn Brown, is dedicated to Karma and her many mommas: Nana Helen, Mama Swan, Mommy Jan, Mommy Leslie, Mommy Cheryl, and Nana Lara"—locates the work within the emergent body of feminist literature of the late 1970s and postulates an ideological framework through which its narratives can be examined.
Seabirds deals with increasingly complex political issues and reaches beyond the epistemological boundaries that circumscribe Black people "on the block" to encompass larger geographical, cultural, and political constructs. Its politics are largely inscribed in its representational strategies, which take four forms: (1) more complex constructions of women, stressing their roles as cultural rebels and political activists; (2) an enlarged and extended projection of the Black girl as a child-woman who embodies nascent cultural and political consciousness; (3) an increased marginalization of Black males with emphasis on their diminished importance; and (4) more intensified depictions of white males and females as disruptive forces in the community.
Women who are physically and spiritually a part of the political struggle are depicted as having made an uneasy commitment to the ideology of cultural nationalism, and they feel a conflict about having done so. For other women, political consciousness is still evolving. For both types of women, however, conflicts are not easily resolved. The feminist voice constantly interjects itself in these stories, challenging and sometimes displacing the nationalist discourse.
Among the women committed to the politics of nationalism are Virginia, the heroine of "The Organizer's Wife," Lacy in "Broken Field Running," and the narrator in "The Apprentice." Each is engaged in examining and evaluating the level of commitment demanded by the politics of Black nationalism. None abandons the liberation struggle. Nevertheless, all respond ambivalently to their roles within the social and political structure created by the totalizing enterprise of Black cultural nationalism. The text becomes the site of conflict and tension in which the needs and desires of the individual Black woman contend with those of the projected Black nation.
Virginia's fantasies, for example, are structured by her desire to free herself from the cooperative farm that has become a symbol of Black self-sufficiency, economic and political defiance, and racial pride. Her ambivalence is dramatically mediated by the narrator when one of the other women extends love and succor to Virginia during Graham's (Virginia's husband) imprisonment:
And now the choir woman had given her the money like that and spoken, trying to attach her all over again, root her, ground her in the place. Just when there was a chance to get free. Virginia clamped her jaw tight and tried to go blank. Tried to blot out all feelings and things—the form, the co-op sheds, the long gas pump, a shoe left in the road, the posters prompting victory over troubles. She never wanted these pictures called up on some future hot, dry day in some other place. She squinted her eyes even, 'less the pictures cling to her eyes, store in the brain, to roll out later and crush her future with the weight of this place and its troubles.16
Similar ambivalence is articulated by the narrator of "The Apprentice." Assigned to accompany a more experienced community organizer in preparation for assuming a leadership role, a young woman admires her older companion but becomes concerned about her own inadequacies and possibilities of perseverance. Reflecting on her role as a political activist assigned to work with Black teenagers, she wavers:
Being a revolutionary is something else again. I'm not sure I'm up to it, and that's the truth. I'm too little and too young and maybe too scarified if you want to know the truth. . . . It's just a matter of time, time and work. No sense in asking where though, you get a look. I could see it maybe if it was just around the corner. Then I could ask her to lighten up a bit. It's hard on me, this work. (Pp. 33-34)
Lacey, the narrator of "Broken Field Running," also perceives political activity as demanding; but her view is more cynical than self-doubting. Responding to Jason's metaphorical reading of political Black activists as the "last hunters of the age," the symbolic reincarnation of the "first farmer com[ing] down the pike and sett[ing] up a cabin," Lacey constructs a counterimage:
I don't know what Jason sees, but I see ole Cain in a leopard skin jumpsuit checking out the red neck and dirty fingernails of potato-digging overalled Abe; Cain, hellbent on extending the feral epoch just a wee bit longer, picking up a large rock and saying, "Hey, fella, come here a minute. Could I interest you in a deer steak, or are you one of them hippie, commie vegetarian homos?" (P. 51)
The cultural nationalist politics of the text dictates that these women move from questioning to accepting their roles in the political struggle. Self-realization is achieved only in terms of group racial identity. Significantly, each woman is represented as voluntarily attached to a community of lovers, friends, spouses, and children. Moreover, the demands for total commitment to nationalist ideology argue for the suppression of individual desire.
For these women, then, personal frustrations and their uneasiness with the demands of nationalism must be reconciled within the mythical Black community. Virginia commits herself to the task of maintaining the garden to feed the Blacks who form the collective. The narrator of "The Apprentice," after extensive soul-searching, develops the "correct" political position, accepting Naomi as a role model and committing herself to the struggle for Black liberation. At the conclusion of "Broken Field Running," Lacey embraces her community and its causes. These moments of reconciliation are presented as symbolic statements of intense personal and political growth. They represent a newly discovered "awareness" of political correctness—the total submission of self to the demands of the liberation struggle. But the initial inscriptions of discord and dissatisfaction in the subtexts of the narratives are not obliterated. They leave their traces as disruptive presences.
A second type of political Black woman functions metonymically, representing those in the community who are political exemplars. She is characterized as totally committed to political enterprises; indeed, she sees herself as a model for others to emulate. At the same time, she establishes links with the larger community. In "The Apprentice," Naomi is depicted as having the entire community under her care: young Blacks who are victims of police harassment, older Blacks alienated and isolated by age, and the Black masses in general. Hers is an engaged life; the struggle for Black empowerment, with its attendant political demands, is her raison d'être. The narrator graphically summarizes that engagement:
Naomi assumes everybody wakes up each morning plotting out exactly what to do to hasten the revolution. If you mention to her, for example, that you are working on a project or thinking about going somewhere or buying something, she'll listen enthusiastically, waiting for you to get to the point, certain it will soon be revealed if she is patient. Then you finish saying what you had to say and she shrugs—But how does that free the people? (P. 28)
Such total political commitment does not preclude feelings of warmth for others. For Naomi, this commitment is marked by selflessness, a complete surrender to the good of the community, and is stressed further in the narrator's mediations of Naomi's behavior: "[Naomi] views everything and everybody as potentially good, as possible hastener of the moment, as an usherer in of a new day. Examines everyone in terms of their input to make making revolution an irresistible certainty" (p. 33).
The same level of commitment, combined with tenderness and compassion, is represented by Aisha, the young Black woman in "A Tender Man." The story of Cliff and the political and personal dilemmas he faces are the primary focus of the tale, but Aisha, a "revolutionary" Black woman committed to the welfare of the community, dominates the narrative. Confronted with the reality of Cliffs former interracial marriage—a relationship unacceptable to any nationalist—and his failure to behave in a manner that she perceives as responsible to his daughter, Aisha calmly attempts to "correct" his conduct, even offering to rescue the daughter from the mother, a custody arrangement that Aisha finds wholly undesirable.
The relationship of personal and political commitment to the struggle is again presented in "The Long Night." The narrative is largely an extended interior monologue of a young Black heroine who survives being bludgeoned by the police because of her unwillingness to betray her fellow revolutionaries; her commitment remains focused on a Utopian community of Black sisterhood and brotherhood:
They would look at each other as if for the first time and wonder, who is this one and that one. And she would join the circle gathered around the ancient stains in the street. And someone would whisper, and who are you? And who are you? And who are we? And they would tell each other in a language that had evolved, not by magic, in the caves. (P. 102)
These extreme examples of selflessness, the total submerging of one's personal identity and needs, are firmly grounded in the ideology of Black cultural nationalism. Enlarging on the patterns of self-denial that characterized the women of the first category, they speak to the political exigencies of the Black nation.
The Blues woman, while seemingly less directly engaged in the broad politics of the community, signifies rebellion on the personal level. Her primary action involves a movement away from the socially determined roles of a "lady" and toward full acceptance of her womanhood. She celebrates earthiness and eroticism, fashioning out of these a song that proclaims her rebellion. Her consciousness, as well as her social status, is distinctly working class, and her representation in the text assumes the form of a protofeminist consciousness.
