Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1006
Toni Cade Bambara 1939–
(Born Toni Cade) American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, editor, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Bambara's career through 1992. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 19.
Lauded for her insightful depictions of African-American life, Bambara has focused on representing contemporary political, racial, and feminist issues in her writing. Initially recognized for her short fiction, Bambara has since garnered critical acclaim for her work in other literary genres and other media. Beverly Guy-Sheftall has stated that Bambara's "particular vision—as a teacher, writer, mother, world traveler, social critic, community worker, and humanist—can provide alternative ways, perhaps, of viewing certain aspects of [African-American] culture."
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 has also attended several European and American universities, dance schools, and the Studio Museum of the Harlem Film Institute. She travelled 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 recent years she has turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops that train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change. Bambara has additionally been employed as a social worker and worked for a variety of community programs.
Bambara first attracted critical attention as the editor of The Black Woman (1970), an anthology containing poetry, short stories, and essays by such distinguished African-American authors as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. Still writing as Toni Cade, Bambara also contributed short stories to this volume as well as to her second edited work, Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971). As she explained in the introduction to Tales and Stories, the aim of this collection is to instruct young African Americans about the storytelling tradition; to this end, in addition to fiction by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines, she included works by students in her first-year composition class at Livingston College, Rutgers University. 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. 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 (1977), 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. 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. Although the novel takes place within a period of two hours, the narrative is told from an anti-chronological perspective, thus facilitating the inclusion of a wide variety of characters from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds, several differrent narrative voices, and numerous allusions to mythology and folklore. Through the relationship of the two main characters, The Salt Eaters explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society.
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. The Salt Eaters, however, has received mixed reviews. While some critics consider it a problematic first novel—finding fault with its dialogue, its general structure, and its use of an alternating narrative voice—others commend the scope of Bambara's vision. Bambara has been specifically praised for her incorporation of experimental techniques and her examination of community and change. As Carol Rumens states, The Salt Eaters "is a hymn to individual courage, a sombre message of hope that has confronted the late twentieth-century pathology of racist violence and is still able to articulate its faith in 'the dream.'" In assessing Bambara's oeuvre, commentators additionally note the link between her portraits of African Americans and her dedication to political and social activism. Alice A. Deck argues: "The hallmark of Toni Cade Bambara's fiction is her keen ear and ability to transcribe the Afro-American dialect accurately. She writes as one who has had a long personal relationship with the black working class and has said that she is very much interested in continuing to write all of her fiction in this idiom. Writing and teaching others to write effectively has become a tool, a means of working within the community. Hence, her art and her profession have merged."
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 69
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
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7482
SOURCE: "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks," in Sturdy Black Bridges, Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds., Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979, pp. 230-49.
[An American educator, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic, Guy-Sheftall has served as director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. In the following interview, Bambara discusses her childhood, her work, and contemporary African-American women writers.]
[Guy-Sheftall]: Would you describe your early life and what caused you to start writing?
[Bambara]: I can't remember a time when I was not writing. The original motive was to try to do things that we were not encouraged to do in the language arts programs in the schools, namely, to use writing as a tool to get in touch with the self. In the schools, for example, writing, one of the few crafts we're taught, seems to be for the purpose of teaching people how to plagiarize from the dictionary or the encyclopedia and how to create as much distance from your own voice as possible. That was called education. I'd call it alienation. You had to sift out a lot, distort a lot, and lie a lot in order to jam the stuff of your emotional, linguistic, cultural experience into that form called the English composition.
The original motive for writing at home was to give a play to those notions that wouldn't fit the English composition mold, to try and do justice to a point of view, to a sense of self. Later on, I discovered that there was a certain amount of applause that could be gotten if you turned up with the Frederick Douglass play for Negro History Week or the George Washington Carver play for the assembly program. That talent for bailing the English teachers out created stardom, and that became another motive.
As I got older, I began to appreciate the kinds of things you could tap and release and learn about self if you had a chance to get cozy with pencil and paper. And I discovered too that paper is very patient. It will wait on you to come up with whatever it is, as opposed to sitting in class and having to raise your hand immediately in response to someone else's questions, someone else's concerns.
I don't know that I began getting really serious about writing until maybe five years ago. Prior to that, in spite of all good sense, I always thought writing was rather frivolous, that it was something you did because you didn't feel like doing any work. But in the last five or six years I've come to appreciate that it is a perfectly legitimate way to participate in struggle. That writing, sharing insights, keeping a vision alive, is of value and that is pretty much the motive for writing now. Although I can't really say I have a motive for writing now. I'm compelled. I don't think I could stop if I wanted to.
Do you remember the very first story you wrote and the circumstances surrounding it?
No, no. I was really little. I'm talking about kindergarten. Sometimes even now, a line will come out that will take me back to some utterance made in a story or poem I wrote or tried to write when I was in pink pajamas and bunny slippers. It's weird. I've been in training, you might say, for quite a while. Still am.
Were you conditioned by your family members to assume a traditional female role? I'm asking this because of the number of black female children in your fiction who do not conform to American society's notion of what is "proper" female behavior.
I think within my household not a great deal of distinction was made between pink and blue. We were expected to be self-sufficient, to be competent, and to be rather nonchalant about expertise in a number of areas. Within the various neighborhoods I've lived in, there was such a variety of expectations regarding womanhood or manhood that it was rather wide-open. In every neighborhood I lived in, for example, there were always big-mouthed women, there were always competent women, there were always beautiful women, independent women as well as dependent women, so that there was a large repertoire from which to select. And it wasn't until I got older, I would say maybe in college, that I began to collide with the concepts and dynamics of "role-appropriate behavior" and so forth. I had no particular notion about being groomed along one particular route as opposed to another as a girl-child. My self-definitions were strongly internal and improvisational.
Take the little girl in "Gorilla, My Love," a favorite story of mine. Would you say that she was like little girls you grew up with? Does she come out of your personal experience?
I would say that she's a highly selective fiction. There are certain kinds of spirits that I'm very appreciative of, people who are very tough, but very compassionate. You put me in any neighborhood, in any city, and I will tend to gravitate toward that type. The kid in "Gorilla" (the story as well as in that collection) is a kind of person who will survive, and she's triumphant in her survival. Mainly because she's so very human, she cares, her caring is not careless. She certainly is not autobiographical except that there are naturally aspects of my own personality that I very much like that are similar to hers. She's very much like people I like. However, I would be hard pressed to point out her source in real life.
Have women writers influenced you as much as male writers?
I have no clear ideas about literary influence. I would say that my mother was a great influence, since mother is usually the first map maker in life. She encouraged me to explore and express. And, too, the fact that people of my household were big on privacy helped. And I would say that people that I ran into helped, and I ran into a great many people because we moved a lot and I was always a nosey kid running up and down the street, getting into everything. Particular kinds of women influenced the work. For example, in every neighborhood I lived in there were always two types of women that somehow pulled me and sort of got their wagons in a circle around me. I call them Miss Naomi and Miss Gladys, although I'm sure they came under various names. The Miss Naomi types were usually barmaids or life-women, nighttime people with lots of clothes in the closet and a very particular philosophy of life, who would give me advice like, "When you meet a man, have a birthday, demand a present that's hockable, and be careful." Stuff like that. Had no idea what they were talking about. Just as well. The Miss Naomis usually gave me a great deal of advice about beautification, how to take care of your health and not get too fat. The Miss Gladyses were usually the type that hung out the window in Apartment 1-A leaning on the pillow giving single-action advice on numbers or giving you advice about how to get your homework done or telling you to stay away from those cruising cars that moved through the neighborhood patrolling little girls. I would say that those two types of women, as well as the women who hung out in the beauty parlors (and the beauty parlors in those days were perhaps the only womanhood institutes we had—it was there in the beauty parlors that young girls came of age and developed some sense of sexual standards and some sense of what it means to be a woman growing up)—it was those women who had the most influence on the writing.
I think that most of my work tends to come off the street rather than from other books. Which is not to say I haven't learned a lot as an avid reader. I devour pulp and print. And of course I'm part of the tradition. That is to say, it is quite apparent to the reader that I appreciated Langston Hughes, Zora Hurston, and am a product of the sixties spirit. But I'd be hard pressed to discuss literary influences in any kind of intelligent way.
Did you grow up in New York primarily?
Let's move to some of your reactions to the literary scene. What would you consider to be some contemporary or past positive images of black women in literature, either by male or female or black or white writers?
I would define "positive" as usable, characters who can teach us valuable lessons of life, characters who are rounded and who give dimension to the type or stereotype that they are closest to. For example, Sula in the Morrison novel is interesting. She's a champion. She's an adventure, and she gives us another dimension of the bitch stereotype. She makes us aware of how many people are locked up in that particular cage. Eva, who very much resembles the stereotypic matriarch, is more than that and she too helps to break open that old stereotype and force us to look for qualities, lessons, eclipsed by the stereotypic label. I regard them as positive, for they touch deep. In the contemporary poetry—that is, the poetry that came out of the Neo-Black Arts Movement—there are female personae who are assertive and rounded and they also break open the bitch stereotype for us, so that we find under that label locked-up vibrancy—activities, combatants, the Harriet Tubman heirs, people who come from that championship tradition. That's what I would call positive and in fact there are very few works that are available to us now, say in the last decade, that are not like that. We have very little deadwood in the works that have come out of the sixties and are currently being produced. Very few flat, stupid, useless, and careless portraits.
Is there a particular black woman writer of fiction who you think best illuminates the black female experience, specifically the double oppression of race and sex?
No, and I think that's okay. I think if we were designing a course that attempted to project the profile of the contemporary black woman, particularly in respect to double or triple oppression, to someone who did not understand it, it would be necessary to pull out a lot of people because there are a lot of experiences. There is no the woman or the experience or the profile. I would assemble the works of writers like Zora Hurston, Toni Morrison, Carolyn Rodgers, Lucille Clifton, Eloise Lofton, and a good many others and particularly young writers who are coming out of the workshops, in the Southeast particularly, and out of the Berkeley group.
Do you think the black woman writer has been treated fairly by the critical community, both black and white?
I have no idea. It's not something I have any comments on because it's not something I generally think about, that is to say, the black woman writer. We know for sure that any cultural product of black people has not been treated intelligently and usefully by white critics. That's one kind of answer. The fact that a good many black women writers do not get into anthologies that are put together by black men is another kind of answer. The fact that black women critics sometimes approach black women's writing as though they were highly particular and had no connection to the group traditions, that's another kind of issue.
I'm not so much concerned with whether black women writers are dealt with fairly but rather with what they're dealing with. And I think the great accomplishment of particularly the poets of the Neo-Black Arts Movement (sister poets) and perhaps to a lesser degree the dramatists, novelists, short story writers, have contributed a great deal toward not only commenting on, correcting, and countering the stereotypic images, but in blasting open a new road, if you will, for younger writers who are coming along now: dealing with women who have not been dealt with before, raising issues that have not been tackled before, grabbing hold of a vision that we have let slip and maybe never have laid out in print before. The production itself I find far more interesting than critical response.
Near the end of her introduction to Black-eyed Susans, a collection of short stories by and about black women, Mary Helen Washington asserts with respect to the black woman writer that "there still remains something of a sacred-cow attitude in regard to black women that prevents exploration of many aspects of their lives." "There has been a desire," she goes on to say, "to protect and revere the black woman's image." She argues then that we need books about black women who have nervous breakdowns, who are "overwhelmed by sex," who are not faithful, who abuse and neglect their children, and so forth. That is, we also need stories about "real black women," stories which "interpret the entire range and spectrum of the experiences of black women." Would you agree with her assessment of the black woman writer with respect to these issues?
I don't approach literature from quite that direction. I think I understand what she's saying, but writing for me is still an act of language first and foremost. I don't know that I need to read a book about a nervous breakdown in order to understand nervous breakdowns or to protect my health. As an act of language, literature is a spirit informer—an energizer. A lot of energy is exchanged in the reading and writing of books and that gets into the debate of whether it is more important to offer a usable truth or to try to document the many truths or realisms that make up the black woman's experience.
I think I see her point and it's all very lovely but it doesn't concern me, and I'm not altogether sure it's valid or true. It is true that we're so defensive about our detractors, which I think is what one of her points is, that we are not approaching the complexity of ourselves in a fearless way. That is true, but I don't know that the nervous breakdown is what I would argue for. I would argue rather that there is an aspect of black spirit, of inherent black nature, that we have not addressed: the tension, the power that is still latent, still colonized, still frozen and untapped, in some 27 million black people. We do not know how to unleash, we do not even know how to speak of it in a courageous manner, yet. I think that is because we have been so long on the defensive and have invested a great deal of time and energy posturing and trying to prove that indeed we are as clean as they are. Since the sixties, however, a great many of us have been released from that posturing through having dialogues with each other which is a very radical and new dimension to the dialogue of cultural worker and community. It is in relation to potential that I might argue Mary Helen's same general point. Namely, that we are not terribly fearless and courageous and thoroughgoing in dealing with the complexity of the black experience, the black spirit. As a matter of fact, music is probably the only mode we have used to speak of that complexity. But I would argue the point in relation to other aspects of self rather than to nervous breakdowns and the kinds of things that Mary Helen is talking about, which is not to say that it has no usefulness, but it doesn't strike me as a priority at all.
Do you think that the black woman has an advantage or special perspective that may enable her to reveal those aspects of the black experience or black spirit to which you refer?
No, I wouldn't say that black women or children or elders or men or any other sector of the community are any more in command of it or in touch with it than any other. I find it interesting in this period, the seventies, that we have begun to embrace within our community (and we can see parallels in the national as well as international community) an interest in holistic healing systems: astrology, voodoo, TM, etc. No, I don't think that any group within the community has any monopoly on that kind of wisdom, a grasp on that new way to prepare for the future.
Speaking of parallels, have your travels revealed to you how American black and other Third World women can link up in their struggles to liberate themselves from the various kinds of oppression they face as a result of their sexual identity?
Yes, I would say that two particular places I visited yielded up a lot of lessons along those lines. I was in Cuba in 1973 and had the occasion not only to meet with the Federation of Cuban Women but sisters in the factories, on the land, in the street, in the parks, in lines, or whatever, and the fact that they were able to resolve a great many class conflicts as well as color conflicts and organize a mass organization says a great deal about the possibilities here. I was in Vietnam in the summer of 1975 as a guest of the Women's Union and again was very much struck by the women's ability to break through traditional roles, traditional expectations, reactionary agenda for women, and come together again in a mass organization that is programmatic and takes on a great deal of responsibility for the running of the nation.
We missed a moment in the early sixties. We missed two things. One, at a time when we were beginning to lay the foundations for a national black women's union and for a national strategy for organizing, we did not have enough heart nor a solid enough analysis that would equip us to respond in a positive and constructive way to the fear in the community from black men as well as others who said that women organizing as women is divisive. We did not respond to that in a courageous and principled way. We fell back. The other moment that we missed was that we had an opportunity to hook up with Puerto Rican women and Chicano women who shared not only a common condition but also I think a common vision about the future and we missed that moment because of the language trap. When people talked about multicultural or multiethnic organizing, a lot of us translated that to mean white folks and backed off. I think that was an error. We should have known what was meant by multicultural. Namely, people of color. Afro-American, Afro-Hispanic, Indo-Hispanic, Asian-Hispanic, and so forth. Not that those errors necessarily doom us. Errors may result in lessons learned. I think we have the opportunity again in this last quarter of the twentieth century to begin forging those critical ties with other communities. It will be done. That is a certainty.
Do you consider it a dilemma for the black woman today who considers herself both a feminist and a warrior in the race struggle?
A dilemma? Personally, no. I'm not aware of what the problem is for people who do feel that's a dilemma. I don't know what they're thinking because it's not as if you're a black or a woman. I don't find any basic contradiction or any tension between being a feminist, being a pan-Africanist, being a black nationalist, being an internationalist, being a socialist, and being a woman in North America. I'm not sensitive enough to people caught in the "contradiction" to be able to unravel the dilemma and adequately speak to the question at this particular point in time. My head is somewhere else.
Turning to your own writings, you said in your preface to The Black Woman, an anthology of readings by contemporary black women published in 1970, that among other evils this country "regards its women as its monsters." Have you seen over the past seven years or so any changes in this country's attitude toward women, especially the black ones?
The country at large, no. You look at That's My Mama and I think it's clear that television program really centers around the son and the activities in the barbershop. That's the most dynamic aspect of that drama. But because the mammy looms so large in the American mentality, is such a durable, persistent psychosexual obsession on the part of white people, male and female, that need demands the presence of the mama figure: on the one hand, a gracious, giving, enduring mammy, but also a Hattie McDaniel sass. Sass as a comic-menace element. The menace element is a white fiction that is meshed into our women, that has to do with their whole "momism" pathology. So they get their thing off in three ways through her: She's useful to keep the "boy" thing going; she's the mother's milk nurturer; plus the "hate mom" white thing can be projected onto her.
I don't know that I have seen any change, by and large, in white America. In terms of black America, there are authors still—I'm thinking of John A. Williams in particular, as well as many other writers who don't come to mind at the moment—who are still a little scary in terms of the assertive black woman, still look at Sapphire as a threat, and who do not come to grips with how that myth functions in American society. The bitch helps to justify, for example, hustlers and other collaborators. The presence of the bitch myth also helps those societal restraints that operate on black women, as well as the rest of the community. No, I haven't noticed a lot of change among black male writers either. Ron Milner's women are a change, though.
If you were to do another anthology of readings by contemporary black women today, what kind of pieces would you include?
The papers that I was most concerned with at that time never got into the book, and those were position papers from the Women's Caucus of SNCC, of the Panthers, of a number of other organizations that eventually did produce papers for publication through Third World Women's Alliance. I was particularly concerned with the evolution of women's groups that had begun as consumer education or single-issue action groups, began studying together and engaging in community organizing and are now, some ten years later, the core network of what will soon become, we hope, a national black women's union. I would include in a new collection writings from the campus forces, the prison forces, tenant's groups, and most especially southern rural women's works, particularly from the migrant workers and sharecroppers of the Deep South.
How did you go about selecting the pieces that were included in the collection you edited entitled Tales and Stories for Black Folks, which was published in 1972?
The first half of the book consists of stories I wished I had read growing up, stories by Alice Walker, Pearl Crayton, and particularly Langston Hughes. The stories in the second half of the book were documents that came out of a course that I was teaching (a freshman composition course, which has always been my favorite). The students had begun working with kids in an independent community school and I asked them to produce term paper projects that were usable to someone. So a great many of them took traditional European tales and changed them so as to promote critical thinking, critical reading for the young people they were working with outside of the class. And out of that group of term papers came a number of really remarkable, thoughtful pieces, such as "The True Story of Chicken Licken," which raises questions about the nature of truth or the nature of responsible journalism. The story pivoted on the idea that perhaps it was not a piece of sky that fell on Chicken Licken's head after all but maybe she got caught up in a community action and got hit on the head by the cops and then they put out a press release that she had been attacked by a piece of cloud. All of the stories in the second half of the book came out of the materials that had been submitted to me by students that year.
You are one of the few black literary artists who could be considered a short story writer primarily. Is this a deliberate choice on your part or coincidental?
It's deliberate, coincidental, accidental, and regretfull Regretful, commercially. That is to say, it is financially stupid to be a short story writer and to spend two years putting together eight or ten stories and receiving maybe half the amount of money you would had you taken one of those short stories and produced a novel. The publishing companies, reviewers, critics, are all geared to promoting and pushing the novel rather than any other form.
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 mind-set different than that with 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.
Temperamentally, I move toward the short story because I'm a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner. I cannot sustain characters over a long period of time. Walking around, frying eggs, being a mother, shopping—I cannot have those characters living in my house with me for more than a couple of weeks. In terms of craft, I don't have the kinds of skills yet that it takes to stay with a large panorama of folks and issues and landscapes and moods. That requires a set of skills that I don't know anything about yet, but I'm learning.
I prefer the short story as a reader, as well, because it does what it does in a hurry. For the writer and the reader make instructive demands in terms of language precision. It deals with economy, gets it said, and gets out of the way. As a teacher, I also prefer the short story for all the reasons given. And yes, I consider myself primarily a short story writer.
You are attempting a novel, though, for the first time?
No, not for the first time. Like every other writer, I have fifteen thousand unfinished novels brewing under the bed. But having come to grips with the nature of publishing, I understand that it is shrewd and in my interest to produce a novel before I come out with another collection of short stories, so I'm doing both.
Will the novel be anything like your short stories?
Surely, it's the same mind working, after all. They're the same in the sense that the vision hasn't changed. My affinity for certain kind of people is the same.
Is the setting North or South?
It seems to be South. It seems to be everywhere. I've got a sixty-page chunk of it and there are several thousand characters running around and it seems to be vaguely Louisiana and there's also a character who's obviously from New York and there's somebody else who's obviously from the Coast and I have a couple of West Indian folk and I have an Arapaho in there as well as an Aleutian and two people from the Philippines. So I'm not sure what the setting of the novel is. But it's driving me crazy.
That leads me into the next question which is about the process involved in your writing a story. Do you have the whole idea of it before sitting down to write, or does it unfold as you're writing?
It depends on how much time you have. There are periods in my life when I know that I will not be able to get to the desk until summer, until months later, in which case I walk around composing while washing dishes and may jot down little definitive notes on pieces of paper which I stick under the phone, in the mirror, and all over the house. At other times, a story mobilizes itself around a single line you've heard that resonates. There's a truth there, something usable. Sometimes a story revolves around a character that I'm interested in. For example, "The Organizer's Wife" in the new collection. I've always been very curious about silent people because most people I know are like myself—very big-mouthed, verbally energetic, and generally clear as to what they're about because their mouth is always announcing what they're doing. That story came out of a curiosity. What do I know about people like that? Could I delve into her? The story took shape around that effort.
There are other times when a story is absolutely clear in the head. All of it may not be clear—who's going to say what and where it's taking place or what year it is—but the story frequently comes together at one moment in the head. At other times, stories, like any other kind of writing, and certainly anybody who's writing anything—freshman compositions, press releases, or whatever—has experienced this, that frequently writing is an act of discovery. Writing is very much like dreaming, in that sense. When you dream, you dialogue with aspects of yourself that normally are not with you in the daytime and you discover that you know a great deal more than you thought you did. So there are various kinds of ways that writing comes.
Then, too, there is a kind of—some people call it automatic writing—I call it inspiration. There are times when you have to put aside what you intended to write, what got you to the desk in the first place, and just go with the story that is coming out of you, which may or may not have anything to do with what you planned at all. In fact, a lot of stories (I haven't published any of these because I'm not sure they are mine) and poems have come out on the page that I know do not belong to me. They do not have my sense of vision, my sense of language, my sense of reality, but they're complete. Each of us has experienced this in various ways, in church, or fasting, or in some other kind of state, times when we are available to intelligences that we are not particularly prone to acknowledge, given our Western scientific training, which have filled us with so much fear that we cannot make ourselves available to other channels of information. I think most of us have experienced, though we don't talk about it very much, an inspiration, that is to say, an inbreathing that then becomes "enthusiasm," a possession, a living-with, an informing spirit. So some stories come off like that.
Do you make many revisions before the story is finished and ready for publication?
Oh yes. I edit mercilessly. Generally, my editing takes the form of cutting. Very frequently, a story will try to get away from me and become a novel. I don't have the staying power for a novel, so when I find it getting to be about thirty or forty pages I immediately start cutting back to six. To my mind, the six-page short story is the gem. If it takes more than six pages to say it, something is the matter. So I'm not too pleased in that respect with the new collection, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. Most of those stories are too sprawling and hairy for my taste, although I'm very pleased, feel perfectly fine about them as pieces. But as stories, they're too damn long and dense.
Let's move to a specific discussion of The Sea Birds, your most recently published collection of short stories, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Barbara Mahone, in her review which appears in the May/June 1977 issue of First World, asserts that your handling of black male-female relationships is different from at least two other black female writers, Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange, because they leave, she says, "this bitter residue of bad feelings between men and women," whereas in your stories, "the net social effect" is more positive. Do you agree with her?
One might just as easily argue that the difference is that they're telling the truth and I'm not. Or one could just as easily argue that they're getting into the more painful side of the relationship and I am not. Temperamentally, I'm much more concerned with the caring that lies beneath the antagonisms between black men and black women. There is a great deal of static that informs our relationships, above and beyond the political wedge that has been jammed between us by myth makers of the oppressor class. Whereas other writers, other women, other people, are more concerned with the hurt of it all, the hurt doesn't teach me anything and I'm concerned primarily with usable lessons. The caring does teach me something and I think I can offer a usable something for someone else.
It is very facile to talk about male-female antagonisms in the Western world or in the United States in a pat fashion that enables you to sound as though you're talking about all people. It's easy to talk about the War Between the Sexes which is characteristic of the United States as it is no other place. When foreigners watch Hollywood movies and see Clark Gable drop Claudette Colbert in the mud, the response is a gasp. That is something peculiarly American, that belligerency, that warfare. A great many folk are in the process of speaking about women/men relationships in our community in that kind of generalized way of trying to make it "universal." That's very dangerous and kind of sloppy and not very valid because what distinguishes relationships between men and women in our community is the level of caring that informs the tension.
