HomeHairstyleToni Cade Bambara warned us against overfocusing on gender
Toni Cade Bambara warned us against overfocusing on gender
December 17, 2022
Articles by Irma McClaurin, Robert S. Cox Special Collections and University Archives Research Center, UMass Amherst Libraries.
Toni Cade Bambara has worn many hats: documentary filmmaker, cultural worker, mentor, educator, mother, organizer and of course, writer. She has dedicated her life to black feminist creation of the world, imagining spaces of freedom and equitable concern. Perhaps most crucial, what the Bambara have warned us about is what we lose when we attribute to white and patriarchal sex/gender roles.
The revolutionary function of Bambara’s work and its abolition of sex/gender roles is first fully realized in the narrative found in Gorilla, my love, who turned 50 this year. Composed of 15 short stories, Gorilla, my love comments on the dynamism of familial, romantic, platonic love, love untied to sex/gender roles. For example, the story “My Man Bovanne” deals with ageism and ableism, using the budding relationship between Miss Hazel and Bovanne to imagine what might come from loosening the reins as a mother. Become a “slut in heat”, a “naughty”; what could change if “‘[we] was no shame.
In a conversation for Women’s Studies Quarterly, Hortense Spillers notes how black culture in the 20th century followed “a kind of democratic form… It just seemed that this community automatically did something about the human being who was really very different. That people did whatever work needed to be done, whether it was “men’s work” or “women’s work”, if it had to be done, people just did it; to raise children, to nurture communities. The aftermath of this rigid binary animated black intra-murality.
Discussions of black lives have been hijacked by white heteropatriarchal thinking. It states the following: Black “men” and black “women” (while ignoring the personality of black queer and trans people) should hate each other for not fulfilling the all-too-familiar gender roles.
Bambara’s message, which anchored works like Gorilla, my love, is made more explicit in his essay “On the Question of Roles”. Appearing in his collection edited in 1970, The Black Woman: An Anthologythe essay adopts a strict position: an opposition to “stereotypical definitions of masculine and feminine”. This position is reflected in the work of Bambara.
Seabirds are still alivewhich is inspired by a trip Bambara took to Vietnam in 1975, depicts the different intimacies and relationships among black people, amplifying Bambara’s call to measure black lives against “[our] connection to the struggle”, not by how we fulfill or fail in the roles of “man” and “woman”. Characters like Sweet Pea in the new “Medley” of sea birds, rejects the role of passionate partner and chronicles the ebb and flow of partnership; long, tender, song-filled showers meet piled-up dirty plates and half-propos. She reminds us of the lies we have to tell ourselves to fulfill these roles: “I wouldn’t want to be a man. It must be hard on the heart to always have to go out, to prepare to possibly be shot… I don’t think I could handle it myself unless everyone was just straight up at all times from day one until the end.
In The salt eaters (which won an American Book Award in 1981), the novel’s protagonist, Minnie, is a single, middle-aged woman who addresses the mental health crises of people in her community. She does healing work with Velma Henry, a community activist who suffers a nervous breakdown after working as a black radical and attempts suicide. Minnie and Velma challenge gender/sexual thinking that insists black women contort themselves into the roles of damsels in distress. Rather, they become sources of their own self-esteem.
Bambara’s description of the use and limits of sex/gender roles resonates strongly in our current moment. It manifests itself through the platform of uncritical, reactionary and counter-revolutionary black voices, which have sided with heteropatriarchy and insist that the roles of “man” and “woman” are the only way forward. We also see it in the public attack on black people who are not the perceived benefactors of patriarchy: black people who are not cis, straight black men. Additionally, the public attack on black people who refuse these sex roles and encourage others to challenge these roles. For example, the pervasive idea that submission to sex/gender roles “neutralizes the acid tension that exists between black men and black women”, ultimately labeling black people who say ‘no’ to said roles as the source of ” emasculation” of black men.
Against Bambara’s warning, we have made being a “man” or a “woman” more important than shared and collective thought and action that is not rooted in “masculine” or “feminine” thought. What could be possible if we told how we can help each other survive this machine of death and work towards its destruction? What happens when we abandon black culture – not just what we make (art, music, food, vernaculars, etc.), but how we live and rage against it, in an anti-black world – for assimilate us into an anti-black world that we think we can have a head start on, if we just play our roles accordingly?
We carry incalculable wounds, and it is because of this world and our complicity with it; to think that if we assimilate into the engines of death that are sex/gender/sexuality “roles” we will be spared; that we will have what we need to survive or maybe even thrive in this world. And many of us have and will reap the wounds of our “failure” to live up to the promise of being a “woman”/”man” role; “wife”/”husband”, “son”/”daughter”, “mother”/”father”. This truth hurts, but in 2022 the whip and whip of white and liberal bourgeois sensibilities and our aspirations towards those sensibilities have left the poor, trans and queer among us for dead. If not by using violence as a means to get people to bend and contort into these roles, surely negligence and apathy. We cannot measure the anguish these roles cause.
To be clear: for the Bambara, the issue is not masculinity or femininity, but our relationship to these knots of being as the mundane and violent roles we are called upon to play. Our relationship to ‘roles’, she argues, should be: ‘overwhelm all fanciful definitions of manhood/femininity (or reject them outright if you’re not disgusted at being called ‘neutral’) until realistic definitions emerge through a commitment to Blackhood. This work will not happen overnight and must begin with oneself, because “there is no such animal as an instant guerrilla”.
If we want to go to the other end of these perverse relations, the “family” or the intramural bond cannot be articulated around “a socially ordered nuclear unit to perpetuate the species or legitimize sexuality, but [be] an extended kinship of cellmates and neighbors bonded in an effort to actualize a vision of a liberated society. We’d do better if we cherished and nurtured the love and connection we feel that doesn’t come from our “parents” or “siblings”; the love we feel that is not romantic. These types of love and connection are not inferior. They stand eternally against the sources of our suffering.