Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)
Contributing Editor: Sue Houchins
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Some students may have difficulty with the rhythm of the demotic language in this selection. There are a few examples of what poet Edward Braithwaite calls "nation language," author Marlene Nourbese Philip calls "cultural speech or demotic," critic Houston Baker may term "the vernacular," and some may call "dialect"--or worse yet--"slang"--for example, the term "jones," which means habit or addiction, or even the "My Man" of the title, which bears the double valence of a greeting between men and the designation for a woman's conjugal or cohabital partner. However, some students have more trouble with Bambara's representation of the conversational cadence of Miss Hazel's speech. The first four or five lines of the short story are a case in point. It might be helpful, therefore, for you to read a paragraph or so aloud and then to request a student to read a portion so that your class can develop an ear for this language that Bambara maintains is central to an African-American aesthetic.
In addition, students are finding it increasingly difficult to appreciate the political issues, motivations, and strategies of the sixties and seventies. Therefore, you might want to read from or to place on reserve some of the essays of Eldridge Cleaver, Claude Brown, Stokely Carmichael, or, better yet, assign passages of Alice Walker's Meridian. Further, you might ask whether Miss Hazel is truly apolitical and whether the narrative's critique of "the Movement" is necessarily an indictment or a repudiation of it.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
This short story begs us to read and to problematize issues of gender, race, age, and class; and to locate the intersection of these discourses. For example, Task, Elo, and Joe Lee's (mis)reading of their mother's allegedly indecorous behavior with old blind Bovanne and her unseemly dress mark the discursive space where gender and age collide--would Hazel's appearance and conduct be so egregious had she been younger?--and where the social construction of woman as mother denies her sexual agency--doesn't her children's reaction to Hazel's dancing withhold from her the status of either subject or object of desire? Thus, she must deny the erotic content of her dance: "Wasn't about tits." But if it wasn't about breasts as sensual/sensuous organs, was it about breasts as sources of nurture, and can the two functions be separated? The piece asks that we reconsider the body/bodies --female and male, young and old--and our culture's complex readings of them-- raced, sexed, aged--as they interact with each other, thereby constructing social meaning--mother/daughter ("puttin a hand on my shoulder like she hasn't done since she left home and the hand landin light and not sure it suppposed to be there"); mother/son and father/son ("Task run a hand over his left ear like his father for the world and his father before that"); woman/man (not just "sex starved [old folks]," nor just old men seeking and mature women dispensing "Mama comfort," but also "vibrations" upon drum skins and a mutual "hummin" reminiscent of an encounter with the sacred, "like you in church again"). In the light of these constructions of the body/these touchings, how do we understand the ritual bathing described at the end of the story? And how do we understand the title of the short story?
Also, Miss Hazel's body, specifically her hair, is one textual site where race and gender are problematized. Though Bambara, as a member of the Black Arts Movement, is one of many African-American authors of that era seeking to define and exemplify a black aesthetic (see Addison Gayle, The Black Aesthetic), her fiction avoids a simplistic essentialism both through the tropes of Hazel's wig and cornrows as well as by Elo's self-censorship, her uncompleted assertion that the generation gap is a white phenomenon.
Bambara, who has always identified herself first as a social and political activist/community organizer, is acutely aware of the contradictions in some so-called grass roots movements that depend[ed] on the uncredited and unrewarded labor of women (see Walker, Meridian, Paula Giddings, When and Where We Enter, or Bambara, The Salt Eaters) and that give only lip service to respecting and empowering the disenfranchised poor, elderly, and disabled.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The Eleanor Traylor introduction to this short story stresses the importance of black speech in and the orality of Bambara's work. Pay particular attention, therefore, to the cadence/rhythm and tone of this very conversational piece, an episode, related to the reader as if she and Miss Hazel were talking over a cup of herb tea, embedded, as are all good oral narratives, with pieces of other conversations among the related incident's participants. Appreciate as well Hazel's irony and wit.
Toni Cade Bambara, writing in the late sixties and early seventies, is speaking to a new generation of African-Americans who are avidly reading reprinted works by black authors of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and who are equally eager for each new book off the press. Teachers in newly formed black studies departments are beginning to educate students and their professorial colleagues to the value of black texts and the strategies for reading them. So Bambara can write in her highly original, but still culturally situated, voice and expect a wide and racially diverse audience for whom she need not translate her idiom.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
In the foregoing discussion, I have already suggested Alice Walker as an author with whom one might compare Bambara; in addition to Meridian, there are short stories in In Love and Trouble that treat some of the same themes. Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones examines, among other things, mother-daughter conflict, but among Caribbean immigrants in Brooklyn. And both for the complex and subtle exploration of the issues of race, gender, and sexuality as well as for the lyrical linguistic cadence representing black speech, compare Bambara with Toni Morrison.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
I have already suggested some questions in the preceding discussion of major themes; for example, one might ask students about the significance of the title, or about the "meaning" of the ritual bathing at the end of the story. Also, because the persona of Miss Hazel requires students of traditional college age to step into the skin of a more mature adult and to empathize with their antagonist across the gender gap, you might ask them about what they learned from this experience.
Refer to the headnote in the text for complete information.