“I ain’t never been souther than Brooklyn Battery and no more country than the window box on my fire escape. And just yesterday my kids tellin me to take them countrified rags off my head and be cool. And now can’t get Black enough to suit em.”
Toni Cade Bambara often uses irony to add levity to otherwise serious situations. This is one such instance. When Miss Hazel goes into greater depth about her relationship with Elo, the mood of the story takes a decidedly dark and poignant turn. However, this observation combines a degree of wry humor with serious commentary on the disconnect between the politically aggressive younger generation and the older one, which is unaccustomed to an activist culture. The irony not only mitigates the seriousness of the observation, but also helps to explain why some ideas seem absurd to people who do not take their validity for granted.
“If you say Gorilla, My Love, you suppose to mean it.”
At this point in the story, Hazel is describing a time she became frustrated after going to a movie called Gorilla, My Love and realizing that it was not actually about gorillas. Her frustration demonstrates her fierce sense of integrity, the indignation she feels when a situation does not live up to the way it is described. Hazel’s literal understanding of social rules is quirky, as befits a young child. However, it also sheds light on adult experiences when placed in the context of the other stories in the collection. For example, Miss Ruby’s anger at the end of “Playin with Punjab” can be attributed to essentially the same kind of misunderstanding – the people in the neighborhood led her and Punjab to believe they would vote, but they did not. While the adult characters certainly have a more sophisticated sense of integrity, their understanding of social rules is fundamentally the same as Hazel’s.
“Baby Jason cryin too. Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grown-ups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And they don’t even say sorry.”
In addition to reinforcing Bambara’s ideas about family and human fellowship, this passage also does a great deal to characterize Hazel. Her literal understanding of integrity seems to extend to other parts of life as well. This is particularly obvious when she attributes her closeness to Baby Jason with him being her “blood brother.” If the other stories in this collection are any indication, Bambara seems to feel that meaningful family connections can be formed with anyone regardless of "blood." Hazel’s literal way of perceiving the world is typical for a young girl, and Bambara subtly reinforces that element of her character throughout the story. Nevertheless, the sentiment here - that people are bonded by shared experiences and values - is profound.
“I’m thinking that girls never really smile at each other because they don’t know how and don’t want to know how and there’s probably no one to teach us how, cause grown-up girls don’t know either.”
This is an example of one of Bambara’s young narrators making a perceptive observation that an adult probably would not. In many ways, the astuteness of the observation might be beyond an adult, who probably understands animosity in more complicated, social ways and hence misses this basic message. The passage also touches on Bambara’s unique approach to feminism, which centers on women overcoming obstacles by sticking together. Bambara models many positive female relationships in this collection (including that between Squeaky and Gretchen’s once they reconcile). However, she also acknowledges in this passage that such relationships can be hard to come by. Society encourages women to compete for everything from material wealth to male attention to, in Squeaky’s case, athletic success. Bambara suggests that the only way for women to overcome oppression is to transcend these pressures and support each other.
“We stand there with a 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.”
Many of the positive relationships that Bambara depicts in Gorilla, My Love will be familiar to readers. The powerful bond between Jewel and Miss Candy in “The Survivor,” and that between Maggie and the narrator in “Maggie of the Green Bottles” both reinforce the concept of family as a crucial support system. However, Bambara also argues that fellowship and compassion should extend not only to one’s family, but also to others in our community. She demonstrates this idea by illustrating how Squeaky learns to respect her rival in “Raymond’s Run." Here, Squeaky acknowledges the problem - that women are taught to compete, not to smile - and then attempts to transcend that problem for the sake of a straightforward, empathetic moment.
“I looked into one of those not-quite-white folders and saw that I was from a deviant family in a deviant neighborhood. I showed my mother the word in the dictionary, but she didn’t pay me no mind. It was my favorite word after that. I ran it in the ground till one day my father got the strap just to show how deviant he could get. So I gave up trying to improve my vocabulary.”
In this passage, the narrator of “The Hammer Man” makes a profound discovery which she does not yet quite understand. The phrase “deviant family in a deviant neighborhood” adds a level of detail for the reader that the girl is too young to have articulated, and also adds a level of poignancy to the narrator's experiences. The irony is that she is too young to understand the significance of being labeled "deviant," and therefore tries to own it as a virtue. This moment also foreshadows her interaction with Manny and the police officers. In that scene, she will finally gain some understanding of what it means to be considered "deviant." The tragedy of the story - which parallels that of many others in the collection - comes from a young, innocent child realizing the hard truth of her life.
“She also had a few things to say to Miss Ruby about all this ‘grass roots’ and ‘poor folks’ and other phrases she didn’t like coming out of no white mouth, but everyone kept signaling her and whispering and whatnot till she finally reached back and pulled the dress away from her sticky thighs.”
