Gorilla, My Love
Gorilla, My Love
"Gorilla, My Love" is the story of Hazel, a young girl who feels that adults do not treat children with respect and honesty. Narrating her own story, she tells of two incidents in which adults demonstrated their untrustworthiness. Hazel comes from the kind of family that the author, Toni Cade Bambara, believed was under-represented in fiction of the 1970s: she is an African American girl living in New York City, in a home with two loving parents who emphasize the values of education and of keeping one's word. Although Bambara herself was a political activist, the story is not primarily political. Hazel's feelings are nearly universal, shared by most adolescents.
"Gorilla, My Love" was first published in the November 1971 issue of Redbook Magazine with the title "I Ain't Playin, I'm Hurtin." A year later, it became the title story in Bambara's first short story collection. "Gorilla, My Love" is one of several in the collection that feature strong first-person narrators speaking conversationally, rather than in a standard formal English. On the strength of this story and others, Bambara was widely praised for her ability to capture the authentic sounds of adolescence and of African American voices.
Toni Cade Bambara was born Miltona Mirkin Cade on March 25, 1939, in New York City. She and her brother were raised by a single mother in many different homes in New York, and later in Jersey City, New Jersey. Bambara spoke and wrote often about her mother, Helen Brent Henderson Cade, as an example of strength and integrity. Helen saw to it that her children learned about their African American heritage, and encouraged them to trust their own inner voices. In 1959, Toni Cade earned a bachelor's degree in Theater Arts and English from Queen's College. She had already published her first story, "Sweet Town," in Vendome magazine. After graduating, she completed a master's degree while working as a social worker for several community organizations.
In the 1960s, Cade was active in both the Civil Rights movement and the feminist movement. From 1965 to 1969 she taught at City College in New York. She continued to write, but saw teaching and community work as more important. In 1970, having taken the name Bambara, she edited an important anthology called The Black Woman, a collection of writings by some of the most well-known African American women of the day. The anthology, intended as a corrective to the views of African American women previously offered by white feminist women and by male academics, gave black women a chance to describe and analyze their own experiences. The short story "Gorilla, My Love," narrated by a young working-class African American girl, was published the following year, as was another anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, a collection of stories for high school and college students. In 1972 the short story collection also titled Gorilla, My Love was published.
In addition to writing and teaching writing at various colleges, Bambara traveled to Cuba and Vietnam to learn about the political struggles of poor women. Moving to Atlanta in 1974, Bambara founded and directed projects to help writers become effective contributors to political movements. She published relatively little fiction during her career, though several of her stories, including "Gorilla, My Love" and "The Lesson" (1972), have become standard texts for high school and college classes. Her second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, was published in 1977, and an experimental novel called The Salt Eaters was published in 1980. She had come to find a fiction writer's life too solitary, and so in her last years, she focused most of her writing energy on more collaborative projects, including television and film scripts. She also worked on a novel about the Atlanta child murders; it was published as TheseBones Are Not My Child in 1999, four years after her death. She died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995.
As "Gorilla, My Love" opens, a first-person narrator says, "That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name." It soon becomes clear that the speaker is a young person, but not until the story is nearly over is it revealed that she is a girl, and that her name is Hazel. In the opening scene, Hazel is riding in a car with her Granddaddy Vale, her Hunca Bubba (Uncle Bubba) and her younger brother, Baby Jason. They have been on a trip South to bring pecans back home. Granddaddy Vale is driving, Hazel is navigating from the front seat and therefore is called "Scout" during the trip, and Hunca Bubba and Baby Jason are sitting in the back with the buckets of dusty pecans. Hunca Bubba, who has decided that it is time he started using his given name, Jefferson Winston Vale, is in love, and will not stop talking about the woman he loves. He has a photo of her, and the movie theater in the photo's background catches Hazel's attention because she is "a movie freak from way back."
This launches Hazel into a long digression, told in the past tense, that makes up most of the story—almost five of the story's seven and a half pages. In this story-within-the-story, Hazel, Baby Jason, and their brother Big Brood go to the movies on Easter Sunday. Apparently, they go to the movies quite frequently; they know all of the theaters within walking distance of their home in northern New York City, and what each is showing. They have already seen all of the Three Stooges films. The Washington Theater on Amsterdam Avenue is advertising a film called Gorilla, My Love, and they decide to see that. They buy bags of potato chips (choosing the brand that makes the loudest noise when the bag is popped) and settle in. However, when the movie starts it is not Gorilla, My Love but King of Kings, a movie about the life of Jesus.
The children go wild, "Yellin, booin, stompin and carryin on" until Thunderbuns, the sternest of the theater matrons, comes to silence them. Hazel watches quietly for a while, and realizes that the Jesus portrayed in the movie is so passive that he could never hold his own in Hazel's loud and combative family. The last straw for Hazel comes when King of Kings is over and a Bugs Bunny cartoon begins—one that they have already seen. Angrily, Hazel storms off to see the manager and get their money back. The manager treats her condescendingly, as adults sometimes do to children, and refuses to give a refund. Hazel leaves the office, taking the matches from the manager's desk, and sets a fire in the lobby. The theater is forced to close for a week.
When Hazel's Daddy learns what she has done, he takes off his belt to punish her. But Hazel tells her side of the story, and argues, "if you say Gorilla, My, Love, you suppose to mean it." She reminds her parents that she has been raised to trust and to be trustworthy, and Daddy puts his belt back on without using it.
Hunca Bubba's announcement about his upcoming marriage and name change seems to Hazel another example of adults being unreliable. Just as the theater did not show the movie it promised to show, Hunca Bubba has broken a promise. Hazel reminds him tearfully that when she was a very young girl he stayed with her for two days while her parents were caught in a snow storm. He told her then that she was "the cutest thing that ever walked the earth," and that when she grew up he would marry her. Now he intends to marry someone else. Granddaddy and Hunca Bubba laugh, and point out that he had only been teasing, but Hazel will not be consoled. She cries and cries, knowing for certain that children "must stick together or be forever lost" because grown-ups cannot be trusted.
See Jefferson Winston Vale
The manager of the Washington cinema does not speak during the story, but hustles Hazel out of his office without giving her the refund she demands.
Thunderbuns is the nickname given to the most severe of the matrons at the Washington movie theater. Her job is to help patrons find their seats, and to help keep order in the theater. Thunderbuns comes out only "in case of emergency," that is, when the children are being particularly unruly.
Baby Jason Vale
Baby Jason is Hazel's younger brother, who likes to go wherever Hazel goes. Baby Jason is in the back seat with Hunca Bubba and the pecans on the car ride, and he goes to the movies with Hazel and Big Brood. His usual role in disrupting the theater is to kick the seats in front of him, which he does enthusiastically. When Hazel crumples into tears at the end of the story, Baby Jason cries, too. Hazel knows he is crying "Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost."
Big Brood Vale
Big Brood is Hazel's brother, probably a few years older than she is but not nearly as daring. At the movie theater, he enjoys the family tradition of causing trouble, but leaves it to Hazel to get it started. When they are accosted by bullies in the park, it is Hazel who fights back on Big Brood's behalf. It is Big Brood's idea that they should demand their money back from the manager, though Hazel is the one who actually does it, and it is Big Brood who later confesses to Daddy what they did at the theater.
Daddy is Hazel's father. He has taught Hazel to expect respectful treatment, and Hazel is inspired by this lesson when she confronts the manager. But Daddy does not expect his children to set fires when they are mistreated, so his first reaction to hearing about the theater incident is to take off his belt to punish Hazel with it. When Hazel explains her side of the story, Daddy listens to her and puts his belt back on.
Granddaddy Vale is Hazel's grandfather on her father's side. In the beginning and ending scenes of the story, he is driving to the South to get pecans, and Hazel, Baby Jason, and Hunca Bubba have come along. Hazel enjoys these trips with Granddaddy Vale. He lets her sit in the front seat to navigate, and calls her "Scout," "Peaches," and "Precious." Granddaddy is one of the calmer members of the family, supporting the children's and grandchildren's decisions even when the other elders do not; he tries to reason with Hazel in the face of Hunca Bubba's betrayal. His calm, and focus on driving and getting proper directions, only makes Hazel more angry.
