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Critical Essay by Martha M. Vertreace
SOURCE: "The Dance of Character and Community," in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, The University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155-71.
Vertreace is an American poet, educator, editor, and author of children's books. In the following essay, she examines the theme of community in Bambara's short fiction.
The question of identity—of personal definition within the context of community—emerges as a central motif for Toni Cade Bambara's writing. Her female characters become as strong as they do, not because of some inherent "eternal feminine" quality granted at conception, but rather because of the lessons women learn from communal interaction. Identity is achieved, not bestowed. Bambara's short stories focus on such learning. Very careful to present situations in a highly orchestrated manner, Bambara describes the difficulties that her characters must overcome.
Contemporary literature teems with male characters in coming-of-age stories or even female characters coming of age on male typewriters. Additional stories, sometimes written by black authors, indeed portray such concerns but narrowly defined within crushing contexts of city ghettos or rural poverty. Bambara's writing breaks such molds as she branches out, delineating various settings, various economic levels, various characters—both male and female.
Bambara's stories present a decided emphasis on the centrality of community. Many writers concentrate so specifically on character development or plot line that community seems merely a foil against which the characters react. For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension. Thus, her characters and community do a circle dance around and within each other as learning and growth occur.
Bambara's women learn how to handle themselves within the divergent, often conflicting, strata that compose their communities. Such learning does not come easily; hard lessons result from hard knocks. Nevertheless, the women do not merely endure; they prevail, emerging from these situations more aware of their personal identities and of their potential for further self-actualization. More important, they guide others to achieve such awareness.
Bambara posits learning as purposeful, geared toward personal and societal change. Consequently, the identities into which her characters grow envision change as both necessary and possible, understanding that they themselves play a major part in bringing about that change. This idea approximates the nature of learning described in Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he decries the "banking concept," wherein education becomes "an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor." Oppressive situations define the learner as profoundly ignorant, not possessing valuable insights for communal sharing.
Although many of Bambara's stories converge on the school setting as the place of learning in formal patterns, she liberates such settings to admit and encourage community involvement and ownership. Learning then influences societal liberation and self-determination. These stories describe learning as the process of problem solving, which induces a deepening sense of self, Freire's "intentionality."
Bambara on the Autobiographical Aspects of Her Writings:
I'm often asked while on the road, "How autobiographical is your work?"—the assumption being that it has to be. Sometimes the question springs from the racist assumption that creative writing and art are the domain of white writers. Sometimes the question surfaces from a class base, that only the leisured and comfortable can afford the luxury of imagination. Sometimes it stems from the fact that the asker is just some dull, normal type who cannot conceive of the possibility that some people have imagination, though they themselves do not, poor things. I always like to dive into that one. It was once argued, still argued, that great art is the blah-blah of the white, wealthy classes. Uh huh. And what works have survived the nineteenth century? The landed-gentry tomes or Frederick Douglass's autobiography? The gentle-lady romances or the slave narratives? After I climb all over that question and try to do justice to those scared little creative writers asking out of sincere concern and confusion, I usually read my "Sort of Preface" from Gorilla, My Love, which states my case on autobiographical writing; namely, I don't do it … except, of course, that I do; we all do. That is, whomsoever we may conjure up or remember or imagine to get a story down, we're telling our own tale just as surely as a client on the analyst's couch, just as surely as a pilgrim on the way to Canterbury, just as surely as the preacher who selects a particular text for the sermon, then departs from it, pulling Miz Mary right out of the pew and clear out of her shouting shoes. Can I get a witness? Indeed.
Toni Cade Bambara, in an interview with Claudia Tate, in Black Women Writers, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1986.
For Bambara the community benefits as both "teacher" and "student" confront the same problem—that of survival and prospering in hostile settings, without guaranteed outcomes. The commonality of problems, then, encourages a mutual sharing of wisdom and respect for individual difference that transcends age, all too uncommon in a more traditional education context. Bambara's characters encounter learning within situations similar to the older, tribal milieus. The stages of identity formation, vis-à-vis the knowledge base to be mastered, have five segments: (1) beginner, (2) apprentice, (3) journeyman, (4) artisan, and (5) expert.
Traditional societies employed these stages to pass on to their youth that information necessary to ensure the survival of the tribe, such as farming techniques, and that information needed to inculcate tribal mores, such as songs and stories. Because of Bambara's interest in cultural transmission of values, her characters experience these stages in their maturational quest. In her stories these levels do not correlate with age but rather connote degrees of experience in community.
