‘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.
You can read ‘Raymond’s Run’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Bambara’s story below.
‘Raymond’s Run’: 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.
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 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.
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 prevents them from being respectful of each other.
‘Raymond’s Run’: analysis
We might analyse ‘Raymond’s Run’ by identifying two core strands to the story: Hazel’s relationship with her brother, and her attitude to Gretchen and the other girls with whom she detects a kind of rivalry at school. These two strands are both resolved, or at least altered, at the end of the story when Hazel sees both Raymond and, by extension, Gretchen too in a different light.
The story can thus be categorised as a coming-of-age story, or a story about an important rite of passage which the protagonist undergoes while growing up. After the race, we suspect, Hazel will never be the same again, and her attitudes towards both Raymond and Gretchen, but also towards herself and her place in the world, have shifted.
Toni Cade Bambara thus brings together two important themes – family and gender – through Hazel’s relationships with these two characters. She defines herself partly by both Raymond (whom she has to take care of) and Gretchen (who, having stolen her former friends from her, is a kind of shadow or reflection of Hazel herself).
But Bambara also uses ‘Raymond’s Run’ to explore the ways in which society encourages girls to behave in certain conservative, predetermined ways. Hazel has a dislike and distrust for the May Day dance, which usually sees girls dressed as feminine symbols for the benefit of the whole community. (Hazel herself expresses her contempt for a time when she was dressed up as a strawberry.)
Hazel may not yet be old enough to conceptualise it in such terms, but she is suspicious of traditional gender roles and is aware of society’s role in encouraging (forcing?) girls to behave in certain ways and adopt particular, ‘feminine’ parts, such as a fairy or a flower at the May Pole parade.
Allied to this is one of the central details in ‘Raymond’s Run’: Hazel’s comments about girls and how they don’t know how to smile genuinely at each other, because nobody has taught them how to. Using Hazel as her mouthpiece in the story, Bambara invites us to question whether young girls are being raised to have a healthy or productive attitude towards one another. Where communion and sociability should be encouraged, rivalry and competition are instead fostered through piano recitals, spelling contests, and, of course, running races. Parents want their daughters to triumph so they can boast about their high-achieving child.
Many modern short stories contain an epiphany, often at the end of the story. An epiphany is a realisation that a character has about themselves, or the world around them. And ‘Raymond’s Run’ arguably has one right at the end when Hazel realises her brother’s talent for running, which in some ways is equal to her own. After all, she remarks, he can always keep up with her when she goes running.
But of course, the significance of Hazel’s epiphany lies not so much in her sudden awareness of her brother’s running abilities as in the knowledge she has gained about her own place in the world. Having narrowly compared herself against her rivals – Cynthia the spelling-bee champion, and Gretchen the new popular girl and fast runner – she has lost sight of all that she has achieved and all of the advantages she has.
By contrast, Raymond has no friends and is instead mocked and teased by the other children because of his learning difficulties. He is a talented runner – arguably the equal of his sister – but nobody, not even his sister, has noticed his talents until now, perhaps because they have made their own assumptions about him. When Hazel reflects that she has won many medals and prizes but Raymond has nothing, she realises that she is lucky to be able to achieve as much as she has, and that she has the chance to add to her achievements in the future.
Many epiphanies in short stories involve such a growing generosity of spirit: an increased awareness that our own lives need to be seen in the greater context of the world around us, and that we should be aware of others’ struggles and achievements and approach them magnanimously and sympathetically. And ‘Raymond’s Run’ fits the bill here, too.
Indeed, we might say that Hazel’s sudden awareness of Raymond as she is running the race leads to her overcoming her own petty jealousies towards Gretchen. She acknowledges that Gretchen is good, and she even starts to like her. She wonders if Gretchen could even help her to coach Raymond as a runner. Thus the two key strands of Bambara’s story – Hazel’s relationship with her brother, and her attitude towards Gretchen – are resolved in that one race, leading to a greater sense of commonality and communion between her and them both.