Hazel is the main character of "Gorilla, My Love," and its first-person narrator. She is an African American girl of about ten or twelve years old, and lives in Harlem, in New York City, with a close, extended family. Riding in the car with her grandfather, uncle and little brother in the story's first scene, she learns that her uncle, called Hunca Bubba, is in love and plans to be married. This angers Hazel, and reminds her of an Easter Sunday when she and her brothers went to the movies.
By her own account, half of the fun of attending movies is throwing popcorn, making noises, and leading the other children in causing disruptions. They all know how much noise they can make, how far they can push the theater matrons before they get into real trouble, and they enjoy seeing the matrons angry. On the Easter Sunday in question, although the theater was advertising a film called Gorilla, My Love, it actually showed a religious picture, King of Kings, and an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Hazel stirs the children in the crowd to protest loudly, and marches into the manager's office to demand her money back. When he refuses, she steals a book of matches and lights a fire in the lobby, shutting down the theater for a week. Somehow, Hazel is so fierce in her indignation, and her voice is so strong and feisty, that she seems tough and likeable at the same time. The reader is on her side. Hazel has been raised to speak her mind, and she does. She avoids a whipping from her father by speaking up and explaining that the adults had made a promise—that they would show Gorilla, My Love—and broken it. Hazel's rebellion, in her eyes, was a blow for the virtue of keeping one's word. Her father, seeing Hazel's point, puts away his belt.
Now, in the car with Hunca Bubba, Hazel feels again that adults simply cannot be trusted where children are concerned. She reminds her uncle that, years before, he had promised to marry her when she was old enough. Hunca Bubba laughs and says that he had been teasing, but this only confirms for Hazel that adults, including her favorite uncle, will lie to children whenever they want to, "And don't even say they sorry."
• "Gorilla, My Love" was recorded by Listening Library and is available on at least two Listening Library short story collections. Selected Shorts from Symphony Space, produced in 1989, has six stories on two cassette tapes. Selected Shorts, Volume XVI, Fictions for Our Time, produced in 2002, has fourteen stories on three compact disks.
Jefferson Winston Vale
Jefferson Winston Vale, or Hunca Bubba, is Hazel's favorite Uncle. He has been called "Hunca Bubba" by everyone in the family ever since Hazel was a toddler and unable to pronounce "Uncle," and he has been a constant and adored presence in her life. Years before the story takes place, Hunca Bubba took care of Hazel for two days while her parents were away. Affectionately, he told her she was cute, and that he would marry her one day. Although he promptly forgot this routine pleasantry, Hazel has remembered it. Now, Hunca Bubba announces that he has a girlfriend, that he is going to marry her, and that he is going to start using his real name, Jefferson Winston Vale. Throughout the car trip, he talks about the woman he is in love with, and shows off her photograph. He is surprised that Hazel is angry and sad about this; he cannot understand that she took his earlier remark as a promise.
Mama, Hazel's mother, plays no direct part in the action of the story, but she is Hazel's role model. When Hazel decides to confront the manager, she pictures Mama coming into Hazel's classroom, dressed to intimidate and with her hand on her hip, telling Hazel's teachers to treat their African American students with respect. Mama has shown Hazel that an African American woman need not back down.
The main theme of "Gorilla, My Love," and the thread that ties the two sections of the story together, is the idea of betrayal. Specifically, Hazel comes to believe that adults, who should have children's best interests at heart, cannot in fact be trusted to tell the truth where children are concerned. In the middle section of the story, which comes first chronologically, Hazel has already learned that "Grownups figure they can treat you just anyhow. Which burns me up." She demands her money back from the theater because "I get so tired grownups messin over kids just cause they little and can't take em to court." But she does not have in mind the adult members of her own family. They have taught her to be truthful and to hold people to their word. As Granddaddy Vale puts it, "if that's what I said, then that's it."
In a world where adults routinely take advantage of children, being able to count on one's family (as gangsters can count on their partners) is important protection. But Hunca Bubba has not only changed his name to Jefferson Winston Vale but decided to marry a woman his own age, and Hazel's family seems to be offering only double-talk in his defense. He is not changing his name, but changing it back, they say. The promise to marry Hazel was "just teasin," not a real promise at all. This strikes Hazel as the ultimate betrayal, because now her beloved uncle and Granddaddy show themselves to be no better than the rest of them. Completely unable to understand the adults' point of view, she is frightened and alone, with only Baby Jason on her side "Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And don't even say they sorry."
Bambara and the reader, looking over Hazel's shoulder, know that Hunca Bubba and Granddaddy are not evil or unkind. They see complexities in the world that Hazel is too young to understand. But Bambara does not mock Hazel; her pain is real. In an essay called "Salvation Is the Issue," Bambara noted that the heart of "Gorilla, My Love" is a "broken child-adult contract," one of those "observed violations of the Law." Bambara takes Hazel's point of view seriously, and uses her story (and many other stories) to ask, "is it natural (sane, healthy, whole-some, in our interest) to violate the contracts/covenants we have with our ancestors, each other, our children, our selves, and God?" Although "Gorilla, My Love" is humorous, and the protagonist is limited in her understanding, the questions the story raises about betrayal and trust are important and real, especially for Bambara.
Childhood and Adulthood
At the age of ten or twelve, Hazel is a typical combination of strength and weakness, of courage and fear, of adult and child. In some ways, she is tough-minded. She is "the smartest kid P.S. 186 ever had," and takes that title seriously. Even in her daydreaming about how the extended family would react if Big Brood acted like Jesus, Hazel is working on her arithmetic while the rest of the family is shouting and swinging purses. She reasons with her parents, and sometimes avoids punishment by making good arguments. She defends her brothers on the street and in the park, even to the point of physical fighting against "bad boys." She is the leader of the renegade children, getting them all to shout, "We want our money back." And although Big Brood becomes frightened and disappears before they reach the theater manager's office, Hazel does not hesitate about going in alone. With her Mama as a role model, she finds it in herself to "kick the door open wider and just walk right by him and sit down and tell the man about himself." Hazel is a tough little girl. Even though "Gorilla, My Love" does not end happily for her, the reader knows that in the long run she will be a survivor.
But Hazel the adult is not fully formed yet. Although she can be hard and cynical beyond her years, she is still a child. She is afraid that there might be rats in the buckets of pecans, so she will not sit in the back with them. She is afraid of the dark, although she tells everyone that she leaves the lights on for Baby Jason. She believes what she learns from the movies—even that gangsters tell the truth. Her behavior during the movies can only be called childish: her indignation about being shown the wrong movie aside, Hazel walks into the theater expecting the gorilla movie and buys the Havmore potato chips because they have "the best bags for blowin up and bustin real loud so the matron come trottin down the aisle with her chunky self." Clearly, much of the screaming and popcorn-tossing and seat-kicking is normal behavior, not a reaction to being cheated. In the final scene, back in the car, Hazel cannot maintain her adult pose. She tries to deal with Hunca Bubba adult-to-adult, but she crumbles into tears, as the bewildered Hunca Bubba protests, "for cryin out loud, Hazel, you just a little girl." What makes the story so touching is the combination of childhood and adulthood that Hazel displays. Each facet of her personality is clearly and accurately developed, and the swirl of feelings that results captures perfectly what it feels like to be a pre-teen girl.
Topics for Further Study
- What is the role of race in "Gorilla, My Love?" How would Hazel's story be different if she were set in another place, another time, or in a family of a different background?
- How might you film this story? Would it be difficult to capture the energy and excitement of the children disrupting the movie and still keep the audience on their side?
- What age group does "Gorilla, My Love" seem to be written for? What aspects of Bambara's writing lead you to this conclusion? How might children of Hazel's age (about ten to twelve years old) see the story differently from the way an older teen would, or from the way an adult would?
- Much of Hazel's understanding of the world seems to come from the movies she watches. Are these movies a good guide? If people believed what they saw in today's movies, what understandings or misunderstandings might they hold about the world?
- Why does Hazel's mother come down to her school? Is she a typical mother? How involved are students' parents in the elementary schools you know about?
- Hazel lives with both of her biological parents and her two brothers; her Granddaddy and various aunts and uncles live either with them or nearby. How common are extended families like this in your neighborhood? What might account for the fact that more families today are split up by divorce and by geography than in the early 1970s?
