A Sort of Preface
Bambara explains why she is disinclined to write autobiographical fiction.
My Man Bovanne
Miss Hazel, the female, middle-aged narrator, attends a grassroots political fundraiser. There, she dances with Bovanne, a blind mechanic who is popular with children in the neighborhood, but whom the adults ignore. She enjoys the interaction with Bovanne in a friendly, platonic way. However, her children criticize her for dancing so close to him, as well as for drinking and wearing a low-cut dress. The narrator reflects on her fraught relationship with her children, especially with her daughter Elo. They have become politicized by the current black movements, and treat her as obsolete. She finally ignores her children and takes Bovanne from the party. As they walk the streets towards her house, she looks forward to giving him a bath and a massage.
Gorilla, My Love
Hazel, the young female narrator, is riding in a car with her Granddaddy Vale, her uncle Hunca Bubba, and her younger brother Baby Jason. Hunca Bubba believes he has turned over a new leaf in life, so asks to be called by his full name, Jefferson Winston Vale. He shows Hazel and Baby Jason some pictures of his girlfriend. The photographs trigger a flashback for Hazel, of a time she went to the movies to see a film called Gorilla, My Love, thinking it would be about gorillas. When it turned out to be a religious film, she made a ruckus and demanded her money back. The manager refused, so she set the candy machine on fire. Her parents did not punish her because they respect her naïve integrity. Back in the present, Hazel asks Hunca Bubba if he will marry his girlfriend. He confirms that he will, and she accuses him of lying, since he had once jokingly promised to marry her. She and Baby Jason cry together.
Squeaky, the narrator, is a young girl who loves to run. She also takes care of her mentally disabled older brother, Raymond. The day before her school’s quarter-mile relay, a race she always wins, she and Raymond encounter her rival, Gretchen, and two of Gretchen’s friends. They tease her about Raymond, but Squeaky threatens them and they leave. The next day at the relay, a teacher named Mr. Pearson encourages Squeaky to let Gretchen win. Squeaky ignores this suggestion, and gives the race her full effort. Raymond runs alongside her, and she notices his talent. After she wins, Squeaky decides to quit running and focus on coaching Raymond instead. When Gretchen warmly congratulates her, she smiles and wonders whether her former rival would like to help.
The Hammer Man
The young narrator antagonizes a “crazy” boy named Manny who carries a hammer in his pants (35). He sits outside her apartment for days, hoping for revenge. Eventually, Manny climbs onto the narrator’s roof and falls off, badly injuring himself. One evening several weeks later, the narrator sees Manny playing basketball alone in the dark. She watches him, although he ignores her attempts to converse. Eventually, two white police officers arrive, and confront the children about being on the court when it is supposed to be closed. Manny ignores their questions, and mutters to himself. The narrator tries to stand up for him, but falls back when the encounter becomes physically violent. Manny is arrested, and never seen in the neighborhood again. The narrator abandons her tomboy ways, and participates in a fashion show at the community center.
Mississippi Ham Rider
Inez Wiliams, the narrator, and her partner, Neil McLoughlin, travel South on business for a record company. Their company is reissuing a series of ‘race records’ from the 1920s, and want the legendary blues singer Mississippi Ham Rider to record some new material. Ham, now an unemployed alcoholic, refuses to meet Inez, but his young relative Melanie helps Inez arrange a meeting. Inez, Melanie, Neil, Ham, and Ham’s daughter Isabele meet at Mama Teddy’s, a traditional Southern restaurant. Mama Teddy’s food helps Inez reconnect with her Southern heritage. Although she is disconcerted by Ham’s sense of humor and worries that he will be exploited by the company, she forges a connections with him, and he agrees to come to New York to record. He plays some music in the diner.
A neglected little girl named Ollie tries to wake her Granddaddy Larkins on her birthday, but he is passed out. Most of her friends and family are out of town because it is summer. She wanders the block looking for someone to celebrate her birthday with, but everyone shoos her away. She sobs alone on the sidewalk.
Playin with Punjab
Violet, the narrator, explains that a ruthless loan shark named Punjab is a fixture in her neighborhood. Violet works as an assistant to Miss Ruby, a white social worker. Miss Ruby helps the community organize an election for a delegate to represent them on the city poverty council. Everyone thinks Punjab would make a great representative because he knows everyone, he is aggressive, and he is articulate. However, few people vote in the election, and some unpopular people win. Miss Ruby reprimands the community for not voting, but they blame her. Punjab vandalizes her office, and she never returns to the neighborhood after that. A bureaucrat arrives to investigate the vandalism, but no one identifies Punjab as the culprit. Punjab resumes giving out loans on the street corner.
