Raymond’s Run, Toni Cade Bambara: Summary & Analysis

‘Raymond’s Run’ is a 1971 short story by Toni Cade Bambara (1939-95) which originally appeared in the anthology Tales and Short Stories for Black Folks. In the story, a young girl named Hazel Parker prepares for a race; Bambara uses this plot to explore the challenges young black women face as they learn to assert their own identity while also dealing with family loyalties.

Plot Summary

The story is narrated in the first person by Hazel Parker, a young black girl who is known in her neighbourhood as ‘Squeaky’ on account of her voice. She is on a street corner preparing to take a walk down Broadway with her older brother, Raymond, who has learning difficulties and requires Hazel’s care and attention at all times.

Hazel is preparing to run in the May Day race the following day and has come to Broadway to practise her breathing exercises. She has a reputation for being a swift runner and the ‘big kids’ have nicknamed her Mercury, after the swift Roman messenger god. She compares herself with Cynthia, a clever girl from school who works hard to achieve things, as Hazel does, but unlike Hazel she acts as though she puts no effort in.

Unexpected Encounters

As she and Raymond are walking along the road, they bump into Gretchen and her ‘sidekicks’. Gretchen has recently arrived in the neighbourhood and intends to run in the fifty-yard dash against Hazel the following day.

In addition to this, a couple of Hazel’s former friends, Mary Louise and Rosie, are now hanging out with Gretchen. Mary Louise tries to poke fun at Raymond but Hazel challenges her on her behaviour. Hazel and Gretchen stand off against each other.

The Day of the Race

The next day, Hazel makes her way slowly to the starting place for the fifty-yard dash. She is deliberately making herself late so she avoids the May Pole dancing in which girls are encouraged to dress up and act like a fairy or a flower. When she gets to the park, she is approached by Mr. Pearson, one of her teachers, who enters her name in the race and suggests she might let someone else win the race this year, such as Gretchen, the new girl. Hazel rejects this suggestion, staring at him.

When the race takes place, Hazel notices Raymond, whom she had placed on the swings, is now on the other side of the fence and has adopted the same starting position, imitating her, prepared to race alongside his sister. During the race, which Hazel tells us she always experiences as in a dream, she notices Raymond running alongside and the vision of him takes her by surprise.

A New Perspective

After the race, Hazel finds herself liking Gretchen for the first time as she watches her rival recovering from the race ‘like a real pro’. There’s some initial confusion over which of the two girls won the race, and while the result is being debated, Hazel notices Raymond climbing the fence to try to reach her, and she realises that he would make a fine runner himself.

The story ends with Hazel thinking about her own future and the possibilities open to her and how Raymond might play a part in them, after she realises that he would be a talented runner himself. She is announced as the winner of the race, with Gretchen in second place. The two girls smile genuine smiles at each other and Hazel comments that societal expectations about how girls should behave prevent them from being respectful of each other.

Critical Analysis

Hazel's Relationship with Raymond

In 'Raymond's Run,' one of the core strands revolves around Hazel's relationship with her brother, Raymond. As the story's narrator, Hazel, affectionately known as 'Squeaky,' assumes the responsibility of caring for her older brother, who has learning difficulties. This bond between siblings serves as a significant aspect of the narrative, reflecting the challenges and love that family members often share.

Hazel's Attitude towards Gretchen and Rivalry at School

Another central theme centers on Hazel's attitude towards Gretchen and the other girls at school, with whom she perceives a sense of rivalry. The arrival of Gretchen in the neighborhood disrupts Hazel's social circle, causing her to reevaluate her relationships with her peers. Bambara skillfully explores the complexities of female competition and societal expectations that influence girls' behaviors and interactions.

A Coming-of-Age Story and Epiphany

'Raymond's Run' can be categorized as a coming-of-age story, as it captures a crucial rite of passage that Hazel experiences while growing up. The story reaches its pinnacle with a moment of epiphany, common in many modern short stories. For Hazel, this epiphany occurs during the race, as she becomes acutely aware of her brother's hidden talent and the significance of her own achievements.

Questioning Gender Roles and Communion

Bambara uses Hazel's character to question traditional gender roles imposed on girls. Hazel's disdain for the May Day dance and her disapproval of prescribed feminine roles underscore her skepticism towards societal norms. Additionally, the story prompts readers to consider whether young girls are being raised with healthy attitudes towards one another, promoting genuine communion over competition.

Transformation and Commonality

The resolution of the story occurs through Hazel's epiphany. Her newfound understanding of her brother's abilities leads to a transformation in her attitude towards Gretchen. Instead of fostering jealousy and rivalry, the race fosters a sense of commonality and respect between Hazel, Raymond, and Gretchen. It symbolizes a significant shift in Hazel's perspective and signals a broader awareness of her place in the world and the importance of supporting others.

In conclusion, 'Raymond's Run' is a poignant exploration of growth, sibling bonds, breaking gender stereotypes, and embracing a more compassionate outlook towards others. Toni Cade Bambara crafts a narrative that delves into the complexities of human relationships and societal expectations, leaving readers with valuable insights on self-discovery and the power of empathy.

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