The structure of "Gorilla, My Love" is called a "frame" structure, because the story of Hazel, Granddaddy Vale, Hunca Bubba, and Baby Jason bringing pecans back from the South wraps around the story of the movie theater, as a frame wraps around a picture. The opening scene moves along with no hint that the story is about to move off in another direction. Readers meet the characters through the eyes of the narrator, hear the irritation in her voice, and see the photograph in Hunca Bubba's hand. A movie house in the background of the photo catches the narrator's eye, and she says, "Cause I am a movie freak from way back, even though it do get me in trouble sometime." Even as that line ends, the focus is on the characters in the car.
But the next line begins, "Like when me and Big Brood and Baby Jason was on our own," and the narrator abruptly changes direction to tell the story of the falsely advertised movie. Because the change is so sudden, with no explanation, the reader does not see how the stories are linked in Hazel's mind, other than the coinciding movie theaters. It seems a childish, trivial connection. When Hazel returns to the car trip near the end of the story, with another abrupt line ("So there I am in the navigator seat"), the reader still does not understand how the events are connected. Not until Hazel reminds Hunca Bubba of his earlier promise to wait and marry her is it clear why she is upset, and why the two events seem to her like two examples of the same thing. By framing the movie theater episode with the car trip episode and refusing to explain why the shifts are happening as they happen, Bambara makes the moment of realization more powerful for the reader because it is raw, unfiltered, just as Hazel experiences it.
The frame is a very old structural device, often used to tie several stories together. Examples include Geoffrey Chaucer's fourteenth-century Canterbury Tales and the fifteenth-century Persian and Arabian stories known as A Thousand and One Nights. Washington Irving's eighteenth-century tale Rip Van Winkle, is framed by an accounting of how the narrator found the story among the notes of a dead man. The narrator humorously casts doubt on the story by swearing that it is true.
Point of View
The term "point of view" describes the way an author presents a story to readers. It establishes who the narrator is—i.e., who is telling the story. In "Gorilla, My Love" the point of view is labeled "first person," which means that the story is told by one character within the story, Hazel, who describes the events as she experiences them. Hazel uses the first-person pronoun "I" throughout the story, and she does not have the capacity or the desire to share other characters' feelings or reactions, except as she witnesses them herself. For example, the reader does not overhear what is going through Daddy's mind as Hazel explains what happened at the theater. Hazels says that Daddy "had the suspect it was me," and after she explains "Daddy put his belt back on." But the reader has direct access only to Hazel's thoughts.
The story sounds as though Hazel were speaking it aloud, almost breathlessly, without a pause, and the listener is not identified. Shifts in direction happen abruptly, as they do happen in the human mind, and the narrator does not stop to explain connections or to censor her thoughts. The photo of Hunca Bubba's girlfriend has a theater in the background, and this reminds Hazel of how much she likes movies, which reminds her of the time she was tricked into watching King of Kings, which features a god who seems too weak to survive in Hazel's strong family, and this makes her more angry, which brings her back to Hunca Bubba. Presenting Hazel's raw, unfiltered speech makes the emotional weight of the story greater. Bambara does not intend for the reader to stand outside the story and analyze from an adult's viewpoint whether Hazel's feelings and actions are appropriate. And when Hazel repeats Hunca Bubba's words and says, "I say back just how he said it so he can hear what a terrible thing it is," she does not explain why it is a terrible thing. From Hazel's point of view, it is obvious, and she expects the reader/listener to be on her side. The reader hears the story, not as a detached observer, but as a participant and an ally, listening to a frustrated child who is practically in tears.
Neo-Black Arts Movement
Bambara is often associated with the Neo-Black Arts Movement (also called simply the Black Arts Movement), a movement in art, literature, and literary criticism that grew out of the Black Power Movement and thrived during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Black Power Movement worked to establish a separate black state within the United States after many people came to believe that the mostly nonviolent Civil Rights movement was not achieving its goals. Nonviolent resistance, they believed, depended too much on the generosity of the oppressors, and loving those oppressors demanded too much of the oppressed. Further, they observed that the Civil Rights movement had focused on solving problems of segregation in the South, but had not done much to improve the lives of African Americans in the northern cities. They called for direct political and economic action by the oppressed, and made it clear that they were willing to use violence if necessary to win equality for African Americans.
The Neo-Black Arts Movement created literature with a political awareness, and its critics examined literature through a political lens. Its writers believed that every work of art is political, and that every work of art featuring African Americans either helps or hurts the cause of equality. In their work, they depicted positive and powerful African Americans. They called for self-determination for African Americans, an end to global capitalism, and a new unity among African nations to fight for racial equality around the world. As Bambara explained in the essay "What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow," "Through writing I attempt to celebrate the tradition of resistance, attempt to tap Black potential, and try to join the chorus of voices that argues that exploitation and misery are neither inevitable nor necessary." Bambara took the movement's ideology one step further, and called upon African Americans to examine gender roles within the community. She believed that much of the revolutionary writing by African Americans was weakened by a male supremacist viewpoint, and looked to other countries to find models for men and women working together more equitably.
Compare & Contrast
- 1970: Movies are primarily watched in large movie theaters, which change their offerings frequently. Still, there is relatively little choice on any given day.
Today: With video cassettes and DVDs, a movie watcher has literally thousands of choices available for little cost. Movie theaters still show big-budget movies, but studios make most of their money from the sale and rental of videos and DVDs.
- 1970: Most movie theaters are independently owned and operated, choosing what to show and when to show it. Managers are relatively free to show the latest big attractions from Hollywood or low-budget reruns.
Today: Most movie theaters across the country show the same movies at the same time. Small-budget and independent movies and theaters showing movies that are not new are rare.
- 1970: No African American has won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction or the Nobel Prize in literature.
Today: Excellent literature by African American writers is being recognized and celebrated. African American Pulitzer Prize–winning authors of fiction include James Alan McPherson (1979), Alice Walker (1983), Edward Jones (2004), and Bambara's editor Toni Morrison, who has won both the Pulitzer (1988) and the Nobel Prize (1993).
- 1970: The Great Migration of African Americans that brought over two million people from the rural South to big cities in the North peaked during the 1930s. However, many families in New York and other large cities in the North still have ties to the South and make routine trips back.
Today: The Great Migration is over, and reversing. The overall trend is for middle-class people looking for job opportunities to leave northern cities for large cities in the South. Those who remain in Harlem and other northern enclaves have been there for generations, and their familial ties to the South are weakened.
Bambara identified the writer John Oliver Killens as the "spiritual father" of the Neo-Black Arts Movement. Killens had founded the Harlem Writers Guild in the 1950s, and with Civil Rights leader Malcolm X, he co-founded the Organization for Afro-American Unity in 1964. Many writers associated with the Neo-Black Arts Movement, including Paule Marshal, Audrey Lorde, and Ossie Davis, had passed through the Harlem Writers Guild, and admired Killen's celebratory 1954 novel Youngblood. Bambara followed Killen's example as she tried in her own work to portray African Americans as strong and dignified, to take pride in black culture, and to demonstrate the evils of racism and classism.
The movement believed that black art was essentially different from art created by white people, and that only black people, using black criteria, could evaluate and appreciate black art. Of course, not all African American writers of the 1960s were part of the Neo-Black Arts Movement, or of any political movement. Not all writers agree that art is necessarily political. Influential Black Arts theorists including Amiri Baraka publicly criticized African Americans whose work was not "valid" black writing, accusing these writers of collaborating with or being deceived by their capitalist oppressors. Bambara's criticism did not challenge other African American writers to follow her lead, but in "Salvation Is the Issue," she did celebrate for herself what her "colleagues in the Neo-Black Arts Movement … had been teaching for years—that writing is a legitimate way, an important way, to participate in the empowerment of the community that names me."
