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thrust out of their own garden of eden in africa, african americans yet constitute a definable community planted in contemporary america. here the spirit is accessible and suffering can be balanced with communal love. if people are in danger of turning into pillars of salt from too much looking backward, they are also the salt of the earth and have already survived and transformed that past.

when the rains come to claybourne, one cannot be sure it is not acid rain or nuclear fallout. clouds are gray tricksters, and the world outside has been dumping its garbage on its devalued members for centuries. water brings life, however, and claybourne’s artists will take the wet mud after the storm and its healers will draw on whatever powers make themselves available, because its people still want to live. this balance of hope over fear is essential for human survival.

as she circles back through time and space, as she teaches one to sit still and be centered in one’s own traditions, toni cade bambara reveals the pattern of the circles, the common center/garden from which all people originated. if on the surface the circles conflict and shatter, a wider perspective promises the turning of the wheel, which reestablishes balance. a community centered in its own traditions and balancing the diversity of its members can provide healing for those members who are suffering from the violence of the moment, from the unbalancing influence of fragmented values and traditions.

bambara’s language empowers the reader by giving equal weight to spiritual and visible realities and allows him or her to wander freely through time and space, because the human mind is not buried in the present moment. her linguistic humor includes multilevel puns that reveal the incongruity of appearances. the reader is always conscious, for example, of the immodesty of velma’s hospital gown and the unprofessional attire of minnie ransom. the name of the café reminds one of nature’s own incongruities: the avocado pit is simply too big. sometimes the story itself seems too big. can one’s mind stretch as far as necessity demands without breaking? another pun on this alphabet soup in which people find themselves may be meant by campbell’s name, because he explains the encompassing unity of apparently contradictory realities.

bambara’s humor and her jazz and colloquial rhythms unite the african american community, while symbolism centers the individual on the potter’s wheel to be transformed as necessary. claybourne is there to rework the clay, to recenter readers in their traditions, to heal them when they become too eccentric to survive. when one is threatened by necessity or devalued by the apparent other, one shrinks from fear into an ever-diminishing protective circle. if one is discovered in time, before one no longer exists, then a healing community can soften and stretch that ball of clay again, recenter and remold it.

bambara stretches and shapes her story with the same skill, finding the fragment of “white plaster”—the inflexible piece of white ideology in the rich terra-cotta of her people’s clay—which has thrown them off center. undetected these fragments defeat the potter’s art, and the result may very well be a “crackpot.” she also takes the reader back to the mud mothers, because there the clay is still enriched with the water of life.

bambara shares her african perspective with chinua achebe. in things fall apart, distraught by western influences on his ibo culture, achebe’s protagonist knows that when in need he must return to his mother’s tribe to find balance. there he will be taught what he needs to keep “things” together, including himself. all people must be artists, reshaping their lives as needed. no face a brother or sister wears, no ritual or ceremony that seems strange, is excluded from the whole story. when one must live in the same place with people who practice “abominations,” one must look through the appearance to understand, to accept their apparent differences while rejecting the ideological fragment of plaster that would throw one off balance.

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