If a white woman attacks a white man in general or in particular about being a chauvinist pig, underneath that is the legacy of Europe, is the notion of a God complex with the woman as martyr who will forgive everything and manipulate shrewdly under the table with cunning and craft, but mostly she will be a martyr on the cross and that gives her moral superiority to condemn all or forgive all—to play God. Black women, on the other hand, do not deal with themselves as God, nor do they remove Him from the human frame of reference. We start with the premise "I am not God" and therefore have a right to call you on that play. That's a very different mind-set and a very different frame of reference, a very different moral code. I hope we can get to the point where we recognize, again, that if we love each other, we are concerned with development. And that means being mutually responsible to each other—criticism, hardheaded demands.
Getting back to Barbara Mahone's comment, it's not terribly useful for me to make comparisons. One could take her contrast to prove any number of things. I am simply more interested in the caring network that exists between men and women, men and men, women and women, children and elders. One of the reasons those links are links of vulnerability at one moment has to do with the level of caring and the degree to which that caring can push against the synthetic conflicts that white society orchestrates in its interests, not ours.
Of the reviews I've read of The Sea Birds, none has mentioned "The Girl's Story," a fascinating though possibly perplexing piece. Why has her family mistaken her first menstrual period for an abortion?
Well, this is a family where not much touching goes on, as is played on throughout the story. There are great distances, even though the people live close-quartered. For example, the girl hears a certain quality in her brother's voice only once in a while. She can embrace her grandmother or her grandmother can embrace her only in a very particular kind of way and it's not closeness. It's not touching. In a household like that, it stands to reason that a lot of secretiveness and isolation travel under the guise of privacy. So it's not unlikely at all that they would not know she's begun her menses.
In almost every household that I can think of when I was growing up, the onset of the menstrual period was mysterious and frightening and totally without information and totally without support from the immediate household. Most frequently, young girls could find a sympathetic godmother or maybe some older girl in the neighborhood who understood and recognized it right away and got the wagons in a circle. I know very few households when I was growing up where it would have been dealt with in any other way than it is depicted in the story—which is why the title is general, "A Girl's Story."
Yes, that was an aspect of the story that I suspect many women of past generations can relate to. It is true that many aspects of the menstrual period were and possibly still are shrouded in mystery. What's interesting, however, is that when I have used fiction that mentions this issue with students in my college classes (such as Browngirl, Brownstones, The Bluest Eye), many of them have not been very responsive. They tend to think that dealing with circumstances surrounding the first menstrual period in a work of literature is unnecessary and you find yourself saying to them that for some women the experience was traumatic. Some students even found it difficult to remember what it was like.
It might be true that the particular traumas and dangers of womanhood are not valued as a crucial part of our culture. As a matter of fact, that is why the cult of the Amazon, the cult of strength, the bear-up-under-everything woman figure came into play because we did not admit, were not allowed to, could not afford to admit pain and suffering and hardship. You're not supposed to do that if you're a black woman. In line with that, anyone who's ever visited the neighborhood chiropractor's office or who has ever watched healing services in our own community is probably well aware that black women have tremendous problems with their backs. And I wonder if part of that isn't the unnecessary burden of taking on that cult of strength, that Amazon figure, and internalizing that whole madness.
For students in the generation behind us not to be able to identify with the trauma of the first menses is open to a number of interpretations. I would like to think that their nonchalance or impatient response means that it was all very breezy and pleasant.
The initiation or rites of passage of the young girl is not one of the darlings of American literature. The coming of age for the young boy is certainly much more the classic case. I wonder if it all means that we don't put a value on our process of womanhood.
Have you been generally pleased with the reviews of Sea Birds?
All of the reviews have been very favorable. Some have been quite cogent and favorable. Some have been stupid and favorable. I found the First World review that was in the Chicago Tribune by Bruce Allen critically constructive. It focused on the flaws and the faults of the book and I found it very helpful. The piece that Ruby Dee wrote (I'm not sure where it will appear; I imagine in the Amsterdam News) I found the most moving in the sense that she makes highly particular the public and personal values. It just had me in tears. It helped me to answer some of the questions one always has in one's mind while writing: whether it works, what doesn't work, to what degree is it overdone, to what degree is it too understated, questions of that sort. The Ruby Dee piece was somp'n, honey.
One of the characteristics of your fiction which is apparent in Gorilla, My Love, an older collection of short stories, as well as in The Sea Birds is the extent to which—though one knows you're there—you can remove yourself from the narrative voice. You don't intrude. Is that deliberate?
Well, I'm frequently there. You see, one of the reasons that it seems that the author is not there has to do with language. It has to do with the whole tradition of dialect. In the old days, writers might have their characters talking dialect or slang but the narrator, that is to say, the author, maintained a distance and a "superiority" by speaking a more premiumed language. I tend to speak on the same level as my characters, so it seems as though I am not there, because, possibly, you're looking for another voice.
I rarely get the impression that your fiction comes directly out of your personal experience, even though it's obvious that what you have written about has been filtered through your consciousness. I don't have the impression that these particular characters or that particular incident are very close to what you may have actually experienced. Is that correct?
Yes, that's correct. I think it's very rude to write autobiographically, unless you label it autobiography. And I think it's very rude to use friends and relatives as though they were occasions for getting your whole thing off. It's not making your mama a still life. And it's very abusive to your developing craft, to your own growth, not to convert and transform what has come to you in one way into another way. The more you convert the more you grow, it seems to me. Through conversion we recognize again the basic oneness, the connections, or as some blood coined it: "Everything is Everything." So, it's kind of lazy (I think that's the better word) to simply record. Also, it's terribly boring to the reader frequently, and, too, it's dodgy. You can't tell to what extent things are fascinating to you because they're yours and to what extent they're useful, unless you do some conversion.
What can we expect from you in the future?
I'm working on several things—some children's books, a new collection of short stories, a novel, some film scripts.
"Children of Struggle" is a series I've been working on that dramatizes the role children and youth have played in the struggle for liberation—children of the Underground Railroad, children of Frelimo, children of the Long March, of Granma, of El Grito de Lares, The Trail of Tears, and so forth.
The major question that corners me at the moment is what constitutes development for the systematically underdeveloped. I've tackled the question in several forms. I'm thinking now of putting together a critique of pedagogical perspectives, examining the premises of Freud, Montessori, Piaget, learning theories, educational models, to reveal how the training of children is being approached as a management problem rather than a development question; two, that there really are few sound development theories at all. First, we're children to the Freudians, then we're neurotic. No model of adulthood or maturity there. Or, we're innocent babes to be protected from controversy, problems, disturbances; then we're responsible adults, somehow; then we're senile, useless crones. Fanon and of course Friere (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) offer another view of the process. But they are too incomplete.
I'm doing a film script about a particular group of combatants in the 1850s (Tubman, Douglass, John Brown, etc.) with the focus on the much neglected figure of Mammy Pleasant, who bankrolled so many of the Kansas actions and set up an intelligence network on the Coast. Fascinating woman!
The new collection begins where Sea Birds leaves us, stories that dramatize the international operation of colonialism and celebrates too the international nature of liberation struggles. One is set in Ponce and Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, another in the New Hebrides, another in Laos, another in the Kenyan countryside. I hope to get to Brazil this year and back to Africa as well.
As for the novel—it's still a mystery to me. I started out with a simple story of a carnival society that decides to stage an old slave insurrection as their contribution to the pageant. It's developed into—well, you can imagine. Hard work, writing. A continual act of discovery!
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1074
SOURCE: A review of The Salt Eaters, in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, September, 1982, pp. 125-27.
[In the following positive review of The Salt Eaters, Shipley deems the novel "an unqualified success," concluding that Bambara's literary voice "has refused to be tranquilized into slumber but will share with all women the quality of pain and despair."]
John O. Killers once commented to Maya Angelou that the most difficult kind of writing was the short story. If this is true, then Toni Cade Bambara has, for some time now, had few peers in the area. Already acknowledged as one of the finest short story writers in the country, Toni Cade Bambara has taken her artistry to the novel—and achieved profound results, with The Salt Eaters. At her best, Toni Cade Bambara has few peers when she is exposing the flaws in black male-female relationships or the unique pain, suffering, and despair that black women experience as they reach out to wholeness. In these respects (and surely others), The Salt Eaters is an unqualified success.
One reviewer/critic describes Ms. Bambara's style as "… comedy with a knife's edge, and tragedy with balm." I cannot agree. For me, The Salt Eaters is a tragedy; comedy is only a "vehicle" that is sometimes used to vivify the tragedy. As one of my former mentors once defined it, quoting the dramatist Pirandello, "tragedy is comedy taken too far."
The book is essentially a psychological study of a black community that begins and ends in an infirmary. It is only the spectacle and mysteriousness of the "healing of Velma" that allows us to ride the panoramic consciousness of the central protagonists, Velma and Minnie, as we learn why Velma finds it difficult to take on the "responsibility of being a well person."
One is led to believe that Velma would like to isolate herself from the world in order to learn about and come to know herself. Bambara says of Velma that she wished "[t]o be … sealed … nothing seeping in. To be … unavailable at last, sealed in and the noise of the world, the garbage locked out. To pour herself grain by grain into the top globe and sift silently down to … the bottom one. That was the sight she'd been on the hunt for." The truth of the matter, we learn, is that Velma is as much afraid to be alone with herself. Being relegated to such a position would mean that she would have to deal with a personal and community life that moves too slowly for her and seems to be caught up in giving its concepts of meaning to the lives of individuals rather than allowing them to forge their own destinies. In this area, Velma has early been more a "rebel" looking for a cause than a woman trying to become whole. It is the attempted suicide that brings her to the reality that she can be whole in this society if she understands and asserts her uniqueness. As Mrs. Heywood counsels: "Have to be whole see whole."
It is left to Minnie Ransom to "heal" Velma. Important here is the fact that the healing is more a figurative healing. This woman of mystery breeds fear in many of the townspeople because she defies any real definition. Although she is seen by some as almost "crazy," her craziness must surely be a most lucid madness. Her task is ultimately to recreate the person that is Velma and make a viable woman-force in the world. Accompanied by her Spiritual Guide—Old Wife, who is a link with the past—Minnie is a unique conduit in the healing of a psyche, producing a wholly unique individual as they merge their histories into a oneness.
Ultimately, the town of Claybourne undergoes a transformation. Virtually every inhabitant has great problems condoning, if not creating, change. The community is very much locked into the past—basically out of fears and its shared sufferings. As Sophie sees it, there is "a fear of the new, a fear to change, to look ahead." And although many of the inhabitants have "eaten salt together" as well as shared bitter experiences, they have not necessarily grown. There is a real possibility that the commiseration has not strengthened but weakened them.
Of the many themes, concepts, and ideas posited by Toni Cade Bambara, one that must be addressed is the significance of the sexual development—which is anything but the commonplace. For individuals like Doc Serge, it is as much a curiosity as a substantive fulfilling part of life. For Obie, it is a "weapon" to be used to assuage deep feelings of insecurity. It is unfortunate that he neither loved well nor wise enough. Ultimately, for Velma it is whatever she wishes it to be at any time, even though she probably sees it far more objectively (emotionally) than anyone. One almost feels that the women, through their ability to objectify it for themselves, come close to neutering the men, depriving them of their stereotypic roles of initiators and manipulators of sex.
The fact that so many possibilities exist insofar as interpretations of The Salt Eaters are concerned points up the richness of the novel. By the time of the storm, the reader has already come to realize that its ominousness is more far-reaching than even this "unusual" storm. A new world is being created. It is as much a psychological conversion as anything else, and Claybourne is but a prelude to something much more encompassing and universal.
In The Salt Eaters, Toni Cade Bambara has interwoven mythmaking, psychological and sociological drama, literary and factual history, with political and philosophical realities. To these, she has brought the artistry of the most difficult area in creative writing, the short story. The range is immense but the focus is keen. Thoughts issue from thought, becoming realities of the characters. Sentence inversions and fragments vivify sights and sounds so that there is no long break in characters' thoughts or story movement. Skillful use of dialect, strategic cliches, and euphemistic symbolism circumvent any real need for involved symbolism.
Toni Cade Bambara has heard the ageless song of black women—a song that centuries have not stilled. Hers is the voice that has refused to be tranquilized into slumber but will share with all women the quality of pain and despair, with the hope that out of the sorrow will emerge the new woman—the whole woman.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798
SOURCE: A review of The Salt Eaters, in The Black Scholar, Vol. 13, No. 6, Fall, 1982, p. 52.
[Jackson is an American poet, short story writer, and dramatist. Below, she offers a highly favorable assessment of The Salt Eaters.]
Some extraordinary books define their time. By so doing they become historical events. Some momentous books transform the sense of the time, the order. By so doing they become political movement. Some most rare books are a healing session: they cleanse, rename, baptize, and confirm us as adults, responsible intelligences. They are spiritual acts of a high order and dangerously wonderful.
Some stories, in their telling, extend the language to music; fine tuning the seeming diverse moments of reality into a divine order. By the author's authority we are permitted to see with an eye of the universe; in balancing this, the narrative logic pulls all into place. In this way Vision and Voice, Feeling and Form are one—in awesome perfection. This is High Art.
The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara is such an extraordinary, momentous, most rare, and visionary story. This is literature in preparation for the Twenty-First Century. It is written in a new time and from another place, a step ahead. The Salt Eaters is strong premonition. It is where we should want to be. Where we will be.
It is a healing time. The healing session begins with these words, "Are you sure, sweetheart, you want to be well?" The question is posed to Velma Henry, a failed suicide, and sister-activist. It is posed to the community from which this sister springs. It is posed to all of us in this African Diasporan Family, by Minnie Ransom, the faith healer of legendary proportions and snazzy mode of dress who heals out of Southwest Community Infirmary. The Infirmary is a long established black institution making people well through an innovative, wholistic approach.
At Minnie Ransom's side throughout most of this healing is Old Wife, a sister-advisor, fleshless, only spirit, full of spunk and spicey wisdom.
A wide array of characters people these pages, all citizens of Claybourne, Georgia. Claybourne is so named because its people are fashioned personally by divinity, with feet of clay; flawed but no less miraculous. And each of these characters is so vital and so idiosyncratically imperfect! Velma, our heroine, is blessedly without complete virtue as she engages in an affair with her guru-advisor. Minnie Ransom, the healer herself, leans happily on the carnal with her yen for fine younger men. A whole span of people travel through these pages with their baggage of ego and desire and divine, human impulse toward evolution.
All are in busy preparation for a Carnival. And all are, unconsciously, in preparation for a new epoch, a decisive shift in the heavens, the arrangement of stars under whose influence we all fall and ascend.
The form of this book, a collection of event, characterization, feeling and idiom, is as complex as any fall of the odus of Ifa in the Yoruba system of prophecy. For The Salt Eaters, fate, faith, and healing make themselves manifest in multiples of changes upon changes inside a great Change.
Bambara's telling is an intellectual challenge and a spiritual one, for you have to be at the point of wellness, on the verge of wholeness to know this tale in a visceral way, to appreciate its magnetic pull into health. The most we are conditioned to know is hum-drum, dead-end emotionalism.
Her charges to us are spiritual then, and political. For politics live and breathe throughout these pages. Political theories become the actual quests and questions they should be: nuclear waste, multicultural alliances, "feminism" or, more appropriately, a politicized sisterhood, commitment to the people, the Seven Principles, black institution building, health care, and personal and collective self-determination. Politics walk alongside the burning issue of a failing marriage. All the bafflements become clear. Call us out and up to commit ourselves to health and warfare.
If you wish to hide from the generous complexity of our existence then run from The Salt Eaters. Continue to look back. Be a pillar of salt. But if you genuinely wish health and wholeness, if you are sure you want to be well, affirmed, exhilarated, and accelerated into the mountaintops of your own divinity, your full capacity of being and performance, your own deep responsible humanity, then reach for these healing words. Take the salt antidote here-in offered us as cure for the bite of the snake, or serpent in whose realm we reside.
Read the genius work of our sister, Toni Cade Bambara. Let the healing of Velma Henry, and the people of Claybourne, be a part of your own healing. Indeed, do not be caught cowering, fractured and frozen, in the coming shift of the sky!
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7951
SOURCE: "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love," in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 215-32.
[Hargrove is an American educator and the author of works on T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. In the following essay, first published in 1983 in Southern Quarterly, she examines Bambara's focus on adolescence and youth in Gorilla, My Love.]
In reading Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972), one is immediately struck by her portrayal of black life and by her faithful reproduction of black dialect. Her first-person narrators speak conversationally and authentically: "So Hunca Bubba in the back with the pecans and Baby Jason, and he in love…. there's a movie house … which I ax about. Cause I am a movie freak from way back, even though it do get me in trouble sometime." What Twain's narrator Huck Finn did for the dialect of middle America in the mid-nineteenth century, Bambara's narrators do for contemporary black dialect. Indeed, in the words of one reviewer, Caren Dybek, Bambara "possesses one of the finest ears for the nuances of black English." In portraying black life, she presents a wide range of black characters, and she uses as settings Brooklyn, Harlem, or unnamed black sections of New York City, except for three stories which take place in rural areas. Finally, the situations are typical of black urban experience: two policemen confront a black man shooting basketball in a New York park at night; young black activists gather the community members at a Black Power rally; a group of black children from the slums visit F.A.O. Schwartz and are amazed at the prices of toys. Bambara's stories communicate with shattering force and directness both the grim reality of the black world—its violence, poverty, and harshness—and its strength and beauty—strong family ties, individual determination, and a sense of cultural traditions. Lucille Clifton [as quoted on the book jacket of Gorilla, My Love,] has said of her work, "She has captured it all, how we really talk, how we really are," and the Saturday Review has called Gorilla, My Love "among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time."
Although her work teems with the life and language of black people, what is equally striking about it, and about this collection particularly, is the universality of its themes. Her fiction reveals the pain and the joy of the human experience in general, of what it means to be human, and most often of what it means to be young and human. One of Bambara's special gifts as a writer of fiction is her ability to portray with sensitivity and compassion the experiences of children from their point of view. In the fifteen stories that compose Gorilla, My Love, all the main characters are female, thirteen of them are first-person narrators, and ten of them are young, either teenagers or children. They are wonderful creations, especially the young ones, many of whom show similar traits of character; they are intelligent, imaginative, sensitive, proud and arrogant, witty, tough, but also poignantly vulnerable. Through these young central characters, Bambara expresses the fragility, the pain, and occasionally the promise of the experience of growing up, of coming to terms with a world that is hostile, chaotic, violent. Disillusionment, loss, and loneliness, as well as unselfishness, love, and endurance, are elements of that process of maturation which her young protagonists undergo.
"Happy Birthday" focuses on the experience of loneliness and isolation as seen through the eyes of a young black girl. One of only two stories in the volume with a third-person narrator, it describes an especially lonely Saturday in the life of Ollie, an orphan who lives with her grandfather. The story begins in the morning with Ollie attempting to find some companionship, but she finds her grandfather drunk, the building superintendent busy, and her friend Wilma gone. In the early afternoon, she continues her search, at one point trying to talk to some older boys drowsing on the roof of an apartment building. A simile comparing the boys to "dummies in a window" implies that they offer her nothing in the way of human contact. From the roof Ollie looks down into the park, but sees no one there; indeed, "There was hardly anyone on the block…. Everything below was gray as if the chimney had snowed on the whole block." Desperate for some one, any one, she mounts a fire hydrant in front of the Mount Zion A.M.E. Church, flapping her arms and yelling, "This time I'm going to fly off and kill myself." She attracts only the attention of a woman who scowls at her and the minister who orders her to play elsewhere. Thus even the church, the enduring sanctuary of the outcast and lonely, offers Ollie no solace. In agony, she whispers to and then yells at the pigeons, revealing to the reader the intense poignancy and pain of her loneliness on this particular day: "Better wish me happy birthday … or somebody around here is gonna get wasted."
At last a human figure seems to come to her aid as a neighbor leans from her window to inquire about Ollie's distress. Ollie yells at her, "You should never have a birthday in the summertime, cause nobody's around to wish you happy birthday or give you a party." Miss Hazel's reply is meant to be mildly consoling, but only reveals her insensitivity and lack of understanding: "Well, don't cry, sugar. When you get as old as me, you'll be glad to forget all about—" As Ollie sobs in the street, the woman closes her window "so she could hear the television good." Ollie really is all alone.
Throughout the story Bambara uses a number of subtle devices to reinforce the theme of isolation. The word "Empty" appears twice as a separate sentence, and negatives are found in abundance, "no one," "nothing," "none." The absence of people is stressed through references not only to individual characters who are away, such as Wilma and a neighbor named Mrs. Robinson, but also to large groups, as in the sweeping sentence, "Everyone was either at camp or at work or was sleeping like the boys on the roof or dead or just plain gone off." Elements of the setting are actually empty, like the park and the block, or are symbolic of emptiness and depression, like the gray cinders from the chimney and the ruins of the burned down bar-b-que place. Even the church rejects Ollie, as the grumpy minister literally chases her from its doors. Further, she is addressed several times as "little girl" rather than by her name, suggesting a lack or loss of identity, her nothingness in relation to other people. None of this is lost on Ollie, who realizes that "sometimes [the building superintendent] wouldn't even remember her," that the big boy Ferman "had just yelled at her as if he had forgotten her name or didn't know her any more," and that Reverend Hall calls her by her name only when she is with her grandfather: "How come you always calling me little girl, but you sure know my name when I'm walking with my grandfather?" (italics mine).
Finally, small touches of irony are apparent not only in the title but also throughout the story. For example, although we are told from the opening sentence that "Ollie spent the whole morning waiting," it is not until the closing passages, which describe the end of the long, lonely day, that we discover what she is waiting for—someone who will remember what day it is and wish her "Happy Birthday." Further, a subtly ironic contrast to Ollie's perception of the day as sad and bleak is suggested when Miss Hazel's great-grandmother, disturbed by the child's loud sobbing in the street, comes to the window "to see who was dying and with so much noise and on such a lovely day" (italics mine).
While the loneliness of a child is the main thematic element of "Happy Birthday," the disillusionment which is an inevitable part of growing up is dominant in the lives of the young girls who are the narrators and main characters in "Gorilla, My Love," "The Lesson," and "Sweet Town."
With great sensitivity Bambara portrays through Hazel in "Gorilla, My Love" the feelings of pain and betrayal experienced by a child in a situation that adults would generally consider trivial or ridiculous. When Hazel was very young, her favorite uncle, Hunca Bubba, promised to marry her when she grew up, a promise which he gave lightly but which she took seriously. The story centers on her discovery that he has not only dropped the affectionate name Hunca Bubba, but also intends to marry someone else. For Hazel this bitter betrayal reveals to her that even adults who are "family" cannot be trusted to keep their promises. Her disillusionment is intense and painful; as she says, "I ain't playin. I'm hurtin….," speaking the words of the original title of the story.
Hazel's realization and subsequent disillusionment are skillfully prepared for from the opening lines, where the idea of unpleasant changes is introduced through her first-person narration: "That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name. Not a change up, but a change back, since Jefferson Winston Vale was the name in the first place. Which was news to me cause he'd been my Hunca Bubba my whole lifetime, since I couldn't manage Uncle to save my life." Further foreshadowing follows. From Hazel the reader learns that she, her grandfather, Hunca Bubba, and her younger brother are in a car driving to an undisclosed destination when Hunca Bubba begins talking about the woman he loves. Hazel affects boredom with the subject and criticizes a photograph of the woman, responses indicative of her true dismay, although at this point the reader has no clue as to the cause of her antagonism: "And we got to hear all this stuff about this woman he in love with and all. Which really ain't enough to keep the mind alive, though Baby Jason got no better sense than to give his undivided attention and keep grabbin at the photograph which is just a picture of some skinny woman in a countrified dress with her hand shot up to her face like she shame fore cameras."
There follow five pages (a large section in a story of only seven and a half pages) that appear at first to contain a long and puzzling digression on a memory from the previous Easter. In fact, the episode furnishes the key to our understanding of the enormous, shattering impact that Hunca Bubba's "betrayal" has on Hazel. The remembered incident seems initially to reveal only an occasion on which Hazel got into trouble as a result of her "toughness"; however, as we discover, Hazel is both sensitive and vulnerable beneath her tough exterior.
The episode concerns a movie which Hazel, Baby Jason, and Big Brood went to see. Although the marquee advertised that Gorilla, My Love was playing, the actual movie was about Jesus. The three were disappointed and angry: "I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don't wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff. So I am mad." After "yellin, booin, stompin, and carrying on" to show their displeasure, they watched the feature, hoping that Gorilla, My Love would follow. When it did not, as Hazel so bluntly puts it, "we know we been had. No gorilla no nuthin." She daringly went to complain to the manager and to ask that their money be refunded. Getting no satisfaction from him, she took some matches from his office and set fire to the candy stand. She later explained to her father that she expected people (and marquees) to keep their word: "Cause if you say Gorilla, My Love, you suppose to mean it. Just like when you say you goin to give me a party on my birthday, you gotta mean it…. I mean even gangsters in the movies say My word is my bond. So don't nobody get away with nothin far as I'm concerned."