The most striking representative of the Blues woman is Sweat Pea, the beautician and manicurist in "Medley." A single parent, Sweat Pea works industriously to provide a home for her daughter. She has abandoned marriage as an institution, but she does not reject men. Eroticism is central to her mode of life. Although her economic independence is of paramount importance to her, she constantly celebrates the sensual pleasures of her life—bonding with other women, drinking, enjoying a jazz performance, or showering with her lover:
He'd soap me up and down with them great, fine hands, doing a deep bass walking in the back of his mouth. And I'd just have to sing, though I can't sing to save my life. But we'd have one hellafying musical time in the shower, lemme tell you. "Green Dolphin Street" never sounded like nuthin till Larry bopped out them changes and actually made me sound good. (P. 105)
Yet her submission to sensuality and eroticism does not blind her to the absurdity of male rituals, and she adamantly refuses to become entangled in them. When Larry, her lover, jealously attempts to curtail her freedom, she rebels, asserting that he is acting out "one of them obligatory male numbers, all symbolic no depth" (p. 115). She sees men's machismo in social arenas like bars as encounters between "gorillas," "man-to-man ritual[s] that ain't got nothing to do with me" (p. 116). And her refusal to be responsible for an alcoholic former lover by embracing the stereotypical role of a protective mother further proclaims her independence and heightened consciousness.
Honey, the vocalist in "Witchbird," is another representation of the Blues woman. Burdened by caring for her manager's discarded women and seemingly relegated to the role of an asexual matriarchal figure, she initially evokes sympathy and compassion. Yet in her insistence on controlling her stage life—from the content of the repertoire to the selection of her wardrobe—she emerges as a woman of considerable strength and independence. Moreover, her view of her art has a political dimension, for she sees in the blues a connection with legendary Black women:
I hear folks calling to me. Calling from the box. Mammy Pleasant, was it? Tubman, slave women, bundlers, voodoo queens, maroon guerrillas, combatant ladies in the Seminole nation, calls from the swamps, the tunnels, the classrooms, the studios, the factories, the roofs, from the doorways hushed or a dress too short, but it don't mean nuthin' heavy enough to have to explain. . . . But then the wagon comes and they all rounded up and caged in the Bitch-Whore-Mouth mannequin with the dead eyes and the mothball breath, never to be heard from again. I want to sing a Harriet song and play a Pleasant role and bring them all center stage. (P. 173)
Other constructions of the Blues woman can be seen in the women in the beauty parlor in "Medley," in Honey's entourage in "Witchbird," and in Fur Coat and Ethel in "Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drug N Goods." Behind their earthy laughter, sensuality, and rebellious social gconduct lies a nascent feminist consciousness that runs as a subtext throughout the narrative, competing with the cultural nationalist ideology that informs it.
Although the young girls in Gorilla have come to a minimal consciousness of their status as females, their understanding of the political implications of that status is limited. Seabirds renders more complex representations of the lives of young girls. In these stories, the girls are specifically moving toward womanhood and developing a political consciousness that embraces both race and gender. This theme is developed in several of the stories, perhaps most dramatically in "A Girl's Story."
Rae Ann, the protagonist in "A Girl's Story," is confused and frightened by the onset of her menstrual cycle. Fearing the ridicule of her brother and the disapproval of her grandmother, she anticipates the event with horror. She equates menstruation with illness and death, associating it with foul smells and dark bloodstains. Her anxiety and discomfort are heightened by her grandmother's suspicions that Rae Ann has attempted an abortion. Rae Ann finds strength and acceptance through the invocation of the image of Dada Bibi, the teacher in the Black nationalist school she attends. Rae Ann attributes symbolic import to menstruation. While experiencing the physical changes she is undergoing, she reflects:
When Dada Bibi talked about Harriet Tubman and them she felt proud. She felt it in her neck and in her spine. When the brother who ran the program for the little kids talked about powerful white Americans robbing Africa and bombing Vietnam and doing ugly all over the world, causing hard times for Black folks and other colored folks, she was glad not to be an American. (P. 162)
In the context of these musings, Rae Ann's menstruation as a sign of specific biological change assumes the symbolic status of myth. As an indication of physical and emotional change, it points to her initiation into the world of women. And placed alongside her meditations on the struggle against racist and imperialist oppression, it marks the surfacing of nationalist consciousness. The biological change thereby becomes the medium through which the narrative represents the child's transcendence of innocence and initiation into a world in which the politics of race and gender occupies a dominant position.
Bambara's commitment to cultural nationalism would lead the reader to expect mythological representations of Black males in her narratives, but her fusion of feminist and nationalist ideologies in Seabirds results in the subordination of male figures. The drastic demythologizing that is central to the narratives in Gorilla is not present in the later collection; male figures are generally not in the foreground. Two men, Graham in "The Organizer's Wife" and Jason in "Broken Field Running," show strength of character and a commitment to the political well-being of the community, but they are contrasted with pimps, boy criminals, and emotionally detached and insensitive men. Only the older men—Old Man Boone, Edward Decker, and Pop Johnson—embody nostalgia for an idyllic past. In "Broken Field Running," Lacey reflects on their significance: "I'm really wondering where are the Pop Johnsons of my day. The elders who declare our community a sovereign place. Could raise an army and navy, draw up a peace treaty, levy taxes, declare wars, settle disputes" (p. 47).
"A Tender Man," the only story in the collection in which a Black male is the protagonist, reveals the ambivalence in the text. Cliff, although he apparently embraces Black nationalist rhetoric, dismisses his former marriage to Donna Hemphill, a white woman. He relegates her to the nebulous status of an "ex-wife" and refuses to accept responsibility for their child. His failure to confront his past actions and choices realistically is reflected in his relationship with the Black woman Aisha. Muddled by contradictory emotions when Aisha seeks to comfort and advise him, he has fantasies of physically abusing and sexually degrading her.
The title of the story is ironic, for what is represented in this "tender man" is a history, and perhaps a future, of destruction. Nevertheless, through Aisha's intervention and the inscription of a nationalist argument that every Black person is capable of political and spiritual transformation, the reader accepts the possibility of Cliff's metamorphosis. Yet the questions raised by Cliffs characterization haunt the text and challenge its central ideology.
Although Seabirds focus on the gender politics of Black feminism results in a marginalization and subordination of Black male figures, its implication in nationalist politics informs its representations of white males. In several stories, white males are metonymic signs of empowerment that threaten the tranquility of Black communities. For example, in "The Organizer's Wife," although white characters are absent from the text, allusions to Black losses of property through the white man's duplicity and dishonesty, pressures placed on Blacks to sell their land, and incidents of arbitrary arrests and police brutality by whites suggest extratextual referents to racist oppression. In this textualization, related to what Eco calls "ideological overcoding," meaning is produced when the reader and narrator share a semiotic system and an ideological reference point.17
Tropes of metaphor and metonomy to represent a white male presence are used extensively in "The Apprentice," in which a policeman's beefy hand, a holster and a gun, and a car-load of drunken white fraternity boys signify forces that disrupt the community. In "Broken Field Running," the destructive nature of whites is implied by the image of the Gothic cathedral that looms mockingly over the ghetto, the poor quality of housing in the community, and the prisonlike structure that serves as the public school. Similarly, in "The Long Night," clusters of images evoke violence and brutality: the sound of heavy boots, bodies being smashed, and a barrage of shots.
The sole white male who is given a name and a fixed identity in any of the stories is Hubert Tarrly, the pharmacist in "Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods." He is depicted sarcastically by the narrator:
The chemist's name is Hubert Tarrly. Nadeen tagged him Herbet Tareyton. But the name that stuck was Nazi Youth. Every time I look at him I hear Hitler barking out over the loudspeaker urging the youth to measure up and take over the world. And I can see those stark-eyed gray kids in short pants and suspenders doing jump-ups and scissor kicks and turning their mammas in to the Gestapo for listening to the radio. [Hubert] looks like he grew up like that, eating knockwurst, beating on Jews, rounding up gypsies, saying Seig heil and shit. (P. 201)
This "signifying," along with the metonymical and metaphorical representations of white males as embodiments of racist violence and oppression, allows the story to remain grounded in the politics of nationalism while addressing Black feminist ideology. Opposition to, and distrust of, the white world is clearly situated in Black nationalist discourse. Conversely, by subverting that strategy and calling attention to the personal narratives of the community, the story asserts its feminist voice.
