Bambara's feisty girls: resistance narratives in Gorilla, My Love.
Thunderbuns, as her friends call her, appears in the inset story Hazel tells in "Gorilla, My Love" to illustrate how adults betray children. Thunderbuns is not actually the agent of betrayal here, but rather the enforcer of racially charged capitalist treachery. Hazel and her brothers, Big Brood and Baby Jason, have paid their money to see a film called Gorilla, My Love, only to be shown a raggedy old brown print of a Jesus movie: "And 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" (15).
Hazel is momentarily silenced by the weight of Thunderbuns's derived power. But not for long. With warrior-like power--her brothers refusing the call--she storms the manager's office and demands her money back. She sees his pasty-complexioned condescension. And, in comic digression, she informs us, her reader/intimates, that he is wrong about her power and authority. She has the full measure of her family's racially informed, communally enforced, defiant self-possession behind her. Even as her mother will terrorize the teachers at P.S. 186 who dare to "start playin the dozens behind colored folks" (17), Hazel will deliver on her threats. When the money is not refunded, she starts a fire underneath the candy counter that closes the theater down for a week: "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" (18).
The story "Gorilla, My Love" first appeared in Redbook Magazine in November, 1971, a year after the publication of Bambara's pathbreaking, intimate, and incendiary black feminist anthology The Black Woman. The story itself has a genealogy, however, dating back to 1959, when Bambara's first child-narrated short story, "Sweet Home," appeared in Vendome magazine. When Bambara was interviewed by Beverly Guy-Sheftall in the mid-seventies, (1) she remarked on the prospects for her protean and empowered girl narrators, whose stories had been appearing throughout the sixties and were finally gathered up on the wings of the success of The Black Woman and published in a collection entitled Gorilla, My Love in 1972:
There are certain kinds of spirits that I'm very appreciative of, people who are 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 that collection) is a kind of person who will survive, and she's triumphant in her survival. (233)
All but four of the fifteen stories in Gorilla, My Love are framed by the consciousness of a child or adolescent protagonist; of those, ten are voiced in the first person (2)--with the singular "I" drawing its energy and power from an implied "we" of community.
When Hazel storms the manager's office, then, she is riding on the strength of more than a decade of such acts of defiant resistance by Bambara's feisty girls. Bambara calls her "the kid"--of the story and the whole collection. But in fact there is no singular narrative "kid" in any prosaic sense unifying the whole collection. Some of the "I" voices are adolescents; others quite young children, including Hazel herself from the title-story--who is proud to be the navigator of her grandfather's car on the way back from a pecan-gathering expedition. But, as she confesses, she actually likes the front seat because the pecans shifting in the back are scary: There might be a rat lurking somewhere. And she admits to us that she still sleeps with the lights on and blames it on Baby Jason.
Still, she is one of the most tough-talking and self-possessed young female voices in American fiction. And she shares an identity with the other girl-children in Bambara's stories of that decade for the laser-like intensity of her moral intelligence and her ability to discern the convolutions of adult hypocrisy. Bambara wrote in a personal narrative entitled "Salvation Is the Issue" in 1984:
What informs my work as I read it--and this is the answer to the frequently raised question about how come my "children" stories manage to escape being insufferably coy, charming and sentimental--are the basic givens.... One, we are at war. Two, the natural response to oppression, ignorance, evil and mystification is wide-awake resistance. Three, the natural response to stress and crisis is not breakdown and capitulation, but transformation and renewal.... (47)
Bambara explores the fraught boundary places between adults' and children's awareness to underscore the acuteness of the children's perceptions of the adult world. But, in so doing, she also affirms--out of her own cultural nationalism--the collective power behind the resistance work accomplished through self-representation by these young first-person storytellers and social agents. Bambara's "kid" in Gorilla, My Love--who appears in different family configurations in the various stories--draws vision and militancy from the wisdom of her black elders, even as she exposes the stress points in her community's relationship to the larger body politic.
In "A Sort of Preface" to Gorilla, My Love, Bambara comically disclaims any pretensions to autobiographical fiction: "It does no good to write autobiographical fiction cause the minute the book hits the stand here comes your mama screamin how could you and sighin death where is thy sting..." (n.p.). This disclaimer is, of course, predicated on the singularity of these self-empowered, resistant African American girls who narrate, with signifying power, through a compelling female "I," the stories in the collection. Bambara's girl narrator/protagonists--drawn not so obliquely from her own childhood--represent the prophetic childhood and adolescence of black feminism. With self-possession and militancy, they defend themselves against the pathologizing liberalism of the 1960s, as reflected in the patronizing contortions of Daniel Patrick Moynihan's "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" (the "Moynihan Report"), (3) and against the exclusionary masculine polemics of the Black Power Movement. Bambara work s from within a black nationalist aesthetic of affirmation and solidarity, even as her stories resist the masculinizing coercions of the cultural nationalism of that period.