Clearly, Hunca Bubba's breaking his promise to marry her is far more devastating to Hazel than the false advertising of the movie theater. Since a person whom she has every reason to trust has betrayed her, the entire adult world becomes suspect. Indeed, throughout the story, Hazel makes numerous comments on the conflict between children and adults. When her grandfather and Hunca Bubba make a weak attempt to justify what has occurred ("'Look here, Precious, it was Hunca Bubba what told you them things. This here, Jefferson Winston Vale.' And Hunca Bubba say, 'That's right. That was somebody else. I'm a new somebody'"), Hazel is not buying and turns to her little brother for solace, bitterly condemning the perfidy of adults: "I'm crying and crumplin down in the seat…. And Baby Jason cryin too. Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And don't even say they sorry."
A second painful experience of disillusionment appears in what is perhaps the best of the fifteen stories, "The Lesson." Again, the story centers on and owes much of its vitality to its first-person narrator, a young girl named Sylvia. Arrogant, sassy, and tough, with a vocabulary that might shock a sailor, Sylvia is also witty, bright, and vulnerable. In the course of the story she learns a lesson which disillusions her about the world in which she lives, about the society of which she is a part. Against her will, she is forced to realize the unfairness of life and, as a black girl, her often low position in the scheme of things. Although she fights against this realization and indeed refuses adamantly even to acknowledge it, it is clear to the reader that the young girl is irrevocably affected by the events of the day.
In the opening paragraph, Sylvia sets the stage for the action to follow by introducing her antagonist, Miss Moore, while revealing some facets of her own personality as well as the kind of environment in which she lives. Having a college degree, Miss Moore has taken upon herself "responsibility for the young ones' education." Accordingly, from time to time she takes them on "field trips," during which they learn a great deal about life. Sylvia clearly does not like Miss Moore or her lessons: "And quite naturally we laughed at her…. And we kinda hated her too…. [She] was always planning these boring-ass things for us to do." In describing Miss Moore, Sylvia reveals her own toughness, which she communicates largely through strong language ("sorry-ass horse," "goddamn gas mask," "some ole dumb shit foolishness"), as well as her own pride and sense of superiority ("[M]e and Sugar were the only ones just right"), both of which will be seriously damaged in the course of the story. Finally, she indirectly indicates the type of urban environment in which she lives: "And we kinda hated [Miss Moore] … the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn't halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask." She also reveals that she and her cousin live with their aunt, who is "saddled" with them while "our mothers [are] in a la-de-da apartment up the block having a good ole time."
The action begins on a hot summer day when Miss Moore "rounds us all up at the mailbox" for one of her outings. This one will be on the subject of money, although the implications are much wider by the story's end: "… Miss Moore asking us do we know what money is, like we a bunch of retards." Even though Sylvia affects boredom with the subject, it is clear that the mention of their condition of poverty is unpleasant to her, apparently because it causes her to feel inferior: "So we heading down the street and she's boring us silly about what things cost and what our parents make and how much goes for rent and how money ain't divided up right in this country. And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature" (italics mine).
To illustrate her point in a striking manner, Miss Moore takes the children to an expensive store on Fifth Avenue where they can see for themselves the extravagant prices and then realize the difference between their lives and those of the very wealthy. A skillful teacher who provides the opportunity for the children to have their own flashes of insight, Miss Moore simply leads them from window to window, casually asking or answering questions. They are amazed at a $300 microscope, at a $480 paperweight (an object with which they are not even familiar), and finally at a $1,195 toy sailboat. Even Sylvia, as superior and untouched as she has tried to be, is astonished at the latter, whose price seems beyond all reason: "'Unbelievable,' I hear myself say and am really stunned." Although she herself does not realize the cause of her anger ("For some reason this pisses me off"), the reader understands that it lies in the injustice of things in general, but more specifically in Sylvia's frustration at being unable to purchase and possess even one of the toys displayed tantalizingly before her.Another unpleasant, and in this case unfamiliar, emotion overcomes her as Miss Moore tells the children to go into the store. Ordinarily aggressive and daring, Sylvia now hangs back: "Not that I'm scared, what's there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can't seem to get hold of the door…." Her shame arises from her sense of inferiority, of not belonging in such an expensive store, communicated indirectly and subtly by her comparison of the children's chaotic entrance to "a glued-together jigsaw done all wrong." Once inside, her painful feelings become intense: "Then Sugar run a finger over the whole boat. And I'm jealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth." Angry not only at her own deprivation but also at Miss Moore for making her aware of it, Sylvia bitterly lashes out at the older woman: "Watcha bring us here for, Miss Moore?" Attempting to help Sylvia acknowledge her anger, Miss Moore responds, "You sound angry, Sylvia. Are you mad about something?"
Although too proud to admit her emotions to Miss Moore, Sylvia on the way home reveals her longing for one of the toys, her realization that what it costs would buy many items desperately needed by her family, and her anguish at the injustice endured by the poor:
Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen's boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kind of work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?
When she seems toughly to dismiss the painful lessons of the day, "Messin up my day with this shit," the reader is aware that they have in truth touched her deeply, messing up far more than that one day. When she returns home, the overwhelming effects of her disillusionment are confirmed through her description of time (she seems years older than she had been that morning) and her revelation that she has a headache: "Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headache for thinkin so hard."
Her only protection against further pain and humiliation seems to be in not acknowledging formally, aloud, what has been so powerfully demonstrated to her. Yet, when Miss Moore urges the children to express what they have learned, her cousin Sugar blurts out the harsh facts in what is to Sylvia a bitter betrayal, an admission of the injustice, inferiority, imperfection of her world. Responding to Miss Moore's question, "Well, what do you think of F.A.O. Schwartz?" Sugar surprises Sylvia by saying, "You know, Miss Moore, I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs." The older woman urges her on to further exploration of the subject by commenting, "Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?" (This is a rather blunt and heavy-handed statement of the theme). When Sugar, rejecting Sylvia's desperate attempts to silence her, asserts, "I think … that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me," Sylvia is "disgusted with Sugar's treachery." However, as the story ends, she is going "to think this day through," even though she still appears determined to maintain her former arrogance and superiority: "But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin."
"The Lesson" is especially fine in its sensitive portrayal of Sylvia, in its realistic use of black dialect, and in the view of American society it offers from the vantage point of the poor. While this story describes a young girl's disillusionment with the society in which she lives and is therefore a kind of social and political commentary, another story, "Sweet Town," centers on a more personal, yet enduringly human and universal experience of disillusionment: the failure or disappointment of young love. Again, the narrator is a memorable young girl; but while Ollie's loneliness and Hazel's and Sylvia's toughness seem their impressive qualities, it is Kit's joie de vivre and her delightful romanticism that make her such a moving character. Her narration is light and lilting, breathless, swift, and largely free of the tough language used by Hazel and Sylvia as she recalls the ecstasy and sorrow of the spring and summer of her fifteenth year.
In the introductory section Kit's character and her situation are established as much by her narrative style as by the revelation of incidents. To illustrate the crazy, magical quality of her "youth in the sweet town playground of the sunny city," she describes in a breezy, grandiose style appropriate to her intensely romantic nature a series of absurd, loving notes she exchanged with her mother:
And then one day, having romped my soul through the spectrum of sunny colors, I dashed up to her apartment to escape the heat and found a letter from her which eternally elated my heart to the point of bursture and generally endeared her to me forever. Written on the kitchen table in cake frosting was the message, "My dear, mad, perverse young girl, kindly take care and paint the fire escape in your leisure…."
Her exuberance and romanticism are conveyed by the length of the first sentence and by her extravagant diction—a style far different from that of the blunt young narrator of the previous story. Kit quickly endears herself to the reader, whereas Sylvia grows on the reader rather more slowly.
Kit's natural exuberance and tendency to craziness are compounded by her awakening sexuality, which has coincided with the season of spring: "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." In the midst of "this sweet and drugged madness," she meets the handsome B. J. and his less attractive friend Eddie. (Not one for modesty, Kit recalls with refreshing frankness, "It was on the beach that we met, me looking great in a pair of cut-off dungarees.") Through the seemingly endless summer, they share such delightfully crazy and innocently romantic "we-experiences" as "a two-strawed mocha, duo-jaywalking summons, twosome whistling scenes." Their craziness transforms the city into a kaleidoscope of magical colors and designs and B. J. into the fertility god Pan: "Hand in hand, me and Pan, and Eddie too, whizzed through the cement kaleidoscope making our own crazy patterns, singing our own song."
But suddenly, abruptly, the ecstasy ends. Awakened from a nightmare by pebbles thrown through her open window, Kit learns that B. J. and Eddie are leaving, the latter having stolen money from his grandmother. That the harsh reality has shattered her romantic idyll is reflected in Kit's juxtaposition of a romantic setting of casement window, garden, and balcony to her grim urban setting with its stoop and milkbox: "It wasn't a casement window and there was no garden underneath…. I went to the window to see who I was going to share my balcony scene with, and there below, standing on the milkbox, was B. J. I climbed out and joined him on the stoop." Her Romeo has come to bid her an unromantic farewell: "We're cutting out." Although Kit yearns to convince him to stay by expressing romantic, noble sentiments, she says instead, "I don't know why the hell you want to hang around with that nothing…. Eddie is a shithead."
Yet, in the midst of the pain and shock of the abandonment, her romantic nature briefly takes over as she imagines herself, in an amusing and curious mixture of Western movies, popular love ballads, and romantic novels, on a long, arduous quest somewhere out West in search of the two boys: "And in every town I'll ask for them as the hotel keeper feeds the dusty, weary traveler that I'll be. 'Have you seen two guys, one great, the other acned? If you see 'em, tell 'em Kit's looking for them.' And I'd bandage up my cactus-torn feet and sling the knapsack into place and be off." However, she then dismisses whatever may happen in that imagined future as not mattering after all, for she has been betrayed, the magical spell of youth has been broken, and its sweet fruit has begun to rot: "No matter. 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."
Bambara uses a number of devices to reinforce her theme of the disillusionment of young romantic love. The brevity of that love is suggested by the story's own brevity; a scant five pages, it is the shortest of the fifteen works collected in the volume. [The critic adds in a footnote: "'Happy Birthday' is a close second, containing only a few more lines than 'Sweet Town.'"] Further, the description of the ecstatic portion of her love affair with B. J. is limited to one single page (the first two pages cover introductory material and the last two, B. J.'s departure and Kit's reaction). The story is also filled with words suggesting speed. From the opening passage, "It is hard to believe that I so quickly squandered my youth," to Kit's last view of B. J. and Eddie "dashing down the night street" (italics mine), Bambara employs such words as "romped," "dashed," "tempo," "race," "jumped," "ran," "flying," "pace," and "whizzed."
The pleasure and joy of young love, which make its loss so difficult to bear, are conveyed through the title as well as through references to sweetness, to intensity (everything seems about to explode: "bursture," "orange explosure"), to craziness, and to music (trumpets, whistling, singing). Finally, several classical references also serve to reinforce these magical qualities. A somewhat ambiguous allusion to Penelope is presumably meant to evoke the faithful wife of Ulysses, though she seems a bit too old and sedate for this story; one wonders if perhaps Persephone, with her associations of mad passion and springtime, would not have been more appropriate. However, the comparisons of B. J. to Pan (lust and spring) and to Apollo (male beauty and perfection) clearly convey what he means to Kit and what, at the end of the story, she has lost.
Another theme which centers on young girls and which runs throughout a number of the stories is that of the value of human solidarity, of love for family or one's fellowman: a sense of unity and comradeship with a former enemy in "The Hammer Man"; a very special bond between a young girl and an old woman in "Maggie of the Green Bottles"; and a sister's love for her retarded brother in "Raymond's Run." In each case the bond is shown to be a very positive and sustaining one, whether it is brief or long-lived.
The youngster who narrates "The Hammer Man" is the sole unnamed narrator in the fifteen stories. However, she is similar to her young counterparts in being tough, sensitive, and imaginative, though she is not as tough as Sylvia, as sensitive as Hazel, or as imaginative as Kit. In general, her character does not seem to be drawn with as much complexity as theirs. Yet her story is a very moving one, even though its central incident clearly does not have a lasting effect on her. It revolves around her relationship with Manny, an older boy, perhaps even a young man, who is mentally disturbed. As the story opens, the reader learns that they have had an altercation, caused by the narrator's taking away his hammer and insulting him. He camps out on her doorstep for days or weeks, waiting to retaliate: "Manny told [my father] right off that he was going to kill me first chance he got." Meanwhile, she feigns yellow fever in order to stay in the safety of her home. During this time period, several relatives and friends become involved in their fray, including her father, who has a violent confrontation with Manny's older brother and is subsequently threatened by their uncle, and Miss Rose, who several times fights in the streets with Manny's mother. Thus, the antagonism is deep, long-lasting, and widespread.
However, when Manny falls off a roof and is too disabled to be dangerous, the protagonist immediately recovers from her illness and returns to the outside world. Because "Manny stayed indoors for a long time,… [she] almost forgot about him," becoming involved with new kids on the block, with activities at a recently opened neighborhood center (where she reads her folder and discovers that "I was from a deviant family in a deviant neighborhood"), and with attempts to abandon her tomboyish ways and be more feminine.
Suddenly one night Manny re-enters her life, and just as suddenly she and her former enemy become strangely and briefly joined in a bond of solidarity; indeed, she becomes in a sense his defender and protector. Walking by a park near midnight, she sees him practicing basketball in the dark. In his mentally disturbed condition, he is replaying, over and over, the last seconds of an important game in his past in which he had missed the final winning basket. With sudden sympathy and sensitivity, the young girl realizes what anguish he endures as he tries to reclaim and change the past, now making the basket successfully time after time: "He went back to the lay-ups, always from the same spot with his arms crooked in the same way, over and over…. He never missed. But he cursed himself away. It was torture."
When two policemen appear to investigate their presence in the park, she takes Manny's side against them. Heroically, she stands up to the policemen, defending Manny's right to be in the park, insisting on the innocence of his activities, and urging them to give him his basketball. Although she speaks to them sharply, she is careful to "keep her cool," being well aware of the hammer in Manny's pocket and the potentially explosive nature of the situation.
With the ball again in his possession, Manny returns to shooting lay-ups. Looking at him with eyes made more sensitive by her newly acquired relationship with him, the young girl sees him as "some kind of beautiful bird" and his movements as "about the most beautiful thing a man can do and not be a fag." Thus the sudden decision by the police to take him in after all is shocking, disillusioning, and terrifying to her. She is also certain that the episode, which has now erupted into pushing and yelling, will end in her being shot and killed along with Manny. Her terrified imagination is so intense that, in the space of a few seconds, she sees a kaleidoscopic rush of scenes in which she is shot in the stomach and bleeds to death, her confirmation picture is in the obituary section of the newspaper, and her distraught relatives mourn in various attitudes of sorrow or anger.
However, the outcome is not this melodramatic nightmare, for Manny quietly enters the squad car, they drive away, and the young girl goes home. Unlike most of the other stories discussed, this episode, as intense and as striking as it is, apparently has no enduring effect on her. A brief, transitory moment of unity in which two former enemies join together against a sudden threatening force, it is only one of the myriad elements in the experience of growing up. As the final sentences of the story indicate, it recedes quickly into the past as the former tomboy turns her attention to becoming a young woman: "And then it was spring finally, and me and Violet was in this very boss fashion show at the center. And Miss Rose bought me my first corsage—yellow roses to match my shoes."
The story is positive in its portrayal of the capacity of human beings, a young one in this case, to be compassionate, unselfish, and even heroic in their concern for others. The protagonist is clearly presented as admirable in her desire to protect Manny against what seem to her powerful forces of injustice and cruelty. The experience, the story suggests, is valuable not only in itself but also as an integral part of the process of maturation, in which the young individual learns to see others sympathetically and to join with them against (or even defend them from) threatening forces.
In "Maggie of the Green Bottles" Bambara perceptively traces the very special relationship between a young girl and an old woman, apparently her great-grandmother. As in several other stories, although the narrator is grown and is recalling an episode from her childhood, she narrates it from the child's point of view, as the child that she was experienced it. In this particular story, the child-narrator is an innocent eye, for she does not understand fully the meanings of many of the things she describes. While to the other characters in the story—and, to some extent, to the reader—Maggie is a crazy old woman, a free-loading relative, and an alcoholic, to Peaches (who has the same nickname and some of the same family members as the narrator of "Gorilla, My Love") she is a kind of fairy godmother endowed with many special qualities. She is magical and enchanted, possessing wisdom and knowledge about astrology, the planets, destiny; her room is a "sanctuary of heaven charts and incense pots and dream books and magic stuffs." She is strong-willed and tough, with Aries as her astrological sign. She wins Peaches's awed admiration by taking on the child's powerful father, variously described by the child as a giant, a monster, a Neanderthal, in titanic verbal battles. In describing these encounters, Peaches appropriately compares the pugnacious Maggie to David pitted against Goliath. In fact, Maggie will do battle with anyone: "[S]he'd tackle the lot of them right there in the yard, blood kin or by marriage, and neighbors or no." Finally, she is not ordinary; according to Peaches, she is "truly inspired," wanting to rise above the level to which she is bound, aspiring to greatness of some kind. She wears lace, writes with lavender ink, and generally scorns those who are satisfied with the mundane:
… 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 sullen in their sorrow, too squeamish to band together and take the world by storm, make history, or even to appreciate the calling of Maggie the Ram, or the Aries that came after.
Her relationship with her great-granddaughter is a very special one, for from the day of the baby's christening Maggie is determined to endow her with a sense of a capacity for greatness, for rising above her circumstances. At her christening Maggie, like the gift-giving godmothers of fairy tales, begins a book to inspire her great-granddaughter. And the little girl grows up feeling that she is indeed a very gifted creature with the ability and the obligation to achieve the extraordinary: "I was destined for greatness. She assured me. And I was certain of my success, as I was certain that my parents were not my parents, that I was descended, anointed and ready to gobble up the world from urgent, noble Olympiads."
Because of the bond between the two and because Peaches is very young and naive, she does not recognize Maggie's weaknesses as such; indeed, she often perceives them instead as further evidence of her extraordinary nature. Peaches does not see Maggie as a "freeloading" relative, nor does she seem concerned about her bizarre treatment of their dog. Rather, she sees Maggie's verbal battles with her father as signs of her greatness, and her green bottles, containing the liquor to which she is apparently addicted, as enchanted and full of magical charms: "Whenever I saw them piled in the garbage out back I was tempted to touch them and make a wish, knowing all the while that the charm was all used up and that that was why they were in the garbage in the first place. But there was no doubt that they were special." Although she describes Maggie's drunken stupors, she does not seem to know what they are nor does she realize that Maggie dies of alcoholism, with herself as an unwitting accomplice at the very end.
After the funeral (which the child neither attends nor describes), when asked what she would like as a keepsake, she requests the bottles, still seeing them as magical. Ironically, the adults, not understanding that she means the empty green liquor bottles, give her another set of bottles: "I had meant the green bottles. I was going to tell them and then I didn't. I was too small for so much enchantment anyway. I went to bed feeling much too small. And it seemed a shame that the hope of the Aries line should have to sleep with a light on still, and blame it on Jason and cry with balled fists in the eyes just like an ordinary, mortal, everyday-type baby." These lines make clear the value of what Maggie has given to Peaches and suggest that the effect of her death may be to reduce the child to a view of herself as small, ordinary, and mortal. But the ending is ambiguous. Although she has lost Maggie and the magic bottles, and feels very small, she still describes herself as "the hope of the Aries line" and says only that she is crying "just like" an ordinary child, implying that she is not one.
Bambara makes extensive use of imagery, comparisons, and symbols from the literature of magic, myth, and fairy tale to reflect and even recreate the enchanted world shared by Maggie and Peaches. Maggie herself is likened obliquely to a fairy godmother who bestows a gift on a child at her christening, as in "Sleeping Beauty." She is also called "Maggie the Ram," a reference to Aries, the first sign of the zodiac, which represents the creative impulse and the thunderbolt. Peaches is compared to a descendant of the gods of Olympus, particularly to Athena, and she is associated twice with Alexander the Great through her zodiacal sign Aries, which she shares with Maggie. In most myths and fairy tales, a sinister figure is set in opposition to the hero/heroine, and Bambara's story contains such a figure. Peaches's father, an enormous, pugnacious man "whom Grandma Williams used to say was just the sort of size man put on this earth for the 'spress purpose of clubbing us all to death,'" is described as a monster, a giant, a wolf man, the phantom of the opera, and a "gross Neanderthal."
Finally, the narrator's use of religious terminology in connection with Maggie reinforces her perception of her great-grandmother as sacred and suggests her feelings of reverence and awe. Maggie's room is called a "sanctuary," and in her encounters with Peaches's father she is a Biblical David to his Goliath. Just prior to her death, Peaches notes that "she was humming one of those weird songs of hers which always made her seem holier and blacker than she could've been" (italics mine). And Peaches's worshipful attitude toward her is revealed in the metaphorical positions she adopts in praising the old woman's "guts": "It is to Maggie's guts that I bow forehead to the floor and kiss her hand" and "I must genuflect and kiss her ring."
"Raymond's Run," another story of initiation, centers on Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, perhaps the most appealing and lovable of Bambara's young narrators, and concerns two discoveries she makes on the way to growing up. One has to do with her retarded older brother, for whose care she is responsible, and the other with her rival in the May Day races. As in the two previous stories, both discoveries reveal the value of human solidarity, of love for family and friends.
Hazel is a totally engaging character. In a narrative style entirely free of the strong language used by most of the other young narrators, she reveals a refreshing honesty as well as a dedication to hard work and a dislike of phonies. She clearly knows who and what she is. Her life centers on two things: caring for Raymond and running. At the story's beginning she indicates that the former is a large and consuming task, but one which she accepts stoically and with love: "All I have to do in life is mind my brother Raymond, which is enough…. He needs looking after cause he's not quite right. And a lot of smart mouths got lots to say about that too…. But now, if anybody has anything to say to Raymond, anything to say about his big head, they have to come by me."
If Raymond has her heart, running has her soul. She tells us honestly, but not arrogantly, "I'm the fastest thing on two feet. There is no track meet that I don't win the first place medal." She works hard to improve her skill, and she illustrates her disgust with those who pretend they never practice by describing Cynthia Procter, who always says, after winning the spelling bee, "'I completely forgot about [it].' And she'll clutch the lace on her blouse like it was a narrow escape. Oh, brother."
She is also determined to be herself, rather than what others want her to be. Rebelling against her mother's desire for her to "act like a girl for a change" and participate in the May Pole dance instead of the fifty-yard dash, she insists that "you should be trying to be yourself, whatever that is, which is, as far as I am concerned, a poor Black girl who really can't afford to buy shoes and a new dress you only wear once a lifetime cause it won't fit next year." Although when she was younger she had once been a "strawberry in a Hansel and Gretel pageant," she now asserts, "I am not a strawberry. I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about."
The May Day race, the central episode of the story, is thus of tremendous importance to Hazel. She is determined to win again, especially because she has a new challenger in Gretchen, who has recently moved into the neighborhood. Her descriptions of her feelings before and during the race are superb in their realism, revealing her great intensity and concentration. Yet, as she is running, she notices that Raymond is running his own race outside the fence. Suddenly she realizes that she could teach Raymond to run and thereby make his life more meaningful; thus, whether or not she herself has won the race now becomes secondary: "And I'm smiling to beat the band cause if I've lost this race, or if me and Gretchen tied, or even if I've won, I can always retire as a runner and begin a whole new career as a coach with Raymond as my champion…. I've got a roomful of ribbons and medals and awards. But what has Raymond got to call his own?" Her sincere love for her brother and her excitement at discovering something that he can learn to do well are so intense that "by the time he comes over I'm jumping up and down so glad to see him—my brother Raymond, a great runner in the family tradition." Ironically, everyone assumes that she is elated because she has again won first place.
Almost simultaneously she realizes that, far from disliking her rival or feeling superior to her, she admires her for her obvious skill in and dedication to running: "And I smile [at Gretchen]. Cause she's good, no doubt about it. Maybe she'd like to help me coach Raymond; she obviously is serious about running, as any fool can see." The story ends with the two girls smiling at each other with sincere appreciation for what the other is.
Hazel represents the best of youthful humanity in her unselfish desire to make her brother's life more significant, in her determination to be herself, and in her honest admiration of the abilities of a rival. But it is perhaps her wise understanding of what is most to be valued in "being people" that makes her such an appealing character. "Raymond's Run" is a story rare in this collection, and in modern literature, in that everyone wins in one way or another, and yet it is neither sentimental nor unrealistic, but sincere and believable.
Thus, with compassion, understanding, and a warm sense of humor, Bambara portrays in many of the stories in Gorilla, My Love an integral part of the human experience, the problems and joys of youth. Told from the viewpoint of young black girls, they capture how it feels as a child to undergo the various experiences of loneliness, disillusionment, and close relationships with others. Bambara's short fiction thus belongs to the ranks of other literary works portraying youth, such as Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. Furthermore, because her protagonists are female, black, and generally pre-adolescent, these stories, like the works of several other contemporary black female writers, contribute a new viewpoint to the genre.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
SOURCE: "Soundings," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2771, April 27, 1984, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, McRobbie praises Gorilla, My Love for its political focus, poetic aspects, and its accurate representations of African-American culture.]
