While reading adrienne maree brown’s Pleasure Activism for #NastyWomenWriters, I was stopped in my tracks by the praise coming forward in that book for black feminist, writer, activist, film maker and mentor Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995).
“Toni Cade Bambara, author of The Salt Eaters, the one to tell us writing was a tool for the revolution, that our task was to make revolution irresistible. Bambara is a main stream in the lineage of pleasure activism, not just because of what she put on the page and into words, but also because of the ways she wove community, the way she supported other writers and organizers, the way she engaged in healing work” (45).
In the chapter “The Sweetness of Salt,” author and activist Alexis Pauline Gumbs, archivist and scholar of Bambara’s work, writes about five women who have been instrumental in her life and work: “scholar Farah Jasmine Griffin, filmmaker and activist Aishah Shahidah Simmons, artist and abolitionist Kai Lumumba Barrow, healer and organizer Cara Page, and editor and intellectual activist Cheryll Y. Greene”(46), who were all personally influenced, mentored, “sistered” and “mothered” by Bambara. It was these women’s recounting of their experiences with Bambara that caused me to go find her for myself.
In Toni Cade Bambara’s worldview, “Everything is relevant. Everything is connected…one of the most persistent lessons that The Salt Eaters offers me in this life. The message, lesson, reminder is this: my spiritual and physical well-being and the well-being of the community, planet and cosmos are ONE THING.”
Gumbs speaks of Velma, the main character in the novel as,
“someone that many of us can recognize. She is a champion for the people. She is a revolutionary artist who can’t sleep. Who doesn’t sleep. Who literally does not rest, because she believes to create any space of comfort for herself is to distract from the urgency of her work as an artist for the movement. So she works. Always. She is in it. Always. And she doesn’t rest until she involuntary falls down, and in the opening moment of the novel Velma Henry has fallen so hard that she is barely alive after a suicide attempt that requires the work of a healing community and a circle of ancestors and deities to gather in her name. This is the line we repeat again and again out of Toni Cade Bambara’s work, in the face of attempted suicide, the healer, Minnie Ransom asks, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”(https://thefeministwire.com/2014/11/well-being-of-the-community/)
Bambara’s novel, The Salt Eaters is a veritable soup of personal, community and collective healing. But a soup it is, with so many disparate components, narratives, plot lines and philosophical ideologies weaving and interweaving through it that it is hard to capture what all is in that full and boiling-over pot on the first read. But it’s worth it and also worth a reread after the first time through.
With its wandering points of view, seemingly disparate characters and events, interspersed with memories, dreams and spiritual visitations all connecting in the end, the text accomplishes its mission in showing how everything is interconnected and deeply webbed, including and extending back to the ancestors and forward to the unborn. It leaves no doubt that the personal is also the collective and the political. It accentuates that to heal the collective one must be personally healthy. It encourages the reader to understand: to care for oneself is worthwhile and important for the community.
Velma has so much going on. She is a successful computer programmer whose most recent job in Transchemical, the chemical plant which employs much of black population of the fictional city of Claybourne, Georgia where she lives, has gotten her into trouble. Velma has been pulled into a scheme to steal data that will expose the toxic nature of the plant, both environmentally and its treatment of employees. She is about to be interrogated about the missing data.
Velma, an activist all her life, who has run successful campaigns and forged community action, has also taken on the sexist behavior of the men in the activist movement, both in her town and the larger civil rights movement.
“Who’s called in every time there’s work to be done, coffee made, a program sold? Every time some miscellaneous nobody with a five-minute commitment and an opportunist’s nose for a self-promoting break gets and idea, here we go. And we have yet to see any of you so much as roll up your sleeves to empty and ashtray”(SE 36).
Velma is married but her marriage is falling apart, she is told by her husband because she is too busy and distracted but Velma is seething with rage because while she is out doing all this work, her husband is having multiple affairs. Her marriage has hit an impasse. Velma has moved out and started an affair with another man who does not seem too healthy for her, according to the conversation of her friends, and Velma’s own reflection. In an absolutely devastating scene with her husband Obie, Bambara captures and names the painful experience and gaslighting experienced by so many successful career women:
“You’re sleeping around,” she said, stopping abruptly to say it, to watch how it caught him at the back of the neck, the back of the knees, feeling how it caught her at the pit of the stomach…We’ve known each other too long, Obie, been through too much, been too much to each other. Why lie about such simple shit. And you been lying for months now, complaining about my aloofness, my fatigue, my job, willing to totally mess with my sense of what’s real in order to throw up this smoke screen. You are sleeping around Obie, and not very discreetly. And it sets one lousy example for your brother Bobby and all the little brothers”(SE 231).