The feminism advocated embraces exclusively women of color. The plight of the Black woman is in the foreground. White males appear only as reified forces of evil and disruption, and white women, except for an allusion to Donna Hemphill, Cliff's former wife in "A Tender Man," are absent from the narratives. The reader knows of Donna only as she is sweepingly dismissed as Cliff's ex-wife and an "unhinged white girl." Hence, while the introduction of Donna creates a possible context for exploring the problems of interracial sex and marriage, the nationalist ideology of the text forces silence and the dismissal of any such considerations.
From Storytelling, Folklore, and Jazz
The nationalist-feminist ideology in Seabirds is not solely generated by depictions of characters. It is reinforced by narrative texture and form. As a body of race- and gender-specific narratives, these stories draw on various Afro-American cultural practices—the oral storytelling tradition, the use of folklore, and the reinscription of Afro-American music forms. The incorporation of these practices is evident in the narrative structure, point of view, and semiotic texture of the stories.
Bambara has spoken and written extensively on the influence of Afro-American music on her work. What is most striking about her appropriation of jazz in Seabirds, however, is its role in emphasizing and reinforcing the ideology of the text. Jazz performances generally begin with a statement of theme, are followed by improvisations or extreme variations, and conclude with reiteration and resolution. An analogous pattern structures each of the stories in this collection. In "The Apprentice," for example, the narrative begins with the narrator's anxiety about her mission, moves to an encounter between a young Black man and a white policeman, then moves to a senior citizen's complex, and finally to a Black restaurant. It then refocuses on the narrator's concerns and reveals her resolution to remain committed to political engagement. In "Witchbird," each fleeting reflection of Honey's extended blues solo constitutes a comment on some aspect of her life—her career, her past relationships with men, and her overall perception of herself. And in "Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods," Candy begins by reflecting on Christmas and a possible visit from her father, moves on to individual episodes largely focused on characterizations of the store's customers, and concludes with accepting Obatale's invitation to a Kwanza celebration.
This mode of narration serves a significant ideological function. In its highlighting and summarizing, as well as its glossing over certain episodes, the text produces its ideological content largely through clusters of events. Hence, in "Broken Field Running," the renaming process by which Black children discard their "slave names" and appropriate African names to define themselves with the context of Black culture, the police harassment symbolized by the police car cruising in the Black community, and the destructive effect of ghetto life depicted in the criminal activities of Black males form a montage, a cluster of images each one of which might be said to encode a particular aspect of ideology.
The narrative perspective, particularly as it reveals the narrator's relationship to the text's ideology, also contributes to the ideological construct. In Seabirds, as in Gorilla, the dominant narrative strategy is the apparently unmediated response of characters to the world around them. A particularly striking example is Candy's response to Piper in "Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods." Speaking of Mrs. Johnson's monitoring the performance of her employee, Candy observes:
But we all know why she watches Piper, same reason we all do. Cause Piper is so fine you just can't help yourself. Tall and built up, blue-Black, and this splayed-out push broom mustache he's always raking in with three fingers. Got a big butt too that makes you wanna hug the customer that asks for the cartons Piper keeps behind him, two shelfs down. Mercy. (P. 198)
Another narrative strategy in Seabirds fuses the voices of the narrator and the character. The two are interwoven to produce a single voice so that the narrator identifies with the character. Here is the narrator's rendering of Virginia's mental state in "The Organizer's Wife":
And now she would have to tell him. 'Cause she had lost three times to the coin flipped on yesterday morning. Had lost to the ice pick pitched in the afternoon in the dare-I-don't-I boxes her toe had sketched in the yard. . . . Lost against doing what she'd struggled against doing in order to win one more day of girlhood before she jumped into her womanstride and stalked out on the world. (P. 10)
The first section illuminates the narrative's dependence on realism. As with Hazel in Gorilla, the first-person point of view allows the text to establish Candy's credibility and her authoritative position in the world she occupies. Her voice is "real," and it reinforces the text's declarative formation. The second section largely achieves the same end, but even more clearly identifies the narrator with the ideology of the text. This identification of the narrator with Virgina's condition as woman enhances and highlights the feminine-feminist dimension of the narrative.
Narrative structure and perspective are further complemented by the semiotic texture, or strategies of sign production, that inform the ideological context of the work. Since the major thrust of the collection is the awakening of cultural nationalist and feminist consciousness, clusters of signs keep the text grounded in those ideologies. The linguistic subcode itself, a reified construction of "Black English," becomes the sign of difference from the dominant culture and unity with the alternative Black community. In "Broken Field Running," Lacey, describing the wind blowing during a winter snowstorm, invokes metaphorical constructs and the syntax drawn from a Black cultural context:
The Hawk and his whole family doing their number on Hough Avenue, rattling the panes in the poolroom window, brushing up bald spots on the cat from the laundry poised, shaking powder from his paw, stunned. . . . Flicking my lashes I can see where I'm going for about a minute till the wind gusts up again, sweeping all up under folks' clothes doing a merciless sodomy. (P. 21)
Other strategies exist in a dialectical relationship with the text's primary enterprise, the production of Black nationalist and feminist ideology: the symbolic evocation of historical figures (e.g., Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hammer, Malcolm X), the ritual of African renaming, and the visual signs associated with clothing styles such as gelees and dashikis. The jazz structure that informs the narrative and the blues motif used in Honey's meditation in "Witchbird" can also be viewed as signs drawn from the culture of Black music and reinforced in the linguistic code.
A Synthesis of Ideologies
Gorilla and Seabirds, then, while produced at historically different moments, are both structured by the desire to synthesize contending ideologies of Black cultural nationalism and feminism. With its submerged text, its positioning of girls and women as primary narrators, its eruption of women-defined issues and strategies of marginalizing Black males, Gorilla disrupts the apparent unity of the world it seems to represent: an idyllic inner world of the Black community in which intra-racial strife is minimal or nonexistent.
Seabirds identifies itself with the emergent feminist movement even in its dedication. The women in these stories possess a keen political awareness; the young girls have expanded their political consciousness; and Black male figures are even farther on the margins than they were in the earlier work. Tensions between nationalists and feminists are concretely presented in Seabirds, and the indeterminancy of the text is in the foreground.
The Salt Eaters, a work that bears all the traces of postmodern textual production, radically rewrites and displaces these earlier works. I discuss it in the final chapter of this book and show how its central representations of madness and disillusionment, the increased antagonism between the sexes, and the triumph of an alternative culture displace the ambivalence of the earlier works and project a vision that is both dystopian and Utopian.
1 See for example, Mary Helen Washington, ed., Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories By and About Black Women (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1975); and Dexter Fisher, ed., The Third Woman: Minority Woman Writers of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980).
2 Critical treatment of the Afro-American short story is extremely limited. The only book-length manuscript that focuses on the Renaissance (1975).
3 See "The Storyteller: Reflections on the Works of Nikolai Leskov," in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hazel Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), 87.
4 Toni Cade Bambara in an interview with Claudia Tate, in Tate, Black Women Writers, 25.
5 The construct inner world/outer world is adapted from Lotman's topological model of the literary text. Ann Shukman describes the model as follows: "The inner/outer opposition may be variously interpreted in different cultures and different texts as 'own people/other people,' 'believers/heathens,' 'culture/barbarity.' . . . The inner world/outer world opposition may also be interpreted as 'this world/the other world.'" One can see in Bambara's works two inscriptions that parallel this construct: the Black world/white world and the enclosed Black community/larger world oppositions. See Shukman, Literature and Semiotics, 95-96.
6 Werner Sollors, Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent in American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 249-250.
7 Toni Cade Bambara, Gorilla, My Love (New York: Random House, 1972), 17. Hereafter cited in the text by page number.
8 For an interesting and illuminating study of body semiotics in Afro-American communities, see Benjamin G. Cooke's "Nonverbal Communication Among Afro-Americans: An Initial Classification," in Rappin' and Stylin' Out: Communication in Black Urban America, ed. Thomas Kochman (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 32-64.
9 See William Riggan, Picaros, Madmen, Naifs, and Clowns: The Unreliable First Person Narrator (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 18.