[Gorilla, My Love,] Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories written over the last 15 years is so great it lifts you off the ground. It lets you hear the best sounds of the (black American) city and treats you to a series of narratives which move past you like flickering images from a silent movie. When they do slow down they resemble those photographs whose naturalness makes them seem like chance snapshots, but whose simplicity belies the craft, skill, artifice and imagination of the photographer.
Together the stories sail effortlessly into that territory much beloved and preciously guarded by men. For so many writers and sociologists, musicians and film-makers (all men), the city has been the subject of our time. And how women fit in depends very much on their idiosyncracies, their quirks, their views on sexual politics. Bambara pushes her way through all this prejudice and shows how urban life can vibrate and reverberate just as much for women. And by placing both old and young women at the centre of her vision of the city, she debunks so many of the male myths. Which is to say that there is little violence, absolutely no macho gang-warfare and little fear except from the occasional police provocation. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but Bambara makes the city livable in for women. Her young heroines stroll through the streets by day and loiter around at night. They know they get labelled as deviant by the authorities but what this version of these so-called delinquent activities shows is that the 'problem' of the ghetto is definitively not the problem of the people, despite poverty, unemployment, racism and everything else. The problem is rather that of those who seek, with some difficulty, to control it.
This makes Bambara's collection politically acute as well as poetically alive. But it's a politics best suited to the form she works with. It's there in small gestures, in short phrases, even in the last line. It graces the stories without ever drowning them out. Each of the stories speaks as though the author couldn't get the words out of her mouth quickly enough. What they reflect, of course, is the oral tradition of story-telling at its greatest. The 'talkin' blues', the seductive voice alone or accompanied by music, which engages its audience not by great noise but by suggestion, not by force but by inflection.
The image of a young, long-legged, awkward and exuberant girl fleets through many of the narratives. She is fright-eningly bright and devastatingly big-headed. She also carries on her shoulders, without being arrogant or self-righteous, an unerring sense of justice. Anyway she uses all these qualities to see clearly the black society in which she lives. The story 'Gorilla My Love' is a diatribe against the way children and young people are deceived and misled by adults. When nothing is as attractive as an afternoon at the movies, the disappointment Hazel feels when, instead of Gorilla, King of Kings appears is acute and demands retributive action.
'Raymond's Run' tells how the same girl combines looking after her handicapped brother with training for sports' day by running endlessly with him round blocks and across wide streets. She is his protector, his champion and his teacher. She fights off the abuse he gets, runs and wins, it seems, for him. In fact, what is strongest in the entire collection is not so much a question of what happens, rather one of what creates the flow, what generates the movement between one story and the other. Invariably it is the language. In 'My Man Bovanne' for example, a simple sequence of events becomes a small drama, a musical in miniature. An older woman is being lectured by her 'militant' and politicised children. They want her to get respectable, to give up short skirts, wigs and make-up and most of all slow-dancing with the likes of the also old, and blind, Bovanne. The woman insists on her right to pleasure and ends up pre-empting them politically, 'Cause old folks is the nation'.
It is interesting how these stories fit alongside the standard white account of growing up in America, from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye. I'm not sure what to make of this other than to suggest that perhaps in writing there is, and always has been, a kind of symbolic crossfertilisation less possible elsewhere. But, whatever its connections with white culture, the rootedness of Bambara's writing in contemporary black culture is absolute. Reading her is like pondering over all those words and phrases which more often drift from the sound-system or over the airwaves. And this relationship between and across forms is what makes black writing right now so important. If music is close to literature and rapping close to poetry then not one but a number of barriers are being broken down. Those which divide young and old audiences, those which have traditionally marked off high art from popular culture and those which have rigidly kept the producers well away from the consumers.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4527
SOURCE: "From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 48-57.
[In the following essay, Burks analyzes the emphasis on communication and dialogue in Bambara's fiction, noting in particular the relationship Bambara sees between language and the Black freedom movement of the twentieth century.]
A title with a religious allusion ["From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language"] may seem inappropriate for an essay on the works of Toni Cade Bambara since religion, i.e., Christianity, as it is often depicted in the works of Black writers with their depictions of hair straightening, signifying in church, and preacher men—sometimes more physically passionate than spiritually—is conspicuously absent here. In fact, many of the usual concerns, about color and class, frequently found in the writings of other Black women prosaists, are absent. Bambara appears less concerned with mirroring the Black existence in America than in chronicling "the movement" intended to improve and change that existence. Like a griot, who preserves the history of his or her people by reciting it, Bambara perpetuates the struggle of her people by literally recording it in their own voices.
Her three major works of fiction, Gorilla, My Love (1972), The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), and The Salt Eaters (1980), trace the civil rights movement in America from its inception, through its most powerful expression, to its loss of momentum. Each uses language to particularize and individualize the voices of the people wherever they are—on a New York City street, crossing the waters of the Pacific, amid the red salt clay of the Louisiana earth—and to celebrate their progress as they think, feel, and act in their struggle to be free.
But, paradoxically, while Bambara uses language to capture the speech patterns of the characters she idomatically places in their time and space, Bambara eschews language, words, rhetoric, as the modus operandi for the people to attain their freedom. For Bambara, an innate spirituality, almost mystical in nature, must be endemic to the people if they are to have success. Her works juxtapose the inadequacy of language and the powers of the spirit, which needs no words to spread its light among the masses.
Words are only barriers to communication, here, in Bambara's first collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love; a smile, a howl, a touch, a look, a hum, are the instruments with which her characters play in an attempt to communicate their joy, frustration, pain, confusion, and alienation.
These stories are all female ones, almost sung by Bambara in a first-person narrative voice reminiscent of the Negro spirituals with their strongly marked rhythms and highly graphic descriptions. Standard English is not so much put aside as displaced by constant repetition, a repetition bringing to mind the speech habits of a child who in just learning language constantly repeats himself, not fully convinced that language alone can communicate those needs and feelings so recently and so effectively expressed in tears and smiles.
And the childlike voices seem right here, and belong here, for each story is a vernal one—even those told by women who have long ceased to be girls—because each story is of initiation, of baptism, where the narrator is schooled in the ways of a world often cruel, more often disinterested, and rarely fair.
Gorilla, My Love precurses the eventual flowering of "the movement" which, in this collection, is in its infancy. "My Man Bovanne," its first story, gets its impetus from the Black Power Movement, just beginning. The younger generation has begun to cast off its slave names for African ones, but it is spouting a rhetoric that reveals its infantilism, for it has also cast off the old folks, "the nation," which the story's narrator Miss Hazel knows, but which her children still have to learn. Until they do, Miss Hazel must suffer the indignities that her children, who "ain't kids no more. To hear them tell it," put her through for "[d]ancin with that tom," Bovanne. "A blind old man who mostly fixed skates and scooters for these folks when they was just kids."
Miss Hazel's been around, "don't grown men call me long distance in the middle of the night for a little Mama comfort?" but she is a novice in this new generation that "don't hardly say nothin to me direct no more since that ugly argument about my wigs." Without Bovanne, with his "blown-out fuses" for eyes, his "hummin jones," and a stomach that "talks like a drum," Miss Hazel would feel lost in an environment that seems to her to have changed overnight. She is a victim of a movement still in the process of definition and like the newborn babe who copes with sudden, overwhelming, and unfamiliar stimuli by clinging to its mother, Miss Hazel "belly rubs" with Bovanne, because he is safe and familiar and his "touch talkin" reassures her that even though words may change and names may change, some things stay the same. Her need for "sameness" in a changing world, and her mistrust for words, which are too often used rhetorically, is exemplified by her repetitious speech which reiterates that Bovanne is "just a nice old man," the same "nice old man" who used to fix skates.
Miss Hazel may not be able to abort the "generation gap" she feels separates herself and her children, but she can "speak the speak" (a recurrent phrase in Bambara's works) and put words into action. She derives a distinct and deserved satisfaction from turning the younger generation's rhetoric back on them and doing her part for the "old folks" by taking Bovanne home "just like the hussy my daughter always say I was."
But the young girl, also named Hazel, in the story "Gorilla, My Love" has not been around as long as the Miss Hazel of "My Man Bovanne" and does not yet know how to "speak the speak." "Gorilla, My Love," which like "My Man Bovanne" deals with a "generation gap," or to phrase it more aptly a "communications gap" (a central motif running through all of Bambara's tales), also focuses on changing how one sees oneself by changing what one calls oneself, although in this case it is "[n]ot a change up, but a change back." The young Hazel's Hunca Bubba has fallen in love and has chosen to resume his Christian name before he marries. Hazel's naïveté, evidenced by her belief that when "gangsters in the movies say My word is my bond" they mean it, relegates her to laconic tears when she learns that Hunca Bubba is not going to keep his promise and marry her when she grows up. Like the older Hazel, this young one feels out of place in a world where people—this time grown-ups—accept that words can be played with, twisted, ignored, or just forgotten, and sympathize with Hunca Bubba, who has gone back on his word because he is Jefferson Winston Vale now, and it was Hunca Bubba who made the promise.
The incongruity of language becomes portentous now, for where it should serve as a means of bringing people closer together, it is too often used to force them apart. The spiritual kinship Hazel experiences with her brother, who is not old enough to talk or to understand her tears, but who cries with her, is worth more to Bambara than the words of apology Hazel would like from her uncle, who has already demonstrated that his word is not reliable.
The paradoxical nature of Bambara's fictions manifests itself again when one realizes that, although each of these stories is narrated by a female, the pivotal character is male. Even in "The Lesson," where an individual male's action does not provoke the narration of the tale, "the man" as entity, strikes the discordant note in the soul of a young Black girl, when a community worker forces her to visit F. A. O. Schwarz and to see with her own eyes what words cannot communicate—the needless oppression of her people by the white man.
This is not to intimate that in each story the male's presence strikes a bitter chord. In "Raymond's Run," as a young girl waits to hear if she has won the race, it is the sight of her retarded brother who has nothing of his own, and her recognition that she could do nothing better than to help him to something of his own, that makes her a winner, even before the loudspeaker pronounces it so. A real winner, one who can look at her stiffest competition "with this big smile of respect … about as real a smile as girls can do for each other."
Success and failure for Bambara is directly proportional to one's ability to almost extrasensorily communicate to another the emotions one feels. The winners in her tales all know how to "speak the speak" and to ensure that their actions speak louder than words.
In "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird" one feels the closeness and the potency of the granddaddy and granny who can recognize and respond to each other's wordless signals. Their actions—her humming, his killing a hawk with a hammer and squishing a movie camera with his hand—achieve what they both want, what their words could not do, and get the white film crew, who has been nosing around their property, to move on.
But "Blues" is unique to Gorilla, My Love for it delineates the one story in this collection in which male and female cooperatively harmonize. Characters in the other tales seem unable to approach this type of man-woman symmetry. Diametrically, in "Talkin Bout Sonny," a man named Sonny, who has never been able to disclose what is inside of him, can only remark that "something came over him" after he takes a pickax to his wife's throat.
With the exception of "Blues," it is only when women come together in these stories that the spiritual communion Bambara feels must exist, before real communication can take place, occurs. In "Maggie of the Green Bottles," the ignorance of a newborn baby girl's grandfather, who wrote "enspire" for "inspire" in the family Bible, draws Maggie, who has been disappointed by life and has given herself up to dipsomania and the study of the occult, into taking over the education and indoctrination of her great-granddaughter so the males in the family do not limit her possibilities.
A similar symbiotic, almost speechless relationship between an older woman and her niece is presented in "The Survivor," the only story in this collection written in the third person past tense, and the least successful, I feel, because of it; its stream-of-consciousness, flashback structure obfuscates, and its images appear contrived. The substitution of the first person present tense for the thoughts of the niece—who is about to give birth—diminishes the story's immediacy and poignancy. The sophisticated, metaphoric language used to describe Jewel's thoughts—a language that will reappear in The Salt Eaters—seems schizophrenic and masks the events that alienated the women from their mates and left them survivors. While I sense that Bambara wishes to depict strong, courageous, resolute women who are, at the very least, the equal of the male, the male's presence in each of these stories, and the female's failure to spiritually connect with the male in most of the stories, renders the female ambiguous at best, unless Bambara wants us to see all males as gorillas, which the incongruousness of this volume's title does suggest.
The last story in this collection, "The Johnson Girls," deals exclusively with the pain that male-female relationships have in store for women. It is a good story with which to end Gorilla, My Love, for even though its narrator has not yet experienced what it is like to love a man, she is more educated—streetwise and schoolwise—than most of the other females in these tales, and she is mature enough to recognize that words must be put into action. Although she is the youngest of the four women who sit around filling their stomachs to assuage the ache in their hearts, and although she is only allowed the scraps of food that they leave, she is the one to take command and ask to see the note that Roy left Inez, when Roy left Inez, which is the event that spurred this feast and confab. "The Johnson Girls" foreshadows The Sea Birds Are Still Alive in both its food imagery and its characters, women like Inez and "her sisters," who are willing to unite and to fight for what they feel is rightfully theirs.
The characters in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive are no longer neophytes. "The movement" is in its most virulent stage and the people are educated and actively aware. The plaintive voice of the spiritual, which permeated Gorilla, My Love, has given way to the more upbeat, modernistic cadences of blues and jazz, just as the people have evolved from being acted upon to acting on. Little otherworldliness imbues these tales; they take place in the present and the time is now for all good men and all good women to come to the aid of oppressed people wherever they are.
The winners, here, are the activists, who are totally integrated into the community and who work tirelessly and endlessly to coalesce the people so their combined energies can defeat the oppressor. Food imagery dominates these stories, as does the need to "feed the people"; food assumes a symbolic role, supplying both the physical and the spiritual sustenance the people need if they are to succeed in their struggle.
Language takes on a dichotomous function, revealing both the education and the alienation of its more sophisticated users, whose greater fluency in the English language make them even less intelligible to the people to whom they most need to relate.
The male sociologist in "A Tender Man"—the only Bambara tale told from a man's perspective—expresses this dichotomy of language as he reviews his life and choices while he dines in an Indian restaurant with his soon-to-be colleague, whom he hopes to make his lover. She seems to want a relationship too, but she feels she must first let him know that she is planning to adopt his daughter, whom she knows he does not even know she knows, because she has decided the girl would be better off if she were to be raised by a Black mother instead of the white one, who is her own.
The man is not as stunned by her revelation as he is chagrined and filled with remorse for both siring a biracial child and then, when the marriage ended in divorce, not actively seeking custody of the child.
As the two sit chatting, unable to "speak the speak," eating a food that is not "soul food," one feels how far they have both gotten away from their roots. With every mouthful of food and its accompanying exchange, the two move further and further away from what each set out to do, as they allow their words to camouflage their thoughts. It is only after they have finished their "mint tea" and Indian pastries that they are able to see what they might be throwing away: a meaningful relationship between a tender Black man and a caring Black woman; both want to right things, they need only to act.
Most of the stories in The Sea Birds are stories of people being drawn together, not of people being torn apart. Most of the characters have begun to think in terms of "we," instead of "me," and Bambara's words describe that which is and that which can be in a literate, highly descriptive style that makes one feel the cold of a New York City winter day, the warmth of a cup of hot cocoa, the stench of a pee-drenched building, and the noncaring of an architect who would design a project without regard for children. Ironically, however, with the exception of "Medley," which has a beat all its own, Bambara's first-person narrative tales are prosaic and didactic precisely because her characters' actions speak more forcefully than her characters' words, which seem to fall flat and offer a lukewarm denouement to an anticipated climax. It is as if the maturation, which has brought about the awareness and the desire to put words into action, which the characters in The Sea Birds share, has stripped them of the flavorful earthiness of the more naïve characters found in Gorilla, My Love. The relatively sophisticated, standard English language spoken by most of The Sea Birds' characters seems unequal to the task of organizing the people, for it is bereft of soul. Although these characters do speak, they have lost the ability to "speak the speak" and to find the middle ground between the two.
"The Apprentice" describes the personal sacrifices the community activists have to make to nurture and prepare the people for the struggle ahead. "Broken Field Running" depicts a similar need, and "Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods" juxtaposes the tinsel emptiness of Christmas with the love and brotherhood of Kwanza.
"The Long Night," describing one woman's vigil during a race riot as the police relentlessly massacre the people, is not mere exposition; its terrifying images, however, are diffused by Bambara's own voice, which seems to intrude upon the story and to cloud its real horror.
"The Long Night" is written in the third-person past tense, as is "A Girl's Story," which appears distinctly out of place in this more evolved Black world Bambara consociates, for where it deals with a young girl coming into her womanhood, her experience is one of guilt, fear, and ugliness.
But "Medley," a blues rendition of one woman's progression from just being to being alive, pulsates with the ups and downs of taking an active role in the shaping of one's own existence. It combines Bambara's food imagery with an animal imagery begun in Gorilla, My Love. It is not just the cantaloupe rinds piled up in the sink with the dirty dishes, which she confronts when she returns from a trip to make the money she needs to have her daughter come live with her, but the dog, who displaced Larry's best friend when Larry realized that the place was just not big enough for the four of them, that makes her know she has sung her last song with Larry. In an anthropomorphic gesture, she kicks the dog, and in so doing says goodbye to Larry, who could hit all the right notes in the shower but was the only musician she had ever heard who could not play on key with a group. Bambara's language peaks and riffs:
Then I was off again and lost Larry somewhere down there doing scales, sound like. And he went back to that first supporting line that had drove me up into the Andes. And he stayed there waiting for me to return and do some more Swahili wailing. But I was elsewhere and liked it out there and ignored the fact that he was aiming for a wind-up of "I Love You More Today Than Yesterday." I sang myself out till all I could ever have left in life was "Brown Baby" to sing to my little girl. Larry stayed on the ground with the same supporting line, and the hot water started getting funny and I knew my time was up. So I came crashing down, jarring the song out of shape, diving back into the melody line and somehow, not even knowing what song each other was doing, we finished up together just as the water turned cold.
Her off notes and her half notes meet and croon the melody of "Medley."
Yet the most exceptional story in this collection, I feel, is "The Sea Birds Are Still Alive," its title story. In it Bambara displays her range of subject and style. Both omniscient and omnipotent, she describes the innermost thoughts and feelings of men, women, and children, of nondelineated race, as they take a forced boat trip to a nondesignated place. Their thoughts as well as their disdain for the woman, who lets her young daughter throw food to the sea birds, reveal their status; they are either the oppressed or the oppressor who see the woman's act of allowing her daughter to feed the birds as one of frivolity or ignorance: the oppressed begrudge the food; the oppressor the stupidity of the people who still do not know that "[b]irds will get vicious when they're fed and rejected … [p]eople as well." Both sides judge and condemn without knowing that the woman is superior to them, for even after "They'd stuffed hoses up her nose and pumped in soapy water, fish brine, water from the district's sewer till her belly swelled up, bloated to nearly bursting" and even after "they beat her with poles, sticks, rods of bamboo, some iron till she vomited, nearly drowning. She told them nothing." Neither side realizes that the food her daughter tosses to the birds was given the woman by one of her torturers and "of course she had expected the sea birds to drop down poisoned into the waters. Had not thought they'd live through the food long enough to attack her." And one recalls Maggie in "Maggie of the Green Bottles," who kicks the dog after she feeds him because, unlike the sea birds, he did not have sense enough to "bite the hand that fed him." Bambara's food imagery blends with her animal imagery and connects the oppressed with the oppressor. Both segments of the populace, if they—unlike the sea birds—are to be satisfied, must rely on revolutionaries like the woman whom they scorn. Her belief that "the most wonderful thing about revolution" is that "[i]t [gives] one a chance to amend past crimes, to change, to be human … that it had not been foolish to fight for the right to be free" is both the oppressed and the oppressor's only chance for redemption.
The Salt Eaters is a novel—Bambara's first—and therefore immediately differentiated from her other works. Its language is the language of the old, convoluted in its twists and turns, its sophistication, its punctuation, and its highly imaginative tones. Its characters speak little, because they have lost the desire to communicate with each other through words. Their thoughts, as conveyed by Bambara, are more real to them than that which is real. We are led to feel that the characters' imaginings are literally true:
They might've been twenty-seven miles back in the moment of another time when Fred Holt did ram the bus through the railing and rode it into the marshes … No one remarked on any of this or on any of the other remarkable things each sensed but had no habit of language for, though felt often and deeply, privately. That moment of correspondence—phenomena, noumena—when the glimpse of the life script is called dream, déjà vu, clairvoyance, intuition, hysteria, hunger, or called nothing at all…. The passengers in the bus incident were not so sure where they were either, or why they should be sinking into the marshes, their spirits yawning upward, their eyes throwing up images on the walls of the mind.
It is not until we encounter Palma "holding to the rail to get off the bus," that we, the readers, realize that we have been duped and that, here, the language of the mind has usurped the language of action.
This is why, in the final analysis, The Salt Eaters does not work. Bambara's gift of language turns back on itself, as she uses language, which she has already demonstrated is not efficacious, to create characters who must eschew language if they are to communicate. As a result, Bambara cannot describe with words (and must leave to the reader's imagination) the resurrection that occurs at the end of this novel that finally sets the people free.
Velma, the central focus of this work, epitomizes the failure of language to provoke positive action. She is an older, disillusioned Naomi from "The Apprentice," who has worked and worked only to see the struggle lose its impetus and the things she fought so hard to achieve, their significance. She has learned that words and action are not enough and decides that she has had enough. She attempts to take her own life, and because she has found that whatever one does is still not enough, she both slits her wrists and sticks her head into an oven to make sure that it will be enough. But she is right, her double attempt at suicide fails. She is miraculously saved from physical death, but lost in a spiritual emptiness that must be filled before she can be whole. Her "insanity," the emptiness inside of her, must be replaced with a spirituality which eventually derives its strength and power from within. She has to find the internal wholeness, the meeting ground between words and actions, that will allow her to continue to positively affect her external surroundings. To accomplish this, all she has to do is to want to be well and spiritually whole; then words and actions can assume their proper place. Velma must put off feeling sorry for herself and perceive that she is the instrument of redemption for her people, as are we all. Like Christ, she must die (at least symbolically) and live again to absolve herself and her people from their current sin of apathy. But, unlike Christ's, her metamorphosis into the world of the spirit derives its strength from her people: African people. She must refind her roots by spiritually imbibing the sweat of her people who have nurtured the earth for centuries.
The narrative voice here is like a funeral dirge. Minnie Ransom plays preacher and her coterie, chorus, as Velma gives up this life for the next, which must be on a higher plane, if the people are to have success. Her spiritual death and resurrection signifies both the ending of the struggle and the beginning of an apocalypse that recognizes that she, just as we, are the light, and the salvation, and the salt which individually and collectively has always seasoned the earth.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5139
SOURCE: "Music as Theme: The Jazz Mode in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 58-70.
[Traylor is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, she examines Bambara's prose style, particularly its jazz-like characteristics.]
Ultimately the genuinely modern writer "assumes a culture and supports the weight of a civilization." That assumption connects the present moment both to an immediate and to a remote past. From such a writer, we learn that whoever is able to live completely in the present, sustained by the lesson of the past, commands the future. The vitality of the jazz musician, by analogy, is precisely this ability to compose, in vigorous images of the most recent musical language, the contingencies of time in an examined present moment. The jam session, the ultimate formal expression of the jazz musician, is, on the one hand, a presentation of all the various ways, past and present, that a tune may be heard; on the other, it is a revision of the past history of a tune, or of its presentation by other masters, ensuring what is lasting and valuable and useful in the tune's present moment and discarding what is not. Constructing rapid contrasts of curiously mingled disparities, the jam session is both a summing up and a part-by-part examination by various instruments of an integrity called melody. Now a melody is nothing more or less than the musical rendition of what a poet or a historian calls theme. And a theme is no other thing than a noticeable pattern occurring through time as time assumes its rhythmic cycle: past, present, and future. The Salt Eaters of Toni Cade Bambara is a modern myth of creation told in the jazz mode.
A narrative which opens with a direct question—"Are you, sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?"—evokes from us an immediate response. In a time of ubiquitous pollution, unless we are head-buried geese, we answer: Yeah! By leave of our spontaneous response to an irresistible call (the mode of the jazz composer), we enter the improvising, stylizing, re-creative, fecund, and not-so-make-believe world of The Salt Eaters. That world, called Claybourne, Georgia, is in a state of definition and transition: "Claybourne hadn't settled on its identity yet…. Its history put it neither on this nor that side of the Mason Dixon. And its present seemed to be a cross between a little Atlanta, a big Mount Bayou and Trenton, New Jersey, in winter." But we enter Claybourne during its preparation for spring festival, and there we discover what resembles a splendid community marketplace: "Tables, tents, awnings, rides, fortunetellers, candy booths, gymnasts with mats, nets, trampolines, oil drums from the islands, congos from who knew where, flat trucks, platforms, pushcarts and stalls of leather crafts, carved cooking spoons, jewelry … flower carts, incense peddlers … kids racing by with streamers and balloons…. Folks readying up for the festival" scheduled to begin when "Hoo Doo Man broke out of the projects with a horned helmet … and led the procession through the district to the Mother Earth floats by the old railroad yard." We discover that during festival, "People were supposed to write down all the things they wanted out of their lives—bad habits, bad debts, bad dreams—and throw them on the fire." Claybourne is in preparation for the rites of spring renewal. Yet in the midst of "the fugue-like interweaving of voices" resonant in the streets, we hear the voice of a street-corner preacher admonishing:
"History is calling us to rule again and you lost dead souls are standing around doing the freakie dickie" … "never recognizing the teachers come among you to prepare you for the transformation, never recognizing the synthesizers come to forge the new alliances, or the guides who throw open the new footpaths, or the messengers come to end all excuses. Dreamer? The dream is real, my friends. The failure to make it work is the unreality."
