Black Fashion in the Novels of Toni Cade Bambara

waiting for the march

How Do You Dress for the Revolution?Charles Shaw – Getty Images

Minnie Ransom is cute, okay? She is a root worker, a spiritual healer, a crunchy-crunchy woman whose practice transcends world concerns. But when we meet her at the opening of Toni Cade Bambara’s nuclear disaster rehearsal, Eat Salt, in the middle of healing a psychologically broken civil rights worker, she wears a carved red dress pulled in at the waist with kente cloth and a silk fringed shawl that she handles as a cape. She’s covered in a delicate expanse of fabric, making her look “a farmer in Halston, a snuff smith in Givenchy.” There is nothing to suggest that we are should not expect her type of woman to wear this kind of clothes, but Bambara confronts our disconnect when a bus driver passes by in a hurry. The kind of frisky look, according to him.

Across her novels – novels, short stories, criticism, and other writing – Bambara consistently uses clothing as a vehicle for many things. There is a bit of description, of course, which flows naturally into bits of characterization. But she also uses it as a presentation of ideals and even warnings. Each letter of her work goes an inch towards dismantling our every foothold, and with her piles of imaginary cloth, she tells us that what lies behind the oppression is something impossible, but beautiful. that.

Often, a writer Announces character clothes. A small action occurs, so it enters the frame. We have a break. Then, the author drops on us “So and so was wearing such.” There is perhaps a little bit of deception as the clothing gives back stories or poetic descriptions of color and fabric. We understand that clothing is a useful ornament. It is an interruption of the text so often, a grunting exercise of hasty exposition. But Bambara, who was an accomplished film critic, educator and event maker, asks for clothing as seen by the eye, be it the character or the reader.

There is a filmic quality to what she does. Most notably, in his short “Madame Bai and the Taking of Stone Mountain,” which was collected posthumously. Deep scene & Rescue Missions, Our heroes step out of a kung fu flick and immediately encounter a pack of white supremacists in hooded sweat suits (hmph) and swastika belt buckles. Just before, Mustafa swings his “elegant coat” around a fellow traveler “like Rinn” to relieve her from the cold. After a bing-bang-boom, the thugs are sent screeching, and we cross a tense figure of Tram: “His calves are pressed against denim thighs bulging ahead, the wind plastering a sweater against his chest so that eight distinct segments of the abdominal muscles rise. like bass relief.” And cut!

On board a ferry in the title story from The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, everyone is looking at each other’s feet. Grandmother magnifies the “soft cloth shoes” and matching suit of a noble passenger. A country woman turns to “two new black shoes” belonging to a soldier who is part of the forces that live in the village, and will not give her back. The ship’s captain looks down “to put a newspaper in his shoes to soak up the vibrations” from his raging vessel’s engine. He in turn looks at the landlord who lives in the city who makes an annual pilgrimage to collect rents and votes “in traditional dress, the irresponsible leather shoes mocking the discussion.” A revolution is underway, and every glance is a furtive scan for information. Everyone is tired, or scared. Everyone’s feet hurt. Excited Anglo-Americans in “blind shoes,” but even they just want to kick up their feet.

toni cade bambara

University of Mississippi Press

In a sequel to Bambara’s epic novel Aren’t those bones my Child, one that rivals the scene of D-Day i Saved Private Ryan Because of the shock and terror he faces, a day care center is collapsing. The mess is as fascinating as it sounds, especially in the context of a fictionalized account of that infamous spree of Atlanta child murders. Bambara’s camera jumps erratically, bumping into objects and picking up sounds that are too unpleasant to dwell on. We meet a rash of strangers in a home trim, a shower cap that recalls that the blast “looked like someone was rendering fabric,” except “there’s no fabric in the world that tears like that. ” A man in a plaid-lined overcoat walks away, taking in what he sees. But others are springing into action: a tattersall vest carries the baby safely; bathing puts a bracing restraint on a woman who it is understood that she will lose it; A woman in a floral apron insists on documenting the pre-explosion milieu for an extended microphone. (The appearance of a heavily dressed observer in “a long, gunmetal-gray slicker with silver closures and new Wellington boots, silver stripes around the toes,” prompts one observer to be present, “didn’t know I think they had Pierre. Cardin is designing for the bureau,” so chilling to both the reader and the concerned characters that they spend the rest of the novel keeping tabs on him.) Even in his vulnerable, exposed state, Bambar notices us. to note, these people. they found a way to meet each other’s needs.

Sitting across from Minnie Ransom in that opening scene from The Salt Eaters there is Velma Henry. Nor is she a pretty stranger: At a dinner where she tries to drag her boyfriend across a restaurant booth and back into her life, we look down at her in her “velor, brown, crocheted blouse,” the kind of shirt. that put him “under his spell” before their troubles. But he slips away, and so does a lot more – during the healing session, she sits naked under the thin covering of a hospital gown. Furthermore, beautiful garments are what triggered the breakdown that requires her treatment in the first place.

After spending her day getting muddy and covered in SNCC-style overalls (see: Tanisha C. Ford’s chapter on them in her book Free Threads) during a protest march, she drags herself to a nearby hotel only to meet the speaker from the big race. He had arrived in limo, leaping in his Sunday best: “Then the shiny black boots stepping out onto the parched grass, the knife-edge trousers narrowing tight, the jacket hanging straight, the white shirt dazzling, the sky blue tie. ” While she is about to die of exhaustion, he and a handful of female companions go out to a room with silver ice buckets and red silk pajamas. “A field of red silk,” writes Bambara. “No bib overalls. There are no slop jars here.” The yawning chasm between his professed commitment to the struggle (which may imply a degree of actual solidarity with Velma and her difficult work towards mutual freedom) and his private opulence is what breaks her.

Bambara use brand names sparingly and often distantly: In Those Bones, besides Cardin crack, a limo driver overhears three fashion buyers chatting about Bill Blass designs from the cabin of his limo as he drives; in the nominal essay from deep visions, Bambar plucks a woman’s Armani lapel from her seat on a bus that passes a high-rise lobby. But what makes her Salt Eaters invoke Halston and Givenchy so playfully that it is used as a shorthand for a small piece of considered collage rather than as a sign of hierarchy. Like Halston, good Givenchy. We don’t need to go into the open world. Being stuck with ourselves can be painful: In Those Bones, as Zala begins the long process of recovering from the trauma of her son’s disappearance, she realizes that she will have to “learn to spread the drawn meat of her life in tiny bites”. But chasing material status and comfort while trying to cover ourselves up can be a corrosive and dangerous endeavor, Bambara tells us. Keep fast with the care that does things well, she teaches us, and your soul will thank you.

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