The beginner deeply experiences, for the first time, the kind of world into which she is born, with its possibilities of joys and sorrows. In "Sweet Town" fifteen-year-old Kit apprehends the "sweet and drugged madness" of her youth. Teetering on the edge of young adulthood, she writes fun notes to her mother. "Please forgive my absence and my decay and overlook the freckled dignity and pockmarked integrity plaguing me this season."
Falling in love with the handsome but irresponsible B. J., Kit experiences his loss as a typical teenager might, vowing to search for him from town to town. Bambara is too skilled a storyteller to ascribe to her characters an unexplained superhuman source of wisdom that transcends their natural maturational state. Rather, she portrays the community as interceding on Kit's behalf, providing her with a sense of rootedness that protects her from emotional injury by putting the entire experience in proper perspective. Kit comes to realize that "days other than the here and now … will be dry and sane and sticky with the rotten apricots oozing slowly in the sweet time of my betrayed youth." Kit weathers this experience, learning that the community becomes the source of wisdom lacking in the beginner.
Ollie, in "Happy Birthday," does not experience such communal affirmation and support. That no one remembered her birthday becomes symptomatic of the community's withdrawal from her, its failure to provide her with a nurturing environment, its indifference to strengthening communal ties. Bambara catalogs the friends and family members who have forgotten, suggesting that this is the most recent of a succession of omissions. When one woman, Miss Hazel, suggests that Ollie will be happy to forget birthdays when she grows old, Ollie dissolves in tears. Most societies mark birthdays with cultic response. Children learn to ritualize birthdays as a way of reestablishing communal links. Forgetting is inconceivable, tantamount to willfully breaking or, worse, ignoring such bonds.
The community provides a structure of rules for the beginner that governs the interpretation of human experience. Within such rules the beginner can explore life without risking either self-destruction or alienation from the community. If the rules themselves fall into question, however, the beginner questions the trustworthiness of the community that generated them. Hazel experiences adults, in "Gorilla, My Love," as contradictory and therefore problematic. At a showing of Kings of Kings, Hazel wonders at a God who would passively allow his son to die when no one in her family would do that. Yet these same adults "figure they can treat you just anyhow. Which burns me up." "I get so tired of grownups messin over kids just cause they little and can't take em to court."
The familial setting encourages Hazel's independence and strength of character. Granddaddy Vale, for example, trusts her to sit in the "navigator seat" of the car and read the map as he drives, calling her "Scout." But at school her teachers dislike her "cause I won't sing them Southern songs or back off when they tell me my questions are out of order." A spunky little girl, Hazel has already begun to understand the societal forces that impinge on her world.
In spite of the fact that "my word is my bond," Hazel learns that adults define "word" and "bond" differently when addressed to children. When her favorite uncle, "Hunca Bubba," becomes "Jefferson Winston Vale" as he prepares for marriage, Hazel feels betrayed. Once when babysitting her, Hunca Bubba had playfully promised to marry her when she grew up. Hazel had taken him seriously, had taken his word as his bond. Losing her faith in the only community she trusts, her family, Hazel realizes that "I'm losing my bearings and don't even know where to look on the map cause I can't see for cryin." Adults seem to slide between two different definitions for "word" and "bond"—one for themselves and one for children. Because children never know which definition is being used, the supportive ground of community can never be fully trusted. Children, as Hazel says, "must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playing change-up and turning you round every which way so bad. And don't even say they sorry."
Beginners become very self-conscious, as rules provide the structure and stability they require. Rules confirm expectations. Beginners struggle with limited vision, however, as the total context of an experience lies outside their purview. These stories show young girls as beginners, at pivotal points in their understanding of themselves within the framework of community. Kit emerges whole, without the bitterness that both Ollie and Hazel develop. The difference was the role of the community, supportive of Kit while hostile to Ollie and fickle to Hazel.
Hazel's misinterpretation stemmed from her lack of experience with adults she can trust. Because a beginner can have many painful experiences, she needs a teacher from whom she can learn, who provides a supportive environment, who acts as a guide. At the level of apprentice, the second step, the learner moves from dependence on concrete situations to an ability to generalize to the hypothetical. At this point the learner relates consciously to the experience of a teacher, someone who can show her the ropes, help her see beyond shortsighted rules.
The movement from beginner to apprentice occurs when the beginner confronts a situation not explained by known rules. Someone steps in who breaks open the situation so that learning can occur. For Sylvia, in "The Lesson," Miss Moore was that person. Sylvia was an unwilling apprentice, resenting Miss Moore's teaching.
