A man named Thumb hits on the (unnamed) narrator, but she rejects him because he was once involved with her older cousin, Inez. The narrator lives with Inez and Great Ma Drew, their elderly housekeeper.
Great Ma Drew is currently preparing to tell fortunes, using her playing cards. Great Ma tells the narrator that she (the narrator) is more ignorant about life and men than she thinks, but the narrator ignores her.
Upstairs, the narrator finds Inez and her friends packing for a trip than Inez will take to Knoxville. The older women discuss the qualities they seek in a man, and the narrator tries to contribute to the conversation despite her relative inexperience. We learn that Inez quit a job in publishing to found a jazz academy, and that she had invited her boyfriend, Roy, to move in, but then refused to marry him. Roy broke up with her two weeks earlier and moved to Knoxville, which is why Inez is traveling there now.
Inez’s friends encourage her to pursue Roy because he is such a good man. The narrator notices that one friend, Sugar, seems ready to cry. Gail tells a story about a man named Rudi and his turbulent love life. She then insists that the friends - whom she calls "the Johnson Girls" - can fashion a plan to get Roy back (176). All of the women are skeptical of Inez's bohemian attitude towards marriage and relationships.
As Inez opens her suitcase, a crumpled note from Roy falls from her hand, and she begins to cry. There is an uncomfortable silence among the friends, and then the narrator takes charge. She sends Thumb for cigarettes, and suggests that they discuss the note.
Although Gorilla, My Love grows darker in tone over the course of the collection, it ends on an upbeat note with “The Johnson Girls.” Even though Inez seems to suffer from depression and has a tumultuous relationship with Roy, she finds strength in her circle of supportive friends. Overall, the story is thematically similar to stories like “Raymond’s Run” and “The Lesson,” which also explore the power of friendship. However, “The Johnson Girls” is unique in its detailed portrait of the way women relate to each other. Inez's friends are generally loving and supportive, but minor tensions do exist beneath the surface. Despite their best intentions, they do not always know how to assuage their friend's pain. We see an instance of this at the end of the story, when Inez's tears quieten them, and only the narrator knows how to manage the situation.
While the story primarily focuses on friendship, it also shows the importance of family. Bambara strongly implies that the narrator’s close relationship with Inez can be attributed in part to their Great Ma Drew, who raised both of them. Though she only appears briefly, Great Ma Drew parallels other supportive maternal characters like Grandmother Candy in “The Survivor,” Maggie in “Maggie of the Green Bottles” (who incidentally also tells fortunes), and the narrator of “My Man Bovanne.”
There is an autobiographical element to this story. The title refers to Bambara’s real-life group of friends, whom she called ‘the Johnson Girls.’ Gorilla, My Love is dedicated to these women. The overall message of the collection is suggested by the fact that this story is placed last. It depicts women of color supporting one another despite the hardships imposed on them by men and society, all in all serving as a reinforcement of Bambara’s ideas about family, friendship, and human connection.
In one sense, “The Johnson Girls” is similar to “The Survivor,” in that both feature women supporting one another through difficult situations. However, the former is entirely distinct from the latter in style and tone. “The Survivor” is lengthy and structurally experimental, whereas “The Johnson Girls” is spare and to-the-point; further, “The Survivor” is unrelentingly dark, while “The Johnson Girls” takes a much lighter tone. However, Bambara still takes the characters’ problems seriously despite that lighter tone. Though she does not reveal the details of Inez’s fight with Roy, she does portray Inez’s emotional devastation with tenderness and sensitivity.
Like “Mississippi Ham Rider,” this story is a departure from Bambara’s stories set in Harlem. Although Brooklyn is geographically close to Harlem, Inez’s neighborhood appears to be middle-class. The women in the story seem to be successful career women, relatively new territory for women of color at the time the story was written. However, despite their relative success, they continue to be influenced by their modest upbringings, as we see in the narrator’s flashback to her life with Great Ma Drew. Furthermore, they confront timeless relationship problems, which are exacerbated by Inez’s progressive ideas about marriage and commitment. Bambara seems to suggest that putting women in positions of relative wealth and power will not immediately resolve most of the difficulties they face. Or put another way, social issues (which she explores in a myriad of ways throughout the collection) do not necessarily matter to the most important relationships, those of family and love.