Madhu Dubey argues in Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic that perhaps the "most disconcerting move" on the part of male black cultural nationalists during the late 1960s was their incorporation into nationalist programs of "elements of the contemporary government discourse on the black family, especially as propagated by the notorious Moynihan Report" (17). Dubey suggests that "the exchange between administrative and nationalist discourses cannot, however, be reduced to a unilateral government co-op tation of black nationalist ideology. It was the investment of black male nationalists in the powerful subject position of patriarchal masculinity that motivated their collusion with administrative discourse on the matriarch" (18). My argument is that Bambara performs a doubly mediated act in these stories, creating fictional voices that resist the essentializing domination of both nationalist and administrative discourses on black women. Bambara's feisty girls are not diminutive characters, to be outgrown with the coming of age of the movement. Rather, through their precocious insight they anticipate the resistance strategies and forms of collective self-affirmation that will be essential to the survival of community.
This essay will engage most specifically two of Bambara's stories that were published within the year following the release of The Black Woman--and first read within the charged atmosphere of the reception of that collaborative project. These stories, "Gorilla, My Love" and "Raymond's Run," are among Bambara's most often anthologized works. Bambara wrote in the same personal essay about her work in 1984: "Immunity to the serpent's sting can be found in our tradition of struggle and our faculty for synthesis. The issue is salvation. I work to produce stories that save our lives (47). Bambara's young narrator/protagonists in these two stories deploy a community-specific, self-confident, passionate, high-energy, vernacular language of resistance, and they celebrate the families and heritage that stand unshakably behind them. They both are named Hazel and they seem to be the same "kid," though they have different families. These stories come at the end of more than a decade of work by Bambara on this ground. They extend her intuitive read of the nation's condescension toward black families--and they answer back, through the prescience and self-assurance of children, to the fraudulent postulates of an anxiety-stricken white supremacist culture.
Arnold Rampersad argues in an essay on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and African American literature that child narrators are rare and problematic in African American fiction-virtually non-existent in nineteenth-century texts and only fully realized in texts produced quite recently. (4) He cites Bambara, for Gorilla, My Love, as one of the few black writers in the entire tradition to "entrust" her stories completely "to a child" (220). Bambara's Hazel is, however, despite her irascibility, a distinctly un-Huck-like character-and not only because she is a girl and black. While she plots her own story impressively far outside the guidelines of socialized femininity, she operates within the liberating and nurturing spaces of a harmonized and functional African American family. Her articulate alienation does not require her estrangement from family and community. Even though she is at times at odds with the power figures in her family hierarchy, she derives her strength and tactical belligerence from the lov e and political savvy of the adults who have raised her. Bambara localizes first-person power in "Gorilla, My Love" and "Raymond's Run" in the voice of an intelligent and beloved girl--who exposes hypocrisy with the communal instruments of resistance.
The back cover of the paperback text of The Black W o m a n -- which Bambara says for all she didn't know about publishing she did keep small and under $1.00-- announces "TWO KINDS OF REVOLUTIONS." Farah Jasmine Griffin remarks about seeing the book on display at Robins Bookstore in Philadelphia when she was seven or eight years old: "Staring from the cover directly at me was a beautiful brown woman with a large Afro that merged with the black background of the book's cover." Griffin writes: "I had to have that book" (113). The urgency of the book's project--of mediating the tensions between these two REVOLUTIONS, of "burgeoning Black pride and militancy" and of the "demand by woman for liberation from their chattel-like roles"--allows for a collapsing at points of the distinction between the personal narrative and the political essay. Bambara's 99 cent anthology creates space for what Griffin calls the "chorus and conflict" of oppositional voices across the question of black women's responses to the discours es of black nationalism and feminism. The Moynihan Report comes up frequently as the enemy position paper. At dozens of points, Bambara's assembled company of activist women lay bare the myth of matriarchy as conjointly framed by black nationalist males and by white males within liberal policy chambers. The collection represents a polemical and healing colloquy of black women in many voices brought together in textual collaboration. The text stands as precursor to the numerous black feminist anthologies that would, over the following three decades, allow for the articulation of collective purpose and the affirmation of healing solidarity.
The Black Woman, as a collection of engaged texts--of polemics, affirmations, and indictments--stands as a fascinating correlative to Bambara's fiction of this period. Both "Gorilla, My Love" and "Raymond's Run" were published in the immediate aftermath of the release of that anthology. Both arguably reflect the buoyancy--and self-confidence--of that collaborative black feminist intervention in the national dialogue about race and social policy. Bambara's stories provide almost point-by-point, comic, and kid-powered refutations to the social tenets that are reified in fatally patronizing form in Moynihan's policy paper. They also defy in performance the gendered power coordinates of black cultural nationalism at this moment.
