The narrator of "The Hammer Man" is a young girl who frequently gets into fights with boys. She is even known to tussle with Manny, a boy known to be “crazy” (35). Throughout the story, it seems that Manny might have a mild mental handicap.
One day, she antagonizes Manny, after which he follows her home and sits on her stoop for days. The narrator hides inside during that time, pretending to have yellow fever so she can avoid him. Her father eventually realizes what is happening, and confronts Manny’s older brother Bernard – an encounter that ends with the narrator’s father shoving Bernard’s head into a mailbox. Eventually, Manny climbs up onto the narrator’s roof for an unspecified reason. He falls off.
Manny is badly injured by the fall, but the narrator still considers him her enemy. She tells everyone at school that she beat him up herself, and stole the hammer he is known to always carry in his pants.
Time passes. The narrator’s mother bribes her to join the community center. While there, she sneaks into the office and reads her file, which makes her realize she is “from a deviant family in a deviant neighborhood” (38). One evening, the narrator is walking home from the community center when she sees Manny doing lay-ups on the public basketball court. She asks him why he is playing basketball alone in the dark, but he barely responds, only muttering to himself about an important game he had played last season. The narrator watches him for a while.
Two white police officers pull up, and ask Manny and the narrator what they are doing on the basketball court, which is supposed to be locked. Manny seems unaware of them as he continues to mutter about the game. One police officer slaps him, and the narrator yells at him and his partner. The cops almost leave, but change their minds and arrest Manny. The narrator does not intervene because she worries the encounter will become violent, and that she will be killed. She has an entire fantasy about a violent end to the situation.
She never sees Manny again, although she does hear from her godmother, Miss Rose, that he has been sent to an asylum. She gradually forgets about Manny, and participates in a fashion show at the community center.
Like other stories in the collection, “The Hammer Man” draws much of its dramatic tension from feelings and relationships rather than from external plot. However, Bambara also turns her focus outward here by portraying some social problems. She depicts urban blight and poverty not by explicitly describing these things, but by portraying them as a banal part of daily life for these characters. For example, Manny falls off the roof because it has been crumbling for some time. Bambara presents this as evidence of the neighborhood’s poverty without actually explaining it as such. This makes sense, considering that her first-person narrator would not have an outside perspective on such degradation, but would rather accept it as a fact of life.
Police brutality is another important issue that Bambara spotlights in this story. Throughout the 1960s, many incidents occurred in Harlem in which (usually white) police officers treated civilians violently, with little or no provocation. This persistent problem caused a large riot when a police officer shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American boy in 1964. Events like this may have influenced Bambara’s portrayal of Manny’s abuse and arrest. Although police brutality in New York City is nowhere near the levels it reached in the 1960s and the 1970s, it continues to be a controversial issue. Recent controversial incidents include the slaying of 16-year-old Kimani Gray in Brooklyn, and the NYPD’s use of racial profiling in its stop-and-frisk program (Goodman, Goldstein).
Overall, violence is everywhere in this story, even though Bambara only hints at it. The titular image of the "hammer" serves as a symbol for the aggression with which everyone here confronts one another. It is not surprising that the narrator grew up with such aggression, considering that her father clearly has his own problems with violence, as evidenced by the altercation with Bernard. Manny's aggression towards the narrator has an almost obsessive quality, and the narrator seems to define herself by her ability to maintain animosity towards him. When she pretends to steal his "hammer," the sense is less phallic (though one could be excused for reading it that way) as aggressive. She has taken his masculine aggression and co-opted it for herself.
Like the narratives of “Gorilla, My Love” and “The Lesson,” the narrative of “The Hammer Man” is driven by the main character’s slow transition into maturity. For most of the story, the narrator rejects feminine things, refusing to wear dresses despite her mother’s urging. Even before the incident with Manny at the basketball court, she thinks about how she will soon have to give up her tomboy ways and start behaving in a more conventionally feminine manner. After the incident, she conforms to those expectations, even participating in a fashion show.
Participating in more traditionally feminine activities marks a turning point in the narrator’s life, and helps her forget about Manny. It is worthwhile to compare Bambara’s portrayal of femininity in this story to her depiction of it in other stories. Here, she specifically associates femininity with adulthood, and suggests that womanly behavior is something her characters grow into. In this sense, “The Hammer Man” is similar to “Gorilla, My Love,” “Blues Ain’t No Mockin Bird,” and “Raymond’s Run” – each of which features a young girl who proudly eschews conventionally feminine dress and behavior.
In this story and in “Raymond’s Run,” the young narrators begin to embrace certain traditionally feminine behaviors – like wearing dresses and nurturing others – as a sign of maturity. Bambara’s nuanced attitude towards femininity suggests that while many women grow into expressing their gender in a traditional way, there is also something to be gained from defying gender norms. Perhaps the reason gender norms are so closely linked with maturity here is that by accepting her femininity, this narrator is abandoning her aggression, which she had linked to the male "hammer." She is learning to approach life in a passive way, and is thus able to forget about the aggression she both felt towards Manny and saw enacted upon him by the police.
Finally, this story has a undercurrent of loneliness that the narrator is unable to articulate, perhaps because she turns her focus towards a pleasant conformity. Undoubtedly, the narrator's family has troubles (the father's violence is problematic), but Manny's situation seems even worse. Not only does he seem to have had an equally poor and violent upbringing, but there is some indication of a mental deficiency. The obsessiveness with which he waits on the stoop, the strangeness of his climbing to the roof, and his distracted behavior on the court suggest a variety of possible mental handicaps. Like many other characters in Bambara's stories, Manny seems to be an outsider, someone for whom his society cannot appropriately provide. Whether he ended up in a mental asylum or somewhere different, Manny definitely has issues that confound the limitations of his neighborhood. As he was ignored when there, so is he forgotten when gone.