Black Fashion in Toni Cade Bambara’s Novels

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 lady whose practice transcends earthly cares. But when we meet her at the opening of Toni Cade Bambara’s nuclear disaster prequel, The Salt Eaters, while in the process of healing a psychologically broken civil rights worker, she wears a flounced red dress tightened at the waist with kente fabric and a fringed silk scarf that she wields like a cape. It’s a sensual expanse of fabric that envelops her, making her look like “a peasant in a Halston, a snuffer in a Givenchy.” There is nothing to indicate that we should not have to expect her kind of woman to wear these kinds of clothes, but Bambara winks at our disconnection as a bus driver walks by with an amused interest. Looking a little frisky, he thinks.

Throughout her body of work — novels, short stories, criticism, and other writing — Bambara consistently uses clothing as a carrier for a great many things. It contains a bit of description, of course, which naturally extends into bits of characterization. But she also uses it as a carrier of ideals and even warnings. Each letter of her work brings us closer to the mass dismantling of all our oppressions, and with her heaps of imaginary dust she lets us know that what lies beyond those oppressions is something not only possible, but beautiful.

Often a writer announces a character’s clothing. A little action happens, then so-and-so comes into the picture. We pause. Then the author drops us a “So-and-so wore so-and-so”. Perhaps there’s a bit of dazzling as the clothing provides a backstory or poetic descriptions of color and fabric. We are led to understand that the clothes are a useful ornament. It is so often a break in the text, a growling exercise of hurried exposition. But Bambara, who was a gifted film critic, educator and occasion maker, invokes dress as the eye perceives it, whether it be the character’s or the reader’s.

There’s something cinematic about what she’s doing. At her most on-the-nose, in her short “Madame Bai and the Taking of Stone Mountain”, collected in the posthumous Deep sightings and rescue missions, our heroes emerge from a kung fu movie and immediately find themselves one-two-three-four against a bunch of white supremacist hooligans in hooded sweatsuits (hmph) and swastika belt buckles. Just before, Mustafa swings his “elegantly draped coat” around a fellow traveler “like a cape” to offer her reprieve from the cold. After bing-bang-boom, the thugs go berserk and we move over Tram’s action-packed figure: “His calves strain against denim thighs bulging out the front, wind brushes his sweater against his chest so that eight separate segments of the abs are lifted like bas-relief.” And cut!

On board a ferry in the titular story of The seabirds are still alive, everyone looks at each other’s feet. A grandmother measures the “soft cloth shoes” and matching suit of a posh passenger. A country woman spits at “two new black shoes” belonging to a soldier who is part of the troops occupying her village and who will not return her gaze. The ship’s captain stares down “to stuff newspaper into his shoes to dampen the vibrations” of his ragged craft’s engine. He, in turn, glances at the town-dwelling landlord who makes an annual pilgrimage to collect rents and votes “in traditional dress, the incongruous leather shoes that mock.” A revolution is underway and every glance is a furtive search for information. Everyone is tired or scared. Everyone’s feet hurt. English foreigners are buzzing around in ‘dazzling shoes’, but even they just want to kick their feet up.

toni cade bambara

Mississippi University Press

In a sequence from Bambara’s epic novel Those bones are not my child, one that rivals the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan because of his frenetic shock and terror, a daycare center explodes. The mess is as horrific as it sounds, especially in the context of a fictionalized account of that infamous spate of Atlanta child murders. Bambara’s camera jumps erratically, encountering things and picking up on sounds too unbearable to contemplate. We encounter an outburst of strangers in domestic cut, a shower cap who recalls that the blast “sounded like someone was ripping fabric,” except “no fabric in the world rips like that.” A man in the checkered lining of an overcoat disappears in the shock of what he sees. But others take action: a rag vest brings a child to safety; a bathrobe offers bracing restraint to a woman who is understandably losing it; a woman in a floral apron insists on documenting the pre-explosion environment in front of an outstretched microphone. (The appearance of a well-equipped observer in “a tall steel-gray slicker with silver galoshes and new Wellington boots, silver stripes around the top,” whose presence prompts one observer to grunt: “I didn’t know she was talking to Pierre Cardin.” designing for the desk,” is so chilling for both the reader and the characters who worry they’ll spend the rest of the novel watching him.) Even in such a vulnerable, exposed state, Bambara urges reminds us to realize that these people found a way to meet each other’s needs.

Sitting across from Minnie Ransom in that opening scene from The Salt Eaters is Velma Henry. Nor is she a stranger to a nice piece of clothing: At a dinner where she tries to lure her man over a restaurant booth and back into her life, we stare down at her “velvet blouse, brown, crocheted,” the kind of shirt that would having put him “under her spell” before their troubles. But he slips away, and so does so many other things – during the healing session, she sits naked under the thin shield of a hospital gown. What’s more, beautiful garments are the thing that caused the breakdown that necessitated her treatment in the first place.

After being muddy and bloodied all day in SNCC standard coveralls (see: Tanisha C. Ford’s chapter on them in her book Liberated wires) during a protest march, she drags herself to the telephone of a nearby hotel to meet the speaker of the closing meeting. He’d arrived in a limousine and got off in his Sunday best: “Then the shiny black boots stepping onto the parched grass, the knife-crested trousers pulled tight, the jacket hanging straight, the dazzling white shirt, the sky-blue tie. As she is about to pass out from exhaustion, he and a bevy of female companions run to a room with silver ice buckets and red silk pajamas. “A field of red silk,” writes Bambara. “No coveralls. No slop pots here.” The yawning chasm between his professed devotion to the struggle (which might involve some measure of actual solidarity with Velma and her difficult work for collective liberation) and his private opulence is the thing that breaks her.

Bambara uses brand names sparingly and often at a distance: In those bones, next to that Cardin crack, a limousine driver overhears a trio of fashion buyers talking about Bill Blass’ designs from the cab of his limousine as he drives; in the eponymous essay by deep observations, Bambara spies on a woman’s Armani lapels from her seat on a bus passing the lobby of a high-rise building. But what makes her Salty eaters invocation of Halston and Givenchy is so exciting that it is used as a shorthand for a little touch of deliberate collage rather than a marker of hierarchy. Like it Halston, like it Givenchy. We don’t have to go out into the world naked. It can be painful to be stuck with ourselves: In those bones, as Zala begins the long process of recovering from the trauma of her son’s disappearance, she comes to realize that she will have to “learn how to close up the lingering flesh of her life with careful little stitches.” But chasing status and material comforts while trying to cover ourselves can be a caustic and dangerous endeavor, Bambara tells us. Hold on to the care that makes things right, she teaches us, and your soul will thank you.

You might also like it

Leave a Comment