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Toni Cade Bambara 1939-1995
(Born Toni Cade) 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. Initially recognized for her short fiction, Bambara eventually garnered critical acclaim for her work in other literary genres and other media. She was a well-respected civil rights activist, professor of English and of African-American studies, and editor of anthologies of African-American literature.
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 has 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. Later she turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops to train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change. She died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995.
Bambara first attracted critical attention as the editor of The Black Woman, an anthology containing poetry, short stories, and essays by such distinguished African-American authors as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. Generally regarded as her first major work, Gorilla, My Love (1972) collects short stories Bambara wrote between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, Gorilla, My Love remains Bambara's most widely read volume and contains the popular stories “Raymond's Run” and “Gorilla, My Love.” Examining 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 purpose and accomplishment. In 1980 Bambara published her first novel, The Salt Eaters. Set in Claybourne, Georgia, the book tells the story of two women: Velma Henry, a community organizer who is experiencing severe emotional problems and has attempted suicide, and Minnie Ransom, a faith healer with an extraordinary reputation. Through the relationship of these two characters, The Salt Eaters explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society. Published posthumously, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (1996) includes short stories as well as essays focusing on Bambara's interest in African-American films and filmmakers.
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. In particular, Gorilla, My Love is acclaimed for its realistic descriptions of the lives of young people and for its use of dialect. Bambara has been specifically praised for her incorporation of experimental techniques and her examination of community and change. In assessing her oeuvre, commentators additionally note the link between her portraits of African Americans and her dedication to political and social activism.
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The Black Woman: An Anthology [editor and contributor, as Toni Cade] (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1970
Tales and Stories for Black Folks [editor and contributor, as Toni Cade] (short stories) 1971
Zora (screenplay) 1971
Gorilla, My Love (short stories) 1972
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories (short stories) 1977
The Salt Eaters (novel) 1980
The Long Night (screenplay) 1981
Tar Baby [adaptor; from the novel by Toni Morrison] (screenplay) 1984
Raymond's Run (children's fiction) 1989
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (short stories, interview, and essays) 1996
Those Bones Are Not My Child (unfinished novel) 1999
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3440
SOURCE: “Time, Motion, Sound and Fury in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, December, 1992, pp. 134-44.
[In the following essay, Lyles explores the “revolutionary thrust” of the stories compiled in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive.]
One of the most arresting features of the short stories in Toni Cade Bambara's The Sea Birds Are Still Alive is their revolutionary thrust. The influence of the avenging Fury, revolution, upon the minds, hearts, and actions of the characters in the stories is manifested through the depiction of the characters' sense of time and through the prominence of descriptions of sound and motion.
One characteristic of the revolutionary is that he or she experiences the future as present. The expression, “revolution in my lifetime,” which was the rallying cry of some radical black organizations of the sixties, is the embodiment of the spirit which governs many of the characters in Sea Birds. “Revolution” is future; “my lifetime,” present. The expression conveys the hope and the expectation that the two time frames will congeal.
The revolutionary is always striving for a future in which current modes of action and thought are transformed or even obliterated as a result of the overthrow of “the system”—the government and its social, economic, and military apparatuses. The revolutionary welcomes—indeed, demands—the birth of a new man and a new woman to accompany the beginning of a new political and social order. Bambara's stories reveal characters who seek to be transformed during the revolutionary period so that they may be ready for the new order. The analogy that comes most readily to mind is that of the “born again” Christian, the believer who lives an exemplary life in order to be ready for the New Jerusalem. Although a revolutionary seeks a regeneration of secular, not of spiritual, existence, the revolutionaries in Bambara's stories display a fervor about their causes commensurate with the fervor of the devout.
Since a revolutionary lives by a sense of the presentness of the future, that person tries to create, either in his or her own mind, or in actuality, the environment which will take shape after the revolution. The militants in Sea Birds live in a state of readiness for social and political upheaval. They live in expectation of a time when poverty of pocket and spirit will disappear, so they attempt to create genuine sisterhood and brotherhood among their people. These are characters with eyes fixed on apocalypse.
One such character is Naomi in “The Apprentice.” Although an indefatigable community organizer, she is not young, as might be expected; she is “salt and pepperish in the bush.”1 Her collective feeds needy people and has a police watch to help forestall police brutality. She loves the masses and wants to spur them on to revolution; she dreams of how ideal people would be, once freed of their oppressors.
Naomi's statement, “It's just a matter of time, time and work … cause the revolution is here” (34) implies that effort must be exerted so that the revolution can happen; yet, paradoxically, the revolution is happening. The confusion of present with future in Naomi's thinking suggests that working to create a revolution means immediate apprehension of revolution.
The work revolutionaries do, which gives them a sense of existing concurrently in an oppressive present and in a liberating future, is shown in other stories, such as “The Organizer's Wife.” The woman of the story's title is Virginia, wife of Graham, a teacher in a school attached to a black-owned farm cooperative. Graham teaches the local people about Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, about Guinea-Bissau and Vietnam. He teaches them that “discipline, consciousness and unity” (13) will overcome the rapacity of the white people who want to seize the blacks' land and keep them downtrodden.
Graham has a tobacco tin from which he customarily offers the neighboring farmers tobacco. The can is red and pictures a “boy in shiny green astride an iron horse. It was Graham's habit, when offering a smoke, to spin some tale or other about the boy on the indestructible horse, a tale the smoker would finish. The point was always the same—the courage of the youth, the hope of the future” (5). The can signifies both Graham's solidarity with the people (Graham starts spinning the tale of freedom; the listener finishes it) and the need for struggling to bring a future of freedom to fruition. The can has the black nationalist colors: red (for blood), black (for the people), and green (for land). Thus it symbolizes the “new Africa,” the co-op which people are building through the struggle to own and control their own land and thereby control their own lives.
The snake in this garden of black hopes is a white one, of course. As the story opens, Virginia looks at her garden, which has been neglected since her husband's arrest for inciting to riot. She notices that her corn is “bent … grit-laden with neglect. … [S]he saw a white worm work its way into the once-silky tufts turned straw, then disappear” (5). The white worm (figuratively, the serpent, the Devil) is the white man who has renounced his humanity in order to turn a profit from land which a black man would use for subsistence.
At first Virginia despairs of fighting the white power that has stolen the black people's land and jailed her husband because of his work as an organizer. She contemplates leaving the co-op with her family once she raises the money for Graham's bail. But finally Virginia decides to stay and fight alongside her people to win back the land that will feed them. She knows that Graham is convinced that their people “would battle for themselves, the children, the future, would keep on no matter how powerful the thief, no matter how little the rain, how exhausted the soil, cause this was home. … Home in the future. The future here now developing. Home liberated soon” (16-17).
The phrase “home in the future” demonstrates the presentness of the future for the revolutionary. Home is where one lives now; the future is where one is yet to be. The idea “home in the future” juxtaposes both situations.
“Broken Field Running” is a story about two teachers from a black “freedom school” and their charges. These teachers, like the protagonist of “The Apprentice,” strive to bring the future to life now. “Broken Field Running” is set in the black ghetto of Cleveland, in winter, and the cold and snow create a harsh environment symbolic of the bitterness and omnipresence of white domination. The teachers and students of the story anticipate a postrevolutionary society devoid of bitterness because there will be no rich people and no poor people, only free people.
The teachers have names (Dada Lacey and Ndugu Jason) which are part African, part Western. These names suggest the transitional status of the adults, who were brought up in a Western tradition but who have embraced, at maturity, African ways. Some of the children at the school have Western names; a couple (Malaika and Kwane), non-Western. The non-Western names represent the hope that a new generation can be reared in non-Western ways. At the end of the story it is given to Malaika to present, in her innocent, endearing way, her vision of what a world of free people would be like:
“… everybody'll have warm clothes and we'll all trust each other and can stop at anybody's house for hot chocolate cause won't nobody be scared or selfish. Won't even be locks on the doors. And every sister will be my mother.”