Miss Moore wants to radicalize the young, explaining the nature of poverty by taking her charges from their slums to visit Fifth Avenue stores, providing cutting-edge experiences for the children, making them question their acceptance of their lot. When asked what they learned, various ideas surfaced. "I don't think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs"; "I think that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don't it?"
The children, encouraged by Miss Moore, coalesce into a community of support that encourages such questions. For these children these questions represent rules that no longer work, assumptions that are no longer valid. The adult Miss Moore has stepped out of the adult world to act as guide to the children. Sylvia, for her part, profoundly affected by the day, concludes, "She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin."
Sylvia's determination to defeat her poverty represents movement to the next level, that of journeyman. No longer hampered by a strict adherence to established rules, the journeyman feels confident enough to trust instinct. Risk becomes possible as the journeyman extrapolates from numerous past experiences to stand alone, even if shakily. At this point the community must provide support without heavy-handed restraint or control as the journeyman ventures forth.
The generation gap gives Miss Hazel a chance to step out on her own, in "My Man Bovanne." At a benefit for a political candidate, Miss Hazel dances with Bovanne, a blind man whom the kids like, "or used to fore Black Power got hold their minds and mess em around till they can't be civil to ole folks." Her children cast aspersions on her "'apolitical self,'" but she perceives that, notwithstanding their concern for the movement, they "don't even stop a minute to get the man a drink or one of them cute sandwiches or tell him what's goin on."
Hazel knows that power concerns roots, not surface features such as hairstyles or handshakes. Hazel's children want her to form the Council of Elders, encouraging them to become politically active. Hazel, however, keeps company with Bovanne, "cause he blind and old and don't nobody there need him since they grown up and don't need they skates fixed no more." She knows the importance of historical continuity that the Elders represent and how unimportant, but politically seductive, passing fads are to youth.
Hazel's experience gives her the perspective she needs to reflect on her present, a possibility denied her children who seem ignorant of their history. Consequently, Hazel retreats from the currently popular expectations, fully confident in her risk taking because she knows that the youth must learn wisdom from the old if the community is to survive and prosper. Bambara shows that Hazel's awareness of the needs of the total community empowers her to remember the source of her strength. Her children, still beginners lacking visionary perspective, cannot recognize these needs concretized in the person of Bovanne, preferring instead to engage in an abstract level of political discourse. They cannot see the ultimate irony in soliciting the political support of the elders, yet failing to provide for their care.
Having experienced the encouragement that the community offers, the journeyman progresses to the level of artisan, at which solutions to problems fall more within one's personal control. In "Raymond's Run" Squeaky becomes Bambara's metaphor for an aggressive approach to life that involves problem solving within a communal context. Squeaky's devotion to running as "that which I am all about," and her loyalty to her retarded brother, Raymond, provide the occasion for personal growth.
Squeaky grows beyond the destructive need to defeat Gretchen, the only girl who can outrun her, as together they plan to help Raymond learn to run. When Gretchen and Squeaky smile hesitantly at each other, Squeaky realizes that they have not learned how to express such trust, because "there's probably no one to teach us how, cause grown-up girls don't know either." They come to trust each other as each sees that they both value running and that each acknowledges the achievements of the other. Competition gives way to cooperation, with the community, represented by Raymond, standing to benefit.
As an artisan, Squeaky begins to solve problems decisive to her development. Her growth into accepting the people around her emerges from a developing sense of self-acceptance. She can share her expertise with Raymond with an attitude free of condescension. She can acknowledge Gretchen's accomplishments without fearing some implied diminishment on her own. These themes appear as developmental problems in her young life, and she moves toward resolution. The community gives its support and encouragement through her family and school, without which Squeaky could not have matured as she did. The community that nurtured her is now nurtured by her in return.
The level of expert represents years of progress within the four levels, reached through intense experience in a shorter period. Maggie, in "Maggie of the Green Bottles," becomes a quirky expert, but expert nonetheless. She lives with her daughter and son-in-law and their children. Because the son-in-law dislikes her, Maggie first has to learn to handle his insults, discovering how far she can insult him before he completely loses face.
Maggie must content with a negative impression of herself. "They called her crazy." Peaches, one of the children, adores Maggie precisely because she knows how to handle her world. "It is to Maggie's guts that I bow forehead to the floor and kiss her hand, because she'd tackle the lot of them right there in the yard, blood kin or by marriage, and neighbors or no." With her little green bottles of indeterminate contents, Maggie assumes the identity of Obeah woman, who copes with the "hard-core Protestant" world. She profoundly desires to pass on what she knows to Peaches, so that learning will continue.