10 Two Afro-American women scholars have produced significant research on these cultural practices. Grace Sims Holt, whose origins are southern and whose father was a minister, provides an insight into the ritual practices of the Black church and particularly the intense exchanges between minister and congregation. Claudia Mitchell-Kernan does an illustrated ethnographic reading of the linguistic culture of Blacks with particular emphasis on the practice of signifying. See Grace Sims Holt, "Stylin' Outta the Black Pulpit," and Claudia Mitchell-Kernan, "Signifying, Loud-Talking, and Marking," both in Kochman, Rappin' and Stylin' Out, 189-204 and 315-335.
11 Richard Wright uses this strategy throughout most of his fictional works, viewing "signifying rituals," as suggested in "Blueprint," as one of the dominant cultural traits of cultural nationalism.
12 See Laurent Jenny, "The Strategy of Form," in French Literary Theory Today: A Reader, ed. Tzvetan Todorov and trans. R. Carter (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), 59.
13 I see in the treatment of sexual molestation in Bambara's work an interesting parallel to the manner in which Barthes discusses the representation of castration as the unnameable in Balzac's Sarrasine. See Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay, trans. Richard Midler (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974).
14 See Gloria I. Joseph, "Black Mothers and Daughters: Their Roles and Functions in American Society," in Common Differences: Conflicts in Black and White Feminist Perspectives, ed. Gloria I. Joseph and Jill Lewis (New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1981), 76.
15 See Helene Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa," in The SignsReader: Women, Gender, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), 283.
16 Toni Cade Bambara, The Seabirds Are Still Alive (New York: Random House, 1977), 9. Hereafter cited in the text by page number.
17 See Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979). esp. 20-22.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4516
SOURCE: "The Dance of Character and Community," in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, The University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155-71.
[In the following essay, Vertreace examines the themes of community and identity in Bambara's stories.]
The question of identity—of personal definition within the context of community—emerges as a central motif for Toni Cade Bambara's writing. Her female characters become as strong as they do, not because of some inherent "eternal feminine" quality granted at conception, but rather because of the lessons women learn from communal interaction. Identity is achieved, not bestowed. Bambara's short stories focus on such learning. Very careful to present situations in a highly orchestrated manner, Bambara describes the difficulties that her characters must overcome.
Contemporary literature teems with male characters in coming-of-age stories or even female characters coming of age on male typewriters. Additional stories, sometimes written by black authors, indeed portray such concerns but narrowly defined within crushing contexts of city ghettos or rural poverty. Bambara's writing breaks such molds as she branches out, delineating various settings, various economic levels, various characters—both male and female.
Bambara's stories present a decided emphasis on the centrality of community. Many writers concentrate so specifically on character development or plot line that community seems merely a foil against which the characters react. For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension. Thus, her characters and community do a circle dance around and within each other as learning and growth occur.
Bambara's women learn how to handle themselves within the divergent, often conflicting, strata that compose their communities. Such learning does not come easily; hard lessons result from hard knocks. Nevertheless, the women do not merely endure; they prevail, emerging from these situations more aware of their personal identities and of their potential for further self-actualization. More important, they guide others to achieve such awareness.
Bambara posits learning as purposeful, geared toward personal and societal change. Consequently, the identities into which her characters grow envision change as both necessary and possible, understanding that they themselves play a major part in bringing about that change. This idea approximates the nature of learning described in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he decries the "banking concept," wherein education becomes "an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor."1 Oppressive situations define the learner as profoundly ignorant, not possessing valuable insights for communal sharing.
Although many of Bambara's stories converge on the school setting as the place of learning in formal patterns, she liberates such settings to admit and encourage community involvement and ownership. Learning then influences societal liberation and self-determination. These stories describe learning as the process of problem solving, which induces a deepening sense of self, Freire's "intentionality."2
For Bambara the community benefits as both "teacher" and "student" confront the same problem—that of survival and prospering in hostile settings, without guaranteed outcomes. The commonality of problems, then, encourages a mutual sharing of wisdom and respect for individual difference that transcends age, all too uncommon in a more traditional education context. Bambara's characters encounter learning within situations similar to the older, tribal milieus. The stages of identity formation, vis-à-vis the knowledge base to be mastered, have five segments: (1) beginner, (2) apprentice, (3) journeyman, (4) artisan, and (5) expert.
Traditional societies employed these stages to pass on to their youth that information necessary to ensure the survival of the tribe, such as farming techniques, and that information needed to inculcate tribal mores, such as songs and stories. Because of Bambara's interest in cultural transmission of values, her characters experience these stages in their maturational quest. In her stories these levels do not correlate with age but rather connote degrees of experience in community.
The beginner deeply experiences, for the first time, the kind of world into which she is born, with its possibilities of joys and sorrows. In "Sweet Town" fifteen-year-old Kit apprehends the "sweet and drugged madness" (122)3 of her youth. Teetering on the edge of young adulthood, she writes fun notes to her mother. "Please forgive my absence and my decay and overlook the freckled dignity and pockmarked integrity plaguing me this season" (121).
Falling in love with the handsome but irresponsible B. J., Kit experiences his loss as a typical teenager might, vowing to search for him from town to town. Bambara is too skilled a storyteller to ascribe to her characters an unexplained superhuman source of wisdom that transcends their natural maturational state. Rather, she portrays the community as interceding on Kit's behalf, providing her with a sense of rootedness that protects her from emotional injury by putting the entire experience in proper perspective. Kit comes to realize that "days other than the here and now . . . will be dry and sane and sticky with the rotten apricots oozing slowly in the sweet time of my betrayed youth" (125). Kit weathers this experience, learning that the community becomes the source of wisdom lacking in the beginner.
Ollie, in "Happy Birthday," does not experience such communal affirmation and support. That no one remembered her birthday becomes symptomatic of the community's withdrawal from her, its failure to provide her with a nurturing environment, its indifference to strengthening communal ties. Bambara catalogs the friends and family members who have forgotten, suggesting that this is the most recent of a succession of omissions. When one woman, Miss Hazel, suggests that Ollie will be happy to forget birthdays when she grows old, Ollie dissolves in tears. Most societies mark birthdays with cultic response. Children learn to ritualize birthdays as a way of reestablishing communal links. Forgetting is inconceivable, tantamount to willfully breaking or, worse, ignoring such bonds.
The community provides a structure of rules for the beginner that governs the interpretation of human experience. Within such rules the beginner can explore life without risking either self-destruction or alienation from the community. If the rules themselves fall into question, however, the beginner questions the trustworthiness of the community that generated them. Hazel experiences adults, in "Gorilla, My Love," as contradictory and therefore problematic. At a showing of "Kings of Kings," Hazel wonders at a God who would passively allow his son to die when no one in her family would do that. Yet these same adults "figure they can treat you just anyhow. Which burns me up" (15). I get so tired of grownups messin over kids just cause they little and can't take em to court" (16).
The familial setting encourages Hazel's independence and strength of character. Granddaddy Vale, for example, trusts her to sit in the "navigator seat" (13) of the car and read the map as he drives, calling her "Scout" (13). But at school her teachers dislike her "cause I won't sing them Southern songs or back off when they tell me my questions are out of order" (17). A spunky little girl, Hazel has already begun to understand the societal forces that impinge on her world.
In spite of the fact that "my word is my bond" (18), Hazel learns that adults define "word" and "bond" differently when addressed to children. When her favorite uncle, "Hunca Bubba," becomes "Jefferson Winston Vale" as he prepares for marriage, Hazel feels betrayed. Once when babysitting her, Hunca Bubba had playfully promised to marry her when she grew up. Hazel had taken him seriously, had taken his word as his bond. Losing her faith in the only community she trusts, her family, Hazel realizes that "I'm losing my bearings and don't even know where to look on the map cause I can't see for cryin" (20). Adults seem to slide between two different definitions for "word" and "bond"—one for themselves and one for children. Because children never know which definition is being used, the supportive ground of community can never be fully trusted. Children, as Hazel says, "must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playing change-up and turning you round every which way so bad. And don't even say they sorry" (20).