Bambara's three most thorough critics of the stories collected in Gorilla, My Love all read them as anticipating her later, more overtly political fiction. These arguments, taken together, make it seem as if Bambara's children cannot be heeded fully until they somehow mature into her adult characters. The stories come to seem "on-the-way-to-somewhere" texts, rather than fully realized and politically engaged works of fiction in their own right. And yet Bambara's children arguably have essential lessons to teach their elders, if they listen well.
Elliott Butler-Evans in Race, Gender and Desire (1989) argues that Bambara's short stories are aimed at "truth-speaking"--particularly as "truth is related to the semiotic mediation of Black existential modalities." At the same time, he sees a strange hierarchy of intent in this work: Bambara's commitments to representing "an organic Black community and the articulation of Black nationalist ideology" stand as primary for him, while her "insertion of themes related to the desires of Black women and girls," in his reading, "disrupts and often preempts the stories' primary focus on classic realism and nationalism" (92). I have had the experience several times of students telling me that they did not know that Hazel in "Gorilla, My Love" was a girl until they were well into the story. That effect seems tactical, if anything, on Bambara's part: to destabilize expectations keyed to gender. In arguing that gender is somehow a disruptive after-thought, however, Butler-Evans overlooks the deep counter-discourses in Ba mbara against the hegemonic arguments that would demonize black women under the fiction of an all-pervasive black matriarchy. These counter-discourses would seem at the core of Bambara's critique of liberalism in these stories.
Bambara's early stories, in Butler-Evans's account, also "ignored larger global issues of their time--racial strife in urban areas, the Vietnam involvement, political assassinations, and independence struggles in Africa--and dealt exclusively with the 'inner world' of Blacks" (93). If Bambara makes her debut as a cultural nationalist with these stories, she is certainly not embracing a nationalism that views women's issues as secondary or disruptive of the central social project. Butler-Evans does not see the presence of structural representations of women's issues as in fact at the center of Bambara's globally oriented, outwardly directed--specifically political--ambitions and agendas for these stories. What Butler-Evans considers the "submerged narratives, or subtexts" that "address the desires of Black women" and move the narratives away from a "focus on classic realism and nationalist ideology," would seem to me to be in fact the defining semiotic mediations of the stories. Hazel's identity as a girl is n ot a disruptive afterthought for her. Rather, her very existence calls into question a catalogue of historically received concepts of femininity, including those perpetuated within black cultural nationalism.
In discussing Gorilla, My Love in Fingering the Jagged Grain (1985), Keith Byerman does not directly assess either the title-story or "Raymond's Run." He sees in Bambara, however, a consistent effort to integrate feminist ideology with folk wisdom. The power of this conjunction is, in his view, that political concepts "give direction and force to an often fatalistic folk wisdom; the realities of the folk link ideology to a concrete history" (105). The conjunction, Byerman argues, does not always hold, however, because the folk world view may dictate that strength lies in the knowledge that "suffering seems the destiny of women and that survival is a valid revenge for the pain" (104). Byerman sees Bambara's stories as at times offering apparent resolutions without in fact delivering any deeply politically coherent kind of closure: "Despite themselves then, these fictions remain open rather than closed" (105).
Byerman, like Butler-Evans, takes the essentially mimetic boundaries of Bambara's fiction as limiting the degree to which an oppositional--or effective--resistance politics could be evolved. The interplay of folk and feminist ideological sources, for him, does not so much allow an "overcoming" of the enemy as an "outwitting and outliving" him. Byerman sees endurance rather than political power as the primary objective of this conjunction--and in that sense, for him, the conjunction "does not always work" (105). Byerman's conception of the folk elements of Bambara's stories would presumably include the comic playfulness of the families of her young narrator/protagonists, as well as their urban vernacular speech. If Bambara's stories are read against the broad social-political allegories for the black family that are being disseminated as federal public policy at this moment, the "mimetic" or "realist" ground of the stories seems anything but cut off from other realms of political contestation and counter-memor y.
Susan Willis provides a compelling reading of the postmodern dislocations of Bambara's 1980 novel The Salt Eaters in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (1987). But in returning to Bambara's early stories in Gorilla, My Love as source texts for understanding the "many lone and frustrated radicals" of The Salt Eaters, Willis binds Bambara's child characters to a particular set of historical outcomes. Hazel, taken on her own terms, without foreknowledge of what she might become, seems in my view anything but the child model for an adult isolated revolutionary. She is, rather, a brilliant mobile creature borne by Bambara out of the dizzying and impassable reaches that separate children from adults. She seems an utterly relational being, whose understanding is pegged differently from that of adults. This difference is visible to Bambara's adult readers, and Bambara derives much of the comic energy of the stories from it. Hazel's dazzling narrative performances in fact destabilize the self-sati sfied and condescending pretensions of adult life. She is a being in the impossible process of growing up. Her very individualist power and narrative authority are subjected to profound tests and disruptive set-backs, as she bushwhacks her way through the challenges of childhood. Her "child's self pride" indeed "might[,] in an adult political leader, produce blind spots and hinder alliances," as Willis puts it. But she should not be seen as the prototype for an adult: She is a child, not in any sense a miniature version of her future self. The social devastations of the 1970s and '80s, in any case, are certainly not the fault of the overly brittle or intense individualism of pre-adolescent girls of the 1960s. In the context of her own history, Hazel seems far more convincingly to represent in her preadolescence the broader kind of black feminism announced by The Black Woman, which was published in the same year as Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Alice Walker's The Third Life of Grange Copeland, and Maya Angel ou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Hazel is appropriately unbounded in her childhood by the political disappointments which may or may not lie ahead.
