Shelby Ellis finds anthropological value in Toni Cade Bambara’s “Gorilla, My Love”

            The short story Gorilla, My Love is a memory of the narrator, Hazel, from her childhood. It details a time when Hazel felt betrayed by her uncle, who at one time proclaimed his love for her in the joking way that an adult will address a child, but then planned to marry a woman nearer his age. The story begins with the mention of “Hunca Bubba” deciding he prefers to be called by his birth name, Jefferson Winston Vale, because he’s in love and going to get married. This sparks jealousy in Hazel, who goes on a long rant in her mind with various sidetracks until she finally confronts her uncle out loud, but he sees her only as childish. Interestingly, it reads like a monologue or the transcript of a spoken memoir less than a written account. The main idea of the piece is the contrast between a child’s mind and an adult mind and how they view the same situations.

 “That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name… So far as I was concerned it was a change completely to somethin soundin very geographical weatherlike to me, like somethin you’d find in a almanac.” (Bambara 58)

This piece was remarkable to me for its diction. Diction refers to the choice of words and style of speaking. Bambara’s use of diction in Gorilla, My Love captures the essence of the narrator and the setting. Hazel’s education level is very low, as illustrated by the grammar in the above quote. The reasonable request that Jefferson makes in preferring his birth name is seen by Hazel to be irrational and pretentious, especially because “he’d been [her] Hunca Bubba [her] whole lifetime, since [she] couldn’t manage Uncle.” Hazel’s words portray her as feisty and self-centered. She thinks that Jefferson should remain called Hunca Bubba because that was the name she called him. The name was created for her ease of pronunciation and the name had stuck since she had learned to speak. The fact that he wants to change it is taken as a personal affront to Hazel, who criticizes it as “geographical weatherlike,” which is her way of saying it is pretentious. She thinks Jefferson is trying to place himself above her level by rejecting her nickname.

This affront is most clearly demonstrated towards the end of the story. Hazel addresses Jefferson, saying “Look here, Hunca Bubba or Jefferson Windsong Vale or whatever your name is…” Hazel deliberately botches Jefferson’s name. Then, as another jab, when Jefferson calls Hazel “Peaches,” she corrects him; “My name is Hazel.” She does this after mentioning multiple nicknames from other family members which she accepts, but Jefferson is now outside of her trust and therefore not allowed to call her by anything but her birth name, just as he has done to her. The underlying reason for Hazel’s anger is finally revealed at the end of the story. Hazel is still a child, but she confronts Jefferson about when she was a younger child and he told her he was going to wait and marry her when she grew up. Jefferson is, as would be expected, initially shocked by her accusation. He eventually responds “You just a little girl. And I was just teasin.” Hazel tells the reader that this response is “a terrible thing” and proceeds to talk about how she cried. The theme comes through in the last lines when Hazel mentions “grownups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And don’t even say they sorry.” While Hazel sees her uncle as treacherous and going back on a promise, Jefferson chalks it up to the naïveté of a child and feels justified in his mind.

The storyline is strange and somewhat disturbing with its undertones of incest. However, Bambara uses diction to suggest the setting as rural Georgia (especially with mentions of pecans and peaches) and to place the family at a lower education and economic level. The time period is not clear, though the use of a car and the use of the term “colored” to describe an African American suggests mid 1900s. All of this context information leads the reader to believe the story more, though it is not any more socially acceptable. Bambara effectively places the story in a realm likely to be unknown by the reader. The grammar of the characters, especially Hazel, the narrator, tells the reader that this is an unfamiliar setting and therefore the rules of language and social behavior are different. The bending of social rules is especially evident when Hazel’s parents agree she is justified in setting fire to a movie theater snack stand and do not punish her for the arson; “I figured it was even-steven… Cause that’s the way I was raised.” In this setting, Jefferson’s teasing marriage promise is not seen as so strange, nor is Hazel’s apparent frustration. Why not propose to your niece? Why not be jealous of your uncle’s fiancé? Under the veil of cultural relativism, the observer is only there to observe and record, not to judge.

Italo Calvino addresses the role of literature as anthropology in his book Six Memos for the New Millenium. He says “I have to think of literature as extended to anthropology and ethnology and mythology.” As an anthropology major, I have to agree. Though non-anthropology majors might be confused with this reference, my ethnological training comes into play often with my own writing and evaluation of that of others. Cultural relativism is a pillar of anthropology. It refers to the practice of viewing a culture through its own lens, rather than yours. If my uncle said he was going to marry me, I would be uncomfortable, but Hazel is from an entirely different background than I am. I have no right to judge her based on my own values, or even those of Jefferson who is within the setting. It is my purpose as a reader and anthropologist to take all sides into account.


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