Gorilla, My Love: A Commentary

My featured image was painted by one of my best friends and favorite artists, Carole Geier. Her Ribbon Dancer comes later in the narrative, too. I’ve featured her art previously on my blog. It relates to this blog entry as it features a contemplative woman, which may describe me and the main character in the short story of which I will review.

Before I was a geographer and human scientist, I was an English major. It seemed a likely choice given my interest in literature. My love for music also drove my work in public radio. Like comparative analyses that we do in literature, I like to do the same with music.

Toni Cade Bambara, who was active in the 1960s and 1970s as a writer, film-maker, social activist, and college professor, wrote some fabulous short stories. I like that her writing used great rhythms in the narratives. Gorilla, My Love stands out for me, so I share this review that I wrote for Bambara’s narrative about Harlem through the eyes of the young “Hazel.” The story addresses many experiences of the young African American female, including her views of social injustices. This short story brilliantly illustrates a gifted young female, who, for many reasons, does not get her due respect from society.

My commentary is rather dense, so I will break it up with photos that may or may not connect to my narrative.

Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara

Critics writing about Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “Gorilla, My Love” agree that her use of language promotes positive images about black urban life, and teaches important lessons without becoming preachy.  Ruth Burks, Elliott Butler-Evans, Klaus Ensslen and Madhu Dubey point to no weaknesses in Bambara’s story.  Rather the weaknesses lie in their criticism because of detachment from Bambara’s characters’ culture, misuse of words, and faulty interpretation of the text. The critics, rightly, cite Bambara’s use of a young female as a brilliant tool to give the story the ability to address social injustices without heavy-handed didacticism (Dubey 19), but they show disconnectedness with the writer’s culture, for example, by not recognizing the difference between street-wise and precocious when describing Bambara’s main character, Hazel. Each espouses strong opinions about a culture that perhaps none truly understands. The four critics each agree that Bambara’s language received heavy influence from the music of black Americans.  They don’t; however, appear to know what elements in the music Bambara imitates when she writes.  For instance, they use terms interchangeably, like jazz and Negro spiritual, when explaining the rhythm of Bambara’s story. The faulty criticism, however, does not lessen the strength of Bambara’s tale because the overall tone of the critics’ ideas stayed supportive.

     Burks, Butler-Evans, Ensslen and Dubey each cite Bambara’s use of Black urban vernacular as a successful way to give readers a realistic picture of a black child’s life in her neighborhood and community.  Elliott Butler-Evans describes Hazel’s speech patterns and delivery as a “restricted linguistic code of Black urban life” (94).  His narrow vision doesn’t consider that some of Hazel’s verbal expressions come from immature language development and have nothing to do with her ethnicity. For instance, she uses the term “scary” for scared. She contracts the demand, “let me” to “lemme.” She calls Big Brood’s Spaulding basketball or baseball glove a “Spaudeen” (Prescott 676).  She uses incorrect placement of a possessive in, “And I’m flingin’ the kid in front of me’s popcorn” (Prescott 677). While many might point to Hazel’s dialect as “the language of lazy or under-educated Americans,” that illustrates the dominant dialect in the United States.  For example, she uses contractions of words heard in everyday speech: cause for because, musta for must have, and most noticeable, she leaves the –ing sound off many words like grabbing, flinging, something and throwing. African-American vernacular does not claim exclusivity to these terms. Bambara mixes the black vernacular with the immature child’s linguistic skills to address social issues through the eyes of innocence.

     None of the critics’ main points appear to be original since they mostly agreed that Bambara’s strengths lie in her use of language.  No opinions strongly oppose each other.  The critics strayed when they stated their opinions without support from the text, cultural insights, or background.  Klaus Ensslen attributes to Hazel, supposedly between the ages of eight and 12, the power of profound insight.  For instance, Ensslen notes that Hazel’s term for Brandy’s friend, Thunderbuns, refers to “the borrowed or relegated thunder of her authority” (48).  This shows detachment to the culture of youth and to the mind of a precocious girl.  Hazel attributes to Brandy and Thunderbuns slothful, animal features to show inferiority to her own energetic, intelligent self. Hazel likes to pop empty potato chip bags so that “the matron come trottin down the aisle with her chunky self” (Prescott 676).  Later Hazel reminds the reader that Thunderbuns “do not play and do not smile” (Prescott 677).  Hazel does not possess the idea that the name, Thunderbuns, comes from the thunder of borrowed authority. In her youth, she attacks physical elements of the two adults with less-than-authoritative airs by condescending to them and by using names that describe their physical appearances.  This instance illustrates Hazel’s youthful intelligence.