Willis's argument about Hazel's individualism in "Raymond's Run" seems to me to be undermined by the very concessions that she makes in her own argument: that Hazel does move in critical ways from "antagonism to mutual appreciation" (144) with her closest contestant in the May Day race, Gretchen P. Lewis. This recognition coincides with Hazel's epiphanal insights about the potentiality and humanity of her brother Raymond, who is in her terms "not quite right" (23). It doubles, in terms of its revelatory power and fulfillment of the story's suspense, with the actual running of the race. The transformational power of the story depends on the connections that do literally take Hazel out of her self--the individualistic competitive person who defines herself around running--and place her into relation to others.
Everything in the early part of the story leads toward the race, and Bambara slows time down radically at the starting line. Hazel finds herself in the hypothetical moment of every race, where time itself no longer exists in the ecstasy of being in anticipation. She enters into the dream which makes the race possible--the imaginative prescripting of the moment of being explosively in the weightless intensity of the race itself:
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.... (30)
Hazel files in slow motion. We experience speed because of the sensations she registers during the time-out-oftime catharsis of the race. During this slowed-down paragraph of actually accelerated speed, she does ultimately win the race, despite the efforts of one of the officials to give the victory to Gretchen out of "fairness" (to let someone else win for a change). But whether she wins or not becomes less important than the double insight she has about Gretchen's strength and Raymond's potentiality as a runner, which she now plans to cultivate--perhaps with Gretchen's help. This climax completes a narrative of growth precisely out of the rigid individualism that Willis sees as being the governing attitude of the stories.
Willis is acutely sensitive to intrafamilial misunderstandings in "Gorilla, My Love," but she misconstrues the tension between the story's two betrayal narratives and its affirmations of the vitality of Hazel's extended family. In the outer narrative, Hazel is betrayed by her uncle Hunca Bubba, who has teasingly told her that he would marry her when she grows up and is now proceeding with his own adult plans to marry someone else; in the inner narrative, Hazel tells her own story of betrayal by the movie theater capitalists. Willis argues that these are parallel narratives that together underscore Hazel's isolation--only Baby Jason cries with her in the end--and prefigure the loss of community which Bambara will explore in The Salt Eaters: "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" (149).
While Willis does appropriately take seriously the pain Hazel experiences over Hunca Bubba's betrayal, she misreads the comic energies of the story. Hazel's amazing, comic-serious self-representations in the movie theater story involve an imaginative rewriting of the crucifixion narrative, with her family, in its combative strength, hauling Big Brood, who stands in for Jesus, right off the cross: "And Granddaddy Vale sayin Leave the boy alone, if that's what he wants to do with his life we ain't got nothin to say about it" (16). This is Hazel's answer to the King of Kings film that the kids are shown rather than Gorilla, My Love, as promised on the theater marquee.
Hazel's reading of Hunca Bubba's betrayal is arguably one of those inevitable--and not so malignant--kinds of childhood misapprehensions that are finally nobody's fault: They arise out of the sheer precipitousness of the divide separating children and adults. Granddaddy Vale does try to pull a quick, nominal sleight of hand on her--saying," 'Look here, Precious, it was Hunca Bubba what told you them things. This here, Jefferson Winston Vale.'" Hunca Bubba Joins in, "'That's right. That was somebody else. I'm a new somebody.'" Grown-ups are "playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad" (20), as Hazel says in the story. But finally the comic pathos, and the serious political energy of the story, both lie in the fact that these two betrayals are not parallel: Black men are not the betrayers here. The battle lines are clear. Teachers who play "the dozens behind colored folks" (17) and capitalist enterprises that trick children are on one side; Hazel's strong family, including its nurturing and co nnected men, is on the other. The story ends with Hazel collapsing from Hunca Bubba's teasing and perceived treachery. Children cannot indeed always tell when adults are joking. But we know that Hazel's spirit will not be crushed--and that she will ultimately understand who the real betrayers are and how to defend herself against them.