Malaika's vision of life after the revolution seems hopelessly ingenuous, yet pleads the case for revolution much better than could any strident harangue by an adult militant. It is a crime, as Malaika tells us her “nana” has said, that old people should have to eat dog food because that is all they can afford (68). It is a crime that poor people like those of “Broken Field Running” are forced to live in prison-like buildings, send their children to prison-like schools, shop in prison-like stores, and defend themselves both against a hostile white world and against their own black neighbors who steal from and assault them. Through Malaika, the voice of innocence appalled, we learn that we do need some kind of revolution to restore our humanity.
Dada Lacey, the freedom-school teacher, doubting that revolution will come to free the people, is trapped in the present—stymied in the gloom and degradation surrounding the slums near Hough Avenue. But Jason's words provide an answer to Lacey's despondency; Jason says that the revolutionary era is already here, “[b]ecause the new people, the new commitment, the new way is already here” (69). Jason assures Malaika that the new era which she awaits is happening “in our lifetime” (69).
Though Jason uses the phrase “in our lifetime” a few times, he never prefaces the expression with the word “revolution.” He does not need to. The idea “revolution in our lifetime” is so deeply imprinted on the minds of all connected with his school that “revolution” is heard mentally as part of the slogan though the word is never said. For the freedom-school teachers and students, revolution, the future condition, is present existence.
The triumphant signs of this idea are the descriptions of circular movement at the end of the story. Jason whirls “around on his heel like he's executing a new figure” (69). Malaika, using her arms as wings, glides around the teachers, who “stay put till she comes full circle” (67). The circle is an image of revolution, a complete turn in law, behavior, custom, thought.
“Broken Field Running” shows a new generation being educated in communal values. The young, trained in liberation schools, will be the ones to single-mindedly carry out black nationalist goals. Their elders, like Dada Lacey, may tire of battling for freedom, but the young have the drive to pull the enervated through. The story concludes with Malaika and Ndugu Jason dragging the tired Dada Lacey along to Jason's home.
The revolution as a literal present, rather than the present-experienced-as-future, is illustrated by “The Sea Birds Are Still Alive,” a story which has a central position and a central importance in the collection (as might be inferred from the use of the story's title as a title for the entire work). The three stories (“The Organizer's Wife,” “The Apprentice,” and “Broken Field Running”) which precede “Sea Birds” are about blacks who—though not involved in violent conflict with the government, which they perceive as oppressive—await this conflict. However, the oppressed people depicted in “Sea Birds” are actually involved in a revolutionary struggle. For these people in an unnamed Asian country, war and death are everyday realities, and have been for decades. Thus, the word “alive” in the story's title has a powerful symbolism: in this world of carnage, where the common folk have been dying for generations in the attempt to rid themselves of a series of colonizers, the revolution will ultimately succeed and guarantee life where death has reigned omnipotent. Time in “Sea Birds” is demonstrated to be the revolutionary's strongest weapon, for with the patience born of a national tradition of struggle, the revolutionary will inevitably vanquish the ruling class. “Sea Birds” suggests a link between the African-American freedom movement and the worldwide movement of people of color fighting capitalism and imperialism. If Asians, like the Cubans mentioned in “The Apprentice,” can dare to work for their liberation, blacks, too, have this choice—this duty.
The rapid pace of “The Apprentice,” “Broken Field Running,” and “The Long Night” is a reminder that the person who demands “revolution in my lifetime” incessantly works toward that goal. It is no accident that a common synonym for the black civil rights struggle during its heyday was “The Movement.” A related expression, “to move on,” meant to act upon, to confront, or even to deal violently with an enemy.
Much physical movement is perceptible in the stories about revolution in Sea Birds. The title of “Broken Field Running” implies the importance of motion. In that story, the children and their teachers, traversing the ghetto, with its pimps, hustlers, and muggers, are like soldiers zigzagging across a mined battlefield. Teachers and students jog-trot down Hough Avenue toward their individual homes, but the symbolic home they are hastening toward is a new day in which Third World people can be free. Jason asks Lacy, “Do you realize … Western civilization is already the past for most of the Third World? We've got to prepare the children faster. Time's running out” (50-51). As the story ends, Malaika, Jason, and Lacey are heading for Lacey's home, and, significantly, Malaika and Jason whisper, “Let's hurry …” (70).
Images of sound, like images of motion, are extremely prominent in Sea Birds. Under the heading “sound,” I include both inchoate talk and nonverbal noise. Dialogue in some of the stories can be puzzling. Speeches conceal rather than reveal. Talk is galloping or clipped. The confusion of speech is reminiscent of the turmoil of black existence. Dialogue, like revolution, leads us to awareness through a merciless dialectic.
Thus, “The Organizer's Wife” opens with a verbal confrontation of uncertain meaning between Virginia and the black farmers whom her husband has organized. Virginia greets the men with the monosyllable “Mornin” (5). She offers her husband's tobacco tin (an object symbolic of communal striving) to the men; when nobody accepts a smoke, Virginia, muttering what sounds like “Good-for-nuthin,” abruptly leaves the group (5). Reacting to the muttering, the men ask themselves whether Virginia had been criticizing “Them? The tin? The young one thought he saw her pitch it [the can] into the clump of tomatoes hanging on by the gate. But no one posed the question” (5). The men are not even sure of what they heard the woman say. It is not just that her utterance was abrupt or cryptic; the actual words have been lost.
Significantly, the men fail to question Virginia about her words. These men like to talk, but Virginia's manner has silenced them. There is among them an orator, a boy who has won people to the co-op cause with his gifted tongue. Even this boy has nothing to say. The men begin to talk only after Virginia leaves:
“Why didn't you speak?” Jake shoved the young one. …
“Watch it, watch it now,” Old Boone saying. …
“You shoulda said somethin,” the tall gent spat.
“Why me?” The young one whined—not in the voice he'd cultivated for the sound truck. “I don't know her no better than yawl do.”
“One of the women shoulda come,” said the tall gent.
After this interchange, the men are silent. We are aware that they feel that they should have responded to Virginia, but we do not know why they feel this so strongly. We do not know why the men think that a woman could have broken through to “the organizar's wife,” whereas they could not.
Much later in the story, it is revealed that Virginia is despondent because her husband has been arrested for inciting a riot. The story shows the murderous effect which white injustice (of which Graham's arrest is only the latest manifestation) has on black people. The first demonstration of this effect is what trouble does to people's speech. The story opens in an unnatural silence: the farmers are very quietly examining the ruin of Virginia's garden. Their recognition of Virginia's tragedy (which is theirs, too, since they feel that Graham is their brother) stills their tongues. When conversation does start, it is abrupt and tangled. The soul-power residing in pithy, spicy, black language has been stilled.
A second manifestation of the quietus wrought by racism is the wasteland which Virginia's garden becomes after Graham is imprisoned. Quite literally, life is being destroyed: cabbages, poke salad, corn, tomatoes, and strawberries are dying. This blight represents how whites have taken an America that could have been an Eden and despoiled it through their lack of humanity and their greed.
In other stories in Sea Birds speech and sound create a malestrom effect. Talk is often quick and arresting; an example is the bald question, “Is that a brother?” (24) which opens “The Apprentice.” In this story the “brother” referred to by Naomi is a black man, stopped on suspicion of car theft, who is being body-searched by a policeman.
“The Long Night,” the fifth story in the collection, follows “Sea Birds,” a tale of the courage and persistence of Asian revolutionaries. The stories preceding “Sea Birds” are about blacks developing communal unity, organization, discipline—developing cultural awareness and political consciousness in preparation for a revolutionary era. The violent action of “The Long Night” is the climactic culmination of the lessons about building a revolution provided in the previous stories (especially “Sea Birds,” in which actual—not merely projected—violent struggle is represented).