Vernacular Black English
Most Americans who speak with whites and African Americans in informal settings can hear general differences in their speech. The label applied in the 1970s to a dialect of English widely learned at home and spoken by African Americans was "Vernacular Black English" or VBE. It is a true dialect, governed by its own set of rules for syntax, pronunciation, and grammar. Beginning in the 1970s, educators studying Vernacular Black English began to discuss and honor it as a true language, rather than rejecting it as simply "bad grammar" or "sloppy pronunciation." (The term in the 1960s had been "Nonstandard Negro English.") While they continued to believe that African American students should learn to speak what was called "Standard English" in order to succeed in a larger world that would expect it, many educators gradually came to see being able to speak both "Standard English" and VBE was as enriching as being able to speak, for example, English and French. Bambara and other writers, during the period when these issues were first reaching the general public, added to the respect given the dialect by showing its functionality and power in such stories as "Gorilla, My Love."
Arguments about Black English have continued since the 1970s. In the 1980s, the term "African American Vernacular English" (AAVE) replaced VBE. In the 1990s, the term "Ebonics" was created to describe what some consider a separate African language, not related to English, spoken by African Americans. Although the terms have changed, and additional ethnic groups have entered the discussion, the central questions remain concerning who should speak vernacular dialects and in what contexts.
"Gorilla, My Love," the title story of Bambara's first short story collection, has been universally singled out for praise since the volume, which has never been out of print, was published in 1972. Critics have appreciated Bambara's ear for the urban African American speech of her female protagonist/narrators—a voice that only infrequently had been captured so accurately. Nancy Hargrove, in an essay in The Southern Quarterly, writes that "one is immediately struck by … her faithful reproduction of black dialect. Her first-person narrators speak conversationally and authentically." A decade later, Ruth Elizabeth Burks explored the author's language in an essay called "From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language." She heard Bambara's protagonists speaking in a "narrative voice reminiscent of the Negro spirituals with their strongly marked rhythms and highly graphic descriptions. Standard English is not so much put aside as displaced by constant repetition." For Burks, Bambara succeeds in "perpetuat[ing] the struggle of her people by literally recording it in their voices." In 1992, Klaus Ensslen described the author's ear for language as "an easy mastership with the fully embodied vernacular voice."
Critics have also admired Bambara's ability to portray authentically the feelings of the pre-adolescent Hazel. C. D. B. Bryan, in the New York Times Book Review, observed that writing about children is difficult, but that Bambara manages to avoid "sentimentality and cuteness." In 1972, a short unsigned review of the collection in the Saturday Review called the stories "among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time," and said of Bambara's stories about children that they "manage to incorporate the virtues of such stories—zest and charm—yet avoid most of the sentimental pratfalls." Hargrove noted the author's "ability to portray with sensitivity and compassion the experiences of children from their point of view." Several readers have observed that there are many stories about young men—especially young white men—coming of age, but that in the early 1970s stories by women writers about young women growing up were rare.
Bily teaches English at Adrian College in Adrian, Michigan. In this essay, Bily looks at autobiographical elements in Bambara's "Gorilla, My Love" and the broad critical questions they raise.
Toni Cade Bambara, like all writers of important literature, wrote "Gorilla, My Love" with several purposes in mind. Bambara hoped that her work would help lift up her African American readers, by presenting a positive story of a strong African American character. She hoped her white readers would profit from seeing African American characters in that light. She hoped adults would think about their relationships with young people, and she hoped young people would find courage to stand up to whatever needed standing up to. Bambara loved laughter, and because she hoped readers would find Hazel's bravado funny, she tossed out most of her first draft to give the story a more humorous tone. Bambara did not set out to write a story that would be studied in classrooms, or picked about by literary theorists. But "Gorilla, My Love" serves well as a backdrop for considering several essential questions that succeeding waves of critical theorists have asked about literature over the last century.
In several ways, Toni Cade Bambara was an unusual fiction writer. She did not think of writing as her primary calling, as she explained in "How She Came by Her Name": "I never thought of myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as a community person who writes and does a few other things." She preferred writing short stories to novels, although novels tend to be easier to sell and promote, in part because writing short stories gave her more time for community political work. She was always reluctant to speak about her personal life, turning interviewers' questions aside to focus on political issues, or giving the same few vague details about her mother, Speakers' Corner in Harlem, and the public library. And she is unusual in having left a rather large body of interviews and essays describing her writing practice, her philosophy of art, and her sense of how art and politics must work together to achieve social change. Bambara believed that her task was "to produce stories that save our lives," as she wrote in "Salvation Is the Issue"; the seriousness and the complexity of this responsibility led her constantly to think through and attempt to describe her intentions and her process.
In the "Sort of Preface" to her first volume of short stories, Gorilla, My Love, Bambara explains in a lighthearted way her attitude toward writing autobiographically: "It does no good to write autobiographical fiction because the minute the book hits the stand here comes your mama screamin [sic] how could you.… And it's no use using bits and snatches even of real events and real people, even if you do cover, guise, switch-around and change-up.… So I deal in straight-up fiction myself, cause I value my family and friends, and mostly cause I lie a lot anyway." In more serious interviews throughout her career, Bambara repeatedly insisted that she did not create her stories out of events and characters from her own life. For a writer to do so, to exploit friends and relatives who had not given permission to be represented in fiction, would not only be simply rude. It would make a friend feel that the writer had "plundered her soul and walked off with a piece of her flesh."
Given Bambara's strong feelings, it is interesting to discover how many of the small details in "Gorilla, My Love" sprang out of her own life. In "How She Came by Her Name," an interview conducted a short time before Bambara's death and published after she died, she spoke more openly about her childhood than she had previously—at least, on the record. Although she does not refer specifically to Hazel in the interview, the parallels that emerge between young Toni's life and Hazel's are striking.
What Do I Read Next?
- In "The Lesson," another story from the collection Gorilla, My Love, a community worker from Harlem gives the children in her neighborhood a harsh lesson in inequality by taking them on an outing to the expensive F.A.O. Schwarz toy store in midtown Manhattan.
- Paule Marshall's novel Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) is about a girl's growth into young womanhood in a Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood populated by immigrants from Barbados.
- Sherley A. Williams gives a critical analysis of heroes in African American fiction from the nineteenth century through the 1960s, focusing on what she calls "neo-black literature," in Give Birth to Brightness: A Thematic Study in Neo-Black Literature (1972).
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), a novel by Mark Twain, is an American classic about a white boy and a runaway slave who escape together down the Mississippi. Huck, like Hazel, narrates his own story, learns about family, friendship, trust, and human dignity.
- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (1997), by J. K. Rowling, is an exciting and humorous novel about an eleven-year-old boy who learns that he is a wizard, and that he is expected to battle with forces of magic.
For a time, Bambara attended P.S. 186 on 145th Street and Broadway in Harlem, the same public school Hazel attends, and like Hazel she was the smartest kid in the class. Hazel comments that her teachers "don't like me cause I won't sing them Southern songs." Bambara remembers that her mother was alert for racism in her children's classrooms, and "At school we were not to sing 'Old Black Joe"' (a song by nineteenth-century American songwriter Stephen Foster, with lyrics in an exaggerated black dialect). Hazel's mother has been known to come to school to speak to the teachers when they are disrespectful to their African American students, and on these occasions she dresses to impress: "She stalk in with her hat pulled down bad and that Persian lamb coat draped back over one hip." Bambara remembers that her mother "had a turning-the-school outfit. She had a serious Joan Crawford hat and a Persian lamb coat." And, just as Hazel's mother "got pull with the Board and bad by her own self anyhow," Bambara's mother "was a substitute teacher, and she had pull with the Board of Education, she knew everybody, so 'your ass is mine."' Hazel's mother is an inspiration to her, the one who taught her not to back down, and Bambara's mother filled the same role for the author.
Perhaps, then, it is no surprise to learn that Bambara loved the movies throughout her life. She says in the interview, "I go to movies constantly because I am a film nut," reminiscent of Hazel who is "a movie freak from way back." As a child, Bambara visited the same five movie houses that Hazel visits: the Dorset, on Broadway, for "Boston Blackie and the Three Stooges" (Hazel and her brothers reject the Dorset on that fateful Easter Sunday because they had "seen all the Three Stooges they was"); the RKO Hamilton for first-run movies and vaudeville shows;. the Sunset and the Regal (Hazel calls it the "Regun") which are, Hazel says, "too far, less we had grownups with us which we didn't," and which Bambara explains were on 125th Street, more than twenty blocks away; and the Washington Theater on Amsterdam Avenue for "sepia movies and second-string things" like the low-budget horror movie Gorilla, My Love. In all of these theaters, Bambara recalls,
If you were in the movies, you were in the children's section, roped off with that lady in the white dress with the flashlight to hit you with and keep you all in check. The rest of the movie house was for the grown-ups.