Beginners become very self-conscious, as rules provide the structure and stability they require. Rules confirm expectations. Beginners struggle with limited vision, however, as the total context of an experience lies outside their purview. These stories show young girls as beginners, at pivotal points in their understanding of themselves within the framework of community. Kit emerges whole, without the bitterness that both Ollie and Hazel develop. The difference was the role of the community, supportive of Kit while hostile to Ollie and fickle to Hazel.
Hazel's misinterpretation stemmed from her lack of experience with adults she can trust. Because a biginner can have many painful experiences, she needs a teacher from whom she can learn, who provides a supportive environment, who acts as a guide. At the level of apprentice, the second step, the learner moves from dependence on concrete situations to an ability to generalize to the hypothetical. At this point the learner relates consciously to the experience of a teacher, someone who can show her the ropes, help her see beyond shortsighted rules.
The movement from beginner to apprentice occurs when the beginner confronts a situation not explained by known rules. Someone steps in who breaks open the situation so that learning can occur. For Sylvia, in "The Lesson," Miss Moore was that person. Sylvia was an unwilling apprentice, resenting Miss Moore's teaching.
Miss Moore wants to radicalize the young, explaining the nature of poverty by taking her charges from their slums to visit Fifth Avenue stores, providing cutting-edge experiences for the children, making them question their acceptance of their lot. When asked what they learned, various ideas surfaced. "I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs"; (95) "I think that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don't it?" (95).
The children, encouraged by Miss Moore, coalesce into a community of support that encourages such questions. For these children these questions represent rules that no longer work, assumptions that are no longer valid. The adult Miss Moore has stepped out of the adult world to act as guide to the children. Sylvia, for her part, profoundly affected by the day, concludes, "She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuithin" (96).
Sylvia's determination to defeat her poverty represents movement to the next level, that of journeyman. No longer hampered by a strict adherence to established rules, the journeyman feels confident enough to trust instinct. Risk becomes possible as the journeyman extrapolates from numerous past experiences to stand alone, even if shakily. At this point the community must provide support without heavy-handed restraint or control as the journeyman ventures forth.
The generation gap gives Miss Hazel a chance to step out on her own, in "My Man Bovanne." At a benefit for a political candidate, Miss Hazel dances with Bovanne, a blind man whom the kids like, "or used to fore Black Power got hold their minds and mess em around till they can't be civil to ole folks" (3). Her children cast aspersions on her "apolitical self (5), but she perceives that, notwithstanding their concern for the movement, they "don't even stop a minute to get the man a drink or one of them cute sandwiches or tell him what's goin on" (4).
Hazel knows that power concerns roots, not surface features such as hairstyles or handshakes. Hazel's children want her to form the Council of Elders, encouraging them to become politically active. Hazel, however, keeps company with Bovanne, "cause he blind and old and don't nobody there need him since they grown up and don't need they skates fixed no more" (9). She knows the importance of historical continuity that the Elders represent and how unimportant, but politically seductive, passing fads are to youth.
Hazel's experience gives her the perspective she needs to reflect on her present, a possibility denied her children who seem ignorant of their history. Consequently, Hazel retreats from the currently popular expectations, fully confident in her risk taking because she knows that the youth must learn wisdom from the old if the community is to survive and prosper. Bambara shows that Hazel's awareness of the needs of the total community empowers her to remember the source of her strength. Her children, still beginners lacking visionary perspective, cannot recognize these needs concretized in the person of Bovanne, preferring instead to engage in an abstract level of political discourse. They cannot see the ultimate irony in soliciting the political support of the elders, yet failing to provide for their care.
Having experienced the encouragement that the community offers, the journeyman progresses to the level of artisan, at which solutions to problems fall more within one's personal control. In "Raymond's Run" Squeaky becomes Bambara's metaphor for an aggressive approach to life that involves problem solving within a communal context. Squeaky's devotion to running as "that which I am all about" (28), and her loyalty to her retarded brother, Raymond, provide the occasion for personal growth.
Squeaky grows beyond the destructive need to defeat Gretchen, the only girl who can outrun her, as together they plan to help Raymond learn to run. When Gretchen and Squeaky smile hesitantly at each other, Squeaky realizes that they have not learned how to express such trust, because "there's probably no one to teach us how, cause grown-up girls don't know either" (26). They come to trust each other as each sees that they both value running and that each acknowledges the achievements of the other. Competition gives way to cooperation, with the community, represented by Raymond, standing to benefit.
As an artisan, Squeaky begins to solve problems decisive to her development. Her growth into accepting the people around her emerges from a developing sense of self-acceptance. She can share her expertise with Raymond with an attitude free of condescension. She can acknowledge Gretchen's accomplishments without fearing some implied diminishment on her own. These themes appear as developmental problems in her young life, and she moves toward resolution. The community gives its support and encouragement through her family and school, without which Squeaky could not have matured as she did. The community that nurtured her is now nurtured by her in return.
The level of expert represents years of progress within the four levels, reached through intense experience in a shorter period. Maggie, in "Maggie of the Green Bottles," becomes a quirky expert, but expert nonetheless. She lives with her daughter and son-in-law and their children. Because the son-in-law dislikes her, Maggie first has to learn to handle his insults, discovering how far she can insult him before he completely loses face.
Maggie must content with a negative impression of herself. "They called her crazy" (153). Peaches, one of the children, adores Maggie precisely because she knows how to handle her world. "It is to Maggie's guts that I bow forehead to the floor and kiss her hand, because she'd tackle the lot of them right there in the yard, blood kin or by marriage, and neighbors or no" (153). With her little green bottles of indeterminate contents, Maggie assumes the identity of Obeah woman, who copes with the "hardcore Protestant" world. She profoundly desires to pass on what she knows to Peaches, so that learning will continue.
Peaches comes to understand the significance of retaining Maggie's lore. She also knows that her family disapproves of her interest. Maggie keeps notes for Peaches in a book originally intended for good wishes upon christening.
Maggie's book contains drawings of "the fearsome machinery which turned the planets and coursed the stars" (152). The book informs Peaches that "as an Aries babe I was obligated to carry on the work of other Aries greats from Alexander right on down to anyone you care to mention" (152). In short, Maggie's book expands into a collection of folklore, of astral signs and tea-leaf readings. Maggie's room, into which no one expects Peaches may enter, represents "the sanctuary of heaven charts and incense pots and dream books and magic stuffs" (155).
Maggie's lore symbolizes the ancient teachings that the community has to offer, that the youth must learn for the sake of survival. Peaches's father "put magic down with nothing to replace it" (154). Peaches would not make that same mistake. Maggie becomes her guide to the unknown, initiating her into the community of ancient wisdom of Peaches's birthright. Contemptuous of Maggie for being old and poor, Peaches's father, representing modern pressures for material gain, tries to divert her from the traditional values inculcated by these sources of wisdom.
The expert operates without consciously adverting to rules, having achieved the highest level of intuitive understanding. As Maggie feels her end approaching, she sends Peaches into the house to get her special green bottle, which Maggie then hides under her skirts. At her death her family discovers the bottle there, "proof of her heathen character" (159). When family members distribute her belongings, Peaches's father asks her to choose what she wants, since Peaches had seen "her special" (159). Peaches selects the green bottle.
Some adherents of voodoo believe that at death a skilled Obeah woman can send her soul into inanimate objects for safekeeping. Such an idea, therefore, shows the significance of Maggie's green bottles, symbolizing a futile attempt to continue as Peaches's guide after Maggie's death. Maggie's work with Peaches remains incomplete; there are many green bottles left unopened, many secrets left to tell.
The attempt for continuance goes awry as Peaches does not receive those green bottles. At some point there can be no guides, and the learner must venture out on her own.
The emergence of self in community, the development of a personal identity within the boundaries of a communal structure, occurs through the types of knowing with which Bambara confronts her characters. Ideas developed in Michael Polanyi's Knowing and Being4 are helpful at this point for further analysis of learning and identity.
Polanyi indicates that perceptions gained through the use of properly trained sensory organs form the basis for learning. The student correctly ascertains the constitutive elements in a situation, perceiving the working relationship between these parts, specifically how change to one part can alter another. All further action evolves from such perceptions. Developed skills function within given settings. Such skills must become automatic means rather than belabored ends. The learner selects elements in her environment that can impinge on what she knows in order to bring about a discovery of additional knowledge, leading to further personal empowerment.