As noted previously, one of the main themes of the novel is the connection between the health of the community and the well-being of each individual. Bambara is shining a light on something well known but hard to live by: that we can’t save anyone or help anyone if we are not well ourselves, that activism and activity can become addictions and how surrendering to despair is lethal.
And that is the place to which Velma has arrived. The book opens with Velma sitting on a stool in the infirmary in front of the local healer after a suicide attempt.
“Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”(SE 3). The question asked of Velma by the local healer, Minnie Ransom, opens the book, repeated again here for it is the most famous line from the book. Later Minnie asks, “Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you’re well”(SE 10).
Because, Bambara is teaching, being well holds responsibility to ourselves and others, again, not only those who are alive in the three-dimensional world. This is a huge subject but one that Bambara illustrates and articulates in stunning clarity in this rhythmic and passionate tale. As we ride the waves of Velma’s healing at the hands of Minnie Ransom and Minnie’s spirit guide, “Old Wife,” the two of them surrounded by the circle of twelve or “The Master’s Mind,” we feel the ripples of healing flow out into the community and on to the land of the spirits, the “haints,” the “loa” and the mud mothers, absorbed by the sacred tree where offerings are made and beyond.
The healer Minnie
“learned to read the auras of trees and stones and plants and neighbors, far more colorful, far more complex. And studied the sun’s corona, the jagged petals of magnetic colors and then the threads that shimmered between wooden tables and flowers and children and candles and birds.
On the stool or in the chair with this patient or that, Minnie could dance their dance and match their beat and echo their pitch and know their frequency as if her own. Eyes closed and the mind dropping down to the heart, bubbling in the blood then beating, fanning out, flood and shining, she knew each way of being in the world and could welcome them home again, open to wholeness”(SE 47).
Part of Velma’s healing has to do with her owning and accepting her own spirituality, one she has been called to since youth but has ignored and avoided. She too, like Minnie has been called by the ancestors and spirits to claim her gift of spiritual healing.
The mud mothers, ancestors, began to make themselves visible to her when she was a girl, in the movie theater, on one of the walls in a cave like indentation, “with enormous teeth painting themselves with long hair brushes, painting pictures on the walls of the cave”( SE 254), at church, and in her attic. “In the attic they came in the mirror once. Ten or more women with mud hair, storing yams in gourds and pebbles in cracked calabash. And tucking babies in hairy hides. They came like a Polaroid. Stepping out of the mouth of the cave, they tried to climb out of the speckled glass, talk to her, tell her what must be done all over again, all over again, all over again. But she hung an old velvet drape over the mirror and smothered them. They were not going to run her off her own place, Not the attic “(SE 255). In church and at the theater she avoided looking at them.
For Velma and for Bambara, it is the spiritual roots of her ancestors and ancestry from Africa that come calling, the mud mothers. In Velma’s town there are mentors and guides and Aunties and godmothers, all levels of support and care available in claiming her gifts that Velma has left behind, rejected. Yet, when the book ends she will return to this, she has agreed to take up the mantle in order to be well.
For African Americans in particular, Bambara believes reconnecting with the ancestors—the ancestors that their ancestors were taken from— is part of the healing wanting to happen. That this was left out of the civil rights movement. That honoring ancestors is part of this lineage and that the ancestors are there and waiting. That slavery often disrupted this connection but it is there, the ancestors are there, for the reconnection if one is willing.
This book was awesome to read for so many reasons, but I wish to strongly acknowledge the powerful, independent, smart, self-identified and self-affirming female characters, the portrayal of healthy female friendships, the portrayal of powerful women activists, women with passion acting on their passions, women employed in good jobs and educated women talking about issues of importance, with each other! Only upon reading a book that features this so prominently is it evident how few include this. Velma has friends, lots of them and they are also well-rounded characters with lives and independent interests separate from men. This book passes the Bechdel-Wallace test (For a given work of fiction to pass the test, the work must 1) have at least two women in it, who 2) talk to each other, about 3) something other than a man.) in flying colors and it was written in 1980.
Bambara broke all kinds of barriers with this book. What is also stunning and even a bit shocking to read are the passages where Velma is leading a meeting WHILE having her period and needing to change her tampon or out on a protest and having a similar need. I honestly do not think I have read about that in a book before. It was so amazing to read it and to ponder how I can’t remember having read it. For me it was so affirming. The famous trope thrown around how Ginger had to do everything Fred did but do it backwards: how about backwards while also bleeding and leaking and maybe not having proper supplies to attend to oneself at hand?
Velma does that!
How many times have women who bleed had these similar experiences? A common occurrence for most and yet, NEVER written about. She captures it so well. I absolutely must include the passages here.
While leading a meeting:
“She felt uncomfortable, damp. There’d been nothing in the machines—no tampons, no napkins, no paper towels, no roll of tissue she could unravel and stuff her panties with. So she slid carefully into the wide bowl of the wooden chair, the wad of rally flyers scratching against her panty hose”(SE 26)…. “She stood up again, certain that she was leaving a red-brown smear on the chair”(SE 36).