But Hazel and young Toni are not the same person. Bambara never had uncles or cousins (no Hunca Bubba), though she desperately wanted one. She did not make trips South as some of the other children did, though she would have liked to. Her father did not use a belt on his children, and Bambara thinks with some horror about those parents who did. Bambara did not disrupt the movies she attended, but would "sit there and rewrite them" because she thought they were "stupid." The autobiographical details in "Gorilla, My Love" are interesting, but do they matter? Do they mean anything? The answer to that question has varied over the last one hundred years.
In the early part of the twentieth century, literary scholars were fascinated by the biographical and historical sources of a text, and their work came to be called historical criticism. They wanted to know all about an author and the times he (it was almost always "he") lived in. Given a story like "Gorilla, My Love," a historical critic would work to establish who wrote it and when and where, what Bambara's intention was in writing the story, and how she went about writing it with this information, the critic would attempt to explain to readers what meaning the story had in its own time. How would readers in 1972, at the end of the Civil Rights movement, the end of the Vietnam War, and the beginning of the feminist movement, have read the story? What about her upbringing and her time made Bambara write the story she wrote? These critics would have learned everything they could about Bambara's life to see how that life informed the writing. They would have looked carefully at the many places where Bambara explained her own theories about writing, and compared her theory against her practice.
"Who speaks for me? Can a man write a true and important story about women? Can white writers create 'valid' literature about people of color?"
In the middle of the century, many felt that the historical critics had lost sight of the works themselves in their hunt for context. Scholars calling themselves the New Critics questioned whether a scholar—or even an author herself—could ever know an author's intentions, and they looked for ways to bring the focus back to the literature itself. Ultimately, they rejected the significance of any information outside the text, and insisted that the only way to approach a given text was to look only at the words on the page. New critics approaching "Gorilla, My Love" would not consider Bambara's race, or gender, or politics, or the time in which she wrote. They would not consider Bambara's essays and interviews. New critics would look closely at the story only (performing an activity called "close reading") in an attempt to establish its inherent form. They would look at Hazel's diction, or at repeated motifs in the story (perhaps the mentioning of names and naming), or at relationships between the characters, or at the framing structure, and ask: How do these devices contribute to the story as a whole? Objectively speaking, what is the story's artistic value?
By the last third of the twentieth century, critical theory had swung again. Many critics now began to reject the idea of an objective evaluation of artistic merit, in part because many rejected the ability of middle-aged, middle-class white men (who had made up the largest portion of important critics) to be objective, not to mention wise, about literature by women, by African Americans and members of other ethnic groups, by gay and lesbian writers, by working-class writers, and so on. At the same time, readers began making new demands on literature, and asking new questions. Who speaks for me? Can a man write a true and important story about women? Can white writers create "valid" literature about people of color? Does it matter that Bambara is African American? Would the very same story, if it had been written by a white man, have the same value? Are the criteria for good literature the same for every body of literature? The biographies of authors became important again. For critics at the end of the century (calling themselves New Historicists, or Cultural Critics, or a variety of other names), literature was seen as an expression of a community, and it was important to uncover the social and cultural forces acting on authors—and critics—that might affect their work. A critic during the end of the century, when Bambara created her fiction, would have asked a new set of questions: How does Hazel's way of speaking bring to light a new kind of authentic narrative voice? How does Hazel's story shed light on the oppression of women, or of African Americans? How could "Gorilla, My Love" empower African American readers, or challenge white readers? How does a critic's own biases affect her reading of the story?
As the twenty-first century gets underway, critics want to know how Bambara came to understand Hazel's life; they want to know what knowledge and bias she brings to her telling of the story. They also want to know that the writer of this essay is white, female, middle-class, straight, educated, liberal, from the middle of the United States, so they know what biases the essay writer might bring to her analysis. In another thirty years, the issues may be entirely different ones. What makes a story like "Gorilla, My Love" great is not that it provides an answer but that it raises so many interesting questions.
Cynthia Bily, Critical Essay on "Gorilla, My Love," in Short Stories for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.
In the following essay excerpt, Comfort shows how Bambara uses language in her short stories, including "Gorilla, My Love," to evoke humor and multiple meanings.
Published first in 1972, Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love has been celebrated for its realistic depiction of the African American community, for its almost musical rendering of Black English, and for the resilience and energy of its first-person narrators. The only study focusing entirely on the humor in these stories is Nancy D. Hargrove's "The Comic Sense in the Short Stories of Toni Cade Bambara" (1985). Hargrove considers the humor that arises unintentionally, noting that much of it depends on the circumstances and the language of the narrators, and concluding that Bambara is "a masterful practitioner of the art of comedy." In addition to the unplanned humor identified by Hargrove, these stories contain intentional humor, much of it the result of word play. The narrators use ambiguous words, phrases, and references to multiply meanings. As an alternative reading emerges, the more accessible view of a fractured community gives way to a portrait of solidarity, affectionate pride supplants conspicuous but unlikely enmities, and, previously incongruous details become integrated into the narrative.
The subtle and varied strategies used to achieve this double vision include puns and pantomime and is a form of Signifyin(g). In his history of African American humor, Mel Watkins traces this practice to a number of sources, including "wordplay and clever verbal interchange in the oral cultures of the West African societies" and folk ballads and toasts honoring black heroes: "The expressive attributes most highly esteemed in the black folk tradition—the verbal acuity and spontaneous wit displayed in signifying, boasting, and storytelling or 'lying'—also characterize black American humor" ([On the Real Side, 1994], 63, 472). Double-voiced discourse, Watkins explains, was useful to slaves inscribing escape plans on a seemingly innocuous performance for vigilant masters. Until the sixties, these strategies were designedly unavailable to white audiences, but as part of an expression of racial pride, comedians during the Civil Rights movement revealed some of their strategies on stage, to all audiences. "Not surprisingly," says Watkins of a parallel development in literature, "more black authors began reflecting the comic resonance, uninhibited self-assurance, and assertively impudent tone of those stage wits and clowns" (435). Among these authors, Bambara is one of the most passionate and consistent champions of Signifiers, and her characters employ the technique in their words and in their gestures. Indeed, the practice is not only a method but a central thematic concern in Gorilla, My Love.
In "Black English," Bambara explains the political reasons for her interest in the language of African Americans, especially as it is used informally, on the street. "To resist acculturation, you hang on to language, because it is the reflection of a people, of a core of ideas and beliefs and values and literature and lore." Activists in this resistance to acculturation are the neighborhood's young people whose ability to entertain with language is legendary. In her short stories, then, Bambara introduces an entire population, men, women, and children, all engaged in Playing the Dozens and other forms of word play. Some use the strategy to entertain, and some use it to teach, and all enjoy themselves. In the first four stories considered in this study, male characters whose neighbors seem to fear them are shown to be popular entertainers, known for their lingistic virtuosity and applauded in figurative language. In the second part group of four stories, the relationships between female characters and their families are discussed to show that foregrounded contention masks affectionate cohesion.…
Another narrator who recounts her enlistment and training as a Signifier is Hazel, who narrates the title story. Early in "Gorilla, My Love," Hazel explains that, for years, she has called her uncle, Jefferson Winston Vale, Hunca Bubba, "since I couldn't manage Uncle to save my life." At the close of her narrative, she reminds Vale that, when she was a child, he promised to marry her. It may be that, as a child, Hazel did, indeed, have trouble pronouncing the word "uncle." If, however, her continuing affection for Vale is to be appreciated, it is important to consider the phrase "say uncle" as a slang phrase, used to demand the cessation of some form of torment. This reading is supported by an earlier incident in which Hazel could not protest effectively. When she is disappointed by the content of a film, for example, she misdirects her complaints, first to the people in the seats in front of her, then to the projectionist, and finally to the theater manager, none of whom made the film. In both her assertiveness and her powerlessness, Hazel's actions "easily call to mind a group of sixties-style demonstrators" (Willis, [Black Women Writing the American Experience] 147). While Hazel postures as a demonstrator and longs to join the protest movement, until she can Signify, she cannot enlist followers or "say uncle" for her community.
