The narrator is Miss Hazel, a middle-aged black woman. One night, she attends a benefit for an acquaintance who wants to attract “grass roots” support for his political campaign for "this Black party somethin or other" (4). While there, she dances with Bovanne, a blind mechanic who is popular with the neighborhood kids but a bit of an outsider amongst the adults. She pushes up close to him and enjoys the feeling of his stomach vibrations, although she insists that the sensation is not sexual.
Her sons, Joe Lee and Task, and daughter, Elo, pull her into the kitchen to demand she not dance so close to Bovanne. They also criticize her low-cut dress and her excessive drinking. Overall, they suggest she is causing a scene, and try various tactics to get her to behave. In their reprimands are clear undercurrents of their overall disappointment in their mother, and their own political expectations for how she should act. She suggests they are affiliated with the current Black political movements; Elo calls Bovanne "that tom," referencing the phrase 'Uncle Tom' (6).
Miss Hazel thinks to herself that the other people at the party are the ones worthy of censure – after all, she is the only one who would even talk to Bovanne at the party, whereas they start ignoring the old man as soon as they are no longer children. While her children lambast her, the narrator reflects on her life, lamenting how she and Elo have grown distant despite Miss Hazel's deep love for the girl.
Bovanne enters the kitchen, looking for her. She leaves her children and brings Bovanne from the party. Neither admits they are planning to sleep together, but both understand it. Miss Hazel thinks about how she will take care of him that night "cause you gots to take care of the older folks," and is unperturbed to think of herself as the "hussy" that Elo believes her to be (9-10).
Like the other stories in this collection, “My Man Bovanne” explores the different kinds of love that comprise the human experience. In addition to sexual and filial love, Bambara suggests that it is also possible to have a platonic connection with another person based on nothing more than shared humanity. She introduces this concept in “My Man Bovanne.” Miss Hazel's family misconstrues her relationship with Bovanne as a sexual one, and her decision to bring him home at the end of the story seems to back up their view of her. However, she convincingly suggests that her connection with Bovanne is based on empathy, not sexual or romantic desire. She is not bringing him home from a desire for sex, but from a desire to take care of him.
This concept of platonic connection (which Bambara develops further in the collection’s other stories) is based on empathy, an important theme in Gorilla, My Love. Although the narrator and Bovanne seem to have little in common besides their age, they are able to form a deep and meaningful connection because the narrator makes an effort to understand what Bovanne’s life is like. She observes how he is treated by others, and pays attention to how these interactions affect him. Likewise, the conflict between the narrator and her children stems from the fact that her sons do not take time to consider the feelings of their mother or of Bovanne.
In many ways, Miss Hazel's affection for Bovanne is one born from their shared position as lonely outsiders. Though Bambara uses background exposition sparingly, there is indication that Miss Hazel does drink too much and sleep around a lot, and it seems likely that she was dancing differently than others at the political rally. Further, she is clearly an outsider from her own family; the undercurrents of the generation gap are pronounced during their scene in the kitchen. Therefore, she is able to glimpse the loneliness that Bovanne must feel, as a man who has skills suitable to impress children but not adults. When she decides to take care of him, she is not only recognizing Bovanne himself, but also the existence of people whose loneliness is ignored by a larger society.
“My Man Bovanne” also interrogates the flaws of the concept of Black Power. After the Civil Rights movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, many African-Americans embraced the Black Power movement, which emphasized both pride in black heritage and collective action to improve the status of African-Americans in the United States. These ideas were especially compelling for the younger generation, but Bambara suggests that the ideas also encouraged a new kind of conformity. Proponents of Black Power rejected other concepts of blackness. This idea is expressed when the children insult their mother's sense of identity, insisting she conform to their own. However, Bambara suggests that blackness is a broad, multi-faceted identity that means something different to every individual. She suggests that the politicized understanding of black identity that was prevalent in the 1960s and early 1970s could sometimes lead to oversimplification, even within a single family. Miss Hazel's voice has been lost in the attempt to define a collective blackness.
“My Man Bovanne” has a static structure. It is meant to give a quick insight into the thoughts and emotions of the narrator, who does not change much over the course of the story. In this sense, it can be considered more of a character sketch than a story with a conventional narrative arc and sense of character development. Although the narrator responds to events in the plot, she does not grow and change like other characters in the collection, such as Squeaky in “Raymond’s Run” or Inez in “Mississippi Ham Rider.” This makes sense, considering her age - she is in her 60s. Older narrators are unusual for Bambara; most of the stories in this collection are narrated by children or young women. This narrator’s lack of development over the course of the story suggests that Bambara may prefer younger narrators because they are more likely to change and grow in response to plot events. Considering it is the first story in the collection, it might also indicate a desire to reveal how identities are eventually defined. Ultimately, what happens in this story is that Miss Hazel decides to remain herself, to not compromise her sense of kinship in favor of a different sense of kinship which her children try to force upon her.
Like many of the other stories in Gorilla, My Love, much of the action in “My Man Bovanne” is internal. The thematic weight of “My Man Bovanne” lies not in the plot events, which are mundane, but rather in the narrator’s thoughts and emotions. It is notable that the story ends with Miss Hazel's decision to bathe Bovanne, and not the act itself. This device - of ending on the choice rather than on the act - is employed in many of the other stories in this collection, suggesting that life’s most important changes are not in one’s circumstances, but in how one responds to those circumstances.