A memory of a day of protest:
“It had been a Gulf station. Of course she remembered that, the boycott had been still in effect and she’d felt funny going in there, even if it was just to use the bathroom. Mounting a raggedy tampon fished from the bottom of her bag, paper unraveled, stuffing coming loose, and in a nasty bathroom with no stall doors, and in a Gulf station too, to add to the outrage. She’d been reeking of wasted blood and rage. They’d marched all morning, all afternoon and most of early evening to get there. Shot at, spit on, nearly run down by a cement mixer, murder mouthed, lobbed with everything from stones to eggs, they’d kept the group intact and suffered no casualties or arrests. But when they got to the park, renamed People’s Park for the occasion, the host group hadn’t set up yet . . . and Velma clenching her thighs tight, aware that a syrupy clot was oozing down her left leg and she needed to see about herself.
Exhausted, she was squinting through the dust and grit of her lashes when the limousines pulled up, eye-stinging, shiny, black, sleek. And the door opened and the cool blue of the air-conditioned interior billowed out into the yellow and rust-red of evening. Her throat was splintered wood. Then the shiny black boots stepping onto the parched grass, the knife-creased pants straightening taut, the jacket hanging straight, the blinding white shirt, the sky-blue tie. And the roar went up and the marshals gripped wrists and hoarsely, barely heard, pleaded with the crowd to move back and make way for the speaker. Flanked by the coal-black men in shiny sunglasses and silk-and-steel suits, he made toward the platform. She carried herself out of the park in search of a toilet . . . And no soap. No towels. No tissue. No machine. Just a spurt and then a trickle of rusty water in the clogged sink then no water at all. And like a cat she’d had to lick herself clean of grit, salt, blood and rage”(33-35).
Bambara grew up in Harlem, New York, attended Queens College (1959) and City College of New York (MA 1963), edited the now infamous collection, The Black Woman, published two collections of her own short stories: Gorilla, My Love and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, wrote essays, worked as a teacher and worked tirelessly as an activist for civil rights and cultural change.
She was also deeply committed to film and was aiming to put more of her energy there when she passed. Her film W.E.B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices received great acclaim.
Bambara’s editor at Random House was Toni Morrison. In the preface to Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, Morrison writes:
“I don’t know if she knew the heart cling of her fiction. Its pedagogy, its use, she knew very well, but I have often wondered if she knew how brilliant at it she was. There was no division in her mind between optimism and ruthless vigilance; between aesthetic obligation and the aesthetics of obligation. There was no doubt whatsoever that the work she did had work to do. She always knew what her work was for. Any hint that art was over there and politics was over here would break her up into tears of laugher, or elicit a look so withering it made silence the only intelligent response. More often she met the art/politics fake debate with a slight wave-away of the fingers on her beautiful hand, like the dismissal of a mindless, desperate fly who had maybe two little hours of life left” (DSRM ix-x).
In The Salt Eaters when Velma’s old friend Barbara Sweetpea comes to visit she prods Velma:
“‘And still into the same idealistic nonsense, I gather,” sounding edgy, irritable. “You honestly think you can change anything in this country?’ Her anger flaring now, bewildering.
‘I try to live,’ Velma said, surprised at her evenness, ‘so it doesn’t change me too much.’
‘You’ll learn,’ she snapped back and seemed to be getting up to go, except she wasn’t, just changing positions. And Velma was waiting for the bedroom clock to go off so she would announce she had meeting to attend.
‘You’ll learn,’ she said again.
‘I want to learn to grow, to become…’ no longer talking to Barbara Sweetpea Watson. Her lips soft against each other, Velma was searching for a way to finish the sentence, wondering if indeed it was already complete”(SE 261).
Toni Cade Bambara is a #NastyWomanWriter and Activist.
©Theresa C. Dintino 2020
Works Cited, Consulted and Recommended
Bambara, Toni Cade. The Salt Eaters. N.Y. Vintage, 1980.
brown, adrienne maree. Pleasure Activism: the Politics of Feeling Good. AK Press, 2019.
Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. “One Thing: Toni Cade Bambara in the Speaking Everyday.” the feminist wire, November 23, 2014. https://thefeministwire.com/2014/11/well-being-of-the-community/
Morrison, Toni, Ed. Toni Cade Bambara: Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, Fiction, Essays & Conversations. N.Y.: Random House, 1996.
Patton, Venetria K. The Grasp That Reaches Beyond the Grave: The Ancestral Call in Black Women’s Texts. Albany: SUNY Press, 2013.
Washington, Mary Helen, Ed. Black-Eyed Susans: Classic Stories By and About Black Women. New York: Anchor Books, 1975.