In a series of incidents since she was a child, Hazel has learned to Signify, an excellent way to "say uncle." And, when he recognizes her new-found talent, Vale marries her, not to himself, in the conventional sense of the word, but to the struggle for human rights, a struggle in which it is often necessary to "say uncle" and for which Hazel is now well-equipped. As defined by Bambara, who recommends the model given by Frantz Fannon during Algerian liberation struggle, "Marriages were no longer contract arrangements but freely chosen unions of individuals bound to a corporate future of freedom[.].… extended kinship[s] of cellmates and neighbors linked in the business of actualizing a vision of a liberated society" ("On the Issue"). This is the kind of marriage Hazel seeks, and it is the kind Vale achieves. The transformation is marked, as it frequently is in Gorilla, My Love, by a name change. Prior to her "marriage," her penchant for blaming the nearest person for her problems earns Hazel the nickname "Peaches," a name and a problem she disowns when she realizes that her uncle is a "lyin dawg," a tenacious Signifier. Then, having grown into her given name by learning to create a haze around her meaning, she announces her new identity as a "married" protestor: "'My name is Hazel."' …
The title Gorilla, My Love is probably also figurative. And, again, a crucial clue is found in a major incongruity: Hazel in the title story complains when she finds that a film called Gorilla, My Love is "clearly not about no gorilla." When she insists on honesty—or expresses appreciation for the filmmaker's pun—Hazel sets a protestor's example for readers. Finding that the collection is similarly devoid of gorillas, readers might consider the rhetorical possibilities of that incongruity. Ruth Elizabeth Burks suggests a metaphorical reading if "Bambara wants us to see all males as gorillas, which the incongruousness of this volume's title does suggest" (["From Baptism to Resurrection…"], 52). The title also signifies on "common European allegations of the propensity of African women to prefer the company of male apes" (Gates, [The Signifying Monkey], 109). It may be that Bambara recalls that allegation to dismantle the stereotype, since some women in some stories appear to be frightened by the posturing and aggressiveness of Manny and Punjab. If these men are Signifyin(g), posing as gorillas to show that they are guerrillas, however, the similarly-camouflaged women probably do, indeed, love them. Thus, it is also possible that she wants us to see both male and female characters as guerrillas, a possibility suggested by the camouflaged assertiveness of individual characters discussed in this study. Yet, to posit subversive activity in place of contention is to repeat an error identified by Watkins: "Even when the mainstream took notice, those exposed to African-American literature in which genuine humor was abundant were often predisposed toward finding angry protest tracts, thereby missing the humor" (401). Thus, it may just be that, like the notion of a black community in disarray, the idea of a militant solidarity must give way to a meta-linguistic reading in which the subject of these narratives is the emancipation of language, of the culture it represents, and of the reader. For, in the process of extricating puns, the reader joins the resistance to acculturation and becomes a [Signifyin(g)] Gorilla, My Love.
"Hazel in the title story complains when she finds that a film called Gorilla, My Love is 'clearly not about no gorilla.' When she insists on honesty—or expresses appreciation for the filmmaker's pun—Hazel sets a protestor's example for readers."
In "A Sort of a Preface," Bambara confesses—and boasts—of her ability to Signify. Ostensibly announcing her reason for refusing to include "bits and snatches even of real events and real people" in her fiction, she says, "I lie a lot anyway." Since her fiction contains both, allusions to real people and a whole lot of Signifyin(g), it would seem that Bambara is, alas, a liar and a truth-teller. More varied in their Signifyin(g) styles than in their commitment to racial empowerment, the characters in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love employ puns and pantomime to celebrate language as it has traditionally been used by African Americans. In creating this "hip game," Bambara finds a way to stoke the blast furnace while doing her favorite thing to be doing. Readers, too, might lean on the wall, first to enjoy the performance and then to catch their breath after the exhilirating adventure of transcending familiar perspectives.
Mary Comfort, "Liberating Figures in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love," in Studies in American Humor, Vol. 3, No. 5, 1998, pp. 76–96.
In the following essay excerpt, Ensslen discusses language, naming, and Hazel's narrative in "Gorilla, My Love."
The title story "Gorilla, My Love" originally appeared in Redbook Magazine (November, 1971) under the title "I Ain't Playin, I'm Hurtin" which more pointedly established vernacular as the dominant linguistic and expressive of the text. The title chosen for the book derives from the title of a film which, symptomatically enough, the protagonist-narrator Hazel never gets to see—signalling a delusive promise of the media industry as part of the dominant culture, and implicitly also a gap in the language offered the child/teenager by the adult world. The book title thus assumes a kind of inconclusive, partly irritating aura, reinforced by the semantic tension between the words "gorilla" and "love," as well as by the covert stereotyping and threatening potential of the gorilla image.
The vernacular norm becomes firmly established for the volume not only through the first two stories, but even before them through the brilliantly succinct and witty adoption of black vernacular by the author in her one-page introduction ("A Sort of Preface") where "straight-up fiction" is equated with lying (in the sense in which this term has always been used in the black oral tradition, as an equivalent for storytelling) and is set up against the autobiographical impetus as detrimental to such basic social networks as family and friends. Family and friends, however, remain the social backdrop into which most of the stories of the volume are embedded, and the dedication of the volume "To the Johnson Girls…" would seem to contradict the tongue-in-cheek separation claim between experience and fiction in the preceding "A Sort of Preface" by tying the last story of the volume ("The Johnson Girls") directly back to real friends and life experience.
As all the stories in Bambara's first volume of fiction, "Gorilla, My Love" dramatizes a concrete social situation in the compact format of less than ten printed pages: While on a car trip South, for picking and taking home pecan nuts, the narrator-protagonist Hazel, in the company of grandfather, uncle and little brother, confronts her uncle (who declares he is going to marry a woman whose photo he passes around in the car) with his earlier promise to marry Hazel when she is grown up. Hazel's emotional outrage generates not only a pointed dialogue with uncle and grandfather, but also brings to her mind analogies from other conflicts and confrontations with the adult world, notably her parents, school, and one drastic and exemplary clash with a movie theater and its manager. By presenting this material as a kind of inner monologue of the child Hazel (whose age is never specified but could be placed anywhere between 8 and 12 years), the text is free to unfold as a form of improvisational speech act, starting out as a retrospective return to the situation ("That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name"), but ending up by being completely caught up in the remembered situation as present tense action ("And don't even say they sorry").
It is not by accident that the story's text sets in with naming as an opening motif. The title word "gorilla" with its reverberating inconclusive echoes has prepared the way when Hazel as narrator introduces her first protesting, or aggressive, verbal gesture by sarcastically commenting on her uncle's change of name—from the familiar Hunca Bubba (her small child approximation to the lexical term "uncle") to the distancing formal full version of his name, Jefferson Winston Vale. (Here "Vale" bespeaks the deceptive or hidden character of the person in Hazel's perspective.) "Geographical," "weatherlike," "like somethin … in a almanac" are the deprecating terms chosen by Hazel to characterize her disappointment with her uncle's reverting to his full name who by this act has turned from an intimate and dependable point of reference or orientation in her life into a changeable item in an anonymous listing or on a wide open map. Hazel's loss of orientation through the alleged betrayal by her uncle is vividly dramatized at the end of the text when her established role as map reader (or Scout) in the front seat of the car slips away from her because her crying prevents her from reading the map.
