Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara, 1972

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by Toni Cade Bambara, 1972

In the forefront of the new African American consciousness, Toni Cade Bambara has had experience in the theater, on review panels for arts councils, and in affirmative action projects, workshops, museums—wherever a talented and energetic voice may be heard. Writing almost consistently from a female viewpoint and creating mainly black characters who come from widely varied segments of contemporary life, she presents without rancor the distinctly black experience. Her characters—artists, singers, civil rights workers, midwives, doctors, healers, and rapists—speak rich and varied dialects, confront aspects of black life that sometimes surprise themselves, even while they live by the codes and traditions of their people, and seldom remotely fit any of the stereotypes. With typical exactness in the black idiom, "Gorilla, My Love" appeared as the title story in a 1972 collection of 15 stories, reprinted from a variety of publications in 1960—her first book, which established her reputation.

It is the story of a small black child, Hazel, who is tough, brilliant, and streetwise. She is self-confident and secure in the matters of handling herself and others, with strong family backing and much hard irreverence for the general system of sentiment. Underneath, however, are the fears and uncertainties of a small child.

Hazel remembers the year when Hunca Bubba, her uncle, changed his name; henceforth, because he is in love and plans to be married, he is to be called by his real name, Jefferson Winston Vale. This announcement of the name change conveys a vague knowledge that the affectionate relationship between Hazel and her uncle has ended. The authentic name sounds "very geographical weatherlike" to her, and the forecast bodes no good. The crisis occurs on the return from a trip south for pecans. Hazel's tone of hard calculation and her vulnerability are conveyed in her refusal to sit in back with the pecans that are sometimes dusty and slip as if "maybe a rat in the buckets." Yet the favored uncle and Baby Jason sit there with no problem.

Hazel's other reason for sitting in the front "navigator seat" is her pride in following the map and directing her grandfather's driving. She learned to read maps while keeping the light on at night for fear of the dark.

Emerging from her reminiscent self-confession are three themes: the sacrament of a name, a distrust of grown-ups, and a child's failure to realize the unavoidable contradictions in normal human affairs. To her a promise is forever.

The distrust of grown-ups is focused in her excursion to the movies with her two brothers, Big Brood and Baby Jason. Three theaters are "too far, less we had grownups with us which we didn't," and the two nearer are eliminated for other reasons, leaving only the Washington, playing Gorilla, My Love.

The child thinks she's tough and brags about the adulation of Baby Jason and the necessity to fight for Big Brood, but the pranks she plays in order to manage her world are a child's pranks. She thrills with the independence of buying potato chips and delights in giving "some lip" to the matron and creating enough disturbance to "turn out" the theater. She becomes the leader and the spokesperson for juvenile injustice. Big Brood mutters protests, but she has to take action, as in hiding the money when older boys demand it or jumping on the back of an older boy who takes a basketball.

It follows, therefore, that Hazel will erupt into action in response to the theater's cheating when it shows a picture about Jesus instead of Gorilla, My Love. Hazel complains, "Grownups figure they can treat you just anyhow." Against the yelling and stomping, the technician turns up the sound; eventually a matron fondly called Thunderbuns subdues the crowd, and there follows a very humorous version of the Christ story as it would be played in the Vale household.

When Hazel demands her money back, the manager thrusts her bodily out the door. She has stolen matches, and the ensuing fire closes the theater for a week. Instead of beating her, her father accepts her explanation, "Cause if you say Gorilla, My Love, you suppose to mean it." Even gangsters in the movies say, "My word is my bond."

Hazel provides additional examples of the necessity that one's word be kept, but a slight variation creeps in. Because Granddaddy has little memory, "sometime you can just plain lie to him." She was raised, however, to speak her mind and take the consequences.

She speaks her mind when demanding the truth about Hunca Bubba's intentions. Overlooked in her indignation about the name change is the fact that Hazel is not addressed by her own name but given baby names: "Scout," "Miss Muffin," "Peaches," and "Precious." The climactic revelation and the secret in her turmoil is the uncle's former promise to marry her when she grows up; and now, with her faith in the spoken word demolished, she's "hurtin." The grandfather and the guilty party agree that the name change means a different person made the promise. To call him another name ("You a lyin dawg") is her only defense.

This tough girl weeps like a baby, and Baby Jason joins in. Together they make two babies crying against the world of grownups, in which adults treacherously play change-up and turnaround every day. Instead of enjoying the security of her uncle's love, she beats futilely against the cage of childhood. Childish vulnerability is represented poignantly in a picture show fraudulently named on the marquee and that reveals shamelessly the victimization of children: "No gorilla my nuthin."

—Grace Eckley