“The Long Night,” which describes a police raid on the headquarters of black revolutionaries, opens with a succession of noises. The first sentence of the story is, “It whistled past her, ricocheted off the metal hamper and slammed into the radiator pipe, banging the door ajar” (94). The words “the bullet,” had they been used instead of “it,” would have had a very different effect, that of distancing us from the experience of the raid. To read “it” is to experience the terror of the raid in a manner that replicates the experience of the victim, who hears an “it” zinging past before her reason tells her that the “it” is a bullet. Like the protagonist (the rebel-victim), we vibrate from the shock of the raid, as sound after sound bombards us in rapid succession. Glass crashes, concrete and brick spatter, wood splinters, a bullet “pings” on a fire escape, grit heaves up against the windows, pots and pans bang, a car coughs and sputters, garbage cans are scraped against concrete, cops bellow as they storm over the roof. This is bedlam. This is revolution. It is not clean, quiet, orderly, and rational. It is fast, noisy, messy, and bloody.
Despite its noisy beginning, “The Long Night” ends quietly. It ends with the mention of language. Language, the orderly patterning of meaningful sounds, is in decided contrast to the babel which opens the story. Thus an intimation is given of the state of order which will follow the revolution if the struggle is successful. The young woman comrade trapped in the police-besieged building has a vision of people “[s]urfacing for the first time in eons into clarity” (102).
An incantatory quality characterizes the thinking of the rebel-victim as she imagines the gathering of those of revolutionary spirit, who “would look at each other as if for the first time and wonder, who is this one and that one. … 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” (102).
The infusion of a hushed beauty into speech at this point communicates a sense of the world made right again. After the long night comes day. The sound and the fury of revolution over, the people will be reborn with identities manifested to one another through the blood language linking ancestor and child in the knowledge of the struggle to be free.
Many of the characters in Sea Birds are conscious that, as Jason of “Broken Field Running” says, “a whole new era is borning” for the Third World (51). The birth of a new consciousness in those seeking to midwife the new era is a precondition of that era's coming to light. In developing the new consciousness, which implies selfless dedication to renouncing materialism, bettering the lives of the poor, and building the community's resistance to oppression, the revolutionary has an eschatological awareness of inhabiting simultaneously the present and the future which he or she wants to bring about. Through the idea of embracing a “home in the future,” Bambara depicts the revolutionary's view of time as malleable, inevitably the servant of the Cause.
Just as time in the stories seems subject to the revolutionary will, so do motion and sound appear to be its agents. The birth of a new era is noisy and turbulent; fittingly, these qualities apply to the persistent images of motion and sound through which Bambara conveys the pell-mell haste, the catapulting drive of people consumed by the fury of revolution.
Toni Cade Bambara, The Sea Birds are Still Alive: Collected Stories (New York: Random House, 1974), p. 26. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page number(s) only.
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SOURCE: “He Speaks for Whom?: Inscription and Reinscription of Women in Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 17-32.
[In the following essay, Stanford analyzes the relationship between Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Bambara's The Salt Eaters.]
What happens to “the second sex” in a novel as powerful as Ellison's Invisible Man where the trope of invisibility functions as a critique of racist American society? When the text itself perpetuates the invisibility it seeks to undo, it seems inevitable that it will invite response and revision. In Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters we can discern an argument, not with Ellison's manifest text of invisibility and “the blackness of blackness,” but with the subtext of gender erasure.
African American feminist critics have, especially in the last fifteen or twenty years, articulated the problematic of double invisibility, the double jeopardy that results from being both black and female. They have sought to add gender to Du Bois's well known analysis of the sense of double—consciousness” with which many African Americans live (3). Bell Hooks claims that “no other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women” (7). It is not simply that race, gender and class compound oppression arithmetically, to cite Valerie Smith (who borrows from Barbara Smith), but that “issues of class and race alter one's experience of gender, just as gender alters one's experience of class and race” (“Loopholes” 225). Much work in black feminist theory and criticism has taken as its subject the construction and/or erasure of African American women, and especially how the combined categories of race, class, and gender intensify and illuminate in important ways both reading and writing, believing “that the meaning of blackness in this country shapes profoundly the experience of gender, just as the conditions of womanhood affect ineluctably the experience of race” (Smith, “Black Feminist Theory” 47).
Many novels written by black women since the publication of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man have (among other things) filled in gaps or given voice to the silences that have kept black women invisible.1 Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters is one such novel. Published in 1980, twenty-eight years after Ellison's Invisible Man, after the turbulent sixties and some gains had been made by the Civil Rights Movement, The Salt Eaters moves beyond its own created world, engaging other texts like Invisible Man in a dialogic relationship. Henry Louis Gates explains the phenomenon thus:
Literary works are in dialogue not because of some mystical collective unconscious determined by the biology of race or gender, but because writers read other writers and ground their representations of experience in models of language provided largely by other writers to whom they feel akin.
Gates is speaking here of the construction of a tradition of black women writers, but this phenomenon/strategy is similar even when the writers do not, perhaps, feel such kinship.
Invisible Man itself is peopled with the discourse of Anglo-American male writers from Jefferson and Whitman to Faulkner and Hemingway, providing a “twentieth-century Western gloss in the use of Freudian, Marxist, and existentialist notions of self” (Byerman 11)2. Ellison brings the language, imagery, and symbols of these writers and works into his text, and by placing them in an entirely new context, he “changes the joke and slips the yoke,” or rather reverses, revises, or augments the writing and thinking of these men in ways that Russian Formalists would have called “defamiliarization.” Viktor Shklovsky's 1917 essay, “Art as Technique,” explains:
After we see an object several times, we begin to recognize it. The object is in front of us and we know about it, but we do not see it—hence we cannot say anything significant about it. Art removes objects from the automatism of perception in several ways.
If the object in question happens to be another work of art, a literary text, for example—a Whitman poem or the Declaration of Independence—the estrangement” or defamiliarization occurs when that work is pulled into an unfamiliar context, such as a novel about the impossibility of freedom and “the body electric” for a man who is socially and culturally invisible. The shifted discursive ground makes possible fresh patterns of thought and action, and (among other things) provides readers with a different lens through which to read well-known cultural documents. In much the same way, The Salt Eaters takes on Invisible Man.
One of the primary projects of black women's writing has been, according to Deborah McDowell, “a revisionist mission aimed at substituting reality for stereotype” (284) and correcting a record of invisibility. This project is not unlike Ellison's dialogue with and revision of Anglo-American white writers, but for African American women, it necessarily takes into account and foregrounds gender. In addition, Mary Helen Washington says that it is a move that “takes the trouble to record the thoughts, words, feelings, and deeds of black women, experiences that make the realities of being black in America look very different from what men have written” (xxi). For Bambara, that project has included a specific dialogue with Ralph Ellison's text, a move that, to borrow from Mae Henderson speaking about black women writers in general, is “a deliberate intervention … into the canonic tradition of sacred/literary texts, (124).
Through this interventionist, intertextual, and revisionary activity, black women writers enter into dialogue with the discourses of the other(s). Disruption—the initial response to hegemonic and ambiguously (non) hegemonic discourse—and revision (rewriting or rereading) together suggest a model for reading black and female literary expression.
By inscribing in her main character, Velma Henry, the consequences of double invisibility and silencing, and by constructing a female healer who bears similarities with Ellison's major female character, but who stands in stark contrast to her, Bambara's text functions not only as a critique of and an argument with, but as a corrective to, Ellison's text.