Hazel's emotional and rational self-perception is shaken by her uncle's changed role which spontaneously makes her switch his middle name on him (as an act of signifying, implying that his love for her is written on the wind) from Winston to Windsong. Hunca Bubba's changing role and name signal a sobering, defamiliarizing, disillusioning process for Hazel, or a forced initiation into the factual, emotionally incomprehensible values of an adult world including a first inkling of sexuality. Emotionally upset, Hazel in the course of her text recapitulates all the names attributed to herself by the familiar adult world surrounding her—names that pay tribute to different facets of her character and competence, and therefore carry the promise of potential possibilities for her unfolding life: Hazel (connoting beauty and magic power), Scout, Badbird, (a term of respect for her standing by her convictions), Miss Muffin (a term commenting her fear of physical injury), and finally Peaches and Precious (Hunca Bubba's and Granddaddy's terms of endearment for her). By rejecting her uncle's address "Peaches" and by reminding him of her real name Hazel, the narrator would like to request his respect for her as a full person. But instead she just invites his casual condescension on her head ("Well, for cryin out loud, Hazel, you just a little girl. And I was just teasin"), followed by a slightly contemptuous subterfuge ("That's right. That was somebody else. I'm a new somebody") which shows Hunca Bubba and Granddaddy Vale in cahoots with each other in trying to console Hazel with an ingenuous figure of speech, talking down to her as to a mere child. The only consolation Hazel can find in this situation is the community of feeling and protest with Baby Jason, her little brother, who joins her crying in the backseat of the car:
And Baby Jason cryin too. Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And don't even say they sorry.
"Condescension, the verbal or communicative playing of tricks ('trickified business,' as Hazel calls it in another context) and the lack of empathy stand out as the traits of the adult world as presented by the primary dramatic situation of the story."
Condescension, the verbal or communicative playing of tricks ("trickified business," as Hazel calls it in another context) and the lack of empathy stand out as the traits of the adult world as presented by the primary dramatic situation of the story. (Hazel has demonstrated her fine sense for resenting manipulation by commenting on the disadvantages of sitting in the back of the car where the dust and the moving weight of the pecan sacks assume terrorizing proportions, and she has opted for the role of navigator, or Scout, next to the driver for that reason.)
If the car ride were the only situation presented by the story, Hazel's account and emotional reaction would in some ways leave her looking overly literal and childish, in so drastically misreading her uncle's earlier words and attitude. The car ride, however, serves as framing or triggering situation for other conflicts fought out by Hazel with the adult world. Her fictional character is supplemented and filled out in essential ways by these other situations which are brought in by the narrator as supporting evidence for the dishonest attitudes of adults towards children.
Central for establishing Hazel's fighting strength and non-manipulable perception of the world around her is the movie theater episode placed in the middle of the story and taking up more than half its length. Set off by the photo of Hunca Bubba's woman (who is not only never granted the privilege of a name in Hazel's narration, but is also seen as enacting a gesture that expresses fear of the camera), Hazel takes the movie house in the background of the photo as her cue for pushing out the woman altogether and for bringing her passion for movies to the fore ("Cause I am a movie freak from way back …"). It is at this point, when Hazel starts telling her experience with the Washington Theater on Amsterdam Avenue and the falsely announced film Gorilla, My Love, her vernacular text begins to unfold its full verbal, situational, comical and critical or satirical potential. The movie episode generates so much referential and visualizing energy and verve for Hazel's voice that it can casually call forth analogous illustrations from family and school situations and can in one case fuse the outlines of the crucifixion in a film on Jesus (King of Kings) with the imagined reaction of Hazel's family to its reenactment by Big Brood, her big brother, in an everyday setting and context, producing a virtuoso conflation of religious and domestic motifs which pours vitriolic scorn on Christian iconography while brilliantly asserting and satirizing the extended black family.
The main impetus behind Hazel's handling the movie house situation is made explicit by her text repeatedly: "Grownups figure they can treat you just anyhow. Which burns me up."—"And now I'm really furious cause I get so tired grownups messin over kids cause they little and can't take em to court."—"I mean even gangsters in the movies say My word is my bond. So don't nobody get away with nothin far as I'm concerned." In the case of the movie theater and its manager, Hazel and the group of children around her (Big Brood and Baby Jason foremost) are cheated (out of the film announced), intimidated (by the so-called "matrons," or ushers, especially the colored one called Thunderbuns) and generally victimized and exploited. This provokes at first different kinds of spontaneous protest ("Yellin, booin, stompin and carryin on") where the kids use certain guerilla tactics favored by the darkened house and well-trained by previous opposition to the power structure embodied in the theater management. When the next stage, a spontaneously organized collective verbal demand ("We want our money back" calls) is ignored, Hazel proceeds to a more formal technical step in approaching the manager personally to ask her own and her brothers' money back. When this proves fruitless, she continues her open suit by setting fire to the candy stand (with the manager's own matches!), thus putting the theater out of business for a week.
This open warfare with the white power structure is contrasted in Hazel's narration with the discussion of her actions in her own family—a much fairer handling of a case because the accused can defend herself and is declared right at the end ("So Daddy put his belt back on … Like my Mama say … Okay Badbird, you right"). The name Badbird provides the bridge to Hazel's mother who has been backing her daughter in school where she commands respect ("cause Mama got pull with the board and bad by her own self anyhow"—"bad" meaning strong and redoubtable, as used in the streets)—a backing Hazel needs against the lack of recognition for her intelligence ("When in reality I am the smartest kid P.S. 186 ever had in its whole lifetime"), the warping pressure of prejudice ("cause I won't sing them Southern songs or back off when they tell me my questions are out of order") and downright slander ("when them teachers start playin the dozens behind colored folks"). The totally antagonistic situation at the movie theater is thus contextualized by a mostly supportive, but many-voiced family situation, and by an ambivalent (because both challenging and stifling) school environment. All three vividly evoked situations partake of the same ingredients in the narrator's perspective: control over others, and the rights of others to question that control.
"Gorilla, My Love" insistently adumbrates the asymmetric relationships between adults and children and dramatizes through the voice of a child the dilemma of weaker members of a community when exposed to manipulation or breach of trust by adults. It juxtaposes the naivete (or credulity) of a non-adult perspective with the opportunism (or corruption) of the adult world. Informed by a utopia of trust, or bonding, or community, the non-adult narrator Hazel sets up resistance against the breach of trust enacted by adults (whether in the deceptive film announcement, or in the oral promise of her uncle). Hazel uses her role as narrator, her privilege of giving voice to her concerns as a weapon and countermeasure against the conventionalized speech acts of the adult world. Her spontaneously unfolding vernacular speech act probes and unmasks the formalized or ritualized speech acts of adults (both in the printed or literate form of the film title and in the oral phrase of her uncle). Hazel's vernacular speech in the process of her narration releases a vigorous unmasking force for testing the inherent values and veracity of adult verbal strategies and speech acts. Hunca Bubba's utterances thus mirror an inherent carelessness, insensibility, lack of imagination and habitual condescension towards the child Hazel and make visible a general attitude of adults towards children as immature agents with limited rights and responsibilities.
Even though Hazel's assumptions in the case of her uncle may seem naive and simplistic, her linguistic energy and storytelling verve result from, and are an expression of, her inner strength and substance. Her perspective and social norms insist on veracity, or truth, and thereby criticize and debunk the tactics and the egotism of the adult world. At the same time Hazel as narrator unswervingly insists on her rights for the pursuit of happiness, both in the dream world of the film screen (i.e. the world of imagination and storytelling, and by extension also of image control and the propagation of ethical and cultural values) and in the actual family-centered world of close personal relations. Hazel's hurt with respect to her uncle is in one sense a comedy, soon to pass—but in another sense it is a cataclysmic loss of trust and belief placed in the emotional and moral authority of her uncle. Other forms of emotional bonding (with her brothers, her family, other children) will sustain Hazel and tide her over the experienced disillusionment, the text seems to suggest; but her outlook will remain agonistic, i.e. will be inscribed with struggle, conflict, loss and suffering. If Hazel's text contains any positive promise or utopian dimension, it is to be found in her own strength of character, in her militant intelligence and her superb command of language.
Klaus Ensslen, "Toni Cade Bambara: Gorilla, My Love (1971)," in The African American Short Story: 1970 to 1990, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993, pp. 41–57.
Nancy D. Hargrove
In the following essay excerpt, Hargrove discusses Hazel's narrative voice in "Gorilla, My Love."