This learning process as movement roughly corresponds to the levels of learning developed earlier. Bambara's characters pass through this process in order to mature, to gain control of themselves and their surroundings. The community helps or hinders the marurational process but is never merely a neutral background. Bambara delineates community and its effects on character as if it were itself a character.
The basic movement of learning self-identity in Bambara's writing occurs on a continuum between observing and indwelling. The observer spends most of her time simply watching her world, trying to establish meaningful connections between its various parts. The young girl in "Basement" is just starting to weave together the diverse threads where she lives, comprehending their connection. Bambara establishes the girl's childlike lack of understanding of the dangers of going into the basement alone.
As the story progresses, basement dangers reveal themselves as actual—the presence of a potentially perverted janitor, its darkness and isolation, its availability as a site for childhood sexual exploration. Patsy's troublesome lies about the janitor's conduct force the speaker to acknowledge the inherent dangers, if not in that basement then in all such "basements" for women. She begins to comprehend Patsy's wickedness, telling her, "I'm not gonna be your friend any more" (147). But such understanding only takes into account how Patsy's ways affect their individual relationship, not its potential for communal harm. Along the continuum between observing and knowledge as indwelling, the child has yet to move. The process of growth, as Bambara describes it, however, does not adhere to a strict linearity. Rather than a straight-line continuum, learning occurs as perhaps a more spherical movement with lessons learned and deepened as the learning situation reoccurs in other settings.
The speaker in "Basement" exhibits a level of focal awareness, wherein she can identify some of the particulars of her environment, but has trouble integrating them in order to see connections. Basements present danger because of a woman's resemblance to Anna Mae Wong, yet later the speaker herself articulates the actual perils that the basement represents. As the character moves into subsidiary awareness, these connections become accessible to her perception and, therefore, can be taken into account. She then moves from simply observing as a source of knowledge to developing indwelling awareness, intuitive perceptions that she can trust.
Virginia, "The Organizer's Wife," came by such knowledge painfully, as indeed occurs to many of Bambara's women. After police jail Graham, her husband, in order to frustrate his organizing activities, Virginia must come to grips with what loss his imprisonment means to the community and to herself. Graham's positive outlook—"The point is always the same—the courage of the youth, the hope of the future" (5) initially attracts Virginia to Graham. But her hope springs from a narrow, individualistic focus on her personal needs, the means to an education, a ticket out of a small, poverty-stricken town.
However, as she recalls what changes had come about in her life, what her children's lives could be like in a community where the people's roots sink deeply, she moves from a narrow focal awareness of her familial needs, her desire to escape, adopting Graham's wholistic vision of what could be, his community-centered concern for the welfare and empowerment of the people. The enemies of the people can be defeated through "discipline, consciousness, and unity" (13). Binding together, the people draw strength and comfort from each other, realizing that "we ain't nowhere's licked yet, though" (22). The community and its needs become central as Virginia progresses from a focal awareness of individual needs to a subsidiary awareness of communal needs.
Self-awareness within the community setting allows the individual to move beyond a concentration on exterior knowing of disconnected particulars to an interior awareness, knowledge as indwelling. Bambara locates her female characters in settings where such learning must occur. All the women in "The Johnson Girls" are at different places in their self-knowledge, but by uniting to help Inez in her relationship with Roy, they all experience a deepening awareness of themselves.
Roy has gone to Knoxville, leaving simply a "crumpled note" (164). The women help Inez prepare for her trip to Knoxville, at first concentrating on what clothes she should take. Great Ma Drew represents the ancient learning that the younger women lack in this story. Knowing that seductive clothes do not define the issue, she tells Inez, "Love charms are temporary things if your mojo ain't total" (164). Inez comes to understand her "mojo," here the total experience of herself as a woman. The younger girl seems fascinated with divining the future with the aid of cards and incense, a focal awareness of the individual parts without seeing the larger picture. Great Ma Drew gradually shepherds the younger women to a subsidiary awareness. She shows them that deeper understanding might evolve from a consideration of what Inez and Roy could be for each other, by focusing on communal wisdom rather than simply on signs. She remembers the old days when girls learned how to handle men through "charms and things" (165) within the context of community needs, not as isolated customs that she asserts is present practice.
The young women continue to talk about men, their strengths and weaknesses, the difficulty of finding good men. These discussions illustrate the way the women interact. Each, from the most experienced to the least, contributes and is taken seriously. Each brings to the discussion her level of maturity, as the group encourages its members. Without forcing someone to grow faster than she can, the group nurtures such growth through risk.
Through such discussion the community of women brings Inez to where she can acknowledge the need to see the situation as Roy might, that a relationship with "no demands, no pressure, no games, no jumpin up and down with ultimatums" (176), in short, with no boundaries or expectations, might be selfish, producing "the heaviest damn pressure of all" (176). Inez finally admits that she wants to catch Roy being unfaithful, although she insists that there be no formal ties. Her first concession, and big step in growth, is to agree to let him know she is coming to Knoxville to see him. The issue is to recover a broken relationship, as Gail points out. "I know you are not about the heavy drama and intrigue" (176). The issue is trust, the reestablishment of community.
Inez struggles to understand Roy, to transcend her focal awareness centering on herself, and to achieve a subsidiary awareness of herself-in-community, aware of how her behavior may affect others. As the narrator, the youngest understands the source of Inez's problems, a lack of empathy, as "Inez just don't care what's goin on in other people's heads, her program's internal" (174). Bambara's characters grow in community because of the ability to empathize. By anticipating each other's needs, whether physical or emotional, people in community provide an environment that nurtures growth. Trust develops, which allows for risktaking at deeper and deeper levels.
Toni Cada Bambara's stories do more than paint a picture of black life in contemporary black settings. Many writers have done that, more or less successfully. Her stories portray women who struggle with issues and learn from them. Sometimes the lessons taste bitter and the women must accumulate more experience in order to gain perspective. By centering community in her stories, Bambara displays both the supportive and the destructive aspects of communal interaction. Her stories do not describe a predictable, linear plot line; rather, the cyclic enfolding of characters and community produces the kind of tension missing in stories with a more episodic emphasis.
Her characters achieve a personal identity as a result of their participation in the human quest for knowledge, which brings power. Bambara's skill as a writer saves her characters from being stereotypic cutouts. Although her themes are universal, communities that Bambara describes rise above the generic. More fully delineated than her male characters, the women come across as specific people living in specific places. Bambara's best stories show her characters interacting within a political framework wherein the personal becomes political.
1 Paulo Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 58.
2 Ibid., 66.
3 In this essay short stories from two collections are mentioned, and page numbers are given in parentheses in the text. Gorilla, My Love contains the following: "My Man Bovanne," "Gorilla, My Love," "Raymond's Run," "The Lesson," "Sweet Town," "Basement," "Maggie of the Green Bottles," "The Johnson Girls," and "Happy Birthday." The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Storiescontains "The Organizer's Wife."
4 Michael Polanyi, Knowing and Being, edited by Marjorie Grene (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969).
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2546
SOURCE: "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run'," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67-72.
[In the following essay, Gidley discusses the narrative technique of "Raymond's Run."]
Toni Cade Bambara's "Raymond's Run" (1971), reprinted in her first collection of tales, Gorilla, My Love (1972), seems an exuberantly straightforward story: the first person, present tense narration of specific events in the life of a particular Harlem child, "a little girl with skinny arms and a squeaky voice," Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, usually called Squeaky.1 Squeaky is assertive, challenging, even combative, and concerned to display herself as she is—at one point stressing her unwillingness to act, even in a show, "like a fairy or a flower or whatever you're supposed to be when you should be trying to be yourself" (27). Above all, she's a speedy runner, "the fastest thing on two feet" (23), and proud of it. "I run, that is what I am all about," she says (28).