Particular signals, patterns of imagery, and thematic similarities suggest strong links between The Salt Eaters and Invisible Man, making an inquiry into the intertextual relationship between the two especially appropriate.(1) Many as yet unexplored suggestions of links between Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters exist. Bambara's use of bird imagery recalls Ellison's, where birds function as signals, warnings, or emblems within both texts, often signifying a character's shift of understanding or perception, or (in The Salt Eaters) a shift in space/time relationships. Patterns of circles and cycles appear in both novels; indeed, the structure of The Salt Eaters, while a plot exists, is more circular than linear. This is much the same for Invisible Man, about which Kimberly Benston says, the “plot—the soul of (hi)story, as Aristotle would have it—is circular yet inconclusive, ordered yet open” 90).’ Explorations of the role of memory are crucial to both; both novels make brilliant use of dream/fantasy narratives. Another striking resemblance to Ellison's text, as Eleanor Traylor points out, is Bambara's use of the jazz mode as a form. Both novels ultimately seek to map out a terrain in which, among other things, American myths of self-reliance and integrity are probed and challenged, and where “the liberating epiphany … can occur … only when the ‘telos’ of discovery is seen truly as a point of departure” (Benston 89).
Ellison's novel begins, “I am an invisible man,” thus voicing the narrator's hard-won realization that his search for identity begins and ends in the paradox of invisibility. Indeed, invisibility becomes the trope Ellison uses to critique and explore what it means to be a black man in America. The narrator of the novel, rendered invisible because people refuse to see” him, searches for the answer to the questions, who am I, where did I come from, and “what did I do to be so black and blue?”
Written prior to the civil rights movement and the second wave of the women's movement, Ellison's novel predictably foregrounds race—“blackness of blackness”—in his character's search for identity, meaning, and place in American history. The novel insists, however, that this problem of origins and identity is not, of course, limited to blacks, but permeates the fabric of American society, and is shared by all Americans (albeit in quantitatively and qualitatively different ways). Critics have accordingly drawn attention to the novel's “universality,” noting that Ellison's story reaches far beyond racial boundaries. Gene Bluestein argues that the protagonist of Invisible Man moves through various stages of acceptance and identity as a black man, as an American, and finally, to the stage which expresses the universal values of humanity” (604). While the impulse to come to terms with one's personal history (ethnic identity, folk heritage, family tradition) and to claim a national identity is no doubt shared by many, the very notion of “universal humanity,” erases or at least blurs more political considerations about how a text is produced as well as about how it is received. J. Lee Greene notes that critics often had “strained to make the definition of ‘universality’ in Invisible Man synonymous with white” (154).
I would add that “universal” is not only synonymous with white,” but with “male” also. The very premise of the novel's universality ignores the problematic of gender, and thus perpetuates the invisibility it seeks to undo. Both black and white female characters throughout the novel are constructed along a spectrum that replicates the classic duality embodied in representations of women—madonna or whore, mother or seductress—reinforcing and adding to the bulk of literature that produces women's characters according to this bifurcated vision. (These dichotomies show up curiously at several points in Invisible Man through milk/beer or milk/wine imagery associated with some female characters.)
The mother/mammy/madonna figures in Invisible Man include Mary Rambo, Mrs. Provo, Lottie (the pregnant wife of the kerosene wielding Dupre), the nameless women and children who inhabit the soon to be burned tenement, and the duped sisters” of Rev. Rinehart's church. Even in the narrator's dream vision at the beginning of the novel, he encounters “the old singer of spirituals” and her sons (9-10). The women in sharecropper Jim Trueblood's chaotic household represent both sides of the duality: Trueblood's pregnant wife, Kate, and pregnant daughter, Mattie Lou (both of whom are impregnated by him), are mother figures, but Mattie Lou functions as a seductress as well (“maybe sometimes a man can look at a little ole pigtail gal and see him a whore” ). Other seducers include college student Jack Maston's girlfriend (who sends a message for a secret meeting on the campus by way of the narrator), the whores in the Golden Day (who also display maternal characteristics), and Rinehart's seductive, exotic, and nameless “girl,” to name a few. Even Harlem's female brotherhood” members are commandeered as majorettes, “the best-looking girls we could find, who pranced and twirled and just plain girled in the enthusiastic interest of the Brotherhood” (371). Finally unifying in two images (milk/beer) both mother and what might loosely be termed seductress is the “huge woman in a gingham pinafore” who careens through Harlem on a Borden's milk wagon, drinking beer from a barrel which sat before her.”
We stepped aside, amazed, as she bowed graciously from side to side like a tipsy fat lady in a circus parade, the dipper like a gravy spoon in her enormous hand. Then she laughed and drank deeply while reaching over nonchalantly with her free hand to send quart after quart of milk crashing into the street.
Even while the fat woman rejects the milk of human (read maternal) kindness for what might be seen as the beer of loose living, she holds the dipper like a “gravy spoon,” locked into a gender-marked system that “pens” her between two polarities. Because Invisible Man is indeed frequently assumed to be universal, we need to ask for whom it is “universal,” a question that in the asking undoes the term's very premise.
It is, ultimately, a mother figure, Mary Rambo, who stands out the only positively memorable woman character in the novel (out of a cast of almost twenty black women characters), and it is precisely with the construction of Mary that Bambara takes issue most forcefully. Mary, the mother/healer of Invisible Man, enters the text immediately preceding the narrator's harrowing stay at the Liberty Paints factory hospital where, after perceived intransigence at work, he is confined and forced into shock treatment. He is pronounced “well” when he cannot remember his name, his mother's name, nor who Brer Rabbit is. (The politics of diagnosis alone provides an important lens through which to examine this section.) Stripped of his cultural and familial memory, the narrator is finally released—weak, hungry and disoriented.
Enter Mary Rambo, “a comfortingly nonsexual big dark woman,” who offers the narrator help when she sees him stagger and faint on a sidewalk in Harlem. Taking charge, she directs the crowd to “stand back and let the man breathe.” Once the narrator is back on his feet, Mary convinces him to come home with her (“you weak and caint hardly walk … and you look what's more like you hungry”). Mary, who apparently has time on her hands, pleads, “let me do something for you” (246). A nearby man chimes in like a Greek chorus, “You in good hands, daddy. Miss Mary always helping somebody” (247). My point here is not to diminish the significance of black women's traditional importance to their communities as networkers and caregivers, but to look at how this particular stereotype functions to erase the nonessential diversity of black women by slotting them into two extreme and essentialist characterizations. Mary Rambo joins a long line of textual representations of women as “helpers,” “caretakers,” and “nurturers,” women who occupy the moral high ground of the madonna/whore duality.
Although Mary is locked into her representation as a self-effacing, maternal caretaker, Ellison's text has a momentary rupture in which Mary emerges demonstrating considerable sagacity and wit. In this section, Mary delivers a riddling passage to the narrator as he is readying himself to leave her for the last time. He listens, but fails to understand fully when Mary tells him,
And you have to take care of yourself, son. Don't let this Harlem git you. I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me, understand what I mean? Don't git corrupted.
This uncharacteristically wise and direct discourse can be traced to an earlier version of the “Mary Rambo” section of Invisible Man, a version Ellison excised because of “space constraints.” In this version Mary figures as a fully described, spunky, physically strong and self-reliant healer. A paid employee at the Liberty Paints hospital, she is also connected through her 104-year-old mother to the traditional healing arts of rootwork and conjure. This Mary was quite nearly buried until 1963 when Herbert Hill's collection, Soon, One Morning, appeared, including the excised chapter from Invisible Man.
Introducing the segment, Ellison explains that this longer narrative marked an attempt to get the hero … out of the hospital into the world of Harlem. It was Mary's world, the world of the urbanized (or partially urbanized) Negro folk, and I found it quite pleasurable to discover, during those expansive days of composition before the necessities of publication became a reality, that it was Mary, a woman of the folk, who helped release the hero from the machine.
Ellison adds that he is “pleased to see this version in print” because Mary “deserved more space in the novel and would, I think, have made it a better book” (“Out” 243).