In an interview with Claudia Tate published in 1983, Bambara calls Eleanor Traylor "the best reader/seer we've got" (20). When Traylor writes about Bambara's work she suggests that home--"as both ancestral past and future possibility" (67)--is a restorative vision for her from the early fiction to her 1980 novel The Salt Eaters:
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 factor-fictive communities of Gorilla, Sea Birds, and The Salt Eaters. (67-68)
And, of course, home is precisely the site of assault in Moynihan's position paper. The report was conceived as an internal document for use in policy formation within the Johnson Administration. The fatal defects of the text, visible once it was released to the public, lie in its patronizing vision--that federal policy should shape itself around the purpose of entering "the black family" and changing it--and in the imbalance of its design. The bulk of the document is devoted not to the detailing of what forms of policy might be evolved to accomplish the stated "national goal"--i.e., "the establishment of a stable Negro family structure"--but rather to outlining, quantifying, and theorizing without adequate data what Moynihan describes as the ever tightening "tangle of pathology" in the black family. Four lengthy chapters are devoted to the characterization of the problem with hardly a glance at policy formulation or practical goalsetting. The fifth and final chapter of the essay, entitled "The Case for Natio nal Action," is barely more than a page long and offers no concrete program or vision, but rather itemizes the reasons for the paper's focus on defining the problem rather than proposing solutions to it. Included as item 3 is the following: "Third, it is necessary to acknowledge the view, held by a number of responsible persons, that this problem may in fact be out of control. This is a view with which we emphatically and totally disagree, but the view must be acknowledged" (47). The rhetorical shape of the position paper argues otherwise: The problem, as characterized, seems so out of control as to overwhelm Moynihan's faint gestures toward the possibility of forming policy equal to the Herculean, if preposterous, tasks outlined in the essay.
The terms matriarchy and pathology, as used by Moynihan, took on an insidious life of their own once the paper was released to the public. (5) Both concepts worked in the service of an essentializing program of reducing the "family structure of lower-class Negroes"--to maintain Moynihan's distinction--to one generalizable sociological model. Black women were in effect held responsible for the demoralization of black men through the operations of black matriarchy; these social patterns resulted, Moynihan suggested, in "desperate and deteriorating circumstances" (75) for black families. The one "truly great discontinuity in family structure in the United States" for Moynihan is "between the white world in general and that of the Negro American" (51). Moynihan uses bold face lettering to highlight the import of this comparison:
The white family has achieved a high degree of stability and is maintaining that stability.
By contrast, the family structure of lower-class Negroes is highly unstable, and in many urban centers is approaching complete breakdown. (51)
Moynihan's transparent policy paper works self-reflexively by imagining black culture as largely the product of white abuse. The document represents the ultimate liberal apology. It confesses its white guilt, seeks a corrective for it, and yet can see black culture only in the after-image of that guilt. White culture, therefore, remains the author of black cultural identity: Centuries of abuse, in Moynihan's subtext, have made the black community what it is. The victim is offered restitution tentatively, with little confidence that it will be accepted--and finally with little confidence that correctives are possible. The ambition that lies as the foundation stone of the report is that black culture draw closer to the modes and models of white culture. The diagnosis and the prescription, therefore, mirror each other. The pathologized victim is sick because he has been abused; his cure will come by being given the opportunity to become more like his victimizer. Even those black middle-class families that have s uccessfully gained access to the basic resources of the culture are in danger, in Moynihan's view, by their sheer proximity to the sick body of the masses of black Americans:
The children of middle-class Negroes often as not must grow up in, or next to the slums, an experience almost unknown to white middle-class children. They are therefore constantly exposed to the pathology of the disturbed group and constantly in danger of being drawn into it. It is for this reason that the propositions put forth in this study may be thought of as having a more or less general application. (75-76)
Moynihan's own concessions, then, about the strength of the black middle class at the time of the release of the report are effectively erased in a rhetorical gesture that allows him to generalize about all black bodies in all black families in America. The force of degeneration is loose in America: All black people are defenseless against it. The condescendingly benign face of national policy must then come in and rescue these victims--and yet, as Moynihan concedes, many believe that it is too late--and nothing can be done. The resulting picture is this: Black Americans are fictively stripped of all agency and self-government, but policy makers, imagining themselves as the only possible saviors, stand without any conviction that salvation can be won. There is no recognition in Moynihan of black agency or of the self-fashioning, survivalist energies of black communities.
The "black family," then, is a contested site across history, but never more acutely or distressingly so than in the wake of the publication of Moynihan's policy statement. Bambara's celebratory evocations of black families depend on the testimony of children. These representations seem anything but bounded by the organic neighborhoods they concern. These neighborhoods--these family spaces--have already been colonized, scrutinized, if from afar, and pathologized in the most public and political fashion. Bambara's stories about parents who teach children critical lessons of oppositional survival in a white supremacist universe are anything but detached from an operative politics of resistance. These are stories that announce what is to come; these are origin stories, growing-up stories, and coming-of-age stories. Hazel's families, and the families of "the kid" across the collection, theorize oppositional allegories of cultural vitality--and of growth to self-knowledge and resistance. These children speak lesso ns of promise and demonstrate the potency of family. They lay bare with their own testifying, self-ethnographic, dragon-slaying, love-inspired ferocity just what political survival may require.