Squeaky's narrative records the movement towards a race she has won easily in previous years, the May Day fifty-yard dash. This year she is pitted against a new girl, Gretchen, and the organizing teacher, Mr. Pearson, comes close to suggesting that, as "a nice gesture" towards the new girl, she might consider losing the race (29). ("Grownups got a lot of nerve sometimes," Squeaky snorts.) Earlier, when out with and looking after her older brother Raymond—a boy with an enlarged head who is "not quite right" (23) and often lost in his own world of mimicry, games and make believe—Squeaky has to confront Gretchen and her "sidekicks" (25) in what she calls "one of those Dodge City scenes" (26) of verbal barracking and incipient physical violence, a showdown in which, though outnumbered three to one, she bests the opposition without needing to resort to fisticuffs. Similarly, on May Day itself, though it is literally a close run thing and there is marked suspense as she waits for the official announcement of the result, feisty Squeaky breaks the tape first. Even before the loudspeaker broadcasts her victory, honoring her with her full and proper name ("Dig that," she says), Squeaky grants Gretchen increased respect for such things as the way the new girl runs and then gets her breathing under control "like a real pro," so that at the actual announcement Squeaky can sincerely "respect" her rival and exchange "real smiling" with her (32). Thus one of the story's technical feats is the registration of Squeaky's enlarged awareness despite the use of the first person present tense, a perspective which does not permit the speaker—who, of necessity, is always limited to the here and now—any distance from which to reflect upon events.
Indeed, as several seminal discussions of narratological problems have insisted, this narrative perspective imposes much responsibility on the reader.2 All intimations must be disposed in and through the story, with the reader left to assess their import. Raymond, his nature and the burden he must represent to a young girl, forms one locus for such speculation. In the very first paragraph Squeaky tells the reader this: "All I have to do in life is mind my brother Raymond, which is enough" (23). And it is. Minding him, coming to terms with the insults his condition provokes, gets her into scrapes and actual scraps—"I much rather just knock you down and take my chances," as she puts it (23)—including the one with Gretchen and her two pals. And by the end of the story Squeaky is planning to quit running herself in order to concentrate on training Raymond—who, she has just realized, can also run. If she carries out such a decision Squeaky will not be just looking after Raymond but truly "minding" him: he will be considered, in her mind, no longer merely running alongside "and shame on [him] if he can't keep up" (25). That is, without making it the obvious center of concern, indeed without even fully focusing on it, the story charts Squeaky's acceptance of Raymond.
This in itself constitutes a closer, more intimate and charged issue than might initially seem the case. In a detail which could be taken primarily as an admission of vulnerability on Squeaky's part, a rounding out, so to speak, of her character, she confides that her father is even faster than she is: "He can beat me to Amsterdam Avenue with me having a two fire-hydrant headstart and him running with his hands in his pockets and whistling. But that's private information" (24). Later, in Squeaky's description of Raymond's running, he has "his arms down to his side and the palms tucked up behind him" in "his very own style" (31); this is a style which contrasts with Squeaky's running, arms pumping up and down" (30), and is very much Raymond's "own," but it is also subtly reminiscent of the "private" image of Mr. Parker's relaxed arm racing prowess. Squeaky has always accepted her duty to mind Raymond, she has monitored him and even fought for him, but at the end of the story she ventures a step further: rather than simply knowing him as her brother, she accepts and acknowledges him as such—a child, like her, of the same father. She renders this explicitly when she declares him "my brother Raymond, a great runner in the family tradition" (32).
When Squeaky outlines her idea to make Raymond "her champion" she adds,
After all, with a little more study I can beat Cynthia and her phony self at the spelling bee. And if I bugged my mother, I could get piano lessons and become a star. And I have a big rep as the baddest thing around. And I've got a roomful of ribbons and medals and awards. But what has Raymond got to call his own? (32)
This constitutes both full consciousness of Raymond and a catalogue of the relativities of their relationship. There is a sense in which the whole tale works similarly: while in her own unmistakable voice it undoubtedly and overtly tells the reader much of Squeaky's life, including her insistence on her own identity and authenticity (especially in comparison, say, with Cynthia's "phony self), it is also, as its title indicates, the story of Raymond's run, Raymond's life.
Running, in fact, has an attested pedigree as a metaphor for life's passage, as in such semi-folk sayings as "life's race well run, life's work well done." Interestingly, this usage often includes an injunction to live the good life; thus Isaiah's prophesy that "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary."3 Saint Paul, as might be expected, was fiercer: "let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us"4—a sentiment that the famous Victorian hymn "Fight the good fight" rendered into cliché: "run the straight race through God's good grace."
The May Day fifty-yard dash signals the childrens' situations precisely: as Squeaky zooms towards the tape, "flying past the other runners" (30), Raymond runs alongside, level with her, but literally "on the other side of the fence" (31). Just before Squeaky resolves to "retire as a runner and begin a whole new career as a coach with Raymond as [her] champion" (32). Raymond is imaged as "rattling the fence like a gorilla in a cage like in them gorilla movies" (31), and the reader intuits that Squeaky's determination is complex: she wants to bring him over the fence and into the race of life; she hopes to lay aside his impediments and grant him the good life; she also seeks to free him from his anthropoid but King-Kong-like status and enter him into the human race. Hence, too, the subliminal logic in the deft inclusion of the detail of the means by which Raphael Perez "always wins" the thirty-yard dash. "He wins before he even begins by psyching the other runners," Squeaky discloses, "telling them they're going to trip on their shoelaces, etc." (29). Raymond merely imitates his sister's performance—before the race, for instance, he bends down "with his fingers on the ground just like he knew what he was doing"—because, until the hope at the very end of the story, he has been "psyched," psyched out of his own authentic identity and out of the race altogether. This narrative of Raymond's "first run" and his climbing of the fence "nice and easy but very fast" (31) towards Squeaky is the story of a humanizing love; its double focus takes in both of its two protagonists.
Yet just as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—which, with its mischievous young narrator, is structured similarly—ends ambiguously, so "Raymond's Run" has its further ironies. When on the last page of the book Mark Twain's youthful protagonist tells the reader that he is going to "light out for the Territory ahead of the rest,"5 the reader knows that Huck's perspective, however fresh and truthful, is limited: even if he gets there "ahead," civilization, with all that it entails, will catch up with him. Bambara's young speaker's aspirations must be seen as likewise shot through with doubts—perhaps more so. It may be, for example, that "with a little more study" Squeaky could "beat Cynthia" at the spelling bee, but even after the hoped for piano lessons it would be a very chancy business for her to become, in line with her stated ambition, "a star." One of the most telling effects of present tense first person narratives is the creation of such ironies: the reader must always question the teller's version of things. Seen in this light, Squeaky's ambitions may all be wishful thinking. The reader knows, too, that Squeaky's blackness will also be made to militate against her in the world beyond Amsterdam Avenue. Thus, for her, this year's May Day fifty-yard dash could well prove not the initiation but the apex of her achievements, the climax of her life's run. And, of course, if this is so, Raymond will never be coached to become a champion. The present tense—which by definition precludes a known future—is relentless: the story tells of his "first run"—and it is his first and only run.