In this segment, titled “Out of the Hospital and Under the Bar,” the action begins after an explosion (and not coincidentally, after the narrator has aroused suspicion of being a union sympathizer) at the Liberty Paints factory. The narrator has been held inside a glass box, figuring much like a jail or coffin, for extended electric-shock treatments designed to “cure” him into forgetting his blackness. Mary appears to the narrator while he is still strapped inside the box. Weak from lack of food, disoriented, and exhausted, the narrator notices her grinning down at him. The differences in physical description between this Mary and Invisible Man's shapeless, sexless, “big dark woman” are striking:
When I awakened she stood looking down. Her newly straightened hair gleamed glossily in the intense light, her blue uniform freshly ironed and stiffly starched. Seeing me awake she shook her head and grinned. I tensed, expecting a trick. But not this time. Instead, she tried seriously to communicate with me.
Mary's communication consists of attempts to find out the reasons for the narrator's confinement in the hospital. Once satisfied that he has committed no crime, she sets about the dangerous business of freeing him. Not only her courage, but Mary's physical strength, becomes evident as she pries the lid of the box, so heavy that “an expression of pain gripped her features” as she does so (246).
Mary encourages the enervated man not to come home with her (as in the later, published version), but to remember why he was put in the hospital in the first place, to talk, to eat, and to become strong enough to escape the hospital. She challenges him to “stop being such a sissy” (262) and later returns with something “green like balled grape leaves that had dried without fading,” obtained from her rootworking mother, a woman who
useta sing alto, grow the best crops in the country, and right now … knows more about roots and herbs and midwifery and things than anybody you ever seen.
Two remarkable women—strong, subversive, and not only willing to assist the narrator in his escape but practically demanding it of him. “The stuff” works its intended magic, and soon the narrator gains the strength of “Jack-the-Bear,” making a hair-raising escape from the hospital, running completely naked in an underground ritual of rebirth. It is only through Mary's fearless and determined preparation, as well as her competent engineering, that the narrator makes his escape at all.
Leaving aside debates over Ellison's artistic judgment in rewriting this episode for his novel, it is interesting to look at the textual regression of a Mary who, with her mother, functions as healer/rescuer/ conjure woman to the narrator, in contrast to the shapeless Mary Rambo of Invisible Man, whose function as a healer is implied but only briefly evident and, in addition, is diminished by sexual stereotype. This is not to argue that Ellison should have written a different novel. It is, however, to explore the terrain of absence, silence, or invisibility that inheres in the novel's gender bias, and to consider how another text, The Salt Eaters, pulls from Invisible Man the “not said” in order to construct a more expansive discourse of the female self.
One is struck, reading The Salt Eaters, by the presence of two unusually strong women characters: Minnie Ransom, the healer, and her patient, Velma Henry. Velma, much like the Invisible Man of Ellison's novel, has failed to make sense of the world in which she lives—a world where her blackness is not as apparently erased as the Invisible Man's, but where social forces, such as sexism and racism, endanger her functioning as well as her spiritual, mental and physical health. A politically correct superwoman, Velma Henry ends up in her own version of the underground—the cave of her gas stove as she attempts suicide. And, as is the case for Ellison's narrator, an important aspect of Velma's moving beyond her nightmarish trajectory toward suicide will be her willingness to travel the dark inroads of memory and recover lost or forgotten wisdom within herself. For Velma, however, the search is doubly vexed: she must come to terms with herself as an African American and as a woman. “What has brought Velma to that stool and her confrontation/interaction with Minnie is in many ways the history of black women characters in contemporary Afro-American fiction” (Harris 152)3. Velma's illness is, in part, a result of the gender erasure exemplified in Invisible Man. However, while both Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters chronicle (in different ways) the search for an identity and integrity of self in a world that would deny, denigrate, or exploit that self, the novels differ sharply in the contrast between the two healers, Mary Rambo and Minnie Ransom (and indeed, in the differences that inhere in each character's understanding of caregiving and/or healing processes).
Both Mary Rambo and Minnie Ransom (who incidentally share the same initials) are single, older women who play special roles in their respective communities. Where Minnie is the “celebrated healer” of 1980s Claybourne, Georgia, Mary is the well-known helper of Harlem in the 1940s. Both women are important to their communities in bringing people together and in providing spiritual and physical sustenance, nurture and healing. But here the similarities end. Bambara has drawn Minnie with sharper, more complex lines, making her much less predictable than Ellison's Mary, who not only fulfills a classic stereotype of black women, but also undergoes a progressive erasure within the textual system of Invisible Man, becoming finally a mere abstraction in the mind of the narrator.
Language sharply delineates the two characters. Dramatically different from Mary's initial utterances (“Let me help you.”), Minnie Ransom's first words (and indeed the first words of the novel) arrive by way of high challenge: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” (3). Minnie is no self-effacing stranger eager to “fix” Velma. She offers a question fraught with risks, one that shifts the location of healing from external sources to Velma herself. Instead of the yoked and potentially entrapping me-help-you proposition of Mary's offer, Minnie's words establish clear boundaries between herself and Velma, paradoxically clearing a space between them in which the two women connect at deeply intimate levels throughout the healing process. Under the surface of Mary's words, on the other hand, the image of mother as a (s)mothering womb/tomb floats uneasily.
Making sure mother is safely asexual, the narrator describes Mary Rambo as a “heavy composed figure” (249) with “worn brown fingers” (247). She is also ultimately invisible as a “big dark woman” (245). Minnie Ransom, on the other hand presents something of a sensation, described in The Salt Eaters as “Minnie Ransom herself,”
the fabled healer of the district, her bright-red flouncy dress drawn in at the waist with two different strips of kenti cloth, up to her elbows in a minor fortune of gold, brass and silver bangles, the silken fringe of the shawl shimmying at her armpits. Her head, wrapped in some juicy hotpink gelee. …
Bringing together both sexuality and nurture, Minnie's appearance suggests a celebration of her own womanhood, history and culture, embodying the implied “yes” in the title (borrowed from Sojourner Truth) of Bell Hooks's study of African American women and feminism, Ain't I a Woman? Where Mary Rambo appears as asexual, Minnie thinks about (and is reproached by her spirit guide for doing so) a sexual liaison later that night with the younger Doctor Meadows. Where Mary sings “Back Water Blues,” Minnie Ransom plays “some sassy twenties singer … Wiiiild women doan worrreeee, wild women doan have no bluuuzzzzzz”’ (262). Furthermore, where Mary only briefly shows evidence of seeing beyond surface realities—or at least does so in terms of traditional religion, Minnie freely negotiates the spirit world.(3) Functioning at the threshold between physical and spiritual realms, Minnie communes with her patient, Velma, while at the same time “travelling” and conversing with her spirit guide, Old Wife. She remains both separate from and yet integrally a part of Velma's healing.
As I mentioned earlier, Mary has a moment in Invisible Man where she shares a portion of Minnie's spiritual acuity when she delivers her New York riddle (“I'm in New York, but New York ain't in me”). Mary urges the narrator to embrace his past, to learn from and draw upon it, and to use it as necessary equipment for functioning in an alien and deracinating culture. And in fact, shortly after this conversation, the narrator meets a man selling hot yams and has an epiphany of sorts as he gulps down the soul food he long ago repudiated. Mary's words prompt a series of questions about identity for the narrator, to which the yams give partial answer. “I yam what I yam,” the narrator puns, embracing, momentarily, significant aspects of the Southern upbringing he has previously lost.
Bambara's Minnie develops Mary's “New York idea” more fully as she encourages Velma to go deep within herself, to track the muddy backroads of memory and face the ghosts of her past. She must learn to live in a corrupt world (for The Salt Eaters never once loses sight of imminent global peril), but she must not let that corrupt world become or define her. Minnie knows that Velma
thought she knew how to build resistance, make the journey to the center of the circle, stay poised and centered in the work and not fly off, stay centered in the best of her people's traditions and not be available to madness, not become intoxicated by the heady brews of degrees and career and congratulations for nothing done, not become anesthetized by dazzling performances with somebody else's aesthetic, not go under.