In the rite-of-passage story "Gorilla, My Love," Hazel has no doubt of her ability to turn the tables on power. Out of the serial betrayals that structure her story, she demonstrates her own self-assurance in resistance work. The source of her strength is her family. Her own policy statement on "The Negro Family" is her refrain "Cause that's the way I was raised" (18), which she uses to justify her actions. When the matrons get tough at the movie theater, "Why then you just turn the place out," she says. "Which I love to do, no lie" (14). And her brothers recognize her ability to get the job done in the moment of trouble: "Which means me. Like when the big boys come up on us talkin bout Lemme a nickel. It's me that hide the money. Or when the bad boys in the park take Big Brood's Spaudeen way from him. It's me that jump on they back and fight awhile. And it's me that turns out the show if the matron get too salty" (14-15). Hazel's vernacular power and gendered agency both signal the unbreachable distance betw een her black-authored world and Moynihan's imagined community. Moynihan recoils at the specter of nationalism, which he sees as threatening to divide the world again "along color lines" in the afterimage of white racism: "Such racist views have made progress within the Negro American community itself--which can hardly be expected to be immune to a virus that is endemic in the white community" (47). Language is power, and Hazel's inventive vernacular energy signals her groundedness in community and its self-knowing--which are beyond the ideological horizon of Moynihan's deeply assimilationist vision.
"I am not a strawberry" (Gorilla 28), asserts Bambara's Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker of "Raymond's Run." She has the same drive and self-knowing as Hazel in "Gorilla, My Love," but is in a different family. With this assertion, Hazel cuts through layers of gendered expectations--including those projected, but not heavily enforced, by her own mother. She comes late to the May Day program at the park, just in time to get her "number pinned on" for the fifty-yard dash. The primary event of the day is an ultra-feminized May Pole Dance, which requires an organdy dress and baby doll shoes that our self-directed, tough-talking narrator/protagonist rejects out of hand: "You'd think she'd be glad her daughter ain't out there prancing around a May Pole getting the new clothes all dirty and sweaty and trying to act like a fairy or a flower or whatever you're supposed to be when you should be trying to be yourself, whatever that is, which is, as far as I am concerned, a poor Black girl who really can't afford to buy sh oes and a new dress you only wear once in a lifetime cause it won't fit next year" (27).
Hazel--or "Squeaky," as she's called in this story--had her initiation into such rituals of female socialization in nursery school, when she unsuspectingly played a strawberry in a Hansel and Gretel pageant. By now, she is clear about what she will and will not do: "I do not dance on my toes. I run. That is what I am all about" (28). Perhaps Hazel is a matriarch in training in Moynihan's terms: She is tough, resistant, unfeminine, resilient, and self-possessed. On the other hand, her epiphany in this story comes as she crosses over with love into recognition. She sees her brother Raymond, who is cognitively "not quite right," in his wholeness and for his potentiality as a runner, as well. Bambara's Hazel in both stories is a prescient warrior--and a defensive hero for her male siblings, whom she loves. She was not born in response to the pathologizing claims of Moynihan's well-intentioned policy paper, though she and her family do embody a critique of its particular blend of liberal condescension. Her prototy pe--in Bambara's spunky girl narrator/protagonists--has been on the beat since as early as 1959. Bambara both anticipates and decodes the structural values that Moynihan outlines in 1965.
How old is Hazel? There are several measures. She is, as noted before, young enough not to want to sleep with the lights out, but old enough to blame it on Baby Jason in "Gorilla, My Love." She is pre-adolescent--and dismissive of the ground of romantic love that Hunca Bubba stands on. His love, his entanglement in romance, and his upcoming marriage are all things to Hazel not worth contemplating: "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..." (14). She's old enough to be an agent who negotiates the terms of her own punishments with her parents--who reasons with them and in fact has a special name--"Badbird"--which her mother uses when Hazel won't back down ("Not that Badbird my name, just what she say when she tired arguin and know I'm right" ). She is old enough in "Raymond's Run" to have full responsibility for her brother Raymond--and to be out and about with him--if the protagonists of the two stories can be taken to s hare an identity. She's not in first or second grade; we can measure that against the races she's not running this year. She is somewhere just above that in age: maybe 8, perhaps 10 or 11. She has built a reputation for toughness--and has her own code of ethics, which others will do well to observe.
