Bambara was deeply conscious of the difficulties that a woman of color faces. Indeed, she first achieved literary fame by editing The Black Woman, an anthology that focused on African-American female writers. In the stories of Gorilla, My Love, which are all written from a female perspective, Bambara showcases the obstacles, from domestic abuse to poverty, that black women in Harlem had to overcome in the 1960s and 1970s. However, she also suggests that friendship and empathy are the strongest tools that women have to transcend these difficulties. In “Raymond’s Run” and “Basement,” Bambara presents female relationships in turmoil, and explores the difficulties of finding solidarity amongst fellow women. However, role models like Miss Moore in “The Lesson” and Maggie in “Maggie of the Green Bottles” show the importance of female role models, for better and for worse. In “The Johnson Girls” and the final passages of “Raymond’s Run,” Bambara illustrates how fellowship between women can be an incredibly strong resource that individuals (fictional and real) can turn to in times of need.
Youth and innocence
The majority of the characters in this collection are children or teenagers. In addition to observing facts about life that adults take for granted, these narrators often speak and behave inappropriately. One example of this is the confrontational narrator of “The Hammer Man,” who provokes first Manny and then the police; another is Patsy, who lies pathologically and masturbates in front of the narrator of “Basement.” Because children often break social rules, either intentionally or accidentally, they create dramatic situations that can lead to revealing moments. They also offer more potential for development over the course of a short story, since their personal characteristics are usually not as developed as those of an adult; therefore, they are often more open to learning from events. Overall, Bambara's work implicitly suggests that youth has the potential to see the world in all its contradictions, rather than simply accepting it as a flawed place that cannot be challenged.
Almost all of the characters in Gorilla, My Love live in poverty (two exceptions are Inez Williams in “Mississippi Ham Rider” and the narrator, also named Inez, in “The Johnson Girls”). Bambara portrays poverty as mostly banal. Her characters – especially the young ones – are not particularly aware of it since they so rarely encounter other ways of living. When they are reminded of their poverty, as in “The Lesson,” it is often a meaningful experience that influences the way they perceive themselves and others. Bambara's social justice led her to craft stories that criticize poverty most strongly by exploring how those who live within it do not even realize that there is an alternative.
Though the characters in Gorilla, My Love often face incredible hardship, they find support in their families. Bambara emphasizes that there are many different kinds of family, all of which can fill a supportive role. Inez relies primarily on the family that has formed among her group of friends in “The Johnson Girls.” In “Happy Birthday” and “The Hammer Man,” people from the protagonist’s block or apartment building supplement the family structure. When families fail, as in “The Survivor” and “Happy Birthday,” they cause the collection’s most profound tragedies. Overall, if this collection has a message, it is that family has the greatest potential to either save or destroy us. It is the nucleus that transcends even social and economic problems.
Bambara’s protagonists generally consider integrity to be a very important virtue. However, they differ when it comes to defining the virtue. Hazel in “Gorilla, My Love” has a deeply literal understanding of integrity, and believes that people should do exactly what they promise to do. The narrator of “My Man Bovanne,” on the other hand, has a more sophisticated understanding of integrity; she believes that people should be empathetic, and judges those who criticize her for dancing with Bovanne when they themselves ignore him. For this character, integrity is based not so much on what people say, but rather on their behavior. Overall, Bambara's stories explore the ways in which even poor or ignored characters attempt to find and assess dignity through their sense of integrity.
Although many of these stories take place in the world of children, there is nevertheless a strong theme of intergenerational tension that runs throughout the collection. It is explicit in “My Man Bovanne” and “Mississippi Ham Rider.” In these stories, the narrators openly discuss the emotional and political disconnect they feel with people who are older or younger than they are. In other stories, this tension is implied rather than openly stated. Consider, for example, the difference between Granny’s reaction to the cameramen in “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird,” and those of the children. Another example of implied tension occurs in “The Survivor.” In that story, Miss Candy has great difficulty understanding why Jewel stayed with Paul for so long, despite her own experiences with unsatisfying relationships. Regardless of how explicit the tension is, Bambara presents it as an obstacle that can be overcome by empathy and friendship, much like the rivalries between women that appear and are overcome elsewhere in the collection.
The late 1960s and early 1970s were a hotbed of political activism, and this especially applied to the African-American community, which spawned a number of grassroots movements that lobbied for better conditions and the elimination of discrimination. These movements form a backdrop to the stories in Gorilla, My Love. The plot of “Playin with Punjab” hinges upon a neighborhood election for representation at the city poverty council, and “My Man Bovanne” is set at a political fundraiser. However, most of the characters seem to consider advocacy as secondary to the problems they face in their day-to-day lives. Likewise, some of the social workers - like Betty Butler in "Talkin Bout Sonny" - seem unaware of the difficulty that comes with actually integrating into a skeptical community. Rather than illustrating black political empowerment in action, Gorilla, My Love arguably illustrates why it is necessary in the first place, by exploring the cost and tragedy of apathy in a community that is being ignored.
Gorilla, My Love Questions and Answers
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