Peaches comes to understand the significance of retaining Maggie's lore. She also knows that her family disapproves of her interest. Maggie keeps notes for Peaches in a book originally intended for good wishes upon christening.
Maggie's book contains drawings of "the fearsome machinery which turned the planets and coursed the stars." The book informs Peaches that "as an Aries babe I was obligated to carry on the work of other Aries greats from Alexander right on down to anyone you care to mention." In short, Maggie's book expands into a collection of folklore, of astral signs and tea-leaf readings. Maggie's room, into which no one expects Peaches may enter, represents "the sanctuary of heaven charts and incense pots and dream books and magic stuffs."
Maggie's lore symbolizes the ancient teachings that the community has to offer, that the youth must learn for the sake of survival. Peaches's father "put magic down with nothing to replace it." Peaches would not make that same mistake. Maggie becomes her guide to the unknown, initiating her into the community of ancient wisdom of Peaches's birthright. Contemptuous of Maggie for being old and poor, Peaches's father, representing modern pressures for material gain, tries to divert her from the traditional values inculcated by these sources of wisdom.
The expert operates without consciously adverting to rules, having achieved the highest level of intuitive understanding. As Maggie feels her end approaching, she sends Peaches into the house to get her special green bottle, which Maggie then hides under her skirts. At her death her family discovers the bottle there, "proof of her heathen character." When family members distribute her belongings, Peaches's father asks her to choose what she wants, since Peaches had seen "her special." Peaches selects the green bottle.
Some adherents of voodoo believe that at death a skilled Obeah woman can send her soul into inanimate objects for safekeeping. Such an idea, therefore, shows the significance of Maggie's green bottles, symbolizing a futile attempt to continue as Peaches's guide after Maggie's death. Maggie's work with Peaches remains incomplete; there are many green bottles left unopened, many secrets left to tell.
The attempt for continuance goes awry as Peaches does not receive those green bottles. At some point there can be no guides, and the learner must venture out on her own.
The emergence of self in community, the development of a personal identity within the boundaries of a communal structure, occurs through the types of knowing with which Bambara confronts her characters. Ideas developed in Michael Polanyi's Knowing and Being are helpful at this point for further analysis of learning and identity.
Polanyi indicates that perceptions gained through the use of properly trained sensory organs form the basis for learning. The student correctly ascertains the constitutive elements in a situation, perceiving the working relationship between these parts, specifically how change to one part can alter another. All further action evolves from such perceptions. Developed skills function within given settings. Such skills must become automatic means rather than belabored ends. The learner selects elements in her environment that can impinge on what she knows in order to bring about a discovery of additional knowledge, leading to further personal empowerment.
This learning process as movement roughly corresponds to the levels of learning developed earlier. Bambara's characters pass through this process in order to mature, to gain control of themselves and their surroundings. The community helps or hinders the maturational process but is never merely a neutral background. Bambara delineates community and its effects on character as if it were itself a character.
The basic movement of learning self-identity in Bambara's writing occurs on a continuum between observing and indwelling. The observer spends most of her time simply watching her world, trying to establish meaningful connections between its various parts. The young girl in "Basement" is just starting to weave together the diverse threads where she lives, comprehending their connection. Bambara establishes the girl's childlike lack of understanding of the dangers of going into the basement alone.
As the story progresses, basement dangers reveal themselves as actual—the presence of a potentially perverted janitor, its darkness and isolation, its availability as a site for childhood sexual exploration. Patsy's troublesome lies about the janitor's conduct force the speaker to acknowledge the inherent dangers, if not in that basement then in all such "basements" for women. She begins to comprehend Patsy's wickedness, telling her, "I'm not gonna be your friend any more." But such understanding only takes into account how Patsy's ways affect their individual relationship, not its potential for communal harm. Along the continuum between observing and knowledge as indwelling, the child has yet to move. The process of growth, as Bambara describes it, however, does not adhere to a strict linearity. Rather than a straight-line continuum, learning occurs as perhaps a more spherical movement with lessons learned and deepened as the learning situation reoccurs in other settings.
The speaker in "Basement" exhibits a level of focal awareness, wherein she can identify some of the particulars of her environment, but has trouble integrating them in order to see connections. Basements present danger because of a woman's resemblance to Anna Mae Wong, yet later the speaker herself articulates the actual perils that the basement represents. As the character moves into subsidiary awareness, these connections become accessible to her perception and, therefore, can be taken into account. She then moves from simply observing as a source of knowledge to developing indwelling awareness, intuitive perceptions that she can trust.