The ominous cry of the street preacher, urging the community to recall its history, manifest its destiny, and heed its loss, intones the themes of its spring celebration: transformation, synthesis, and renewal.
As the community must engage its history in order to decipher the meaning of its own rituals—the rhythmic movement toward its destiny—so the individual self must engage its history in order to be well (whole); for if it does not, it hazards the loss of all that makes it whole. That loss is unaffordable and dread; it abates the power of regeneration.
The voice of the street preacher merges with the voice which has opened the narrative. That voice, its music "running its own course up under the words," is the Ebonic, mythopoeic voice of Minnie Ransom, "fabulous healer" of Claybourne, directly addressing Velma Henry, her patient, the celebrant, who enacts the meaning of the ritual that the entire community prepares to celebrate. It is through Velma's consciousness that we hear and observe everything that we know of Claybourne; it is Velma's personal transformation that we experience and that figures in the possibility of the community's renewal; it is through Velma's negation and acceptance of the actual and her pursuit of the possible that we learn the identity and enormous re-creative powers of those who have eaten salt together and who have learned to reconcile both the brine and the savor of life.
We enter Claybourne at the moment of an emergency—a near-disaster. The neighborhood has just received the news that Velma Henry, one of its most indefatigable workers, has attempted suicide, and is now in treatment at the Southwest Community Infirmary. The Infirmary, standing "at the base of Gaylord Hill facing the Mason's Lodge, later the Fellowship Hall where the elders of the district arbitrated affairs and now the Academy" of the Seven Arts, is as remarkable an institution as is the Academy. The site encompassing both is one of the distinguishing features of Claybourne. Shading the site is a 107-year-old baobab tree planted in the same year in which the Infirmary was built: "The elders … [had] planted the young sapling as a gift to the generations to come, as a marker, in case the Infirmary could not be defended. Its roots [are] fed by the mulch and compost and hope … gathered from the district's farms, nurtured further by the loa called up in exacting ceremonies…." Minnie Ransom daily placed pots of food and jugs of water for the loa that resided there. "The branches, reaching away from the winter of destruction toward the spring of renewal … up over [the buildings] as the collective mind grew … promising the … fruit of communal actions," enshrine the Infirmary. The reputation of Southwest Community woos the interest of medicine people, "guidance counselors, social workers, analysts, therapists," from surrounding areas who visit to observe its rumored "radical" practices. Built in 1871 by "the courage and resourcefulness of the old bonesetters, the old medicine show people, the grannies and midwives, the root men, the conjure women, the obeah folks, and the medicine people of the Yamassee and Yamacrow," the Infirmary fuses the methods of modern medicine with the traditional healing methods of the old folks. Inscribed in "bas-relief over the Infirmary archway" constructed 107 years ago by "carpenters, smiths and other artisans celebrated throughout the district in song, story and recipe," the compelling words "Health is my right" admit patients and visitors to the place of healing. The east wall of the Academy of the Seven Arts, facing the Infirmary, bears "eight-foot-high figures" of the celebrated builders. The Infirmary is presently administered by Doc Serge—a man of many parts (former pimp, numbers banker, preacher)—a resolved Rinehart whose sane balance of the atoms of his sensibility signifies a Salt Eater. In addition to its medical staff, the Infirmary includes a staff of twelve healers called "The Master's Mind." These twelve, under the supervision of Minnie Ransom, now encircle Velma Henry, whose wrists have been mended, lungs purged of toxic gas, but whose traumatized spirit can hardly "hold a thought" as she sits on a stool, barely hearing Minnie's gentle hum: "Are you sure you want to be whole?"
But the insistent music of Min's voice and the cadence of the voices of the twelve tones of the Master's Mind, "humming in long meter," filter through the twilight zone of Velma's fractured consciousness and urge the chordal riffs of her memory:
Like babies and doctors and tears in the night.
Like being rolled to the edge of the bed, to extremes, clutching a stingy share of the corners 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 struggle 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 community good … being snatched at by childish, unmannish hands …
Like taking on entirely too much: drugs, prisons, alcohol, the schools, rape, battered women, abused children … the nuclear power issue …
And the Brotherhood ain't doing shit about organizing [or about] the small-change-half-men, boymen who live off of mothers and children on welfare … enclaves unconnected …
Everybody off into the Maharaji this and the right reverend that. If it isn't some far off religious muttery, it's some otherworldly stuff …
Plunging down a well of years, Velma's "soul goes gathering." Details of her personal life with Obie, her husband, founder of the Academy of the Seven Arts, swim into focus. They had committed the Academy to the study of seven components of culture: history, mythology, creative motif, ethos, social organization, political organization, and economic organization. They had seen the Academy flower and grow like their young son James Lee (Obie), Jr. But then the factions began, and the splitting apart had seemed to trap Obie in the chasm. And the chasm had engulfed them both; their marriage had seemed to lose its center. Memory spinning, Velma thinks of Palma, her sister, a painter. That memory summons reflections of her own association as pianist for Palma's group, the Seven Sisters of the Grain—an artistic association. Their songs, skits, paintings, dances, and stories articulating themes of unity, self-determination, collective work and responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity, and faith were the artistic embodiment, Velma had thought, of the teachings of the Academy. Velma remembers, as a dream, her involvement over the past twenty-two years with Claybourne's intense undulating movements toward civil rights, community power, the abolition of war, the affirmation of abundant life for women, the negation of forces which deteriorate the quality and integrity of life in communities, and the absolute restraint of "industrial arrogance and heedless technology" that threatens even the possibility of life itself. But the factions, the incessant babel, the "id ego illogical debates" of the "insulated and inbred" Academy's east wing, the cacophony, the faithlessness, the mutations of the no-longer-faithful, had thrown Velma off balance. No longer able to synthesize, to find the center, she has succumbed, become detritus and "an accomplice in self-ambush."
"Choose," hums Minnie. "Can you afford to be whole?" Velma's sprung consciousness is engaged by the music around her. "Minnie was singsonging … the words, the notes ricocheting around the room. Mr. Daniels picked out one note and matched it, then dug under it, then climbed over it. His brother from the opposite side of the circle glided into harmony with him while the rest of the group continued working to pry Velma Henry loose from the gripping power of the disease and free her totally into Minnie Ransom's hand, certain of total cure there." Velma is engulfed by the music; her tortured, fractured sensibility staggers toward it, enters it as through the bell of a glorious horn—down, down, down. Descending thus, she seems to meet and merge with the anguish of other tortured sensibilities: that of a middle aged man, Fred Holt, trapped by his past—unable to decode its symbols, aborting his present, he is a bus driver, dreaming of driving his bus over an embankment; that of a young genius, Campbell, absorbed in plans for his future, neglecting to observe some urgent distinctions, some primary details of his present, he is teetering off balance; that of two women, friends of Velma, Ruby and Jan—one impatient, oversimplifying the crises of her present, aware though she is of the connection between her personal conundrums and those of the community—the other, understanding the complex convulsions of her present, of its relations to her past, yet dumbfounded, unable to summon the energizing force that triggers action—both searching for synthesis, desperate to achieve a center from which to flower; that of the brilliant Dr. Meadows who has masterminded Velma's therapeutic surgery but who regards the healing ritual of the Master's Mind with contempt, skeptical of all experience unverified by the code of a closed system which has become his logic, scorning the circle who seem to surround Velma like twelve planets, he mutters half aloud, "I swear by Apollo the physician … by Aesculapius, Hygeia and Panacea … to keep according to my ability and my judgment the following oath …"
Suspended between sub- and midconsciousness, Velma half hears Meadows' invocation interrupted by Minnie's persistent hum and a "snort" from one of the circle of twelve. Minnie (who had "learned to read the auras of trees and stones and plants and neighbors … [had] studied the sun's corona, the jagged petals of magnetic colors and then the threads that shimmered between wooden tables and flowers and children and candles and birds … knew each way of being in the world and could welcome them home again, open to wholeness …" "Minnie could dance their dance and match their beat and echo their pitch and know their frequency as if her own") croons half to Velma and half to "Spirit Guide," her mentor: "You know as well as I, Old Wife, that we have not been scuffling in this waste-howling wilderness for the right to be stupid." Velma's memory dances away in the music of Min's words. The invocation of Meadows and that of Minnie Ransom provoke a be-bop slide down the corridors of Velma's awakened memory. Barriers fall away between the recent and the past, between the real and the imagined, between adulthood and childhood, between the known and the half-understood. Images appear, dissolve, and transform in Velma's scatting consciousness. Meadow's invocation has evoked, in her memory, a procession of lore: "Eurydice," "Lot's Wife," "Noah," "Medusa"—the woman with snakes for hair. Looking Medusa straight in the eye, Velma thinks piteously that "she would not have cut her head off … she would simply have told the sister to go and comb her hair." But the snakes have engaged the memory of an incident from Velma's childhood when M'Dear Sophie and Daddy Dolphy had taught her the proper uses of salt. Those two could dance on the beach together one minute and fix a salt poultice the next—teaching Velma the difference between "eating salt as an antidote to snakebite and turning into salt, succumbing to the serpent." Memories of M'Dear Sophie and Daddy Dolphy lead to memories of Momma Mae tucking her in bed invoking "Spirits of Blessing," so that Velma could outrun "disaster … jinns, shetnoi, soubaka, succubi, innocuii, incubi, nefarii, the demons." Memories of family give way to memories of teachers:
Giant teachers teaching through tone and courage and inventiveness but scorned, rebuked, beleaguered, trivialized, commercialized, copied, plundered, goofed on by half-upright pianos and droopy-drawers drums and horns too long in hock and spittin up rust and blood, tormented by sleazy books and takers, tone-deaf amateurs and saboteurs, underpaid and overworked and sideswiped by sidesaddle-riding groupies till they didn't know, didn't trust, wouldn't move on the wonderful gift given and were mute, crazy and beat-up. But standing up in their genius anyhow ready to speak the unpronounceable. On the stand with no luggage and no maps and ready to go anywhere in the universe together on just sheer holy boldness.
Memory circling, plunging down as though toward the roots of the baobab tree, Velma enters a region where time melds the dead, the living, and the unborn, where the bold act of imagination weds the actual and the mythical, and where the historical is redeemed by the possible: where "Isis lifted the veil"; where Shango presides over the rites of transformation; where Ogun challenges chaos and forges transition; where Obatala shapes creation; where Damballah ensures continuity and renewal; where Anancy mediates the shapes of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, Brer Fox, Brer Terrapin, the Signifyin' Monkey; where the griot memory of mankind mediates its reincarnation as the conjure woman, High John, John Henry, the Flying African, Shine, Stagolee, the Preacher, the blues singer, the jazz makers; where the word sorcerers of African-American literary lineage from the eighteenth century to the present—the immediate present—assemble as Master Minds mediating global experience and metaphorizing possibilities yet unmined. Velma has entered a realm where Minnie Ransom's question resonates like a mighty chorus among "the spirits summoned to regenerate the life of the world." Velma's consciousness has entered a region which gives birth to wholeness. And at the exact moment of that entry, Hoo Doo Man breaks out of the projects to officially begin the spring festival. But, just then, something happens in Claybourne which stuns the population still.
Is it the drum-trumpet
sounding the thunderous promise
of the new rain of spring?
Is it the drum-voice
medicating the whirlwind?
Is it the blast eroding forever
The Salt Eaters, like one complex jazz symphony, orchestrates the chordal riffs introduced in the short stories of Toni Cade Bambara collected, so far, in two volumes: Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977). The improvising, stylizing, vamping, re-creative method of the jazz composer is the formal method by which the narrative genius of Toni Cade Bambara evokes a usable past testing its values within an examined present moment while simultaneously exploring the re-creative and transformative possibilities of experience. The method of the jazz composition informs the central themes and large revelation of the world of Bambara's fiction. In that world, time is not linear like clock time; rather, it is convergent. All time converges everywhere in that world in the immediate present; the contemporary, remote, or prehistorical past, and the incipient future are in constant fluid motion. Thus, a play of oppositions and the points of juncture between the past and present form a pattern of summons and response shaping the design of Gorilla, My Love, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive and The Salt Eaters.
The meaning of ancestry and, consequently, the meaning of modernity is the primary focus of the Bambara narrator. The central vision of both the short and long fiction fixes a view of ancestry as the single most important inquiry of personhood and of community life. But ancestry, in the communities revealed in Gorilla, My Love, in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, and in The Salt Eaters, is no mere equivalent of the past. Rather, ancestry is the sum of the accumulated wisdom of the race, through time, as it manifests itself in the living, in the e'gungun, and in the yet unborn. Often, in the narrative world of Toni Cade Bambara, the search for ancestry is the unconscious quest of the central character as it is for Velma of The Salt Eaters, or it is the conscious quest as for Jewel in "The Survivor" of Gorilla, My Love. And, in the title story of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, the ancestral theme and one of its sharpest images is sounded in the musings of a boat pilot: "… it's not the water in front that pulls the river along. It's the rear guard that is the driving force." The pilot, from his cabin, is watching passengers settle themselves on his boat-of-refugees: "they waited, complied, were rerouted, resettled at this camp or that island, the old songs gone, the dances forgotten, the elders and the ancient wisdoms put aside, the memory of home scattered in the wind." On this boat is a "widow woman"; she, like Miss Hazel and Bovanne of "My Man Bovanne" or Granddaddy Vale of the title story of Gorilla, My Love or the bluesman, Mr. Rider, of "Mississippi Ham Rider" or even Punjab of "Playin with Punjab" or Miss Moore of "The Lesson" or Miss Candy of the "The Survivor" or "Dear Mother" of "Sweet Town" or Granny and Granddaddy of "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird" or the Mother of the lil' girl-woman "I/Me" voice who is really lil' Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, narrator and celebrant of four stories of the Gorilla collection or Maggie of "Maggie of the Green Bottles"—all of Gorilla, My Love is "the vessel of old stratagems, a walking manual …"
The widow woman of the title story of Sea Birds, a driving force in her besieged and embattled community, is the voice of experience, the griot voice and the warrior voice, the representative of the finest, most reliable, most nurturing traditions of her tribe. But she is no relic; she is
the woman who hid the cadres in her storage sheds and under her hut, who cooked for the young men of the district, proud in her hatred for the enemy, proud in her love for the country and the nation coming soon. She was doing her part filling up the quivers with new arrows, rosining the twine for the crossbow, stirring in the pot where the poison brewed.
For reasons, the people of her district are directed by her "as she related, stirring in the pots, how the people of old planted stakes in the water to ensnare and wreck the enemy ships." The widow woman of Sea Birds and her like in the stories comprising Gorilla, My Love are the chords in the short fiction given full-out symphony performance in the personae of Minnie Ransom, Old Wife, and Daddy Dolphy of The Salt Eaters. Indeed, the salience and significance of the ancestral theme, pervasive throughout Bambara's fiction, is sounded and dramatized through such personae as these. For they represent "the rear guard that is the driving force" of the ancestral best commenting on the worst values and traditions and ethos of the race as it evolves and meets the challenges of time, present and future.
Yet the theme of modernity, the parallel of the ancestral theme, is the urgency of the fiction. For modernity, in the world of the stories and novel, not only signifies the immediate present but is "a vision of a society substantially better than the existing one"; it "combines a sense of history and a sense of immediate relevance." It is impulse to "reappraise the past, re-evaluate where we've been, clarify where we are, and predict or anticipate where we are headed." Modernity, for Toni Cade Bambara, is "the crucial assembling of historical jigsaw"; it stresses "[a] sense of continuity, [a will to] keep the hook-up of past and present fluid … breaking through any fixed time." Finally, modernity in the fiction is a moment of reassessment and revision. For the widow woman is not the only passenger on the boat-of-refugees whom the captain watches long and hard. He gazes equally searchingly at "young man with a hard brown face" standing at the rail of the ship. The young man, looking out over the waters, is thinking of home:
Home for him had been a memory of yellow melons and the elders with their tea sitting right outside his window under the awning. Home after that, a wicket basket and his father's lunch pallet in muddy tent cities, flooded wooden barracks, compounds with loudspeakers but no vegetation and no work to keep one's dignity upright. Meager rations in one country, hostility in the next … Then finding home among islanders who remembered home, a color, a sound, the shells, the leaping fish, the cool grottoes. And home among other people foreign but not foreign, people certain that humanity was their kin, the world their home. Home with people like that who shared their next-to-nothing things and their more-than-hoped-for wealth of spirit. Home with people who watched other needles on other gauges that recorded the rising winds.
The vision of home as both ancestral past and future possibility modified by informed present perceptions is the vision that restores Velma's balance, pilots her to wholeness, in The Salt Eaters. It is this vision that characterizes all of the young healers and shapers and builders and waymakers within the neighborhood-community-world of the stories and novel.
Home—the progenitive energy, the residence of value, the provident of judgment, the measure of propriety, the shaper of ethos, rigorous examiner, inflamer of rage, source of passion, architect of love, safe harbor, possibility of wholeness and respite, determinant of isness—is the ancestral place available to all who dwell in the facto-fictive communities of Gorilla, Sea Birds and The Salt Eaters. Those who inhabit that finally large yard of space live within the field of its persistent force. They must, because of its atmospheric ether, find the essence of home or be refugee in the constantly shifting sands of uncreated or unre-created order. The young man standing at the rail of the boat of refugees, like Graham and Virginia of "The Organizer's Wife" or like Naomi and the narrator of "The Apprentice" or like Lacey and Jason of "Broken Field Running" or like the shivering she of "The Long Night" or Sweet Pea and Larry and Moody and Hector of "Medley" or Aisha and Cliff of "A Tender Man" or Dada Bibi of "A Girl's Story" or Honey, Bertha, and Mary of "Witchbird" or Piper/Obatale of "Christmas Eve at Johnson's Drugs N Goods"—all of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive—locates home and, thereby, discovers the principle of fruitful action in his world. He like them is the protagonist of modernity confronting adversity and adversaries like the landlord on the boat of refugees whose ritual act of wanton gluttony and whose unregenerate self-absorption and, consequently, self-delusion violates and obscures any vision, value, or reality other than its own imperious autistic purpose.
Modernity, a jam session constructing rapid contrasts of curiously mingled disparities, is at once an extension of the past and a conduit of some future balancing of the best and worst of human possibilities. Thus, the child, also a passenger on the boat of refugees, snuggling close beside her mother as they grope their way topside to the deck searching a seat, is directed: "the passengers along the way grabbing the small hand and leading the child to the next hand outstretched." This child, like lil' Hazel and baby Jason and Raymond and Ollie and Manny and Patsy and Sylvia and Rae Anne and Horace and all the little girls becoming women and boys becoming men and the communities of the stories in Gorilla, My Love and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, lives amid the scheme of oppositions played out in the great conjugation of past and present time mediating future possibilities.
It is this conjugation of time along with its referent—the salient features of a journey into experience conducted by a people who wrenched from a coherent past cast refugee upon a sea of circumstance confront incoherence and give it form—the Afro-American paradigm of creation—which The Salt Eaters evokes. Its cast of characters so far consummate the Bambara canon. Velma and Obie of the cast of The Salt Eaters are the energy of our possibilities while Campbell, Ruby, Jan, and company are the resources of our strength. Fred Holt, the bus driver of The Salt Eaters, is our worst choices able to be redeemed, while Dr. Meadows represents our ability to choose. The entire community of all of them is sufficient to defy the agents of destruction aligned around the malign power plant which seems to tower in their world. The valiant and gorgeous people of The Salt Eaters portray the strength of our past, available in the present, able to move our future.
As story, The Salt Eaters is less moving tale than brilliant total recall of tale. It is no blues narrative plucking the deep chords of the harp of our soul; no tale of anguish, struggle, lust, and love inspiring and conducting us toward mastery of the spirit and therefore mastery of the demon blues (and whites). It is not a declaration; rather it is an interrogation. It is not indicative in mood; rather it is subjunctive in mood. The novel, which is less novel than rite, begins with a question. It moves around a central word, if. If we wish to live, if we wish to be healthy, then we must will it so. If we will it so, then we must be willing to endure the act of transformation. The Salt Eaters is a rite of transformation quite like a jam session. The familiar tune is played, reviewed, and then restated in a new form.
In the tradition of fiction from which she works, Toni Cade Bambara's first novel faces fabulous first novels. Some among that rich opulence are William Wells Brown's Clotel, Du Bois's Quest of the Silver Fleece, James Weldon Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Jean Toomer's Cane, Langston Hughes' Not Without Laughter, Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine, Richard Wright's Native Son, Ann Petry's The Street, James Baldwin's Go Tell It on the Mountain, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Gwendolyn Brooks' Maud Martha, Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstone, Ishmael Reed's The Free-Lance Pallbearers, Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, and Charles S. Johnson's Faith and the Good Thing. All of these she knows and knows well. The Salt Eaters gestures to these and more. Many of these books belong to the company of the best ever written; all are global in their implications. More in the style of the zany brilliance of a Reed and the cultural ecology of a Johnson, The Salt Eaters does not pretend toward the simple splendor of the high elegant blues tradition. Though the work matches the encyclical inclusiveness of single works within that tradition, it dares a wrench. It subdues story, eschews fiction, not for fact but for act. It challenges us to renew and reform our sensibilities so that the high mode—the conquering healing power of main-line Afro-American fiction can reemerge and become again our equipment for living—for life.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6308
SOURCE: "'What It Is I Think She's Doing Anyhow': A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 216-32.
[Hull is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on Black American literature and Black women writers. She coedited All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982) and wrote Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). In the essay below, she offers a detailed thematic and stylistic analysis of The Salt Eaters.]
Although everyone knows instinctively that Toni Cade Bambara's first novel, The Salt Eaters, is a book that he or she must read, many people have difficulty with it. They get stuck on page ninety-seven or give up after muddling through the first sixty-five pages twice with little comprehension. Some cannot get past chapter one. Lost and bewildered, students decide that it is "over their heads" and wonder what made their teacher assign it in the first place.
There are compelling reasons for studying the novel. It is a daringly brilliant work that accomplishes even better for the 1980s what Native Son did for the 1940s, Invisible Man for the 1950s, or Song of Solomon for the 1970s: It fixes our present and challenges the way to the future. Reading it deeply should result in personal transformation; teaching it well can be a political act. However, Toni Cade Bambara has not made our job easy. Salt is long, intricately written, trickily structured, full of learning, heavy with wisdom—is, altogether, what critics mean by a "large" book.
At its literal-metaphoric center, Velma Henry and Minnie Ransom sit on round white stools in the middle of the Southwest Community Infirmary. "The good woman Ransom," "fabled healer of the district," is taxing her formidable powers with Velma, who has lost her balance and attempted suicide. The novel radiates outward in ever-widening circles—to the Master's Mind, the ring of twelve who hum and pray with Minnie; to the music room cluttered with staff, visitors, and assorted onlookers; to the city of Claybourne surrounding the Infirmary walls—a community which itself is composed of clusters (The Academy of the Seven Arts, the cafe with its two round tables of patrons, La Salle Street, the park); to the overarching sky above and the earth beneath steadily spinning on its axis. From the center, the threads web out, holding a place and weaving links between everything and everybody. At the same time, this center is a nexus which pulls the outside in—setting up the dialectic of connectedness which is both meaning and structure of the book.
Of the huge cast, certain characters stand out. There is M'Dear Sophie Heywood, Velma's godmother, who caught her at birth and has protected and praised her ever since. Now, she is so incensed with Velma's selfish nihilism that she has imposed silence upon herself and exited the circle/room, thinking back on her godchild as well as her deceased mate, Daddy Dolphy; on her son and Velma's almost-husband, Smitty, who was turned into an invalid by the police in a violent anti-war demonstration; and on her own bitter memories of being brutally beaten in jail by her neighbor, Portland Edgers, who had been forced to do so by guns and clubs. There is Fred Holt, the bus driver, "brimming over with rage and pain and loss" (and sour chili). Married as a youth to Wanda, who deserted him for the Nation of Islam, he now has a white wife Margie, who gives him nothing but her back. His misery is completed by the death of his best friend, Porter, a well-read conversationalist who was the only bright spot in Fred's days. Other important characters are Velma's husband Obie, whose "image of himself [is] coming apart"; Dr. Meadows, a conscientious young M.D. who is pulling together his "city" versus "country," his white westernized and ancient black selves; and a traveling troupe of Third World political performers called the Seven Sisters.