Instances of political activism appears in several stories in this collection. However, this is the only instance in which it is primarily driven by an outsider – in this case, Miss Ruby, a white social worker. This moment offers some insight into the conflicted feelings that many people had about political activism at this time, particularly when it was driven by the government, through people like Miss Ruby. On the one hand, Violet and people like her appreciate the potential that Miss Ruby has to help them achieve their goals. In Violet’s case, this assistance could lead her to become a secretary. However, there is also a sense of frustration that despite ostensible changes, white people are still determining how African-Americans should do things. Miss Ruby's best intentions mean little when Punjab loses the election, and even though his loss is largely due to neighborhood apathy, public opinion immediately turns against her. Social activism is important, Bambara seems to argue, but the gap is too wide to be easily or quickly crossed.
“Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie and don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talkin about in the first damn place.”
Sylvia’s rollicking, slightly humorous take on economic inequality exposes issues that are still controversial today. Many writers at this time addressed problems like economic disparities and the lack of good opportunities for African-Americans. By exploring these issues through the eyes and voice of a child, Bambara presents them in a fresh style that is meant to engage readers who are probably already familiar with this kind of rhetoric. Sylvia’s innocence also grants her credibility as a judge. Unlike an adult, her opinions are as yet untainted by self-interest or jadedness. Therefore, the tragedy of her realization is all the greater, since with knowledge comes an end to her innocence. Finally, the anger in the tone here suggests the importance of education. Because Sylvia is a rebellious child, this lesson seems to direct that anger where it might otherwise be spent on less valuable targets.
“Wives, she’d learned growing up in the dark, were the ladies found tied to scuttled boats at the bottom of the lake, their hair embraced by the seaweed. Husbands were men with their heads bashed in, doused with alcohol, stuck under the driver’s wheel, and shoved over the cliff. Wives were tautly strung creatures you plotted against with optical illusions, tape recorders, coincidences, and evil servants until they went mad and you inherited the estate. Husbands were dull sofas you schemed against with your convertible boyfriends who knew how to talk him into increasing his insurance at the critical moment. Wives were victims pushed beyond endurance, then snatched suddenly back from the edge by that final straw we carry from birth just in time to butcher beer bellies in the bedroom. Husbands were worms that turned on the femmes fatales who were too cocky to plot his death and got strangled with piano wire.”
To this day, Toni Cade Bambara is famous primarily as a prose writer. However, passages like this are more like prose poetry than straight prose, in that much of the meaning is expressed implicitly through style rather than through clear, direct explanation. In this passage, we are left to decide for ourselves which of these anecdotes are drawn from Jewel’s own experience, which are from the lives of people she knows, and which did not happen at all. Bambara also takes seriously the experiences of abuse victims like Jewel, and successfully generalizes these experiences without portraying all women as helpless. Part of the reason for such an impressionistic style is that it suggests the way that abuse can damage a person's psyche. Even though Jewel does not break in this story, there is an ever-present threat throughout this passage, suggesting that women have just as much potential as men to violently ‘snap’ under pressure.
“We liked to make bold directionless overtures to action like those crazy teenagers you’re always running into on the printed page or MGM movies.”
“Sweet Town” is one of the collection’s most stylistically experimental pieces. This passage is also an example of postmodern self-reflexivity, which is rare in Bambara’s early work. Self-reflexivity occurs in literature when a book refers to itself in the body of the text. Here, the ironic joke lies in the fact that Kit herself is a "crazy teenager ... on the printed page." These techniques may be have been inspired by other self-reflexive writers who were popular at this time, like Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut. The fact that this story was written so early in Bambara’s career suggests that as she became more confident in her writing, she moved away from being influenced by other writers and developed more of a unique voice, one that sought its power more from naturalistic scenes and less from literary device.
"They didn't know what to do. But like Cathy say, folks can't stand Granddaddy tall and silent and like a king. They can't neither. The smile the men smilin is pulling the mouth back and showin the teeth. Lookin like the wolf man, both of them. Then Grandaddy holds his hand out - this huge hand I used to sit in when I was a baby and he'd carry me through the house to my mother like I was a gift on a tray. Like he used to on the trains. They called the other men just waiters. But they spoke of Grandaddy separate and said, The Waiter."
Here, the young narrator describes the magnitude of her grandfather, who is silently demanding that the cameramen give him their camera, and also suggests the importance of legacy to a young child. Written in a tumultuous period, Gorilla, My Love often suggests the potential for violence. In this story, set in the South, the divide between white and black is significant, as the cameramen simply expect they will be allowed to film on Granddaddy's land, likely by virtue of their race. That Grandaddy wins this altercation without a word speaks not only to his power, but to lessons he has learned by living through troubled times of discrimination. Further, the young voice of the narrator, who jumps immediately to the past - remembering the dignity her grandfather had even when working as a waiter on a train (itself a comment on racial segregation) - suggests the importance of memory and legacy for a family, which itself makes an implicit argument for the importance of the story being told. The narrator will clearly remember the incident from "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird," because she understands herself and her family through the things that happen to them.
Gorilla, My Love Questions and Answers
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