Hazel's mother, in "Gorilla, My Love"--after the image of Bambara's own mother, as she reveals anecdotally in various interviews (6)--is a threat to all forms of intimidating authority. And Hazel is surrounded by strong black men: In both stories, her father can be relied upon to mete out a form of justice that is insightful and flexible in its response to circumstance, but rooted in a reliable sense of governance and authority. He can keep important secrets--e.g., that he can actually run faster than Squeaky in "Raymond's Run," when she is reputed to be the fastest thing in town. He can pull back from bending the punitive arm of patriarchal law--when appealed to on grounds of reason and judgment. His trustworthiness is unimpeachable. Hazel has a grandfather, brothers she loves to the point of self-sacrifice, and a seemingly treacherous, but finally good-natured and affectionate, young uncle--Hunca Bubba, of "Gorilla, My Love." The very possibility of such men--who heed the wisdom of girls--was denied on seve ral ideological fronts during this period. Hazel's social existence maps an ideologically complete, if implicit, refutation of the very premises of Moynihan's paper. It also contests the narrow roles outlined for revolutionary women within black cultural nationalism at this moment. Jean Carey Bond and Patricia Perry note in a politically irritated parenthesis in their article "Is the Black Male Castrated?" in The Black Woman: "(Moynihan's Black matriarchy proposition is based, incredibly, on the statistic that one-quarter--only one-quarter!--of all Black families are headed by women)" (115).
Because of her age, Hazel operates outside of dominant, gendered cultural scripts; she is not located within a love plot--except for the unconditional frame of her family's love. She cannot foretell all that will befall her, as no child can see around the bend of puberty and adolescence. She cannot know that the self-defining, defiant energies of childhood may not be sustainable across the minefield of disappointments and initiations that are mapped for her--or the virtually irresistible pull of scripts of romance and marriage, which too often double as scripts of domination and self-suppression. And yet the key here is not that Hazel's self-knowing is directly prophetic of adult empowerment--though it may be--but rather that Bambara, the adult author/narrator, is there looking back: "That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name" (13), she begins "Gorilla, My Love." Bambara, in other words, writes these stories listening acutely and attentively to the child she was or the child she recognizes--the black fem ale child--who knows and sees things about the world that are essential for survival. Bambara derives from Hazel the fighting tools she will recommend as the instruments of a redeemed feminism.
Bambara's double refutation of the patronizing arguments of masculine power, then, lies precisely in the narrative performances of the stories. The humor and angularity of these stories depend on narrative triangulations involving Bambara, her adult readers (who, of course, share with Bambara an awareness of the limitations of the child narrator/protagonist's perspective), and the child herself--who defines the terms of her own experience through the comic forensics of her own self-representations. Bambara refuses utterly the potentiality for condescension in this narrative situation. Though the stories depend on our complicity with Bambara in knowing the boundaries of the child's outlook, Hazel in fact occupies a virtually ancestral post of prescient judgment and militant resistance. She is an elder--the "kid" Bambara was. She knows better finally than the adults around her--significantly those who would condescend to her--the authentic ground of human respect and impartial justice. Her feisty resistance and her keen eye for the workings of hypocrisy are the best answer to the patronizing intentions of her elders--those within the action of the story and those who gaze from the lofty places of masculine power.
In "Gorilla, My Love," Hazel's father ultimately does not whip her for her arson attack on the movie theater: "So Daddy put his belt back on" (18). She has appealed to her own family's codes of respect and faithfulness to one's word. A commercial promise has been broken by a pasty-faced grownup and restitution denied. Here, her family finally sanctions her militancy. Hazel's family's codes are not about bourgeois moralizing or the accouterments of good, American middle-class parenting. They are rather far more essential survival tools: an intergenerational ethos of prideful resistance that was Bambara's own heritage and that she reframes here in living refutation of every pathologizing claim to be borne out of the national liberal monologue on race in the 1960s--and internalized within black communities.
"Gorilla, My Love" ends with mock tragedy--with Hazel "crying and crumplin down in the seat" (20). She is losing her bearings because she can't see the map through her crying. Her Granddaddy steps on the gas because what else is there for a grown-up to do when an injustice has been done, and no amount of comfort or explanation is going to help. He knows that things are actually going to be okay, but Hazel can't know that: She is in that powerful, liminal place of childhood where it is just not possible to read the maps anymore. The maps that work for childhood do not apply to the adult world she is gazing in upon. Nothing makes sense. Those she loves can betray her without malice--and she just has to live with it. Hunca Bubba gets to the finish line of his growth to adulthood before she does.
All the narrative energy Hazel expends, however, in telling us her story--which is about empowerment and self-knowing--leaves us confident that she will recover fully from the heartbreak brought on by Hunca Bubba's seeming betrayal. This same power of self-disclosure, the flood of self-revelations that provides the shape of her story, allows her literally to cross over a finish line in "Raymond's Run." She moves ahead a quantum in her ability to shape her own experience and crosses over to connection with Gretchen: "We stand there with this big smile of respect between us" (32). It is a smile between girls, for other girls, signifying the possibility of being able to live in mutual recognition outside of domination structures and to renounce the habits of self-suppression.