The rich cross section of variegated folks also includes less prominent characters such as Butch and Nadeen, two teenage parents-to-be; Jan and Ruby, activist women sharing a salad and organizing strategy; Donaldson, the inept FBI-CIA informant; and the list goes on. Some of these people appear onstage in propria persona; others are offstage fragments of memory. Some are quietly dead; others are roaming spirits. In many ways, these distinctions are false and immaterial, for everyone we meet takes up essential space, and there is no meaningful difference between their various states of corporeality/being/presence (a fact which confuses readers trying to keep the characters "straight"). Old Wife, Minnie's "Spirit Guide," is as "real" as Cora Rider grumbling in the music room. When Obie muses about his younger brother Roland, incarcerated in Rikers Island prison for raping a forty-six-year-old black woman, mother of four, Roland's voice and the woman's mopping up her own blood are as clear as Palma and Marcus hugging in the rain. And, like Velma, all of the major figures who need it undergo a healing change.
The healing that constitutes the central plot is a second consideration which dislocates some readers. Without addressing the issue of belief in healing or giving anyone else a chance to do so, Bambara posits its authenticity and describes it with the same faithful nonchalance that she accords to every other human activity. She gives us a picture of Minnie Ransom before her gift unfolded—"jumpy," "down on her knees eating dirt," "racing off to the woods," being called "batty, fixed, possessed, crossed, in deep trouble." And she tries to find a way to explain what Minnie does:
She simply placed her left hand on the patient's spine and her right on the navel, then clearing the channels, putting herself aside, she became available to a healing force no one had yet, to her satisfaction, captured in a name…. On the stool or on the chair with this patient or that, Minnie could dance their dance and match their beat and echo their pitch and know their frequency as if her own…. Calcium or lymph or blood uncharged, congealed and blocked the flow, stopped the dance, notes running into each other in a pileup, the body out of tune, the melody jumped the track, discordant and strident. And she would lean her ear to the chest or place her hand at the base of the spine till her foot tapped and their heads bobbed, till it was melodious once more.
But this is all music and metaphor, not intended to convince anyone of anything, but to say what can be said, leave us with it, and get on with the work. It is also interesting that Bambara shows "ordinary" people "tuning in" to what is actually happening. When Minnie—out-of-body—follows Old Wife to their "chapel," even Dr. Meadows, a skeptic, intuits that her "essential self [had] gone off" maybe to "a secret rendezvous in the hills." And, at a later point, scary Nadeen "saw something drop away from Mrs. Henry's face," watched her wrist scars heal, and compared the miracle she was witnessing to the spurious healings of revival tents and spooky nighttime sessions in the woods—all the while saying to herself, "This was the real thing."
Bambara's handling of this healing stems from the fact that she believes in "the spiritual arts"—that is, all those avenues of knowing/being which are opposed to the "rational," "Western," "scientific" mode: telepathy and other psychic phenomena; astrology; dream analysis; numerology; colorology; the Tarot; past life glances and reincarnation; the Ouija board; reading auras, palms, tea leaves, cards, and energy maps; throwing cowrie shells; herbal and folk medicine; voices, visions, and signs; witches, loa, swamphags; saints, dinns, and devas; the "ancient wisdoms"; the power of prayer; "root men … conjure women … obeah folks"; divination; demons; and so on. This material is incorporated throughout the text—sometimes casually, at other times quite pointedly. Participants at the healing are "visibly intent on decoding the flickering touch of mind on mind." Travelers on the bus experience a "moment of correspondence—phenomena, noumena—when the glimpse of the life script is called dream, déjà vu, clairvoyance, intuition, hysteria, hunger, or called nothing at all." M'Dear instructs Velma about dreams: "The dream is one piece, the correct picturing of impressions another. Then interpretation, then action." Astrological references abound.
Bambara struggles with the problem of finding words and ways to communicate these forms of knowledge for which we, as yet, have no adequate vocabulary. Readers most versed in these spiritual arts (and in this new age, that number is growing) understand the work most deeply. The fact that The Master's Mind wears yellow and white works on a generally symbolic level, but resonates on other frequencies if one considers that yellow is the hue of intellect and a saint's nimbus and that white is the harmonious blending of all colors. The basic meaning of the number twelve will be easily grasped; but everyone will not know to reduce the year 1871 (when the Infirmary was built) and the 107 years it has been standing to their root "8," which signifies worldly involvement and regeneration. Then, there is Cleotus Brown, "The Hermit." Porter is planning to study with him when he is killed; Doc Serge directs Butch to him for answers to his impertinent questions; he himself appears incognito/in disguise to Jan (with Ruby), eerily reminding her of something she should/does know but cannot quite remember. He is the arcane figure from the Tarot (which Jan reads), who symbolizes the right, initiatory path to real knowledge and truth. These three slight examples suggest how the entire novel can be annotated in this manner. Integrally related here, too, are the recurring symbols of mud, blood, salt, circles, mirrors, sight, water (rain), fire, snakes, and serpents.
Devising a vocabulary and symbology for communicating spiritual matters is only one aspect of Bambara's general quest for an adequate language and structure. She says: "I'm just trying to tell the truth and I think in order to do that we will have to invent, in addition to new forms, new modes and new idioms." [The author notes: "This quote and the following two come from 'Searching for the Mother Tongue,' an interview with Toni Cade Bambara by Kalamu ya Salaam in First World 2:4 (1980)."] The process is an arduous one, beginning with the word, the first unit of meaning:
I'm trying to break words open and get at the bones, deal with symbols as though they were atoms. I'm trying to find out not only how a word gains its meaning, but how a word gains its power.
It is further manifested in the overall composition of the book, Bambara's "avoidance of a linear thing in favor of a kind of jazz suite." Predictably, this approach results in a novel of extraordinary brilliance and density that swirls the reader through multiple layers of sound and sense.
The literal plot, which takes place in less than two hours, is almost negligible. However, while Velma and Minnie rock on their stools, other characters are proceeding with their lives. We follow first one and then another of them through the twelve chapters of the book. The effect is to recreate the discretely random, yet touching, simultaneity of everyday existence. A unifying focus—something shared in common by everyone—is the annual spring festival of celebration and rebirth. This basic structure, though, is complicated further by the near-seamless weaving in of flashbacks, flashforwards, dreams, and visions.
It is this dimension of the novel's technique that dismays many people and causes them to complain that they "can't tell what's really happening." In essence, this is a pointless lament, for, writing in this way, Bambara is attempting to convey that everything happening is real, occurring merely on different reality planes (some of which we have been taught to discount as immaterial). The characters slip easily in and out among these levels while Bambara solidly captures it all. Not surprisingly, this is the undifferentiated way that we remember the book. Porter's plunging his bus into the swamp, or Minnie's seducing Meadows on her porch while swinging her suedes and serving him tea—events that did not take place on this level—are no less distinct than Lil James bending from his bike to tie the laces of his No. 13 sneakers or Guela Khufu nee Tina Mason dancing around her studio. What Bambara implies is that our dreams are as vivid as our waking activities—and just as real.
Tied in with this view of multiple reality planes is an equally complex conception of time. Time (synonymous with timelessness) is not fixed or one-dimensional or solely horological; instead, it exists in fluid manifestations of its various dimensions. Past, present, and future are convenient, this-plane designations which can, in fact, take place simultaneously. Even though this may be confusing, the novel demonstrates clearly how it works—in both simple and complex ways.
The subjective nature of time is perhaps the easiest idea to show. There are places where moments seem interminable, and others that telescope months and years. The short healing session, for instance, feels much longer. At one point, "several [bystanders] checked their watches, amazed that only five minutes of silence had ensued." Toward the end of Salt, events move swiftly. In the final chapter, scoring the transformations, Bambara strings passages together with the phrase, this-or-that character "would remember"/"would say," and with "by the fall of '83," "the summer of '84," etc. Commentators have criticized this section as a hasty tying up of loose ends. [The author offers as an example Susan Lardner's article "Third Eye Open," The New Yorker 56 (5 May 1980).] It seems more important to see it as Bambara, once again, writing mimetically, here echoing the swiftness with which change occurs once the pivotal breakthrough has been won.
A less accessible notion of time (and being) governs the "she might have died" section of chapter 12 immediately prior to Velma's cure. It begins with Velma recalling possible ways she might have died earlier this lifetime—but did not. With only this sentence beginning, "And the assistants lifted her on the litter and carried her out of doors to the straw mat in the courtyard," it shifts to Velma, "some lives ago," having her return to health celebrated by her people with dancing and the reading of signs. "Be calm," Minnie croons next, in a paragraph of the present that pushes Velma "back into the cocoon of the shawl where she died again"—here, in a number of ways which range from the historical (being killed waiting in a six-block-long gas line) to the imaginary ("the taking of food sheds or the Pentagon"). Then follows the horrible visions of the burial grounds and the young mutants—still couched in the past tense of "might have been." After the children's attack, Velma lies on her back in the ruined city street remembering her this-time childhood and thinking:
She did not regret the attack of the children. She regretted only as she lay on the straw mat, lay on the ground, pressed between the sacred rock, lying on her back under the initiation knife …, regretted only as … she bled [from the clitoridectomy] and the elder packed cobwebs and mud that would not dam the gush and she bled on as she'd dreamt she would.
In these sentences, Bambara slides without warning or guidepost into Velma's other lives and times. How she does this—coupled with her general ontological view—accounts, in large measure, for the original style and structure of Salt.
Its design is concomitantly determined by the deliberate way that "everything becomes a kind of metaphor for the whole" ["Searching for the Mother Tongue"]. Bambara herself explains it this way:
We have to put it all together…. The masseur, in my mind is the other half of the potter, in the sense that to raise the clay you've got to get the clay centered. The potter's wheel is part of the whole discussion of circles.
All of the images and symbols coalesce in this interlocking fashion.
Although Bambara has become a novelist with Salt, her "druthers as writer, reader, and teacher is the short story" ["What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow," in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg, 1980]. (In fact, The Salt Eaters originated as a story about a Mardi Gras society reenacting an old slave insurrection.) One of the principal vehicles she uses to make the stretch from short fiction to novel is her rhetoric. "An elaborator by nature," [according to Susan Lardner] she joys in language and writes best when she feels free to pull out all the stops. In fact, she is similar to her character Buster, who can not rest until he has found the verbal "likes" (similes) to pin down a situation. Her penchant for drawn-out precision is very apparent in the "frozen moment" passages which "stop action" a scene, then exhaustively limn its every detail—for example, when Porter announces five minutes to Claybourne, or when the rumble of thunder is heard.
Another source of Bambara's rhetoric is her racial identity. No one writing today can beat her at capturing the black voice—Cora "reading" Anna's whist playing; Ruby loud-talking the "blood" in the Blues Brothers T-shirt; the "Black-say" of "How's your hammer hanging?"; the marvelous encomium to black musicians or Minnie "going off" on the wasteful bickering of the younger generation. Everyone who has read the book can leaf to a favorite passage. Generally speaking Bambara is more rhetorical than lyrical. Yet, she can write the following:
They send a child to fetch Velma from her swoon and fetch a strong rope to bind the wind, to circle the world while they swell the sea with song. She is the child they sent. She is the song.
While it is not her usual mode, the poetic sensibility glistening here underlies the novel, giving it emotional appeal and beauty.
Form and rhetoric become even more important for Bambara because they enable her to talk about the spiritual-political dichotomy that is the critical equation in Salt. She explains this novelistic intention:
… there is a split between the spiritual, psychic, and political forces in my community…. It is a wasteful and dangerous split. The novel grew out of my attempt to fuse the seemingly separate frames of reference of the camps; it grew out of an interest in identifying bridges; it grew out of a compulsion to understand how the energies of this period will manifest themselves in the next decade. ["What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow"]
Often this schism is referred to explicitly—for example, as "the two camps of adepts still wary of the other's way." One side complains: "Causes and issues. They're vibrating at the mundane level." The other counters: "Spirit this and psychic that. Escapism. Irresponsible, given the objective conditions." It is embodied in the verbal skirmishes between Ruby, a 1960s-vintage politico, and Jan, an astrologist, and kept constantly to the fore in the ubiquitous images of split and wholeness. The point is that we contain both of these sides (as Sophie says, "We're all clairvoyant if we'd only know it") and that this enervating schizophrenia must be healed individually and collectively.
This is the hard-learned lesson which Velma objectifies. She breaks down being solely political and relentlessly logical, and gets well when she comes into conscious possession of her spiritual being. As a young girl, Velma's search for the missing something in her life begins when she runs from church to tunnel her way to China in the rain. She matured into a truly dedicated civil rights worker, committed even to the dirty and thankless behind-the-scenes toil. One march (later the subject of bitter memories) she completes swollen-footed and beginning her menstrual period with a raggedy tampon in a filthy gas station toilet, while "The Leader" steps cool, pressed, and superficial from his air-conditioned limousine. Married to Obie, Velma keeps her life on the line—adopting a baby after she miscarries, filling jobs as a computer programmer (and being interrogated for security leaks), playing piano for the Seven Sisters, and working so hard at the Academy that it takes "[Obie], Jan, Marcus (when he was in town), Daisy Moultrie and her mother (when they could afford to pay them), the treasurer of the board, and two student interns to replace" her. In addition, she somehow manages to hold together the various factions, keeping things "all of a piece."
Immediately prior to her breakdown, she cannot relax, frightens Obie, upsets their son, goes on walking/talking jags, disappears, has an affair after Obie begins sleeping around, and gets described as a "crackpot." The most telling detail is when she "had come to the table stiff-necked and silent and bitten right through her juice glass." Ruby describes her as being guarded, defended; Obie begs her to let go of old pains. But Velma, who had thought herself immune to the sting of the serpent, succumbs—slits her wrists and thrusts her head into a gas oven hunting for inviolable stillness, "to be that unavailable at last, sealed in and the noise of the world, the garbage, locked out." It is the price she pays for blotting out the mud mothers as a child, for seeking at the swamp with a willful spirit, and, finally, for running from the answer when it stares her in the face:
Something crucial had been missing from the political/economic/social/cultural/aesthetic/military/psychosocial/psychosexual mix. And what could it be? And what should she do? She'd been asking it aloud one morning combing her hair, and the answer had almost come tumbling out of the mirror naked with serrated teeth and hair alive, birds and insects peeping out at her from the mud-heavy hanks of the ancient mothers' hair. And she had fled feverish and agitated from the room,… fled lest she be ensorceled, fled finally into a sharp and piercing world, fled into the carbon cave.
Velma is fleeing from her own reflection; from wisdom which is primitive, intuitive, unconscious; from thought, imagination, magic, self-contemplation, change, ambivalence, past memories and images, the multiple possibilities of her soul, passage to "the other side"—all symbolized by the mud mothers and the mirror. Spiraling upward from her dangerous descent, she makes these connections, calling Minnie's jugs and bowls by their right names of govi and zin that she did not even know she knew, seeing for the first time the "silvery tendrils" of auric light and energy extending about her. Only then does she rise on steady legs, throwing "off the shawl that drops down on the stool a burst cocoon." In a less dramatic fashion, this is the spiritual breakthrough achieved by other characters, with varying degrees of import and transformation—Nadeen becomes a woman, Fred sees Porter in the streets, Meadows vows to give the Hippocratic oath some real meaning in his life.
Actually, however, undergirding this emphasis on spiritual unification is Bambara's belief (shared by geniuses and mystics) that all knowledge systems are really one system and that "everything is everything," that the traditional divisions are artificial and merely provide the means for alienating schisms. This basic epistemology is one reason why The Salt Eaters is such a "heavy" book. With its universal scope, it demands our intelligent participation in disciplines and discourse other than our narrowly conceived own—ancient and modern history, world literature, anthropology, mythology, music, astronomy, physics, biology, mathematics, medicine, political theory, chemistry, philosophy, and engineering. Allusions to everything from space-age technology through Persian folklore to black American blues comfortably jostle each other (and the reader—but perhaps not so comfortably).
The prodigy-journalist Campbell flashes on the truth about the oneness of knowledge,
Knew in a glowing moment that all the systems were the same at base—voodoo, thermodynamics, I Ching, astrology, numerology, alchemy, metaphysics, everybody's ancient myths—they were interchangeable, not at all separate much less conflicting.
Knowing this, he is able "to discuss fission in terms of billiards, to couch principles of thermonuclear dynamics in the language of down-home Bible-quoting folks." And he can ultimately write with assurance:
Damballah [a popular voodoo deity, associated with water, lightning, and the serpent-snake] is the first law of thermodynamics and is the Biblical wisdom and is the law of time and is … everything that is now has been before and will be again in a new way, in a changed form, in a timeless time.
Amen. Campbell is a projection of the author's own incredibly associative mind. She keeps us alert with her constant yoking together of far-flung, but perfectly matched, bits of information—as when she refers to today's "screw-thy-neighbor paperbacks" as "the modern grimoires of the passing age," making an ironically appropriate comparison between our sex and selfishness "manuals," and the old textbooks of instructions for summoning the devil and performing other darkly magical feats.
Just as Bambara stresses unity throughout, so too is the political vision she screens in Salt a holistic one—an analysis that tries to be both total and coherent. The best example of how lifesaving connections among issues are made is this pointed exchange between Jan and Ruby:
"All this doomsday mushroom-cloud end-of-planet numbah is past my brain. Just give me the good ole-fashioned honky-nigger shit. I think all this ecology stuff is a diversion."
"They're connected. Whose community do you think they ship radioactive waste through … What parts of the world do they test-blast in? And all them illegal uranium mines dug up on Navajo turf—the crops dying, the sheep dying, the horses, water, cancer…. And the plant on the Harlem River and—Ruby, don't get stupid on me."
The tacit reproof is that neither should we, the readers, opt for a reductionist and divisive theory. All revolutionary causes and movements must be addressed if we are to "rescue the planet" and redefine power as "the human responsibility to define, transform, and develop" ["What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow"].
This message (for community organizers, especially) goes out in what Bambara conceptualizes as a "call" to bridge the gap between "artists and activists, materialists and spiritualists, old and young, and of course the communities of color." This task (embodied in the Seven Sisters) is particularly timely now when many seasoned political workers are beginning to devote themselves more exclusively to their art or to seemingly privatistic personal development. In specific terms, Bambara shows "Women for Action" breaking away from sexist black politicians and independently tackling the problems of "drugs, prisons, alcohol, the schools, rape, battered women, abused children … the nuclear power issue." M'Dear Sophie even feeds her boarders "natural growth," no "food in tin cans on shelves for months and months and aged meat developing in people's system an affinity for killed and old and dead things"—although Cecile is allowed to wisecrack about "plant-life sandwiches with cobwebs."
The movement which is least concretely handled in the novel is lesbian and homosexual rights. "Gays" are cataloged in one or two lists; a joke of sorts is made about Ahiro "hitting on" Obie; and there is a surreal encounter between Meadows and a group of wacky male cross-dressers whose sexuality is left in doubt (who legitimately symbolize the confusion, chaos, and social inversion of carnival). This scant and indirect attention—especially in such a panoramic work which so wonderfully treats everything else—is unrealistic and all the more glaring. It indicates, perhaps, that for the black community at the heart of the novel, unabashed recognition of its lesbian and homosexual members and participation in their political struggle is, in a very real sense, the final frontier.
For—her cosmopolitan inclusiveness notwithstanding—the Afro-American community is clearly Bambara's main concern. She is asking: Where are we now? Where should we be heading? How do we get there? Above all, she wants black people to "get it together." This is crisis time, but the beginning of a new age, the last quarter, the end of the twentieth jumping into the twenty-first century. The Salt Eaters is about love and change. It challenges: "When did it begin for you?"—when the future was ushered in with a thunderbolt that transfixed people, opening up the Third Eye and clearing the way for useful visionary action in this world. The question feels almost apocalyptic, and resounds with the fervor of Minnie's "Don't they know we on the rise?" "On the subject of Black anything," the wisdom remains the same:
Dispossessed, landless, this and that-less and free, therefore to go anywhere and say anything and be everything if we'd only know it once and for all. Simply slip into the power, into the powerful power hanging unrecognized in the back-hall closet.
Two versions of the future are given. One is an in-process sketch of a humanitarian society newly evolving from the death of "the authoritarian age." The other is a nightmarish glimpse of "everyone not white, male and of wealth" fighting for burial grounds, of radioactively mutant kids roaming the stockaded streets killing "for the prize of … gum boots, mask and bubble suit" needed to breathe the contaminated air. Yes, there are "choices to be noted. Decisions to be made." This ultimatum is the burden of the question that Minnie repeatedly puts to Velma: "Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?"—for health entails taking responsibility for the self and the world we live in. Years after her healing, Velma "would laugh remembering she'd though that was an ordeal. She didn't know the half of it. Of what awaited her in years to come."
Concern for a viable future explains the emphasis which Bambara places upon children, the succeeding generations. Unfortunately, they, too, are suffering from the vacuity of the age:
… there was no charge, no tension, no stuff in these young people's passage. They walked by you and there was no breeze of merit, no vibes. Open them up and you might find a skate key, or a peach pit, or a Mary Jane wrapper, or a slinky, but that would be about all.
They want a sweet, easy life, and they fight each other. Like their elders, they, too, have to be saved from and for themselves, for, as Old Wife declares, "The chirren are our glory."
As a self-described "Pan-Africanist-socialist-feminist," [in "What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow,"] Bambara not only cares about children, but manifests a political consciousness which makes her a socially committed writer. It was quite some time, she says, before she "began to realize that this [writing] was a perfectly legitimate way to participate in struggle" ["Searching for the Mother Tongue"]. Now she fulfills what Kalamu ya Salaam defines as the "responsibility of revolutionary Third World writers": "to cut through this [mass media] crap, to expose the cover-ups and ideological/material interests inherent in these presentations, and … to offer analysis, inspiration, information and ideas which … work in the best interest of Third World defense and development."
Her life experiences have provided ground for this mission, beginning, no doubt, even before 1948 when, in her words, "my first friend, teacher, map maker, landscape aide Mama Helen …, having come upon me daydreaming in the middle of the kitchen floor, mopped around me." [The author comments that this quote is taken from the dedicatory page of The Salt Eaters.] Born and bred in New York City, she took a 1959 B.A. from Queens College in Theater Arts/English Literature, and a 1963 M.A. from the City College of New York in Modern American Literature. In the arts, her training has included traditional and modern dance, trapeze, theater, mime, film, weaving, pottery, watercolor, acrylics, oils, and basketry. She has worked as a welfare investigator, community center program director, university English professor, and artist-in-residence, while consulting for various organizations and rendering service to such institutional and community groups as the Gowanus Neighborhood Houses and the Livingston College Black Studies Curriculum Committee. Lectures; workshops on black women, black literature, and writing; television, radio, and tape programs; book reviews and articles; and, of course, her fiction writing have all occupied her. From 1968 to the present, she has "read prose works at high schools, elementary schools, college campuses, factories, in prisons, over radio, at bookstores, at conferences, at rallies." Ultimately, one suspects that Velma's spiritual journey echoes the author's own, and that more than a little of the novel is autobiographically generated.
Bambara's outlook—and this is one of her greatest strengths—is consistently positive. She will have none of the despair and negativity which is always being passed around:
As for my own writing, I prefer the upbeat. It pleases me to blow three or four choruses of just sheer energetic fun and optimism, even in the teeth of rats, racists, repressive cops, bomb lovers, irresponsibles, murderers. I am convinced, I guess, that everything will be all right. ["What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow"]
But her optimism is not blind. One of the ways she uses its reality is in the portraiture of her characters. To a certain extent, the "together" ones are larger-than-life super people—Doc Serge, for instance (in some ways a questionable personality), who can manage smoothly anything from a "stable" of prostitutes to a community hospital. His outrageous paean of self-praise is not simply "fun," but the revelation of a mighty secret: "that self-love produces the gods and the gods are genius."
The Seven Sisters provide another example. They are simultaneously engaged in myriad projects, always thinking and doing, being political and creative, smart and hip, all at the same time. On Porter's bus, making him nervous with their "unbridled bosoms," "bossy T-shirts," and "baffling" talk, they do everything from argue Marx to write a skit on John Henry and Kwan Cheong, to overhaul their cameras and tape recorders. Through such characters, the novel presents models to strive toward. True, they are ideals of sorts, but they are near enough in contour to familiar prototypes to function as possible, actualized versions of our daily existence. Thus, through them, too, we apprehend the truth of the street exhorter's cry: "The dream is real, my friends. The failure to make it work is the unreality."
Bambara is also creating from her identity as a woman writer. Demonstrably, women are at the novel's center. Other aspects of it, too, are very female—references to "the moony womb," "the shedding of skin on schedule," and the synchrony of Palma's and Velma's menstrual clocks; the sister love between Nilda and Cecile who wear each other's hats; Obie's precise description of Velma's orgasm as "the particular spasm … the tremor begin[ning] at the tip of his joint" which it had taken him two years living with her to recognize; M'Dear's teaching that the "master brain" was in the "uterus, where all ideas sprung from and were nurtured and released to the lesser brain in the head." Such intimate attention parallels Bambara's larger interest in "Black women and other women, particularly young women," in "that particular voice and stance that they're trying to find":
I think they have a really tremendous contribution to make because no one else has their vantage point. No one moves in the universe in quite that way, in all the silences that have operated in the name of I don't know what: "peace," "unity," and some other kinds of bogus and ingratiating thing. ["Searching for the Mother Tongue"]
Like them, Bambara searches for a "new vocabulary of images" which, when found, is "stunning … very stunning."