Read “college” and “philanthropists” and brotherhood,” for “degrees” and career” and we have a nicely developed version of the Invisible Man's dilemma, a dilemma both Mary and Minnie wisely perceive.
Much like many women before her, Mary functions as a community networker. Even as Mary tends to the narrator's needs at their initial encounter on the street, she establishes links with those members of the community standing near her:
“… my name's Mary Rambo, everybody knows me round this part of Harlem, you heard of me, ain't you?” And the fellow saying, “Sure, I'm Jenny Jackson's boy, you know I know you, Miss Mary.” And her saying, “Jenny Jackson, why I should say you do know me and I know you, you Ralston, and your mama got two more children, boy named Flint and gal named Laura-jean, I should say I know you—me and your mama and your papa useta—. …”
Mary's character, however, is constructed upon the assumption that women who are not sexually promiscuous naturally function as the emotional and spiritual ligaments of a community. This plus the fact that Mary's depiction focuses on the naturalness of her role rather than on the very real power such a function holds. The Salt Eaters seeks to correct the record, demonstrating first the cost of such connection without corresponding internal strength (Velma's frightening move toward suicide being one such cost). Velma, who had tried to be a bridge, has no internal, spiritual bridges for the many pieces of herself that drift further and further apart within her. In addition, she lives and works in a community that, although politically progressive, continues to operate as though its men were the prime, indeed only, movers.4 The image of Velma having organized and marched with numbers of other women in a large-scale protest, camping in a soggy tent, covered in mud, exhausted, and searching through her purse frantically for a ragged tampax to stanch the flow of blood from her menstrual period is juxtaposed with the image of the sleek, polished black political candidate emerging from an expensive hotel with the requisite woman in silk on his arm. Velma's attempts to provide bridges and to work for social change in her community are consistently undercut by a social system that upholds male superiority, as well as by her lack of internal resources to deal with such a system by establishing and maintaining her own personal boundaries.
However, The Salt Eaters also thematizes the extraordinary power behind the kinds of connections both Mary and Velma make in their communities. Reflecting on Velma's gift for bringing together disparate elements, her husband recalls that:
… things had seemed more pulled together when Velma had been there, in the house and at the Academy. Not that her talents ran in the peacemaking vein. But there'd been fewer opportunities for splinterings with her around.
On the surface, Velma has simply done a more sophisticated kind of connecting than Mary, but Bambara's text insists upon a new understanding of community and connecting-the necessity “to be whole” before you can “see whole” (92). Sara Hoagland's notion of “autokoenony” captures much of The Salt Eater's construction of community. Hoagland explains,
An autokoenonous being is one who is aware of her self as one among others within a community that forms her ground of being, one who makes her decisions in consideration of her limitations as well as in consideration of the agendas and perceptions of others.
Being autokoenonous and seeing whole, however, is no small task, as Velma's godmother knows:
A deep rift had been developing for centuries … beginning with the move toward the material world and away from nature. Now there was a Babel of paths, of plans. “There is a world to be redeemed. … and it'll take the cooperation of all righteous folks.”
What is, in Ellison's text, a commonplace about women's roles as community networkers and caretakers takes on new dimensions in the dynamic of The Salt Eaters: dimensions having implications for the survival of the human race.
In Invisible Man, on her way from being a networker to becoming a virtual abstraction, Mary enacts another stereotype, a permutation of woman-as-mother. She is finally inscribed as the entrapper implied in “let me help you,” which by now in the novel has become a version of let me own you.” Her language changes from an initial concern to a controlling, domineering and even carping invasiveness:
Boy, when you come home?. … ain't you going to eat supper? … What kind of business you got on a cold night like this?. … hurry on back here and git something hot in your stomach.
Take some of that water in the kettle and go wash your face. Though sleepy as you look, maybe you ought to just use cold water. … You didn't come back for supper. … Boy, you better start eating again.
Thus the focus of Mary's interest in the narrator changes from redemptive to restrictive, from mother to (s)mother. The Invisible Man becomes restive and guilty under her watchful (and anxious) care. Here, Mary has shifted from one cliche to another, becoming the tar baby from whom the Invisible Man must escape in order to continue his search for identity.
In contrast, Minnie Ransom's relationship with Velma remains detached yet enabling. Her touch, the music she plays, and her reliance upon the other, spirit, world, give Minnie the necessary power to help set Velma free. Bambara's text insists, after all, that healing is a release from bondage (a “ransom” of captives), and that caring constitutes both detachment and connection at the same time. Velma, sitting on a stool next to Minnie, feels “the warm breath of Minnie Ransom on her, lending her something to work the bellows of her lungs with. To keep on dancing like the sassy singer said” (263-64). Minnie loans her breath to Velma; she does not attempt to breathe for her, nor to surround or entrap her. In fact, at the end of the novel (and of the healing session), Minnie knows when there is “no need of [her] hands … withdraws them, drops them in her lap just as Velma [rises] on steady legs,” the “burst cocoon” of her shawl left behind on the stool (295). Minnie's detached intimacy becomes the counter to Ellison's construction of smothering female “care.” Mary, however, is finally written out of Invisible Man entirely as the narrator flees from her help. The big dark woman” regains her helpfulness only when the narrator is physically distant from her, and she ultimately becomes an abstraction—a lodestar and symbol that the invisible man both embraces and resists:
Nor did I think of Mary as a “friend”; she was something more—a force, a stable familiar force like something out of my past which kept me from whirling off into some unknown which I dared not face. … at the same time, Mary reminded me constantly that something was expected of me, some act of leadership, some newsworthy achievement; and I was torn between resenting her for it and loving her for the nebulous hope she kept alive.
It is no accident that Mary's force becomes most intense after she is erased from the text altogether. For the final three hundred pages of the novel, Mary remains an abstraction, reappearing only in the consciousness of the narrator when he is in danger and in need of motherly guidance.
To point out the ways Bambara draws on and remakes Ellison's text is not to posit a simple Ellison-as-oppressor, Bambara-as-liberator opposition. Ellison's Invisible Man is a brilliant novel. Bambara's textual intervention and record-correcting is also only one part of a story as multiple and complex as any must be that attempts to construct gendered characters. Indeed, Minnie Ransom, by breaking one stereotype, may herself be constituting or upholding another.5 But in the references and signals that call Invisible Man into the text of The Salt Eaters, Bambara's novel interrogates a pervasive treatment of black women characters, rewriting the tradition, and in so doing, infusing it with a new vitality and angle of vision. Here, she demonstrates a strategy used by many other women writers to critique and correct textual records that perpetuate destructive and essentialized sexual stereotypes.
When Bambara's text draws directly on Ellison's trope of invisibility, the ground shifts enough to break up the terrain of the unsaid, and “invisibility” takes on new significance. A minor character in The Salt Eaters, Porter, explains that
They call the Black man The Invisible Man. And that becomes a double joke and then a double cross then a triple funny all around. Our natures are unknowable, unseeable to them. They haven't got the eyes for us. Course, when we look at us with their eyes, we disappear.
The question, in Bambara's terms, becomes one of who hasn't got the eyes for whom? The Salt Eaters consistently raises the possibility that those “unknowable, unseeable” natures of which Porter speaks are not those of all African Americans, but inscribed in the terms of Ellison's text, those of black women, rendered invisible under a system of essentially androcentric seeing.
Critics have noted similarities in the two novels. Gloria Hull, for example, argues that The Salt Eaters “accomplishes even better for the 1980s what … Invisible Man [did] for the 1950s” (124). In addition, Eleanor Traylor suggests that Bambara was quite familiar with Invisible Man, and points out in great detail her debt to Ellison in her uses of the jazz mode in The Salt Eaters.
