‘The Johnson Girls’ by Toni Cade Bambara

The Johnson Girls by Toni Cade Bambara, 1972

The magic trick:

Mixing conversation and a narrator’s coming of age

There are so many stories just like this that exploded from the Gordon Lish school of “nothing happens, they just talk” literature of the 70s and 80s. Many of those stories – I’m thinking Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, and Bobbie Ann Mason to name three – collapse under the pressure placed on that talk. In the absence of plot, the things those characters are talking about had better be pretty dang insightful and interesting. Carver’s almost always great, of course. Mason often succeeds on the basis of unique setting and point of view. Beattie? Meh. She’s very hit or miss, in my opinion at least.

Toni Cade Bambara wasn’t welcomed into that club. Or maybe she never had any interest in that joining the club. She operated in a different stratosphere. And thank goodness for that.

Nothing really happens in “The Johnson Girls.” They just talk. And it’s phenomenal stuff.

What they say is pretty dang insightful. You get an inside look into urban African-American relationships in the mid-20th century from a woman’s perspective. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s infuriating, it’s inspiring.

But on top of all that, we get this clever little magic trick. Bambara puts the reader in the point of view of the youngest woman in the room. Our narrator is still a teenager. This is one of the first times she’s been welcomed to the conversation. So she’s still trying to find her way, learning all kinds of things and making sure she says the right thing even when she doesn’t totally know the appropriate response.

By the end of the story, she fits in just fine. In fact, she takes on a leadership role of sorts. So not only, as a reader, are we getting this burst of conversational insight, we’re also watching our narrator emerge into adulthood over the course of the story.

And that’s quite a trick on Bambara’s part.

The selection:

“One day,” say Sugar, lickin the tomato sauce off her arm, “what I want’s goin to be on the menu. Served up to my taste and all on one plate, so I don’t have to clutter up the whole damn table with a teensy bowl of this and a plate of extra that and a side order of what the hell.” She shimmy her buns on top of the dresser and plants her feet in the bottom drawer. “Cause let Sister Sugar hip you bitches, living a la carte is a trip.”

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