Talkin Bout Sonny
Betty Butler, a social worker, sits in a bar and listens to the patrons discuss Sonny, a neighborhood man who has murdered his wife. Lee the bartender speculates about Sonny’s motivations. The other patron is Delauney, a man with whom Betty seems to be in a relationship. She remembers gently questioning him about the way he raises his daughters. Delauney admits that he sympathizes with Sonny. His intensity in communicating that sympathy makes both Betty and Lee uncomfortable.
A college-educated woman named Miss Moore moves to a block in Harlem where Sylvia, the narrator, lives. Miss Moore frequently takes the neighborhood children on educational excursions, which they find boring. One day, Miss Moore takes Sylvia and some others to F.A.O. Schwarz on Fifth Avenue. The children are shocked to see such expensive prices for toys, and Sylvia grows angry, though she cannot articulate the reasons for it. After they return to Harlem, Miss Moore pushes them to articulate their feelings on wealth disparity, and Sylvia grows angry at her. As she leaves, however, she does resolve to meditate on the lesson.
A film actress named Jewel is nine months pregnant as she rides a bus to visit her grandmother, Miss Candy. On the ride, she reflects on her life with her violently abusive husband Paul, whom she recently left. There is some indication that he might have died in a car accident. Miss Candy picks her up from the bus stop and they discuss Jewel's situation. Jewel’s overbearing niece, Cathy, visits. Right as Cathy enters, Jewel goes into labor. When the baby arrives, Jewel resolves to “empty her head” of bad memories so she can better take care of her child (117).
Kit, the narrator, remembers the summer when she was 15. She and her mother made a game out of writing each other notes with unconventional materials, like cake frosting and candle wax. She also became involved with a boy named B.J. They shared many whimsical experiences along with their friend Eddie, and often discussed running away to California. One night, B.J. tells Kit that he and Eddie are leaving without her. Kit continues to daydream over the years about setting off in search of him, hoping that news of her quest will reach him and draw him back home.
Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird
The narrator and her cousin Cathy live with their grandparents, Granny and Granddaddy Cain. One day, while Granddaddy is out hunting, two cameramen arrive at the farm. They are shooting a promotional film about the county’s food stamps program. They ask to film on the property, but Granny refuses. Nevertheless, they hang around the edges of the property, filming anyway. The children tell each other stories until Grandaddy Cain returns home with a large hawk, a hammer, and his hunting gear. He forces the cameramen to hand over the camera, and he removes the top to ruin the film. He points out that they are standing in Granny’s flowerbed, and they leave.
The narrator often plays at her friend Patsy’s house. Patsy’s mother urges both girls to stay out of the basement, because the pedophile building superintendent hangs around there. Patsy tells them that he once showed his penis to her and her friends. Though the narrator doubts Patsy’s story because she likes to make up lewd stories, Patsy’s mother tries to storm out to kill the super. Patsy’s aunt tries to stop her, and they fight. Eventually, both women leave and the narrator tries to leave as well. Patsy begs her to stay, promising to show her a surprise if she does. The narrator reluctantly agrees, and Patsy masturbates in front of her.
Maggie of the Green Bottles
The narrator of this story lives with her parents, her great-grandmother Maggie, and her brother, Baby Jason. Maggie is interested in astrology and other methods of fortune-telling, and she has an especially close relationship with the narrator. However, Maggie is also an alcoholic and has a cruel side. The narrator becomes fascinated with Maggie’s green bottles, which the narrator’s father brings out whenever he and Maggie get into a serious fight. One day, the narrator, Baby Jason, and Maggie sit in the yard, making necklaces out of peppers. Maggie sends the narrator to secretly bring her a green bottle. The narrator does, and Maggie dies shortly after. Everyone criticizes Maggie after her death, and the narrator does not know what to believe. Her parents offer to let her keep any of Maggie’s possessions, so she asks for Maggie’s bottles. Her parents give her some different bottles instead, and the narrator cries.
The Johnson Girls
The narrator lives with her older cousin, Inez. Inez’s boyfriend, Roy, has recently left her to move to Nashville. Inez plans to follow him, and five of her friends help her pack. They drink, chat, and share advice. The narrator is drawn into their circle because their relationship is so warm and intimate. Suddenly, Inez breaks down and cries about Roy. None of the friends know what to do, but the narrator proves her mettle by sending her boyfriend, Thumb, for cigarettes, and suggesting they first discuss the note that Roy left Inez.