This is underscored in a slightly different way in Byerman's comment that “disintegration is the primary concern of Bambara's only novel, as the black community, the main character, and the book's structure are all decentered” (123).
See Trudier Harris, “From Exile to Asylum,” for an incisive examination of the role of religious experience in black women writers. Harris points out that writers like Bambara, Toni Morrison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, and Gloria Naylor “redefine religion as a means of showing devotion toward and communing with the self, with other women, with nature, and with the expansive forces of the universe” (153).
This is somewhat confusing, since the community set forth in The Salt Eaters is politically progressive and collectively committed to social justice. It does, however, suggest sixties Civil Rights activism where women began to see that their position to the movement replicated the oppression they had experienced in their lives prior to Civil Rights. See, for example, in The Salt Eaters, where Velma furiously recounts incidents of the near past:
Like work and no let up and tears in the night. Like being rolled to the edge of the bed, to extremes, clutching a stingy share of the covers and about to drop over the side, like getting up and walking, bare feet on cold floor, round to the other side and climbing in and too mad to snuggle for warmth, freeze. Like going to jail and being forgotten, forgotten, or at least deprioritized cause bail was not as pressing as the printer's bill. Like raising funds and selling some fool to the community with his heart set on running for public office. Like being called in on five-minute notice after all the interesting decisions had been made, called in out of personal loyalty and expected to break her hump pulling off what the men had decided was crucial for the community good.
Although Minnie Ransom is drawn from a tradition of African American female healers and “spiritual adepts” (as Bambara would put it), I think the character type may be in danger of being over-used in contemporary African American women's fiction, and appropriated as a stereotype by readers looking for simple, untroubling niches into which these characters might be placed.
The author would like to thank J. Lee Greene for extensive comments on an earlier draft of this paper.
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1280
SOURCE: “Bambara's ‘Sweet Town,’” in Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 51-4.
[In the following essay, Comfort considers the mythical allusion in Bambara's “Sweet Town.”]
Toni Cade Bambara's “Sweet Town,” published in Vendome magazine in 1959, appears in her first collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love, published in 1972 and again in 1992. Introducing this account of her first love, Kit remembers a note written by her mother to give her advice: “Take care and paint the fire escape in your leisure” (121). Delighted, Kit says, “And with that in mind and with Penelope splintering through the landscape and the pores secreting animal champagne, I bent my youth to the season's tempo and proceeded to lose my mind” (122). To understand Kit's reaction to the note, it is helpful to consider the implications of her allusion to Penelope.
Kit compares her first love to love “on the printed page or MGM movies” and feels as if she is in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. But references to Pan and to Apollo point to classical mythology as the source for Kit's Penelope (123-124). “Sweet Town” might be considered a lighthearted retelling of the story of Penelope and Ulysses. Like Ulysses, who leaves Penelope after only a year of marriage, B. J. spends only one spring and one summer with Kit before announcing that he and his friend Eddie are “cutting out” (124). Then, like Penelope, who unravels and reweaves a shroud until Odysseus returns, Kit plans to weave and reweave the story of her love for B. J. “As long as Penelope refrained from cutting the thread,” says Barbara G. Walker, “Odysseus couldn't die” (782). Likewise, Kit keeps the memory of her first love alive by repeating her story, hoping that “legends'll pop up about me and my quest. Great long twelve-bar blues ballads with eighty-nine stanzas” (125).
The Ulysses myth is one antecedent for “Sweet Town,” but the allusion to Penelope seems to occur too early in the narrative. While she celebrates spring fever and embraces irrationality, Kit would not identify herself with the mature Penelope known for her fidelity and for her prolonged celibacy. Nancy D. Hargrove describes the reference to Penelope as a “somewhat ambiguous allusion,” inappropriate because Penelope, as the wife of Ulysses, is “a bit too old and sedate for this story” (92).
If, at the very start of Kit's narrative, Penelope is still very young, not yet, or only recently, the wife of Ulysses, however, the allusion might work. Still living with her father, Icarius, young Penelope is a more appropriate model for the carefree Kit. Furthermore, the Icarius-Penelope part of the myth illuminates the strong affection between Kit and her mother. When Icarius learns that Penelope intends to follow Ulysses to Ithaca, he erects a monument to celebrate her modesty (Graves 279). Similarly, because Kit's mother knows about the power of young love, she also creates a monument, less to modesty than to caution. Lacking marble, Kit's mother writes her note in cake frosting and marmalade. Nevertheless, Kit believes that, like a monument, it will last forever. Although she has neither fire escape nor leisure, Kit proclaims the note to be a kind of monument, a “sight to carry with one forever” (122).
In Kit's allusion, then, Penelope may not yet be old and sedate. Yet, it is possible that Kit mixes her myths. Hargrove hints at this explanation when she suggests that Persephone would have been a better choice than Penelope. I believe Penelope is the intended choice, but that Kit conflates Icarus, the son of Daedalus, and Icarius, a Spartan prince and Penelope's father. If Penelope descends from Icarus, whose wax wings melt in the sun's heat, then she might share his enthusiasm for “splintering across the landscape.” And, she would be an appropriate counterpart for Kit, who comes close to love and is almost destroyed. This barely discernible link to the Icarus myth explains Penelope's otherwise unexpected “splintering” and the fire imagery and orange color found throughout Kit's narrative. Kit's narrative begins with numerous references to the heat: she leaves “the sunny city” after she has romped “through the spectrum of sunny colors,” and she goes home to “escape the heat” (121). The sunlight and heat are real, but their intensity becomes almost unbearable as Kit loves B. J. There is something in her, she says, that “torments the sense to orange explosure” (122). With B. J., she “whizzed through the cement kaleidoscope” (123). Like Icarus who soars, only to be melted in the sun, and like Penelope who splinters toward a life of lonely, unproductive labor, Kit surrenders to passion at great risk.
More important, the Daedalus-Icarus relationship sheds light on Kit's mother's note. For, if Kit escapes death and despair, it is largely because she is better prepared than Icarus, because Kit's mother gives her better advice than Daedalus gives Icarus. Both parents urge caution, but Daedalus neglects to mention the importance of a fire escape, the necessity of preparing for inevitable dangers. Icarus, Penelope, and Kit are young and impulsive. But only Kit's mother encourages the pursuit of youthful passions while urging caution with a humorous metaphor. In her note, written to a daughter who has neither a fire escape nor any leisure, she intimates that, because unwelcome leisure inevitably follows young love, it is wise to prepare to endure the loneliness. Thus, when B. J. leaves, even though Kit admits that her “soul shook,” she immediately begins to use her leisure. When she is alone, she begins to paint self-portraits, imagining herself as a wandering storyteller, picturing herself as celebrated adventurer. Transforming her near-tragedy into a fire escape, she survives the loss. Had Daedalus given such sound advice to Icarus, he, too, might have survived the heat.
But Kit's imaginings are not her final self-portrait. The linear narrative ends with a regretful self-consolation: “Days other than the here and now, I told myself, will be dry and sane and sticky with the rotten apricots oozing slowly in the sweet time of my betrayed youth” (125). If this were the last we heard from Kit, even a multicolored fire escape would be slight evidence of the power of her mother's advice. Kit is not, however, a present-tense narrator. Hers is a retrospective narrative, related at some time after this experience. Evidence of the passage of time is shown in the difference between Kit as an impulsive, face-to-face narrator and Kit as a mature storyteller. When B. J. leaves, Kit tries to articulate her feelings. Wanting to say, “‘Apollo, we are the only beautiful people in the world. And because our genes are so great, our kid can't help but burst through the human skin into cosmic significance,’” she misses the chance (124). Instead, she insults B. J.'s friend Eddie, revealing her “petty, small, mean side” (125). In “Sweet Town,” she clarifies the message that, she says, might reach B. J. through a wandering minstrel.