Virginia, "The Organizer's Wife," came by such knowledge painfully, as indeed occurs to many of Bambara's women. After police jail Graham, her husband, in order to frustrate his organizing activities, Virginia must come to grips with what loss his imprisonment means to the community and to herself. Graham's positive outlook—"The point is always the same—the courage of the youth, the hope of the future" initially attracts Virginia to Graham. But her hope [in "The Organizer's Wife"] springs from a narrow, individualistic focus on her personal needs, the means to an education, a ticket out of a small, poverty-stricken town.
However, as she recalls what changes had come about in her life, what her children's lives could be like in a community where the people's roots sink deeply, she moves from a narrow focal awareness of her familial needs, her desire to escape, adopting Graham's wholistic vision of what could be, his community-centered concern for the welfare and empowerment of the people. The enemies of the people can be defeated through "discipline, consciousness, and unity." Binding together, the people draw strength and comfort from each other, realizing that "we ain't nowhere's licked yet, though." The community and its needs become central as Virginia progresses from a focal awareness of individual needs to a subsidiary awareness of communal needs.
Self-awareness within the community setting allows the individual to move beyond a concentration on exterior knowing of disconnected particulars to an interior awareness, knowledge as indwelling. Bambara locates her female characters in settings where such learning must occur. All the women in "The Johnson Girls" are at different places in their self-knowledge, but by uniting to help Inez in her relationship with Roy, they all experience a deepening awareness of themselves.
Roy has gone to Knoxville, leaving simply a "crumpled note." The women help Inez prepare for her trip to Knoxville, at first concentrating on what clothes she should take. Great Ma Drew represents the ancient learning that the younger women lack in this story. Knowing that seductive clothes do not define the issue, she tells Inez, "Love charms are temporary things if your mojo ain't total." Inez comes to understand her "mojo," here the total experience of herself as a woman. The younger girl seems fascinated with divining the future with the aid of cards and incense, a focal awareness of the individual parts without seeing the larger picture. Great Ma Drew gradually shepherds the younger women to a subsidiary awareness. She shows them that deeper understanding might evolve from a consideration of what Inez and Roy could be for each other, by focusing on communal wisdom rather than simply on signs. She remembers the old days when girls learned how to handle men through "charms and things" within the context of community needs, not as isolated customs that she asserts is present practice.
The young women continue to talk about men, their strengths and weaknesses, the difficulty of finding good men. These discussions illustrate the way the women interact. Each, from the most experienced to the least, contributes and is taken seriously. Each brings to the discussion her level of maturity, as the group encourages its members. Without forcing someone to grow faster than she can, the group nurtures such growth through risk.
Through such discussion the community of women brings Inez to where she can acknowledge the need to see the situation as Roy might, that a relationship with "no demands, no pressure, no games, no jumpin up and down with ultimatums," in short, with no boundaries or expectations, might be selfish, producing "the heaviest damn pressure of all." Inez finally admits that she wants to catch Roy being unfaithful, although she insists that there be no formal ties. Her first concession, and big step in growth, is to agree to let him know she is coming to Knoxville to see him. The issue is to recover a broken relationship, as Gail points out. "I know you are not about the heavy drama and intrigue." The issue is trust, the reestablishment of community.
Inez struggles to understand Roy, to transcend her focal awareness centering on herself, and to achieve a subsidiary awareness of herself-in-community, aware of how her behavior may affect others. As the narrator, the youngest understands the source of Inez's problems, a lack of empathy, as "Inez just don't care what's goin on in other people's heads, her program's internal." Bambara's characters grow in community because of the ability to empathize. By anticipating each other's needs, whether physical or emotional, people in community provide an environment that nurtures growth. Trust develops, which allows for risktaking at deeper and deeper levels.
Toni Cade Bambara's stories do more than paint a picture of black life in contemporary black settings. Many writers have done that, more or less successfully. Her stories portray women who struggle with issues and learn from them. Sometimes the lessons taste bitter and the women must accumulate more experience in order to gain perspective. By centering community in her stories, Bambara displays both the supportive and the destructive aspects of communal interaction. Her stories do not describe a predictable, linear plot line; rather, the cyclic enfolding of characters and community produces the kind of tension missing in stories with a more episodic emphasis.
Her characters achieve a personal identity as a result of their participation in the human quest for knowledge, which brings power. Bambara's skill as a writer saves her characters from being stereotypic cutouts. Although her themes are universal, communities that Bambara describes rise above the generic. More fully delineated than her male characters, the women come across as specific people living in specific places. Bambara's best stories show her characters interacting within a political framework wherein the personal becomes political.
This section contains 4,700 words
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