First at the beginning, and then finally at the end, of studying the novel, one must reckon with its initially strange name. Of the three working titles which Bambara used to help her stay focused—"In the Last Quarter," "The Seven Sisters," and "The Salt Eaters"—this is the one she retained. Her explanation of its meaning suggests two applications:
Salt is a partial antidote for snakebite…. To struggle, to develop, one needs to master ways to neutralize poisons. "Salt" also keeps the parable of Lot's Wife to the fore. Without a belief in the capacity for transformation, one can become ossified. ["What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow"]
This title also calls into the subconscious images related to the folk concepts of "swallowing a bitter pill" and "breaking bread together." There are many allusions to salt in the novel, but they are not as numerous as references to some of the other major symbols. While the image of "The Salt Eaters" condenses the essence of this grand work, it does not reverberate all of its colors.
Providing the exegetical glossing to thoroughly illuminate The Salt Eaters would require multiple volumes. Because the book is such a mind-expanding experience, it must, ultimately, be read and reread. [In "What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow"] Bambara says that she "came to the novel with a sense that everything is possible." We leave it feeling that yes, indeed, everything is.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9870
SOURCE: "Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara's Stories for the Revolution," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 129-58.
[In the following essay, Willis discusses the political nature of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, The Salt Eaters, and Gorilla, My Love, noting Bambara's emphasis on the importance of community, individuality, and political and social activism.]
Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salt Eaters represents the attempt to link the spirit of black activism generated during the sixties to the very different political and social situation defined by the eighties. The swing toward political conservatism in national politics makes this a project fraught with problems and frustration. I know of no other novel that so poignantly yearns for cataclysmic social upheaval and understands so clearly the roots of black people's oppression in post-Civil Rights American society. It seems, in reading the novel, that revolution is only pages away. But for all its yearning and insight, the novel fails to culminate in revolution, fails even to suggest how social change might be produced.
The reasons why this is so derive from the broadly felt political dismay of the post-Vietnam years and include the recognition among radical leaders that the political movements organized around minority oppression—gays, students, blacks, and women—which led the challenge against state capitalism during the late sixties, have failed to achieve the radical transformation of society. Bambara's novel ponders the shortcomings of minority political movements as it describes the futility felt by black community leaders in their attempts to renew the links with groups identified as "the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party," "La Raza Unida Groups," "the American Indian Movement," as well as the "loose, informal network of medicine people throughout the communities of color" [The Salt Eaters].
The area in which the novel most senses and attempts to define the breakdown in black political activism is within the black community itself. Portraying it as having lost cohesion, Bambara focuses on the relationship between the community and its leaders. The Salt Eaters is in many ways a sad sequel to Meridian, not because Bambara is any less gifted a writer than [Alice] Walker, but because the reciprocal relationship between the community and its revolutionary leader and the implicit understanding that their combined struggle will bring a transformed future into being no longer exist for the novel's Meridian-like figure, Velma Henry. At the opening of the novel, we find Velma, perched on a stool in an infirmary, deeply alienated, and only beginning to emerge from a state of nearcatatonia—produced, not as the result of the violent political confrontations that would throw Meridian into exhausted swoons, but as the result of a failed suicide attempt. In questioning why Velma would want to kill herself, we as readers are led to scrutinize more than her personal relationships with husband, child, lover, and sisters in struggle. We are brought finally to grasp the personal as manifestation of the political.
The opening scene of The Salt Eaters swells with a cacophony of voices and stories. It is as if we were inside of Velma Henry's numbed consciousness, beginning to awaken from a gas-induced stupor, and only mildly aware of the many witnesses to her healing. Or perhaps our perception of the scene is more closely aligned with Minnie Ransom, the healer, whose hands and urgent pleas attempt to pull Velma back into life's flow. In any case, the jumble of voices encircling Velma and her healer, representing a varied collection of individuals whose present observations intersect with remembered bits from their separate pasts, produces a highly fragmented narrative context. The confusion is apt to overwhelm even the most skilled and persistent readers of modernist novels. Out of the cacophony emerges Smitty, beaten to a pulp during a street demonstration. There, too, is his mother, Sophie Haywood, in jail, face down on an iron cot, also being beaten. These are the voices and visions from the past. Interrupting them are narrative bits drawn from a more personal register as Velma remembers a heated conversation with her husband. From the present emerge the voices of the infirmary staff, taking bets on how long it will take Minnie Ransom to perform the cure: "Doc" Serge, a former gangster and pimp who now runs the infirmary; a group of visiting medical technicians and doctors, whose comments register their skepticism for the union of medicine and folk healing; and finally a soon-to-be teenage mother and her maybe-future husband, whose interior monologues combine personal preoccupations with mystical future visions. From the trivial to the profound, from history-making incidents to merely shooting the breeze, everything merges, converges, and impinges on the scene and the possibilities for Velma's recovery.
The metaphor of the individual's relationship to community could not be more explicit. If Velma Henry embodies the revolutionary leader, alone and in crisis, then the cacophony is the community, or, rather, it is the narrative jumble that would be reshaped in a meaningful way if the community were strong, supportive, and cohesive. The fragmentation and confusion of the community is so strongly felt in this text that the image of social cacophony, defined here in the infirmary, is later reproduced in other scenes from the novel, once on board a bus and again at a sidewalk café. This is the novel's traumatic metaphor with which it grapples in the hopes of finding resolution—some new image of social relations—only to return again to the old and problematical formula. In its depiction of a busload of passengers, the novel raises an important issue for politics in the eighties—that is, the impossibility of judging an individual's political allegiance on the basis of race or ethnicity. The social cacophony on board the bus includes its driver, Fred Hoyt, a black man, whose racist attitudes toward some of his "colored" passengers might just as easily have been formed inside a white consciousness; the Seven Sisters theater troupe, a multiethnic group whose politics tend toward the ecological and mystical; a group of white musicians, practitioners of black music; and, finally, "two fat ladies," whose race, class, and culture seem to have been absorbed by the amorphous category of housewife. The redneck musicians demonstrate that cultural interest need not coincide with political support. The bus driver's attitudes undercut the assumption of black solidarity with the Third World. The bus is finally a randomly assembled, multiracial noncommunity evocative of the many social groupings possible in contemporary urban settings.
This is equally true of the scene at the sidewalk café. Here, the Seven Sisters theater troupe reassembles for lunch, tables away from a group of engineers from the local pollution-producing and highly exploitative chemical plant, tables away from two black women radicals. While the theater troupe plots its antinuke offering, the engineers play their version of global annihilation, and the radical women discuss the nuts and bolts of community organizing. For the most part, the tables define separate islands of conversation and political allegiance, except during fleeting moments when the Japanese "Sister of the Rice" shares suggestive glances with the Japanese chemical engineer (a gesture intended as an ironic device underscoring the error of assuming a shared politics on a purely ethnic basis).
In all the novel's metaphors for society, the infirmary, the bus, the sidewalk café, Bambara defines focal points in the larger social context that might one day be defined by community. Such a community would not assume race as its primary factor, but would draw on allegiances between racially defined groups and the nascent politics of antinuclear and cultural movements. These will provide the glue that will bring together the community of action. Such a community never comes together during the space of the novel; rather, we feel its lack at each of the hectic sites where social cacophony prevails.
The images of infirmary, bus, and café illustrate another problem bearing on the formation of a black political community—namely, intervention from the outside. The community has itself become more cosmopolitan, particularly since the sixties, opening itself to Northern white Civil Rights workers and the struggles of Third World peoples. The image of a black community as it has been traditionally defined by small-town and urban ghetto may no longer symbolize the community of the eighties. During this era and as a result of the migration of corporate industry to the South, the black community has been subjected to another form of outside influence: colonization by the forces of industrial capitalism. The infirmary, the bus, and the café—each includes a representative of institutionalized authority, white supremacy, or corporate economics. The penetration of these forces produces a complex set of social relationships and makes it impossible to wage the simple, straightforward tactics of oppositional politics. In the society of the eighties, the brown-skinned woman with an antinuke T-shirt may not be willing to fight in the streets, whereas the white-skinned and deeply alienated corporate executive might be willing to blow up the company.
The Salt Eaters depicts a moment when class alliances are not discernible for the lack of political polarization. This sets the novel dramatically apart from Bambara's earlier writing, influenced by the clear-cut politics of the late sixties and early seventies. I suggest we compare the novel to some of Bambara's short stories as a way of defining the transformation in political climate. Stories like "The Organizer's Wife" from The Sea Birds Are Still Alive portray a society gripped by the head-on confrontation between small landowners and tenant farmers pitted against an invading corporation, which is intent on turning the town into a quarry. One imagines giant rock-eating equipment gouging the ground out from under people's houses. The class lines of confrontation are clear; nevertheless, there are certain elements in the story that Bambara will develop as the basis for complication in her later writing, becoming fully realized in The Salt Eaters. For instance, the local black minister, who allies with the corporation and renounces his parishioners' interests, prefigures the black bourgeosie and underscores once more the error of assuming political commitment on the basis of race. Another factor that contributes to the story's hard-edged oppositional clarity, but will no longer obtain for Bambara's recent writing, is the focus on a moment in black politics when sexually defined roles in political practice were sharply drawn. Actually, the story depicts a moment after which it will no longer be possible to cast black women merely in supportive roles. Yet the implications of black women's political activism during and after the Civil Rights and Black Power movements have not yet been fully developed in terms of the story's critique of sexuality and the politics of sex. In focusing on one woman's politicization, the story ends at the moment when the organizer's wife relinquishes her loving dependency on her husband and comes to recognize herself in a politically active role that will unite her in love and responsibility with husband and community.
The Salt Eaters takes up the question of sex-defined roles where "The Organizer's Wife" leaves off. The story ends on the dawn of renewed political struggle, the woman now fully aware and uplifted by the recognition of her "input." The novel opens some fifteen years later with a group of radical women who have long been political activists and have come to realize that all their input has produced is a self-serving and egotistical black male leadership, given to silk pajamas, hotel suites, and limousines, while the women have suffered the ignominies of muddy marches and tent cities. Bambara's depiction of the typical black male politician is scathing in its cynicism:
Some leader. He looked a bit like King, had a delivery similar to Malcolm's, dressed like Stokely, had glasses like Rap, but she'd never heard him say anything useful or offensive. But what a voice. And what a good press agent. And the people had bought him. What a disaster. But what a voice. He rolled out his r's like the quality yardgoods he once had to yank from the bolts of cloth in his father's store in Brunswick, Georgia, till the day an anthropologist walked in with tape recorder and camera, doing some work on Jekyll Island Blacks and would he be so kind as to answer a few questions about the lore and legends of the island folks, and "discovered" him and launched him into prominence. "Leader. Sheeet."
Although the community might be blamed for accepting a commodity as its leader, it is clear that forces larger than the community have facilitated his rise to power. Chosen for his media potential, the leader has been programmed and packaged to offer a perfect amalgam of political signifiers—all stripped of threatening content. Bambara's parable suggests that the commodity form may well represent the most advanced stage of capitalism's colonization of the black community.
Although the penetration of corporate capital capable of transforming a town into a strip mine and the commodification of social and political forms represent the most obvious forms of colonization, Bambara questions other processes, which tend to go unnoticed and are less readily opposed, particularly when these are the result of liberal government policies. Often the use of public monies to establish institutions and programs "for the good of the people" functions to perpetuate control and domination. But such programs may also be the means through which community leaders may evolve progressive social forms and activities. Bambara's story "Broken Field Running" describes a black urban setting, which at one time probably presented an image of social cohesion (small shops and walkup flats, bars and restaurants), but now, with the help of corporate and government investment, has become an architectural and social hodgepodge, where zones of "renewal" interrupt the once-familiar neighborhood. The story follows two teachers, who, while escorting a group of young students to their homes, traverse the black neighborhood commenting on its deformation. Whereas the museum, housing an African art exhibit, represents government intervention in its positive form, the PAL discount store and windowless bank facade demonstrate the monstrosities of corporate colonization. So, too, the architecture of the projects provides ample space for "drug dealers," "take-off artists," "bullies," and "vipers" while boxing in and fragmenting the residents, denying them—particularly their children—the space for fulfillment and play. As bad as the housing projects are, the school, an out-and-out prison, is worse:
Cement grounds, hard, cold, treeless, shadowless, no hiding places or clustering places for plotting and scheming or just getting together. The building squats on an angle, as though snubbing the rest of the neighborhood, giving a cold shoulder, isolating itself, separating its inmates from the rest of the folks.
Bisected, trisected, and quadrisected by corporate and federal money, the neighborhood is torn up and rebuilt on an inhuman plan whose purpose is control rather than development. The spatial image of the neighborhood, truly a "broken field," metaphorizes the sundering of social relationships wrought by the forces of late-twentieth-century colonization. Yet this bombed-out zone is also the social terrain out of which Bambara's revolutionary teachers hope to bring the utopian future into being. As one of the children puts it,
"We won't mind the snow and the wind then,"… "Cause 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."
When the same child goes on to ask, "Will the new time come soon?", her teacher is able to respond, "It's here already … Because the new people, the new commitment, the new way is already here." The teacher's vision, which creates a utopian vision in the midst of an expropriated neighborhood, is not an extreme example of social blindness. Rather, as he works with children, the embodiments of the future, causing them to see the inhumanity of "progress" (ghettoization, poverty, dehumanization), he makes the contradictions of capitalism forever fresh, forever raw in his students' minds. In asking simple questions such as why the project architects chose not to include restrooms on the ground floor, the teacher asks the students to ponder the lives of the elderly and women with children. Laying bare the contradictions of daily life prevents their becoming naturalized. Failure to raise the questions would condemn the children of tomorrow to accept the horrors of broken field living as normal. The teacher's commitment to the future and his refusal of complacency enable the story's claim for utopia.
This is not the case in The Salt Eaters, where the urban environment is perceived through the consciousness of a black bus driver, who, as he drives, becomes increasingly nauseous and disoriented. His route takes him across a scene of total urban transformation where gentrification means razing the neighborhood. Because these changes are filtered through the private nightmare of the bus driver they do not have the power to define contradiction.
Stores gutted, car shells overturned, a playground of rust and twisted steel. Mounds of broken green bottle glass, rusted bedsprings, bald tires, doors off their hinges leaning in the wind, flower-pot shards and new looking brick and lumber strewn about but not haphazardly, as if a crew had brushed them off with profit in mind. Panes of glass up against a half-wall for pickup later, looked like. A project not long ago put up was now this pile of rubble. And in the middle of it all a crater. He specially did not want to look at that. Not in all this heat. Not with his stomach churning up the lousy lunch.
Outside of the passing reference to a "crew," no agent of destruction is defined. This gives the impression that the leveling of the neighborhood has been the result of a natural cataclysm rather than urban renewal. The transformation from housing project to crater, explained by a litany of well-worn slogans, "Redevelopment. Progress. The master plan," fails to express the devastating impact such a transformation has on the people involved. In fact, people have been doubly removed from the scene. No longer present in the objects of daily life—the beer and wine they might have consumed, the cars they might have driven, or the beds they might have slept and made love in—the people have become a sundered memory whose lives are as irretrievable as a whole bottle from the shards.
Even though the bus driver is a sympathetic and critical onlooker, his attitude is distanced. He, unlike the teachers in Bambara's earlier story, is not committed to bring the future into being through painstaking teaching and community work. Instead, ground down by years of work for a company that now threatens to fire him, the bus driver can muster but one gesture of defiance—to suck his teeth. Instead of envisioning the revolution in the present, the bus driver escapes into fantasies, envisioning himself a gun-toting revolutionary:
Him riding shotgun on a derrick and crane. New housing going up and him going up in a glass elevator with a hard hat on. Schools, playgrounds, stores, clinics. And they, the older men the young ones were quick to call over the hill and through, would defend it all with guns.
This is a narrative whose dreams do not flow from contradiction transcended. It sees and records without really understanding. Bouncing from images of destruction to the plastic images of shopping mall and suburbs, "Blonds with dogs on leashes and teenage kids on bikes," the change is felt to be inevitable.
The readers of The Salt Eaters, like the passengers on Fred Hoyt's bus, travel through a narrative whose disarray suggests another point of difference between the novel and Bambara's earlier writing. Whereas the short stories are multiple fragments and figures that may be assembled into interpretive wholes and, thus, exemplify literary modernism, the novel approximates a postmodern narrative, whose profuse array of disconnected detail denies interpretation and suggests a world where meaning no longer pertains. In The Salt Eaters, Fred Hoyt and Campbell, the waiter at the sidewalk café, occupy key positions in relation to the possibility for constructing a narrative. They are potential narrative makers whose thought and actions might, in another textual form, create the links between the otherwise isolated fragments of incidents and description. However, as Campbell weaves his way in and out and around the tables at the restaurant, overhearing bits of conversation, neither his movements nor his conscious train of thought produce narrative continuity. Instead, he, like the bus driver, remains one more isolated individual—himself a narrative bit—whose mobility only serves to heighten our awareness of the scene's overall discontinuity. The notion of a mobile character, whose function is to assemble narrative and experiential fragments, lacking in Bambara's novel, is, however, not foreign to the history of black women's writing. In Mules and Men, [Zora Neale] Hurston's anthology of black folktales, the author's narrative persona provides the contextual links between her informants' stories, thus creating the sort of narrative glue Bambara's mobile characters fail to achieve. Traveling the back roads from town to town and story to story, Hurston weaves her voice in and out and around her collected tales, textualizing black rural Southern tradition. Hurston's achievement of narrative continuity out of discontinuous stories and experience is all the more striking given the fact that her text bridges much larger discontinuities, including the separations between South and North, and all the economic and racial inequalities associated with these zones. The fact that neither of Bambara's potential narrators can link the fragments drawn from the stories and experience of their social context suggests how deeply sundered contemporary society has become. Here, disparate social moments—the industrial, cultural, ethnic, economic—seem to deny the possibility of a totalizing perception of society.
The transformation in the composition and terrain of the community creates deep frustrations for the individual who would be leader. During periods of transition, the terms of previous political struggles become disengaged from the historical context that shaped them. Meanwhile the terms crucial to the next political contest have not yet emerged. During such periods, the individual revolutionary leader is cast in sharp relief against a community locked in turmoil but going nowhere. The individual comes under scrutiny in ways not possible at times of strong community cohesion and activism. Periods of quandary, slackening, or redefinition problematize the radical individual, calling into question the terms of his or her relationship to the group. One of the problems made manifest is the degree to which the role of the revolutionary leader and our perception of the leader are, in Western society, influenced by the ideology of individualism. Alice Walker's Meridian, as she is conceptualized within the political framework of the sixties, is really no less mired in the problems related to Western individualism than is Bambara's Velma Henry. What makes our perception of the two protagonists so different is that Meridian's activism and her reciprocal relationship to the Southern black community prevent her role as an individual from becoming overly central. Even though Velma Henry confronts many of the same problems Meridian had to deal with, including sexism in the community and racism in society, Meridian's struggle was part of an ongoing movement into a future that was as much her community's as her own, a future that of necessity would abolish the dichotomy between leader and led. In contrast, Velma Henry is cast as an isolated revolutionary, loosely connected with other more or less alienated radicals—all of whom are currently uncertain of their relationship to grass-roots organizing and the larger political battles to be waged. In problematizing the individual, The Salt Eaters demands that we question the basis for renewed political activity in the eighties, and at the same time, it asks us to reevaluate the politics of the sixties and seventies. In so doing, we are led to examine the notion of leadership and the role of the individual revolutionary even though these were not seen as the most pressing problems during the sixties. In a purely literary context, the many lone and frustrated radicals we find in The Salt Eaters demand that we as readers return to Bambara's earlier writing, focusing on the definition of the individual in these texts where individualism was not yet felt to be a problem.
Bambara's earliest collection of stories, Gorilla, My Love, presents situations where individual characters are sharply defined, but the notion of the individual is not problematized. Stories where the evocation of the individual is the strongest, such as "Raymond's Run" and "Gorilla, My Love," are narrated in the first person from the point of view of Hazel, Bambara's spunky child persona. These stories define a resourceful, witty, and courageous young girl, similar to the strong young girls we find in [Toni] Morrison's first novels: Claudia, from The Bluest Eye, and Sula. In their portrayals of preadolescent girls, drawn from their own childhoods, black women writers like Bambara, Morrison, and [Paule] Marshall have fashioned a highly perceptive means for exposing the contradictions of capitalist society, which is cast as the discontinuity between the child's perception of the choices made by adults in a given situation and the child's own critical apprehension of the situation. The child's radical perception of the influence of racial, sexual, and economic inequalities on the world of adults is possible because, although the child is influenced by the same social forces, she is not yet wholly inscribed within their contradictions because she is not yet a producer or reproducer of the system. Contradiction, revealed through the eyes of the child narrator, has the power of freshness, which compels the reader to critical attention. In contrast, when contradiction is recorded by an adult character, it is apt to seem so straightforward, so commonplace, so inextricably oppressive as to deny contestation and change.
In the work of Morrison and Bambara, the portrayal of young girls bristles with irrepressible energy. Morrison's Sula and Claudia and Bambara's Hazel are deeply inquisitive and often sharply critical of established order, fearless in the face of authority, and profoundly sensitive to other people's needs and desires. The only thing that differentiates Bambara's Hazel from Morrison's young girls is the important sisterly relationship between Morrison's characters. In The Bluest Eye, Claudia is seconded and supported by her real sister, Frieda; Sula's comrade in struggle is her age- and soulmate, Nel. In contrast, Bambara's Hazel, although shown in gratifying and strong relationships with friends and family members, is defined as a separate and strong individual, possessed of a clearly defined consciousness. The difference is important to our development of the political implications associated with the individual. Although Morrison's sisterly characters are no less strong for the companionship than is Bambara's Hazel in her aggressive solitude, Morrison's young girls confront life on a dialogical and dialectical basis. Nel and Sula, Frieda and Claudia function as thesis and antithesis in the dialectical understanding of contradiction. Their relationship articulates a dynamic approach toward the problems of authority, racism, and sexual oppression. In conversation, discussing and interpreting the words and actions of adults, Morrison's sisters suggest the nucleus of a larger, although not yet realized, community. On the other hand, Bambara's individual protagonist, set dramatically against society's authority figures, and only loosely associated with peers and family, is the prototype for the isolated revolutionary in The Salt Eaters.
"Raymond's Run" focuses on Hazel, the eight-year-old, fifty-yard dash specialist. As she puts it, "I am Miss Quicksilver herself"; "I always win cause I'm the best." Such sentiments expressive of the child's self-pride might, in an adult political leader, produce blind spots and hinder alliances. Taking her time getting ready for the big May Day race, Hazel is Miss Self-Confidence herself. Lounging about in the grass rather than nervously exercising before her event, Hazel projects a cool exterior, whose strength of purpose the narrative affirms in its simple, declamatory style. Identity is extremely important to Hazel. To parents who would have her dress up like a strawberry for the festival, she announces, "I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about." The short sentences, the repetition of the affirming, "I am" throughout, and the attention Hazel gives to her full name, "Miss Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker. (Dig that)" underscore the centrality of self, which, in this story, is appropriate for the child's point of view and in response to the competitive nature of the race and the larger social forces that the May Day celebration embodies.
Although Hazel is pitted against other runners, the real focus of her competitive spirit is the race official, who taunts and inferiorizes her by using her nickname, "Squeaky," when preparing to announce her event. He also has the audacity to suggest she let some other runner win. Although the suggestion is couched in terms of fairness, it actually articulates the manipulative control figures of authority seek to exercise in any given situation. Although it is quite clear that the official represents "grown-up" authority, established law and order, and the power to dominate, and that he is a man, Bambara does not underscore the fact that he is black. Aside from the general notion of black pride evoked by Hazel as an accomplished runner, race and racial prejudice are not specifically at issue in the story. Rather, Hazel contests political authority as it is invested in male figures and she does so on the basis of her performance and her insistence on the use of her proper name. These are the story's contestatory elements, which shape the individual's oppositional stance. For its sense of politics as opposition and contestation, the story is very much a product of the sixties.
However, "Raymond's Run" includes other incipient possibilities. These are less developed than its oppositional motif, but they have important implications for bringing the individual out of potential isolation and into association with a larger community. In its portrayal of Hazel's rivalry with the second-place runner, Gretchen P. Lewis, the story examines the transformation from antagonism to mutual appreciation. Although Hazel and Gretchen never achieve a sisterly relationship, they do come to recognize each other with respect:
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 something honest and worthy of respect … you know … like being people.
Bambara's use of the word "worthy" calls to attention the devaluation of women in this society, who, from infants to adults, assume the dehumanized identities compatible with male domination. The smile defines a mode of exchange not inscribed within this society's economics of exchange. It establishes a bridge between equals and suggests the basis for a system of bonding between women, which will not include domination within it, but will oppose domination in society.