Recounting the note that frees her to love B. J. and the frustration that shows her the importance of distancing herself from her audience, Kit offers “Sweet Town” as the story of her decision to become a storyteller. The story suggests that, if the tragedy inherent in two myths can be prevented by a note written in marmalade, then the time of betrayed youth can be made sweet by a storyteller. “Sweet Town” addresses the pain of betrayal, but it is mainly about the power of telling stories.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “Sweet Town.” Gorilla, My Love. New York: Random, 1992, 121-125.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. Vol. 1. New York: Braziller, 1957.
Hargrove, Nancy D. “Youth in the Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love.” Southern Quarterly 22(1982): 81-99.
Walker, Barbara G. The Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets. Philadelphia: Harper, 1983.
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SOURCE: A review of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, pp. 800-01.
[In the following review, Cookson provides a laudatory assessment of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions.]
In the next-to-longest piece in the posthumous collection Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, a piece entitled “How She Came by Her Name,” Toni Cade Bambara gives a description of herself that perfectly captures the writer behind the selections in the volume. She says, in this memoir in the form of an interview: “I never thought of myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as a community person who writes and does a few other things.”
Indeed, the selections represented here seem chosen to limn the author's life in the resistance—as community activist, producer, editor, writer and teacher of film, as well as the powerfully innovative writer of the short-story volumes Gorilla, My Love, and The Seabirds Are Still Alive and the novel The Salt Eaters.
The book does contain six previously unpublished short stories. Several feature a character who is an artist, a painter, though this fact may be incidental rather than central to the story. In “How She Came by Her Name” Bambara offers a tantalizing insight into the presence of painters in the stories. In noting her identification with artists, though she was a science major in college, Bambara says: “That lifestyle was more my thing. I liked the smell of linseed oil and turpentine, mainly because one of my spirit guides comes to me that way, namely my mother's mother; that is, her ‘visitations’ are heralded by those odors—she painted.”
The longest piece in the collection is a retrospective look at black independent filmmaking, entitled “Reading the Signs, Empowering the Eye.” Its subtitle, “Daughters of the Dust and the Black Independent Cinema Movement,” describes its subject. Using the 1991 film as a “historical marker,” Bambara reflects on twenty years of black independent filmmaking ushered in by the UCLA Film School rebellion of the 1960s. The essay focuses on the development of black American women filmmakers, but includes commentary on multicultural films by men and women. As the appreciative preface by Toni Morrison notes, Bambara came to prefer film as her medium around the time of the Atlanta child murders. She became committed, as Morrison puts it, “to help rescue a genre from its powerful social irrelevancy.”
The volume also includes a lengthy critique of Spike Lee's School Daze. Bambara condemns the film's homophobia and sexism but acknowledges that, like all Spike Lee films, its demand for “active spectatorship” forces the audience to engage the important issues about class and color which it raises.
The title piece, “Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions,” about the author's growth into resistance and the forces in family and neighborhood that shaped her, offers illuminating analyses of why resistance groups succeed and where they fail when they try to “assimilate” instead of resist the models of the dominant culture. The essay circles back to the subject of black independent films. It ends with a provocative speculation about the potential of the newer films to address their work to other people of color rather than to white audiences, thus obviating the need for the “victim portraiture” that has sometimes characterized them. This piece, together with the more personal memoir “How She Came by Her Name” and the final selection in the book, “The Education of a Storyteller,” will recall for admirers of Bambara's earlier short stories the richness, suppleness, and tonic humor of her voice.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1039
SOURCE: A review of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, in African American Review, Vol. 33, Spring, 1999, pp. 170-72.
[In the following review, Deck contends that Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions “confirms what we already know about Bambara’s artistry and informs us on personal and political matters that allow us to better understand what she saw as her mission.”]
The posthumous publication of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions fills the void I felt open up in my intellectual endeavors when I learned of Toni Cade Bambara's death in 1995. Bambara was part of a major late-twentieth-century renaissance of African American women fiction writers which includes Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, ntozake shange, and Paule Marshall. Though she had not published a book in the fourteen years prior to her death (her research, teaching, and writing had turned to African American film and independent black film makers), a re-reading of her two collections of short stories (Gorilla My Love  and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive ) and of her one novel (The Salt Eaters ) shows that Bambara was a very contemporary writer. She believed in the simultaneity of art and politics, and understood the value of what she wrote in service to the black community. Hence, community activists, cultural workers, and social workers figure prominently in all of her fiction. There is a strong undercurrent of mutual love and respect in the black community in Bambara's world: Children can talk to strangers without fear of harm, older black women are grandmothers to everyone, and men and women are spiritual healers who assist the people in their recovery from dealing with racism and economic exploitation. All of this and more is contained in the stories, essays, and interviews in this latest collection.
Some of the stories in the fiction section of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions first appeared in print in the early 1980s in Essence magazine (“Baby's Breath”), First World (“Luther on Sweet Auburn”), and Image (“War of the Wall”). Of the three remaining stories in this section, “Going Critical” is the most poignantly complex, centering as it does on a terminally ill mother, Clara, and her adult daughter, Honey. During a picnic on the beach, Clara moves between vivid memories of her days as a community activist/organizer and her present conversation with Honey about her impending death. One is tempted to read this as Bambara's coming to terms with her own terminal cancer, primarily because of Clara's visionary optimism—“‘They say, Honey, that cancer is the disease of new beginnings, the result of a few cells trying to start things up again’”—and her appeals to Honey that “‘… you say the words over me, hear? No high-falutin' eulogies, OK? Don't let them lie me into the past tense and try to palm me off on God as somebody I'm not, OK? … Cause I'm not at all unhappy. … I've still my work to do, whatever shape I'm in. I mean whatever form I'm in, you know?’”
The second half of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions contains two lengthy essays on African American film (Spike Lee's School Daze and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust), one on the politics of film making, and three autobiographical pieces. Of these, Louis Masiah's interview with Toni Cade Bambara, “How She Came By Her Name,” resonates the longest in my mind. Here we learn more about Bambara's personal life than she was ever willing to reveal in earlier interviews. We learn that she was named Miltona Mirkin Cade at her birth in 1939, in keeping with a tradition among African American parents at that time to name their children after their employers. She renamed herself Toni as a very young child. Many years later, while pregnant with her only child and trying to decide on a name, Toni Cade drew on her admiration for the Bambara and Dogon peoples of West Africa and settled on Bambara as a surname both for herself and her daughter Karma. In addition to information about her re-naming herself, we learn in this interview that she also pieced together an extended family of “grandmothers,” “uncles,” and “cousins”: “Because we came from a tiny family (my mother was an orphan, and my father the son of a runaway), I was always looking for grandmothers because I didn't have any, and everybody else had some. … I wanted uncles and cousins, which I didn't have, so I began adopting people in the same way people adopted me.” All of this helps us understand Bambara's insistence in all of her fiction on portraying the African American community as one extended family, with the sidewalk in all of her neighborhoods functioning as an open-air living room.
Toni Morrison's “Preface” is an added bonus to this collection. She explains her long relationship with Bambara as her editor at Random House and what she sees as most valuable about all of Bambara's writings. It is a moving tribute from one black woman writer to another, and it is clear that the two had developed a close friendship based in part on a shared respect for and understanding of the vibrancy of African American storytelling.
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions extends the life of Toni Cade Bambara. It confirms what we already know about her artistry and informs us on personal and political matters that allow us to better understand what she saw as her mission. This collection will be useful in scholarly research and teaching of late twentieth-century African American women writers.
Additional coverage of Bambara's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Vol. 2; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 5; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Black Literature Criticism, Vol. 1; Black Writers, Vols. 2, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32R, 150; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 24, 49, 81; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 19, 88; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-Studied Authors, Multicultural Authors; Exploring Short Stories; Literature Resource Center; Major-20th Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Reference Guide to American Literature; Reference Guide to Short Fiction; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 35; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 7, 12; Something About the Author, Vol. 112; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.
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