     As if to say that a young, black girl could only get her intelligence from the streets, Dubey and Burks refer to Hazel as “streetwise.” The term streetwise usually refers to one with enhanced survival skills from living in the streets, which does not appear to be Bambara’s intention for her young character.  Hazel does not come from the streets.  She lives surrounded by a close-knit, loving family, which does not usually describe a child with street smarts.  Hazel reads maps, asserts herself to protect her loved-ones, shows self-confidence in her knowledge, and asks intelligent questions.  By reading maps, not a usual skill of a pre-pubescent child, she directs the pecan-gathering trip. She protects Big Brood in the park and protects the money from bullies by putting it in her shoe (Prescott 676). She asks for ticket reimbursement from the theater manager claiming false advertisement, which is good insight for a preteen. Her questions, apparently, threaten teachers since she often hears that they are out of line. Hazel expresses confidence in her consummate knowledge of things by proclaiming, “When in reality I am the smartest kid P.S. 186 ever had in its whole lifetime and you can ax anybody” (Prescott 678). Burks and Dubey wrongly assume that Hazel gains her intelligence from the streets, which further shows a misunderstanding of  her youth and the culture.   

     The four critics of record hit the mark with their highlighting Bambara’s strengths in language use.  Each takes a different approach, however.  Burks sees the story as having more anger, sadness and negative points. Her notion of “incongruity of language” (50) sheds a dark light on Hunca Bubba’s not waiting for Hazel to grow up to marry him.  The conflict of the story does not lie in Hazel’s misunderstanding with her uncle’s false marriage proposal.  It lay in her friction with the theater manager and the school. Hazel’s experiencing disappointment with a family who loves her does not need to be ranked with the injustices of false advertising to children and teachers who ignore a precocious child because she’s black. The family offers support to a disappointed child, but the schools and theater are less likely to show empathy. Perhaps Klaus Ensslen meant to say the same thing when he noted that Bambara used “family and friends as a social backdrop” (44). Incongruity of Language describes the conflict with those outside the family, and that language shows differences from the dominant culture, as Butler-Evans charges.  It seems more likely that Bambara wanted to emphasize conflict of blacks with the dominant culture rather than conflict within the family, which would be a less positive approach.

     Ensslen, Dubey and Butler-Evans look at Bambara’s short story with optimism toward Bambara’s linguistic genius. Butler-Evans and Dubey agree that Hazel’s vernacular paints her as a cultural insider and note that her speech is accessible even to those outside the culture.  It has reach outside the culture. How else would Bambara make her political statements?  Hazel’s voice lends credibility to the story with her view on social injustices.  Told by an older person, the same views would be construed as observations made by an under-educated, embittered and angry adult: “…grownups playin’ change-up and turnin’ you round every which way so bad. And don’t even say they sorry” (Prescott 680).  This supports Dubey’s claim that,  “Hazel’s voice functions as the sharpest linguistic weapon allowing Bambara to attack social issues without heavy-handed didacticism”(19). Ensslen called Bambara’s “didactic impulse” usable lessons in a committed life(41). This strength and the multi-layered use of language in Bambara’s short story stand out as the hallmark of “Gorilla, My Love,” according to Burks, Butler-Evans, Dubey and Ensslen, but the points missed with Hazel’s linguistic voice parallel the critics’ misunderstanding of the elements that make Bambara’s writing emulate jazz.