The other aspect that propels "Raymond's Run" out of an essentially individualist bias is Hazel's eventual recognition of her brother as a person rather than a objectified responsibility. The transition from Hazel's centrality to Raymond's potential, which gives the story its title, is, however, not fully realized until the conclusion. In winning the May Day race, Hazel comes to see that running need not be the sole source of her strength and identity. She might assume other roles, such as coaching her brother. Hazel's decision prefigures the crucial role that all teachers will play in Bambara's later writing about community leaders and organizers. In imagining herself allied with Gretchen, the two of them bringing out Raymond's potential, Hazel prefigures the explicitly revolutionary characters found in Bambara's more recent collection of stories: The Sea Birds Are Still Alive.
However, the most important aspect of Hazel's regard for Raymond has to do with her ability to envision a future for her brother. Raymond is mentally retarded and, according to our society's criteria, ought to be barred from achieving an active and satisfying role. Rather than casting Hazel's care for her brother in terms of altruism, which would affirm certain character traits ascribed to extraordinary individuals in bourgeois society, I think we should define Hazel's vision of her brother as a metaphor for black community. By comparison to white-dominated society, which practices the exclusion of its marginals, putting them in homes and institutions and jails, the alternative society defined by the black community would embrace all its members, allowing each to fulfill a self-sustaining and group-supporting role. In dominant white society, the tyranny of physical and mental perfection might be taken as a displaced expression of its racism.
When Hazel exclaims, "my brother Raymond, a great runner in the family tradition," she underscores another aspect central to Bambara's early definition of the individual's relationship to the larger group. In her first stories, the family—particularly the extended family—functions as a collectivity of support and reservoir of history and tradition in much the same way as the community of neighborhood or town will function in the more recent fiction. The family is for the critically discerning child what the community will be for organizer and teacher.
Very often the child's task will be to raise the consciousness of family members, as in "Gorilla, My Love," one of Bambara's most engaging short stories. Its poignancy derives from the way the individual's relationship to the family is defined against the influence of larger social forces that penetrate and corrupt the family community. Told again from the child Hazel's point of view, the story exposes the lived experience of domination in a curious blend of insight and naiveté. Finally, for her unbending courage and for the demands she places on her community and expects its members to fulfill, Hazel is the child prototype of the adult radical Velma Henry. One might read "Gorilla, My Love" and The Salt Eaters as key markers on a historical time line spanning from the sixties to the eighties. Although the story's central problematic is straightforward and, like the sixties, conditioned by the politics of contestation and opposition, its sense of the influence of dominant ideology on the minority community defines Bambara's first attempt to come to grips with the more complicated issues that problematize her novel of the eighties.
"Gorilla, My Love" is composed of two narratives: a framing story focused on Hazel's betrayal by a family member, and an internal anecdote that tells of how Hazel was tricked by a theater manager. The story's parallel construction is the means for developing the connection between the relationships pertaining to capitalist society in general and those relationships within the black community that tend to reproduce forms of domination. The story opens with Hazel, her granddaddy, uncle, and little brother making a pecan-hauling run. Hazel's sense of self-importance is disrupted when her uncle announces from the backseat that he will soon be getting married. Apparently unmindful of the promise he gave his little niece to marry her when she grew up, the uncle has broken his bond and betrayed his commitment to Hazel. The story demands that we read both inside and outside the world of childhood, accepting the seriousness of the uncle's offence along with the condescension with which adults often treat children. The strength of the story resides in its translation of racist oppression in society at large into the child's experience of victimization by the laws and lies of adult society.
The story's social implications are revealed when Hazel, at the moment of her betrayal, recalls a similar incident that took place at a movie theater on Easter Sunday. Hazel, Big Brood, and Baby Jason had expected to see a movie about a gorilla, but ended up seeing the agony of Christ on the cross. Although the rational or adult explanation might have it that Hazel misread the theater marquee, Hazel's interpretation places the blame on the theater management, "if you say Gorilla, My Love, you suppose to mean it." Her response is the direct confrontation with authority. Marching in on the theater manager, she demands her money back, and when the manager refuses, she steals the matches from his desk and lights a fire under the candy counter that shuts the theater down for a week. Shaped by the politics of the sixties, her action is contestatory, but it is also inscribed within the modes of exchange defined by a money economy and private property. Images evocative of the sixties appear elsewhere in the story, such as the incipient image of community defined by the kids' section at the theater, roped off and separated from the society of adults. Convinced they have been tricked, the kids
go wild. Yellin, booin, stompin and carryin on. Really to wake the man in the booth up there who musta went to sleep and put on the wrong reels. But no, cause he holler down to shut up and then he turn the sound up so we really gotta holler like crazy to even hear ourselves good. And the matron ropes off the children section and flashes her light all over the place and we yell some more and some kids slip under the rope and run up and down the aisle just to show it take more than some dusty ole velvet rope to tie us down. And I'm flingin the kid in front of me's popcorn. And Baby Jason kickin seats. And it's really somethin.
Unarmed and throwing whatever comes to hand, surveyed with searchlights, and bombarded by an audio barrage, the children easily call to mind a group of sixties-style demonstrators, beseiged by police and their heavy-handed crowd-control tactics. So, too, does Hazel's euphoric, "And it's really somethin," express the youthful spirit of sixties activists.
The story's most far-reaching implications turn, however, on the relationship of naming to meaning—in other words, the question of signifying. Hazel's contention is that the gap between the signifier and the signified must be annulled. Otherwise, to give an empty signifier in the place of a meaningful term constitutes lying, which in turn allows power and oppression to enter human relationships. Many times in the story, Hazel mentions the different names that family members have given her. Her granddaddy calls her "scout" as she reads the map on their pecan-hauling runs. Her mama calls her "Bad-bird" when she's caught in a bind and won't back down. And her Aunt Daisy calls her "Miss Muffin." These names are situation-specific, and, while they indicate aspects of Hazel's identity, they do not represent Hazel as a self, capable of establishing promises or entering into contract with the community. On this point Hazel is adamant. "My name is Hazel. And what I mean is you said you were going to marry me when I grew up." Leaving aside the specific question of marriage, what Hazel is demanding of her uncle is that their relationship not be inscribed within the commodified (she says "trickified") forms of exchange defined under late capitalism and typified by the movie marquee whose separation between naming and meaning creates a space for the exercise of domination. Hazel's granddaddy attempts to resolve the contradiction by saying that Hunca Bubba (Hazel's childhood name for her uncle) made the promise, but Hunca Bubba has now become the more mature Jefferson Windsong Vale. The solution represents the splitting of individuals into many separate sets of relationships that, if the separate parts are taken as a whole, may be in conflict. Such a solution is possible only in a society where the commodity form, which in language produces empty signifiers, constitutes the relationship between people as well as their objects. For its linguistic insight, the story goes beyond its base in sixties-style politics and suggests the social relationships associated with the post-Vietnam years and the culture of advanced consumer capitalism. At the story's end, solidarity only exists between Hazel and her brother, Baby Jason. "I can't see for cryin. And Baby Jason cryin too. Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost." With the larger community (in this case, the extended family) influenced and assimilated into the forces defining dominant society, only the smallest, most narrowly defined groups can prevail. The fragmented and besieged nucleus of a once-thriving community that concludes "Gorilla, My Love" is Bambara's starting point for The Salt Eaters.
In the dozen or so years between the publication of "Gorilla, My Love" and The Salt Eaters, Bambara published her most explicitly political stories in the collection The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. These stories develop the integral relationship between the revolutionary leader and the community. Significantly, the family, which functioned in Gorilla, My Love as the displaced representation of the black community, is abandoned—often thrown into question—while the notion of a collectivity expands into the community at large: the revolutionary band, the neighborhood, or small town. Two stories in particular problematize the family, criticizing male domination of the nuclear family and demonstrating the importance of developing child-rearing institutions in the community. One such story is "A Tender Man," which explores black male child abandonment. The protagonist, a guilt-ridden professional man, may seem atypical of the commonly held image of black men who have walked away from their fatherly responsibilities. In situating the problem of fathering within the black middle class rather than focusing on the poverty-stricken and unemployed or perpetuating the image of black men as gamblers, boozers, and womanizers, Bambara demonstrates how all black family relationships have been affected by their inclusion within a dominating white capitalist society. In the story, racism is one of the factors that has driven a wedge between father and daughter. Feeling guilt over his relationship with a white woman, the child's mother, the father is incapable of imagining a future for his daughter or what his role as a future maker might be. Ambiguity, uncertainty, guilt—these are the lived experiences of people whom this society includes in its multiethnic rainbow, although excluding them from jobs, housing, and a future on the basis of race.
Another factor that in the story has severed father from daughter is capitalist society's exploitative use of a black male labor pool—in this case, a military labor pool. The man learns of his impending fatherhood while en route to the Bay of Pigs invasion. At the precise moment when he might assume a fatherly role, he sees himself transformed into a nonperson, a pawn in a global chess game. The secrecy of the mission erases the details of the event from official history and defines the man, whether he lives or dies, as a lie. Capitalism's use of young men, and particularly black men, to wage clandestine wars and wars shrouded in lies like Vietnam has created a perpetual class of fathers whose identity and basic humanity have been stripped from them.
In attempting to solve the problem of fathering, Bambara responds with an image of the future that greatly transcends the social relationships associated with bourgeois capitalism. Rather than calling for the restoration of fathering and the restructuring of the nuclear family, she redefines parenting, not as the function of individuals, be they mothers or fathers, but as the responsibility of a larger community group. She does so by demonstrating that all adults have a responsibility to develop a strong and positive sense of race and culture in the children who will make the world's future. She demands that we ask what the future of the story's child would be if she were forced to live out her mother's racial ignorance and prejudice. Her father as an individual cannot be her salvation; but he, as her father, can be made to see the error of his abandonment and the possibility of developing a nonpaternalistic form of fathering that would extend the role of parenting to brothers and sisters of the race, to schools and community workers.
The family comes under attack again in "A Girl's Story" from the same collection. In focusing on a young girl's first menstruation, the story demonstrates how male-dominated ideas about women's sexuality penetrate and inform the way women relate to their daughters, even in situations where no man is in the home. "A Girl's Story" is a parable depicting the brutality of mothering in a male-dominated society. Rae Ann's first menstruation is a lesson in victimization—first, by her grandmother, whose reaction to the bloody flow is to accuse Rae Ann of having had a coat-hanger abortion, and second, by her brother, who seconds the grandmother's assumptions, giving lurid details of her sexual relationships with boys. Acting as stand-ins for the absent father figure, Rae Ann's brother and grandmother—even though one is a boy and the other a woman—act to perpetuate male domination in the family. They perpetuate the inferiorization of women and their appropriation to domination as mindless and wanton sexual objects.
The image of the male-dominated nuclear family is, however, counterbalanced in the story by the positive portrayal of a very different mother figure. This is Dada Bibi, a teacher at the local community center, whose supportive relationship to Rae Ann is based on a deep—but nonpossessive—love. "You're becoming a woman and that's no private thing. It concerns us all who love you. Let's talk sometimes?" Observations like these run throughout the narrative, exemplifying Dada Bibi's alternative form of mothering, even while Rae Ann hides from her grandmother and brother, knowing she must eventually face their rebukes. The teacher's words demystify male domination, showing that its power resides in the privatization of women, which makes women equivalent to property. Dada Bibi's vision points to a feminist society in which sharing between women of different generations will be based on the deprivatization of women's experience.
Bambara expands the function of mothering out of the family and into the community until, with "The Apprentice," she replaces the biological mother-child relationship with the learning and caring relationship between a middle-aged community organizer and her young apprentice. As she portrays them, the two characters come to embody the deepest dilemma Bambara faces as a writer—namely, how to bridge the gap between sixties activism and post-Vietnam uncertainty. Naomi, the organizer, sees the future in the present; her every discussion, project, or relationship is an enactment of revolution. In contrast, the young apprentice is a doubter. "What have I seen but junkies noddin in the alley, dudes steppin in my window to rip me off, folks that'd kill God for a quarter." It isn't that Naomi overlooks grim social reality, but from her point of view the revolution is at hand. Political work, particularly at a time of great social misery and oppression, is revolutionary. In contrast, the apprentice conceptualizes the revolution as a single, verifiable moment: the moment of transformation, which obviously hasn't yet occurred and so must be somewhere in the future. The difference between the two versions of revolution is precisely the difference between the politics of the sixties, which saw every demonstration, every countercultural gesture, as part of an ongoing revolution, and the eighties, which as a time of transition and dismay, can at best posit the revolution somewhere around the corner.
"The Apprentice" provides an important point of comparison with The Salt Eaters both for its definition of a mutual relationship between the organizer and the community, which in the novel will no longer obtain, and for the depiction of the community itself as a cohesive unit. Whereas The Salt Eaters shows the space of the community as a loosely defined topography, which includes a number of varied autonomous zones—the bus, the infirmary, the café—"The Apprentice" describes a heterogeneous collectivity, whose focal points are equally representative of the whole and important for the reproduction of social life. As Naomi and her young disciple travel from old-folks home to the black lodge to the drive-in restaurant, their movement defines the extent of the community and binds its members together even as their conversations with retired people, brother Decker, and short-order cooks give shape to the community's future aspirations. This is not the case in The Salt Eaters where each of the loci defined by discussion is separate from the others, and where the organizer, the community's hope for cohesion, sits, immobilized, recovering from her attempted suicide. The difference resides again in the separation between the politics of the six-ties, in which all social activity was defined as important precisely because it was embedded in daily life and therefore responsible for its reproduction and potentially capable of its transformation, and the politics of the eighties, where splintering leads to the overdetermination of certain social instances, making it seem that there must be some single event or situation magically capable of transforming the whole.
All the stories in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive participate in the definition of the individual's relation to the community without at the same time problematizing the notion of the individual. It is on this point that The Salt Eaters represents a sharp break in the development of Bambara's writing. Velma Henry's attempted suicide is a figural device for asking, in an agonizing way, what will be the terms of the individual's relationship to loved ones and community, to past tradition and future society. Suicide represents the individual's renunciation of any connection with society; it is the individual's ultimate statement of autonomy. The failure to commit suicide offers the group the opportunity to redefine itself, affirm its importance for the alienated individual, and bring her back into the collectivity. The Salt Eaters, which opens on Velma's healing and concludes with her cure, describes the process of the individual's rebirth into society. The yin and yang articulated by Velma's failed suicide balances the individual's possibility for achieving absolute autonomy against its antithesis, the dissolution of self within the group. The first gives rise to fascist fantasies; the second suggests Western liberalism's conception of communism. As metaphorized in its title, The Salt Eaters attempts to find a social alternative where the individual would be defined by neither extreme. One must eat salt to live. One must eat salt to be healed. As one of the novel's characters explains, "Remember Napoleon's army? Those frogs were dropping dead from scratches because their bodies were deprived of salt." But too much salt is a poison. Crying out the body's salt is necessary. Just as the release of passion is necessary for the individual, so too is the diffusion of the one into the many necessary for the group's health. Retention, holding back, shoring up the self eventually produce the death of the individual and the sundering of the social fabric.
If we translate the rubric of The Salt Eaters back into Bambara's early short stories, we are apt to view the strength of the individual child characters more critically. The self-affirmation, pride, and courage that propel Hazel as a young girl become, in Velma Henry, the cause for frustration and anger. The strength of the individual in one situation precipitates the individual's breakdown in another. What has changed is not the individual so much as the society's ability to offer the individual a place where strength and action may find resonance. The fact that Velma can't shake the image of a certain black politician wearing Chinese pajamas, that she is haunted by it, and, like a traumatized person, repeatedly summons up this image of her betrayal should not be interpreted as an indication of Velma's emotional imbalance. Rather, it indicates to what extent her incisive anger has nowhere to go, can't strike a chord in the community, can't be resolved and put to rest by collective action.
As in her short stories, the social definition of mothering is the area where Bambara most scrutinizes the individual's relation to the group. However, in contrast to the short stories, where the mother-child relationship is described in purely social terms, the novel has a strong mythic dimension, which influences the portrayal of mothering and dovetails with the mystical aspect of its evocation of yin and yang. The mythic aspect also contributes to the novel's ambiguous conclusion when rain, wind, and trembling earth call on nature at all levels to act as substitute for the tremendous transformation we long to witness in society.
The most mythical of the novel's mother images, the one to which Velma returns at the lowest moments during the process of her healing, is that of the "mud mothers." It is interesting that Bambara never fully describes the "mud mothers." Rather, she allows us to flesh out the image, drawing on our store of nightmare ideology and popular-culture models. We are apt to imagine a barely discernible group of maternal primitives, writhing about, like tribal initiates in a muddy bath. Such an image combines the ideological representation of primitive society with Hollywoodesque portrayals of bodies sinking into quicksand. It articulates the child's repressed fear of the mother, whose overprotection might lead to smothering. And it articulates the individual's fear of being sucked down and incorporated into the vague mass of society.
The "mud mothers" are often depicted "painting the walls of a cave," an activity of profound symbolic importance in relation to Bambara's project as a writer. Painting as a form of articulation summons up the long history of women's search for a mode of discourse not curtailed by men or inscribed within male-dominated society. Often denied access to speech and writing, women, particularly black women, have had to develop modes of expression in other artistic and folk forms. However, these have often gone unnoticed, relegated to the underside of history like these paintings on the walls of caves. Significantly, Minnie Ransom's cure is intended not only to restore Velma to the community, but to give her a voice as well. During the process of her healing, Velma is encouraged to dance and to respond verbally to her healer. The moment of her cure finds Velma, her "head thrown back about to shout, to laugh, to sing."
The most central of the novel's mother figures is, of course, Minnie Ransom, a bedangled and braceleted "spinster," who might best be characterized as a contemporary culture figure with connections to the mythic dimension. Folkloric as well as socially hip, she accompanies her cure with stereophonic jazz and refers to the music as a creation of the "loas." Minnie is aided in her curing by another maternal figure, one whose relationship to myth and the folk tradition are much deeper. This is "Old Wife," Minnie's spirit guide, who, although she denies working in sorcery, comes to resemble an Afro-American root worker. In doubling the figure of the maternal healer, Bambara creates a link between present and past cultural practice and she suggests the incipient basis for sisterhood. The unity of purpose and the supportive interaction, as well as the lively banter and respectful rivalry, are all characteristics that would define a larger collectivity of women. Finally, in doubling the figure of the healer, Bambara creates a dialogue, demonstrating that healing is a process of working through. The healers in relation to the patient establish a dialectic in discourse and action.
There is yet another figure in the novel: Sophie Haywood, whose role as a midwife establishes a nominal connection with folk medicine and tradition, and whose work as an organizer and political activist push the function of mothering into a wholly new social space. With the creation of Sophie Haywood, Bambara seems to suggest the separation between the mainstream of folk tradition and political work. Not only are these areas divided for the most part, between Minnie and Sophie, but at the moment Minnie begins her cure, Sophie leaves the room, withdraws to "Doc" Serge's office where she holds a separate meditative vigil. The novel ends with the suggestion that Velma's future will involve a closer affiliation with Sophie. "Once Minnie brought Velma through perhaps the girl at last would be ready for training." Sophie's thoughts summon up images from Bambara's earlier writing where the close association between student and teacher or organizer and apprentice gave shape to the future in faith and confidence.
That such a vision is not fully realized in The Salt Eaters has again to do with the great difference between the political climate of the sixties and that of the eighties. But rather than continuing to focus on the rupture between these two political moments as I have been developing the problem, I'd like to suggest another way of understanding the inconclusive nature of The Salt Eaters. I suggest we position the novel in relation to a project that is not at all new, but found tremendous impetus in the sixties and continues, even in this era of political conservatism, to focus the energies of women radicals. I am referring to the feminist project to rewrite history from the point of view of women. Once we suspend a male-dominated view of history and its emphasis on the graphable, the chronological, the litany of events and leaders, then we create a space for women's history, whose movers and shapers have often gone unrecorded, leaving only the continuity of daily struggle. The difference between male- and female-defined histories is what Bambara is getting at when she contrasts the black political leader in silk pajamas, whose acts and pronouncements will make the news, with Velma and the other demonstrators, whose march and muddy encampment may go as unheeded as the women's pleas for medical attention, food, and clothing. The "mud mothers" is a compelling image because it is rooted in the suppression of women's history. It is the mud of erasure out of which women must struggle. But because we still live in a male-dominated society, it is not yet clear what history will be like when the continuity of suppressed voices becomes the means for knowing and explaining the course of history. This is the context out of which Bambara is writing. Seen from this perspective, her writing defines much more of a continuity from the short stories to the novel than is apparent when we judge her books purely on the basis of the rupture between sixties- and eighties-style politics.
Because society has for so long been explained from a male point of view, the movers and shapers of women's history are only partially visible. The desire to formulate a feminist perspective on history accounts for the centrality of mother figures in Bambara's writing. Her radicalism is to suggest how mothering, which in the nuclear family is necessary and acceptable to male-dominated society, might be extended into the community and transformed. Where we most feel the influence of male domination on the ability to envision alternative social forms defined by women is in Bambara's scant development of sisterly relations. We sense that sisterhood would include the intuitive closeness that links Velma to her sister, Palma; in the Seven Sisters theater group, we understand that sisterhood is lively, spontaneous, creative, and caring. Through these images, we glimpse possibilities and hope that the eighties will be the ground of their realization. The coming to fruition of women's history would redefine the past twenty years on the basis of continuity, rather than rupture.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4749
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.
[Vertreace is an American poet, educator, editor, and author of children's books. In the following essay, she examines the theme of community in Bambara's short fiction.]
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." 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."
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" 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."
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." 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." "I get so tired of grownups messin over kids just cause they little and can't take em to court."
The familial setting encourages Hazel's independence and strength of character. Granddaddy Vale, for example, trusts her to sit in the "navigator seat" of the car and read the map as he drives, calling her "Scout." 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." 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," 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." 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."
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 beginner 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"; "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?"
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 nuthin."
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." Her children cast aspersions on her "'apolitical self,'" 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."
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." 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," 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." 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." 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." With her little green bottles of indeterminate contents, Maggie assumes the identity of Obeah woman, who copes with the "hard-core 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." 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." 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."
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." 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." When family members distribute her belongings, Peaches's father asks her to choose what she wants, since Peaches had seen "her special." 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 Being 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 maturational 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." 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" initially attracts Virginia to Graham. But her hope [in "The Organizer's Wife"] 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." Binding together, the people draw strength and comfort from each other, realizing that "we ain't nowhere's licked yet, though." 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." 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." 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" 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," in short, with no boundaries or expectations, might be selfish, producing "the heaviest damn pressure of all." 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." 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." 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 Cade 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.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2483
SOURCE: "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run,'" in English Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67-72.
[Gidley is an English educator and critic who frequently writes about Native Americans. In the essay below, he discusses narrative perspective in "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. 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." Above all, she's a speedy runner, "the fastest thing on two feet," and proud of it. "I run, that is what I am all about," she says.
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. ("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" and often lost in his own world of mimicry, games and make believe—Squeaky has to confront Gretchen and her "sidekicks" in what she calls "one of those Dodge City scenes" 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. 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. 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." 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—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." 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." 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"; this is a style which contrasts with Squeaky's running, arms "pumping up and down," 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."
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?
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" [Isaiah, XL, 31]. Saint Paul, as might be expected, was fiercer [in his Epistle to the Hebrews, XII, 1]: "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"—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," Raymond runs alongside, level with her, but literally "on the other side of the fence." Just before Squeaky resolves to "retire as a runner and begin a whole new career as a coach with Raymond as [her] champion," Raymond is imaged as "rattling the fence like a gorilla in a cage like in them gorilla movies," 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." 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" 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," 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." 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 [Carey Wall, "The Sound and the Fury: The Emotional Center," in Midwest Quarterly 11 (1970)]. 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 weighs 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.
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.'" (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.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 348
Bryan, C. D. B. Review of Gorilla, My Love, by Toni Cade Bambara. The New York Times Book Review (15 October 1972): 31-3.
Comparative review of Bambara's Gorilla, My Love, Martha Foley's The Best American Short Stories 1972, and Norma Klein's Love and Other Euphemisms. Bryan praises Bambara's manner of discussing race and gender in Gorilla, My Love, concluding that Bambara is "an articulate, intelligent and sensitive writer who happens to be very funny, hip, warm and unmistakably her own black woman."
Kelley, Margot Anne. "'Damballah is the First Law of Thermodynamics': Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters." African American Review 27, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 479-93.
Discusses Bambara's The Salt Eaters within the framework of scientific theories regarding such concepts as thermodynamics and time. Kelley argues that the use of scientific methods of inquiry assists in the analysis of Bambara's text.
Marcus, Laura. "Feminism into Fiction: The Women's Press." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4303 (27 September 1985): 1070.
Overview of feminist writings published in Great Britain in which the critic offers mixed reviews of Bambara's Gorilla, My Love and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. Marcus argues: "Too much Bambara taken at once can cause indigestion."
Rosenberg, Ruth. "'You Took a Name That Made You Amiable to the Music': Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters." Literary Onomastics Studies XII (1985): 165-94.
Analyzes the origins of character names in The Salt Eaters.
Stanford, Ann Folwell. "He Speaks for Whom?: Inscription and Reinscription of Women in Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters." MELUS 18, No. 2 (Summer 1993): 17-31.
Discusses gender issues and the role of women in Bambara's The Salt Eaters and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952). Noting the inherent gender bias in Invisible Man, Stanford argues that Bambara's novel "construct[s] a more expansive discourse of the female self."
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