In reading Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972), one is immediately struck by her portrayal of black life and by her faithful reproduction of black dialect. Her first-person narrators speak conversationally and authentically: "So Hunca Bubba in the back with the pecans and Baby Jason, and he in love.… there's a movie house … which I ax about. Cause I am a movie freak from way back, even though it do get me in trouble sometime." What Twain's narrator Huck Finn did for the dialect of middle America in the mid-nineteenth century, Bambara's narrators do for contemporary black dialect. Indeed, in the words of one reviewer, Caren Dybek, Bambara "possesses one of the finest ears for the nuances of black English" ("Black Literature" 66). In portraying black life, she presents a wide range of black characters, and she uses as settings Brooklyn, Harlem, or unnamed black sections of New York City, except for three stories which take place in rural areas. Finally, the situations are typical of black urban experience: two policemen confront a black man shooting basketball in a New York park at night; young black activists gather the community members at a Black Power rally; a group of black children from the slums visit F.A.O. Schwartz and are amazed at the prices of toys. Bambara's stories communicate with shattering force and directness both the grim reality of the black world—its violence, poverty, and harshness—and its strength and beauty—strong family ties, individual determination, and a sense of cultural traditions. Lucille Clifton has said of her work, "She has captured it all, how we really talk, how we really are," and the Saturday Review has called Gorilla, My Love "among the best portraits of black life to have appeared in some time."
Although her work teems with the life and language of black people, what is equally striking about it, and about this collection particularly, is the universality of its themes. Her fiction reveals the pain and the joy of the human experience in general, of what it means to be human, and most often of what it means to be young and human. One of Bambara's special gifts as a writer of fiction is her ability to portray with sensitivity and compassion the experiences of children from their point of view. In the fifteen stories that compose Gorilla, My Love, all the main characters are female, thirteen of them are first-person narrators, and ten of them are young, either teenagers or children. They are wonderful creations, especially the young ones, many of whom show similar traits of character; they are intelligent, imaginative, sensitive, proud and arrogant, witty, tough, but also poignantly vulnerable. Through these young central characters, Bambara expresses the fragility, the pain, and occasionally the promise of the experience of growing up, of coming to terms with a world that is hostile, chaotic, violent. Disillusionment, loss, and loneliness, as well as unselfishness, love, and endurance, are elements of that process of maturation which her young protagonists undergo.…
With great sensitivity Bambara portrays through Hazel in "Gorilla, My Love" the feelings of pain and betrayal experienced by a child in a situation that adults would generally consider trivial or ridiculous. When Hazel was very young, her favorite uncle, Hunca Bubba, promised to marry her when she grew up, a promise which he gave lightly but which she took seriously. The story, centers on her discovery that he has not only dropped the affectionate name Hunca Bubba, but also intends to marry someone else. For Hazel this bitter betrayal reveals to her that even adults who are "family" cannot be trusted to keep their promises. Her disillusionment is intense and painful; as she says," I ain't playin. I'm hurtin.…," speaking the words of the original title of the story.
Hazel's realization and subsequent disillusionment are skillfully prepared for from the opening lines, where the idea of unpleasant changes is introduced through her first-person narration: "That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name. Not a change up, but a change back, since Jefferson Winston Vale was the name in the first place. Which was news to me cause he'd been my Hunca Bubba my whole lifetime, since I couldn't manage Uncle to save my life." Further foreshadowing follows. From Hazel the reader learns that she, her grandfather, Hunca Bubba, and her younger brother are in a car driving to an undisclosed destination when Hunca Bubba begins talking about the woman he loves. Hazel affects boredom with the subject and criticizes a photograph of the woman, responses indicative of her true dismay, although at this point the reader has no clue as to the cause of her antagonism: "And we got to hear all this stuff about this woman he in love with and all. Which really ain't enough to keep the mind alive, though Baby Jason got no better sense than to give his undivided attention and keep grabbin at the photograph which is just a picture of some skinny woman in a countrified dress with her hand shot up to her face like she shame fore cameras."
There follow five pages (a large section in a story of only seven and a half pages) that appear at first to contain a long and puzzling digression on a memory from the previous Easter. In fact, the episode furnishes the key to our understanding of the enormous, shattering impact that Hunca Bubba's "betrayal" has on Hazel. The remembered incident seems initially to reveal only an occasion on which Hazel got into trouble as a result of her "toughness"; however, as we discover, Hazel is both sensitive and vulnerable beneath her tough exterior.
"Hazel's realization and subsequent disillusionment are skillfully prepared for from the opening lines, where the idea of unpleasant changes is introduced through her first-person narration.…"
The episode concerns a movie which Hazel, Baby Jason, and Big Brood went to see. Although the marquee advertised that "Gorilla, My Love" was playing, the actual movie was about Jesus. The three were disappointed and angry: "I am ready to kill, not cause I got anything gainst Jesus. Just that when you fixed to watch a gorilla picture you don't wanna get messed around with Sunday School stuff. So I am mad." After "yellin, booin, stompin, and carrying on" to show their displeasure, they watched the feature, hoping that "Gorilla, My Love" would follow. When it did not, as Hazel so bluntly puts it, "we know we been had. No gorilla no nuthin." She daringly went to complain to the manager and to ask that their money be refunded. Getting no satisfaction from him, she took some matches from his office and set fire to the candy stand. She later explained to her father that she expected people (and marquees) to keep their word: "Cause if you say Gorilla, My Love, you suppose to mean it. Just like when you say you goin to give me a party on my birthday, you gotta mean it.… I mean even gang sters in the movies say My word is my bond. So don't nobody get away with nothin far as I'm concerned."
Clearly, Hunca Bubba's breaking his promise to marry her is far more devastating to Hazel than the false advertising of the movie theater. Since a person whom she has every reason to trust has betrayed her, the entire adult world becomes suspect. Indeed, throughout the story, Hazel makes numerous comments on the conflict between children and adults. When her grandfather and Hunca Bubba make a weak attempt to justify what has occurred ("'Look here, Precious, it was Hunca Bubba what told you them things. This here, Jefferson Winston Vale.' And Hunca Bubba say, 'That's right. That was somebody else. I'm a new somebody"'), Hazel is not buying and turns to her little brother for solace, bitterly condemning the perfidy of adults: "I'm crying and crumplin down in the seat.… And Baby Jason cryin too. Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And don't even say they sorry."
Nancy D. Hargrove, "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 81–99.
Bambara, Toni Cade, "Gorilla, My Love," in Gorilla, My Love, Vintage, 1992, pp. 13–20.
——, "How She Came by Her Name: An Interview with Louis Massiah," in Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996, pp. 201–45.
——, "Salvation Is the Issue," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1984, pp. 41–47.
——, "A Sort of Preface," in Gorilla, My Love, Vintage, 1992.
——, "What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow," in The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg, W. W. Norton, 1980, p. 154.
Bryan, C. D. B., Review of Gorilla, My Love, in New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1972, p. 31.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth, "From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1984, pp. 48–49.
Ensslen, Klaus, "Toni Cade Bambara: Gorilla, My Love," in The African American Short Story, 1970 to 1990: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Wolfgang Karrer and Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 1993, pp. 41–44.
Hargrove, Nancy D., "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love," in the Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 81–83.
Review of Gorilla, My Love, in Saturday Review, Vol. 55, No. 47, November 18, 1972, p. 97.
Bambara, Toni Cade, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996.
Toni Morrison, Bambara's editor at Random House, assembled this collection of six previously unpublished stories and six essays after Bambara's death. In "How She Came by Her Name," an interview with Louis Massiah, Bambara discusses her childhood, her early political life, and how Gorilla, My Love came to be published.
Butler-Evans, Elliott, Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Temple University Press, 1989.
Butler-Evans examines two aesthetics in the works of these writers: an African American nationalism and African American feminism. He finds that in Bambara's fiction from the 1970s these currents are at odds with each other, but that she resolves some of the tension in her work from the 1980s.
Moraga, Cherríe, and Gloria Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1983.
Bambara contributed a foreword to this anthology of personal essays, criticism, and poetry by women of color in the United States. Much of the writing comes out of a desire for a unified Third World feminist movement that is not focused on the needs of men, or of white women.
Muther, Elizabeth, "Bambara's Feisty Girls: Resistance Narratives in Gorilla, My Love," in African American Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall 2002, pp. 447–59.
Muther discusses Senator Daniel P. Moynihan's 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action as a landmark of white liberal guilt, and "Gorilla, My Love" as a story of African American empowerment that resists Moynihan's analysis.