Hazel is alive with the insight that pre-adolescent girls sometimes have before they dive under, before they are forced down into conformity to the limiting scripts the culture makes available to adult women. Hazel has a singleness of mind and self-possession that Bambara is both recollecting and recommending-and exemplifying in her work. Hazel's in-your-face ability to slice to the center of hypocrisy and to lay bare gender-coded acts of self-subordination is a radical resource. Far from being merely "folk" engagement, it represents Bambara's prophetic envisioning of an activist future. Bambara's girls have freed themselves from the entrapments--literally the clothing--of conventional girlhood and are racing to a different future. They cross over, through epiphany, to a place of mutual recognition and respect that begs for nothing.
(1.) The interview was published in 1979, but Guy-Sheftall indicates that it had actually taken place six years earlier (230).
(2.) The adult-narrated stories in Gorilla, My Love include "My Man Bovanne," "Mississippi Ham Rider," "Talkin Bout Sonny," and "The Survivor." The narrator of "The Johnson Girls" is on a borderline: She is in college and has had a story published in a magazine, but she is still a teenager and she plays the role of the distinctly younger sister in the story. "Happy Birthday" is the only story about a child in the collection that is voiced in the third person.
(3.) I am indebted to James Berger for his reading of what he sees as Toni Morrison's engagement with the failures of 1960s liberalism in Beloved. Berger suggests that Morrison returns in Beloved to "an essentially liberal concern with the traumatic effects of institutional racism" and thus revives "the tradition of liberal sociology that culminated in the Moynihan report" (408) He argues that Morrison corrects, through a shift in perspective, the most "damaging errors" of liberal thought of this period: "the denial of African American culture and agency and the slighting of African American women that characterized liberal thought from E. Franklin Frazier to Moynihan" (408). Beloved is at the same time, in his reading, a challenge to the cultural amnesia in "all American racial discourse of the 1980s, from Reaganist conservatism to the New Left and black nationalism" (414).
(4.) Among other recent African American writers who have produced compelling first-person, child-narrated works of fiction are Ann Petry, Louise Meriwether, Toni Morrison, and Ernest J. Gaines.
(5.) Wahneema Lubiano offers a particularly cogent discussion of the perennial re-eruptions of these concepts.
(6.) See especially Bambara's interviews with Tate (28), Guy-Sheftall (233), and Massiah (217-21).
Bambara, Toni Cade. Gorilla, My Love. 1972. New York: Vintage, 1992.
--. "Salvation Is the Issue." Evans 41-47.
Bambara, Toni Cade, ed. The Black Woman: An Anthology. New York: NAL, 1970.
Berger, James. "Ghosts of Liberalism: Morrison's Beloved and the Moynihan Report." PMLA 111 (1996): 408-20.
Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1989.
Byerman, Keith E. Fingering the Jagged Grain: Tradition and Form in Recent Black Fiction. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1985.
Dubey, Madhu. Black Women Novelists and the Nationalist Aesthetic. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994.
Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City: Doubleday, 1983.
Griffin, Farah Jasmine. "Conflict and Chorus: Reconsidering Toni Cade's The Black Woman: An Anthology." "Is it Nation Time?": Contemporary Essays on Black Nationalism and Black Power. Ed. Eddie Glaude, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2002. 113-129.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks." Interview. Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Ed. Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Guy-Sheftall. Garden City: Doubleday, 1979.230-49.
Lubiano, Wahneema. "Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means." Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 323-64.
Massiah, Louis. "How She Came by Her Name." Interview. Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations. By Toni Cade Bambara. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1996. 201-45.
Moynihan, Daniel P. "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." 1965. The Moynihan Report and the Politics of Controversy. Ed. Lee Rainwater and William L. Yancey. Cambridge: MIT P, 1967. 39-124.
Rampersad, Arnold. "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Afro-American Literature." Satire or Evasion?: Black Perspectives on Huckleberry Finn. Ed. James S. Leonard, Thomas A. Tenney, and Thadious M. Davis. Durham: Duke UP, 1992. 217-27.
Tate, Claudia. "Toni Cade Bambara." Interview. Black Women Writers at Work. Ed. Tate. New York: Continuum, 1993. 12-38.
Traylor, Eleanor. "Music as Theme: The Jazz Mode in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara." Evans 58-70.
Willis, Susan. Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987.
Elizabeth Muther is Associate Professor of English at Bowdoin College. She is writing a book on African American modernism and co-editing a collection of essays on the poetry of Michael S. Harper. She has published on contemporary African American fiction in African American Review and Narrative.
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|Title Annotation:||Toni Cade Bambara|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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