Velma Henry

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Toni Cade Bambara (1939—1995)


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Is the main character in Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters (1980), whose healing is the connecting thread for the many subplots in the novel. Velma is the kind of woman upon whom others depend and who appears to be perpetually strong. She has, with her husband Obie, founded and managed the now-fragmented and troubled Academy of Seven Arts. She actively participates in a women's political caucus and the Seven Sisters arts collective, as well as maintaining a marriage, raising a son, and working full-time as a computer programmer. The fragmentation and splintering that characterize the community exist also within Velma herself, and she attempts suicide as a means of finally sealing herself off from escalating rage and fear.

Velma's characterization mirrors many of the extraordinarily strong women in much of African American literature, but with a difference. She is one who, by virtue of her inability to remain self-sufficient, is given an alternative: the healing that comes from reconnecting with herself, her past, and the life-giving values she has forsaken in her unremitting struggle for justice. Velma's suicide attempt is the culmination of exhaustion and an alienation from her body and her legacy as an African American and a woman. As the healer Minnie Ransom says, Velma must release the pain, but that release cannot come until she decides she wants the “weight of being well,” and will return to the community a stronger, more able, but more deeply and spiritually connected human being.

Ann Folwell Stanford

Subjects: Literature.

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