     Burks and Ensslen refer to the music of Black Americans when describing Bambara’s written cadences, but they appear to be unsure of the elements that make it jazz. In referring to the rhythm and musicality of Bambara’s story, Ensslen notes that her improvisational use of oral forms of expression owes much to the black music especially to the bebop of the postwar decades, as she herself acknowledged” (42).  He alludes to an interview in which she credits bebop jazz musicians Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie for her literary voice.  Ensslen merely alludes to one of the strongest elements of Bambara’s story, perhaps, because he doesn’t fully understand how “Gorilla, My Love” truly parallels an improvisational jazz piece.  Consider Parker and Gillespie’s tune, “Night in Tunisia.”  The tune, played by their jazz quartet, begins with the string bass introducing the theme, which is then joined by Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, which takes the lead while being accompanied by Parker’s alto saxophone, the bass and drums (recording). The introduction in “Tunisia” parallels Hazel’s opening “That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name.”  Both introduce a theme. The quartet broadens its theme within several bars and measures, so does Hazel name the characters to set the story’s stage.  Staying in the same musical key, Charlie Parker departs from the main theme to improvise his musical self-expression the same way Hazel uses an image in the photograph, one of many sub-themes, as a springboard to relay her story about an experience at the Washington Theater. In the jazz piece, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet overtakes a slight nod to the theme with a second improvisation. Gillespie’s improvisation parallels Hazel’s story within her story, Big Brood up on the cross, because it represents additional expression influenced by the original theme.  At the end of Gillespie’s ad-libbing, the remainder of the quartet rejoins him with the original theme like Hazel who brings her two stories, the theater and crucifixion, to an end with her yelling, “Shut is off.”  If Ensslen understood jazz improvisation, he may have been more successful in connecting Bambara’s strong sense of rhythm and pace with jazz improvisation.

     Ruth Burks makes a similar mistake by lumping all black music into one category to describe Bambara’s cadence.  Burks likens the tempo of Bambara’s story to Negro Spirituals, which is incorrect.  Burks declares that the plaintive voice of spirituals permeated “Gorilla, My Love.” Consider the spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  The song opens with a slow-moving theme followed by a sorrowful response, “Comin’ for to carry me home.”  The song continues with call and response, short statement with repetitious reply, through to the end (Quick 184). Unlike jazz, no one leaves the theme to improvise another musical interlude or uses the theme as a launching pad to tell a story within the story.  Bambara’s “Gorilla, My Love” possesses very little elements of the Negro Spiritual.  In contrast to the spiritual, Gorilla moves quickly as several vignettes unfold within the story.  The energy is high since it’s told from a young, precocious girl’s point of view.  Quick beat and high energy hardly describe Negro spirituals with their slow cadences and, often, melancholy themes. Burks’ allusion to, “constant repetition” (49), connotes jazz improvisation, but she describes Bambara’s pace as Negro spiritual because of unfamiliarity with jazz and with Bambara’s influences.  The mistakes still don’t detract from the over all positive tone of the criticism, however.

            The four critics, Burks, Butler-Evans, Dubey and Ensslen, all in all, like Bambara’s writing.  They agree that her use of language promotes positive images about black urban life while teaching life’s important lessons without proselytizing. They find no weaknesses, but their own lack of knowledge, regarding black culture, weakens their interpretation of the story through misuse of words.  The critics’ own stereotyping of the black culture becomes evident when they don’t recognize the difference between street-wise and precocious when describing Bambara’s main character, Hazel. Butler-Evans confuses black linguistic patterns with the speech skills of a preteen. Ensslen gives Hazel’s coping mechanism of name calling an adult’s scrutiny by charging her with deeper thought than one her age may practice. Dubey and Burks miss the mark by equating Hazel’s intelligence to the survival skills of a child from the streets. Finally, the four critics each agree that Bambara’s language received heavy influences from the music of black Americans.  They don’t, however, appear to know what elements in the music Bambara imitates when she writes.  The intent of the critics appears supportive of Bambara’s message, but faulty interpretation of the text lessens their credibility.

So, find the short story by Bambera. then find Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia,” or one of Charlie Parker’s upbeat Jazz pieces, and experience the rhythms for yourself. I find it most pleasurable.

Thank you for reading.

2 thoughts on “Gorilla, My Love: A Commentary

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