Dr Nicole King, ‘Ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin’: Reading Toni Cade Bambara and 20th-century Black Literary Childhood’

As part of the 2019/20 BAAS-funded seminar series, we were joined in Glasgow a few weeks ago by Dr Nicole King, Lecturer in the Department of English and Comparative Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. Dr King’s first book, C.L.R James and Creolization: Circles of Influence, was published in 2001 and she has also published articles and book chapters on Attica Locke, Zadie Smith, Andrea Lee, Toni Morrison, Earl Lovelace and Ida B. Wells. She recently served as the historical consultant on the acclaimed West End production of Death of a Salesman and is currently writing a book on childhood in African American fiction for Edinburgh University Press.

Dr King began her talk, titled ‘Ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin’: Reading Toni Cade Bambara and 20th-century Black Literary Childhood, with a question: ‘Has anybody heard of the Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963?’ Just one person in the audience had.

At the beginning of 1963, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and other civil rights organisations decided to target Birmingham for desegregation, in part because the city symbolised extreme resistance to integration. In the span of very little time, there were 60 bombings in the city. All went unsolved and no arrests were made. The police were also very open about how many KKK members there were on the force. Soon, the city had earned the nickname of ‘Bombingham’ and one neighbourhood in particular came to be known as ‘Dynamite Hill’. We know the name of Birmingham’s mayor, Bull Connor, and King noted that we can also probably picture the fire department using water cannons to disperse protesters and ‘police using batons to beat children, dogs to terrorise marchers.’ Apart from one audience member, what we certainly didn’t know was that this campaign on Birmingham included thousands of children activists. 

So in April 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others decided to target Birmingham for mass demonstrations. At this point he had only had one major victory, the bus boycotts with Rosa Parks. This was eight years prior, however, and so he enlisted the help of ‘one of the youngest and very charismatic characters of the SCLC, James Bevel, who starts working on the training of thousands of children in Birmingham for non-violent protest.’ This becomes the Children’s Crusade, in the first week of May 1963. 

On day one, around 500 children – ranging from high school age to under ten years old – started marching, illegally of course because Bull Connor has outlawed mass demonstrations. But the aim was to get arrested, and around 500 children were. On day two, about 2000 more children were arrested and, on day three, over 4000. They filled the jails and kept coming, then being held in outdoor areas having been transported using school buses. Wide press coverage showed water cannons and police dogs being used against protesters, police officers hitting children. The footage was seen across the country and around the world.

Kennedy got involved in the middle of the first week and by day ten a settlement was reached with the city. Birmingham would desegregate businesses and free all those imprisoned, as well as remove Bull Connor from office: a huge victory. On 11th June, Kennedy addressed the nation in a speech on desegregation. On 28th August, there was the March on Washington, a collective and extremely successful action. Little over two weeks later on 15th September, the very church at the centre of James Bevel’s organisation with Birmingham’s children was bombed by clan members. Four black girls were killed: Addie May Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, all 14, and Carol Denise McNair who was 11. 

King ended the 1963 timeline here, with this act of racist violence and its child victims. She said that she was ‘familiar with the 1963 narrative that places Martin Luther King at its centre’, and ‘very aware of the SCLC and of that soaring rhetoric of the “I have a dream” speech’. She also noted the way in which ‘more radical voices and virtually all women’s voices were silenced at that March on Washington.’ ‘What I’m not familiar with,’ King continued, ‘what I had not been familiar with at all until I started doing my research, was the narrative that locates agency with children’. She quoted one of the children who participated in the crusade: ‘It’s funny to think about it, the police, the fire department and the KKK were beaten by us kids.’

Building on what sociologist David Oswell calls ‘the agency of children’, where children are rarely seen as actors in social change, King’s project involves looking for children in modern African American fiction. She asks two questions: ‘What is made possible when children and adolescent characters push against, question and even reject ideas of black subjectivity? How does modern African American fiction use children and childhood to reimagine racial liberation and the production of alternative ways of organising our society?’

King’s introductory chapter to the forthcoming book considers the civil rights era in particular. ‘When we ask questions about children’s agency’, she noted, ‘we are by implication acknowledging that it is vitally important to do so.’ Her research thinks through ‘children and young people’s capacities to make a difference, rather than just being constituted as difference’, allowing us in turn to consider the ‘ways in which children and young people have been and are actively involved in emergent, innovative and substantive forms of solidarity and coexistence.’ These capacities were recognised by W.E.B. Du Bois and Jesse Fawcett in their editorial leadership of Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine and literary organ, but King noted that African American literary criticism has been ‘less attentive to that agency despite […] the prevalence of children at the centre of modern African American narratives.’ 

And so Dr King’s project looks at childhood ‘as a key theatre for asking questions about African American existence’ and children as symbolic of what Chandra Mohanty has called ‘pedagogies of dissent’. King is looking at what becomes apparent when we read black children and how they voice dissent in her ‘somewhat narratological’ study. She uses the idea of an active palimpsest to theorise the how and why ‘of the child figure who is actively questioning, expressing ambivalence in some cases, or even refusing an identity that is already inscribed on their bodies.’

This talk focused on Gorilla, My Love, a collection of short stories by Toni Cade Bambara. Bambara was born in 1939 towards the end of the Harlem Renaissance. She was a prolific writer – of short stories and several novels – but also an activist who became a university professor and successful filmmaker. She was editor of The Black Woman: An Anthology, the first feminist collection focusing on African American women and a seminal text, featuring the likes of Audra Lorde, Alice Walker, and Paule Marshall. (Dr King added parenthetically that the text is available from more progressive, tax-paying retailers if you’d like to buy it.) 