Then again, perhaps such a fraught perspective does not grant enough credence to Squeaky herself, especially to her voice. The first words of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, given to Benjy, include repeated references to fences: "Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. . . . I went along the fence. . . . They [the golfers] went on, and I went along the fence . . . and we went along the fence . . . and I looked through the fence. . . . 'Here, caddie.' He hit . . . I held to the fence and watched them going away."6 Benjy, the idiot Compson brother, clings to the fence, moaning and weeping for his lost sister, Caddie, whose image has been invoked by the golfer's call for his caddie. That sister had truly "minded" Benjy, had been his monitor, refuge and source of warmth. Caddie, indeed, was the representation of love for each of her three brothers. But, in that she was granted no narration of her own, she was also, as at least one critic has put it, the "absent center" of the novel.7 In "Raymond's Run" by contrast, Squeaky is not only very much present for her brother, but possesses a powerful voice of her own. Squeaky's voice—as is so often the case with Bambara's protagonists—is notable for its vibrancy and verve. The idiosyncrasy and sheer insistence of Squeaky's voice impinges on, even hustles, the reader in a triumphant exhibition of will. Interestingly, that will is expressed most explicitly in Squeaky's description of her usual pre-race "dream":
Every time, just before I take off in a race, I always feel like I'm in a dream, the kind of dream you have when you're sick with fever and feel all hot and weightless. I dream I'm flying over a sandy beach in the early morning sun, kissing the leaves of the trees as I fly by. And there's always the smell of apples, just like in the country when I was little and used to think I was a choo-choo train, running through the fields of corn and chugging up the hill to the orchard. And all the time I'm dreaming this, I get lighter and lighter until I'm flying over the beach again, getting blown through the sky like a feather that weights nothing at all. But once I spread my fingers in the dirt and crouch over the Get on Your Mark, the dream goes and I am solid again and am telling myself, Squeaky you must win, you must win, you are the fastest thing in the world, you can even beat your father up Amsterdam if you really try. And then I feel my weight coming back just behind my knees then down to my feet then into the earth and the pistol shot explodes in my blood and I am off and weightless again, flying past the other runners. (30)
This fleeting vision takes in much. In terms of space, the evocation here of beach and country gently reminds the reader of Squeaky's actual situation, one in which she may lie on her back, "looking up at the sky," but can only try "to pretend" she is "in the country." Because, as she sees, "even grass in the city feels hard as sidewalk, as there's just no pretending you are anywhere but in a 'concrete jungle'" (29). (The notion of the "concrete jungle," which she has heard her grandfather use, further energizes the image of Raymond's entrapment in terms of "them gorilla movies.") Also, young as Squeaky is, the dream is reminiscent of a more innocent time (perhaps primordially so, with its edenic apples) of "choo-choo" trains and cornfields—before, that is, she took over the particularly heavy responsibility for Raymond from an older brother and before, in general, she became conscious of the burdens of humanity. And here, as it is in the verse of Isaiah quoted earlier ("they shall mount up with wings as eagles"), flying is an exalted form of running in which, as Saint Paul phrased it, "every weight" is laid aside. Indeed, she can "kiss the leaves of the trees" as she soars by. But if flying constitutes a glorified version of running, running itself serves Squeaky, "a little girl with skinny arms and a squeaky voice"—and may well serve damaged Raymond—as the most practical form of exaltation. And, when celebrated, tongued—embodied—in that thrusting, vital voice of Squeaky's, running becomes its own exultation.
1 Toni Cade Bambara, "Raymond's Run," from Gorilla, My Love (London, 1984); (a photoprinting of the first American edition, New York, 1972) 23-32. Subsequent page references appear parenthetically in the text.
2 See Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1961); Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (Ithaca, 1978); and Gérard Genette, Narrative Discourse, trans. Jane E. Lewin (Oxford, 1980).
3 Isaiah, XL, 31.
4 Epistle to the Hebrews, XII, 1.
5 Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884; Harmondsworth, 1966) 369.
6 William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (1929; Harmondsworth, 1964) 11.
7 See Carey Wall, "The Sound and the Fury: The Emotional Center," Midwest Quarterly 11 (1970):371-87.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 925
SOURCE: A preface to Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following preface to Bambara's posthumous collection of essays and short fiction, Morrison praises her talent as a writer and offers personal reminiscences of the author.]
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions is unlike other books by Toni Cade Bambara. She did not gather or organize the contents. She did not approve or choose the photograph on the jacket. She did not post a flurry of letters, notes and bulletins on the design, on this or that copy change, or to describe an innovative idea about the book's promotion. And of her books published by Random House (Gorilla, My Love, The Seabirds Are Still Alive and Salt Eaters) only this one did not have the benefit, the joy, of a series of "editorial meetings" between us. Hilarious title struggles. Cloaked suggestions for ways to highlight, to foreground. Breathless discussions about what the whores really meant. Occasional battles to locate the double meaning, the singular word. Trips uptown for fried fish. Days and days in a house on the river—she, page in hand, running downstairs to say, "Does this do it?"
Editing sometimes requires re-structuring, setting loose or nailing down; paragraphs, pages may need re-writing, sentences (especially final or opening ones) may need to be deleted or re-cast; incomplete images or thoughts may need expansion, development. Sometimes the point is buried or too worked-up. Other times the tone is "off," the voice is wrong or unforthcoming or so self-regarding it distorts or mis-shapes the characters it wishes to display. In some manuscripts traps are laid so the reader is sandbagged into focusing on the author's superior gifts or knowledge rather than the intimate, reader-personalized world fiction can summon. Virtually none of that is applicable to editing Bambara's fiction.
Her writing is woven, aware of its music, its overlapping waves of scenic action, so clearly on its way—like a magnet collecting details in its wake, each of which is essential to the final effect. Entering her prose with a red pencil must be delicate; one ill-advised (or well-advised) "correction" can dislodge a thread, unravel an intricate pattern which is deceptively uncomplicated at first glance—but only at first glance.
Bambara is a writer's writer, an editor's writer, a reader's writer. Gently but pointedly she encourages us to rethink art and public space in "The War of the Wall." She is all "eyes, sweetness and stingers" in "Luther on Sweet Auburn" and in "Baby's Breath." She is wisdom's clarity in "Going Critical," plumbing the ultimate separation for meaning as legacy.
Although her insights are multiple, her textures layered and her narrative trajectory implacable, nothing distracts from the sheer satisfaction her story-telling provides. That is a little word—satisfaction—in an environment where superlatives are as common as the work they describe. But there is no other word for the wash of recognition, the thrill of deep sight, the sheer pleasure a reader takes in the company Bambara keeps. In "Ice," for example, watching her effortlessly transform a story about responsibility into the responsibility of story-telling is pure delight and we get to be in warm and splendid company all along the way.
I don't know if she knew the heart cling of her fiction. Its pedagogy, its use, she knew very well, but I have often wondered if she knew how brilliant at it she was. There was no division in her mind between optimism and ruthless vigilance; between aesthetic obligation and the aesthetics of obligation. There was no doubt whatsoever that the work she did had work to do. She always knew what her work was for. Any hint that art was over there and politics was over here would break her up into tears of laughter, or elicit a look so withering it made silence the only intelligent response. More often she met the art/politics fake debate with a slight wave-away of the fingers on her beautiful hand, like the dismissal of a mindless, desperate fly who had maybe two little hours of life left.
Of course she knew. It's all there in "How She Came By Her Name." The ear with flawless pitch; integrity embedded in the bone; daunting artistic criteria. Perhaps my wondering whether or not she realized how original, how rare her writing is is prompted by the fact that I knew it was not her only love. She had another one. Stronger. As the Essays and Conversations portion of this collection testifies, (especially after the completion of her magnum opus about the child murders in Atlanta) she came to prefer film: writing scripts, making film, critiquing, teaching, analyzing it and enabling others to do the same. The Bombing of Osage Avenue and W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices contain sterling examples of her uncompromising gifts and her determination to help rescue a genre from its powerful social irrelevancy.
In fiction, in essays, in conversation one hears the purposeful quiet of this ever vocal woman; feels the tenderness in this tough Harlem/Brooklyn girl; joins the playfulness of this profoundly serious writer. When turns of events wearied the gallant and depleted the strong, Toni Cade Bambara, her prodigious talent firmly in hand, stayed the distance.
Editing her previous work was a privilege she permitted me. Editing her posthumous work is a gift she has given me. I will miss her forever.
"She made revolution irresistible," Louis Massiah has said of her.
She did. She is. Irresistible.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 238
Aiken, Susan Hardy. "Telling the Other('s) Story, or, the Blues in Two Languages." In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, pp. 206-23. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Explores the complex sense of female identity portrayed in Bambara's "Witchbird" and Liudmila Petrushevskaia's 'That Kind of Girl."
Comfort, Mary S. "Bambara's 'Sweet Town'." The Explicator 54, No. 1 (Fall 1995): 51-4.
Explicates Bambara's short story.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks." In Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, edited by Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, pp. 230-50. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1979.
Interview in which Bambara discusses her background, influences, and attitudes toward African-American women writers.
Willis, Susan. "Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara's Stories for the Revolution." In Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, pp. 129-58. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Examines the political nature of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, The Salt Eaters, and Gorilla, My Love.
Additional coverage of Bambara's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 5; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Black Writers, Vol. 2; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, 150; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 49; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 19, 88; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38; Discovering Authors; Discovering Authors: Canadian; Discovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; Discovering Authors: Multicultural Authors Module; Major 20th-century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.
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