Gorilla, My Love was Bambara’s first collection of short stories, published in 1972. Children, and particularly young black girls, are at the centre both as subjects and, often, narrators. King described Bambara’s girls as ‘feisty, self-assured, vulnerable, nuanced but never, ever tragic.’ She contrasts these with the protagonist in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), Pecola Breedlove, whose trauma King identifies as ‘perhaps the most famous 20th century representation of African American girlhood.’ Claudia McTeer, however, Morrison’s narrator, is closer to Bambara’s protagonists. Gorilla, My Love begins ‘in this broader context of how children in modern African American literature are figured as beacons of political change, as Cassandras who warn of the recalcitrance of racist US political systems’ and ‘signifiers of postmodern identities, different ways of enacting girlhood.’ 

The Lesson is the tenth of the 15 stories in Gorilla, My Love. Though other stories had been published individually earlier, the collection itself and The Lesson specifically were published in 1972 by Random House, when Toni Morrison was editor. In fact, everything Bambara published with Random House was edited by Toni Morrison, who also edited a collection of Bambara’s essays, interviews and previously unpublished short stories, called Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, the introduction to which makes clear, King notes, that it was a ‘labour of love’. 

The Lesson’s pedagogical purpose is immediately apparent. Miss Moore, a neighbourhood radical, takes a motley crew of Harlem-based children on an outing to F.A.O Schwartz, which King describes as ‘the biggest, most spectacular toy store on Fifth Avenue’, in order to teach them about money. The story is narrated by Sylvia but features her best friend, Sugar, and all of the children speak at least briefly. Miss Moore teaches the lesson – which is learned collectively albeit reluctantly – by having the group observe the toys and their hefty price tags. King suggests that the story is set sometime in the late 1960s, or possibly the early 70s, and the sight of one toy in particular, a fibreglass boat on sale for $1195, is thus all the more gobsmacking. Seeing the extravagant toy and its price tag, the children begin to think critically about the world and its inequalities. 

The children see a white lady wearing a fur coat on Fifth Avenue, on a hot summer’s day, on which Sylvia remarks simply ‘White folks crazy.’ King underlines the children’s awareness of the store staff, ‘staring at their black and brown bodies as if they don’t belong there’. When Miss Moore asks what the children thought of F.A.O. Schwartz, Rosie Giraffe ‘mumbles, “White folks crazy.”’ Sugar, the narrator’s best friend, observes ‘You know, Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs.’ And so the children do learn about money, King argues, but they also learn about their ‘agency in changing how the world sees them and how they themselves move in the world.’

Bambara is known for her humour and skill in rendering black vernacular speech, and King argues that the author’s ‘broader and more subtle’ pedagogical impact on the reader is also achieved through her ‘supreme, just supreme, respect for her child characters.’ Critic Elizabeth Muther claims that these ‘stories depend on narrative triangulations involving Bambara, her adult readers (who, of course, share with Bambara an awareness of the limitations of the child narrator/protagonist’s perspective), and the child herself—who defines the terms of her own experience through the comic forensics of her own self-representations.’ ‘Bambara’, writes Muther, ‘refuses utterly the potentiality for condescension in this narrative situation.’ King underscores this absence of condescension and emphasises the idea of narrative triangulation in Muther’s readings. The adult reader is highly significant, she argues, and Bambara’s narrative triangulations enable us to examine how children in modern African American fiction are ‘figured as beacons of political change’ who ‘sound an alarm about what is or is not working in American culture.’

Sylvia’s reaction to her best friend’s engagement with Miss Moore’s lesson is to stand on her feet to make her stop talking: ‘Miss Moore is besides herself and I am disgusted with Sugar’s treachery.’ Sylvia continues: 

So I stand on her foot one more time to see if she’ll shove me. She shuts up, and Miss Moore looks at me, sorrowfully I’m thinkin. And somethin weird is goin on, I can feel it in my chest.

Not yet at Sugar’s level of understanding, Sylvia is unable to articulate this feeling, and King argues that Sugar’s treachery in engaging with Miss Moore ‘is more aptly connected to the other treacheries that had been on display that day, large and small’. But the feeling in Sylvia’s chest and the ‘nascent oppositional voices’ in Bambara’s story are very much the feelings and voices of children. The story ends with Sylvia and Sugar racing each other to a shop to spend the remainder of a five-dollar bill given to them by Miss Moore for cab fare:

We start down the block and she gets ahead which is O.K. by me cause I’m going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

Sylvia does not truly see Miss Moore or Sugar’s behaviour as treacherous. ‘Rather,’ King stresses, ‘she recognises their strategies and political awareness, and is determined to devise some of her own, beginning with a conviction to think this day through, and a refusal to be beat or broken down or cowed by anybody.’ This final line and its bravado are double voiced. It serves to remind the reader that Sylvia is a child, but it is also ‘a refrain from the historical moment of the story’: the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement and the feminist movement, all of which Bambara was involved in.

And this final line, King concluded, is ‘either deliberately or inadvertently echoing an anthem sung by many people active in the civil rights movement, but particularly by the children and young people in the children’s crusade, and that was the freedom song: Ain’t Gonna Let No Body Turn Me ’Round.

We thoroughly enjoyed Dr King’s talk and hope that this was the first of many visits to Glasgow! We’re also very much looking forward to her book, and you can follow her on Twitter @DrNicoleKing to keep up with her research. 

Post by Chiara Howe, PGR American Studies

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