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Bambara, Toni Cade

BAMBARA, Toni Cade

Nationality: American. Born: Toni Cade in New York City, 25 March 1939. Education: Queen's College, New York, 1955-59, B.A. in theater arts 1959; City College of New York, M.A. in literature 1963. Family: One daughter. Career: Social worker, State Department of Social Welfare, New York, 1956-59; director of recreation, psychiatry department, Metropolitan Hospital, New York City, 1961-62; program director, Colony House Community Center, New York City, 1962-65; director and adviser, Theatre of the Black Experience, New York, 1965-69; English instructor, SEEK Program, City College of New York, 1965-69; assistant professor, Livingstone College, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1969-74; visiting professor, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, Atlanta University, and Emory University, Atlanta, 1975-79; artist-in-residence, Neighborhood Arts Center, Atlanta, 1975-79, Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri, 1976, and Spelman College, Atlanta, 1978-79; founder and director, Pamoja Writers Collective, 1976-85; instructor, filmmaker, and videomaker, Scribe Video Center, Philadelphia, beginning 1986. Awards: Peter Pauper Press award, 1958; John Golden Award for Fiction from Queen's College, 1959; Theatre of Black Experience award, 1969; Rutgers University research fellowship, 1972; Black Child Development Institute service award, 1973; Black Rose Award from Encore, 1973; Black Community Award from Livingston College, 1974; award from National Association of Negro Business and professional Women's Club League; George Washington Carver Distinguished African-American Lecturer Award from Simpson College; Ebony's Achievement in the Arts Award; Black Arts Award from University of Missouri; American Book award, 1981, for The Salt Eaters; Langston Hughes Society award, 1981, and Medallion, 1986. Honorary degree: SUNY-Albany, New York, 1990. Died: 9 December 1995.

Publications

Short Stories

Gorilla, My Love. 1972.

The Seabirds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories. 1977.

Novels

The Salt Eaters. 1980.

If Blessing Comes. 1987.

Plays

Screenplays:

Zora, 1971; The Johnson Girls, 1972; Victory Gardens, 1977; Transactions, 1979; The Long Night, 1981; Epitaph for Willie, 1982; Tar Baby (based on the novel by Toni Morrison), 1984; Raymond's Run (based on her own story), 1985; The Bombing of Osage, 1986; Celia B. Moore, Master Tactician of Direct Action, 1987.

Other

Raymond's Run (for children). 1990.

Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison. 1996.

Editor (as Toni Cade), The Black Woman: Anthology. 1970.

Editor (for children), Tales and Stories for Black Folks. 1971.

Editor, with Leah Wise, Southern Black Utterances Today. 1975.

*

Bibliography:

in American Women Writing Fiction edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1989.

Critical Studies:

"Youth in Bambara's Gorilla, My Love " by Nancy D. Hargrove, in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, 1984; "From Baptism to Resurrection: Bambara and the Incongruity of Language" by Ruth Elizabeth Burks, in Black Women Writers (1950-1980), edited by Mari Evans, 1984; "'What It Is I Think She's Doing Anyhow:' A Reading of Bambara's The Salt Eaters " by Gloria Hull, in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, 1985; "Problematizing the Individual: Bambara's Stories for the Revolution," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, by Susan Willis, 1987; "The Dance of Characters and Community" by Martha M. Vertreace, in American Women Writing Fiction, edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1989; Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies inthe Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker by Elliott Butler-Evans, 1989; "Toni Cade Bambara" by Nancy D. Hargrove, in Contemporary Fiction Writers of the South: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook edited by Joseph M. Flora and Robert Bain, 1993.

* * *

A prolific writer of short fiction, Toni Cade Bambara began her career with stories reflecting the language, perspective, and sensibility of African Americans and their concerns in the 1960s and 1970s. Her stories encapsulate the everyday adventures, fantasies, and aspirations of innocents on the verge of experience. Despite obstacles and inhibitions imposed by our culture, her characters, like those in many of J. D. Salinger's stories, are exuberant and eager to engage life completely. Bambara's empathy and imaginative insights give her stories distinction beyond social realism or the urban documentary.

One characteristic story, "My Man Bovanne," begins with an arresting observation: "Blind people got a hummin jones [addiction] if you notice." The story develops the outspoken, vivacious central character and narrator, Miss Hazel, who takes the "nice ole gent from the block [Bovanne]" under her tutelage at a benefit dance. Her actions outrage her politically sensitive (and priggish) children, who are embarrassed by their lively mother. Identifying her children's oppressive ageism, Miss Hazel asks, "Is that what they call the generation gap?" She decides that her attraction to Bovanne is both sexual and political. The blind man alone can see Miss Hazel's beautiful soul: "I imagine you are a very pretty woman, Miss Hazel."

Bambara also writes about the tensions and confusions of the individual and government, as in "Blues Ain't No Mockin Bird." This story depicts a rural southern black family whose privacy is invaded by a crew "filming for the country, see. Part of the food stamp campaign. You know about the food stamps?" The self-respecting, self-sufficient Cain family watches, and Granny Cain tells her grandchildren a parable about their right to privacy, which young cousin Cathy, an incipient poet, translates as the tale of Goldilocks. Granddaddy Cain, the powerful patriarch of the clan, then appears with a chicken hawk he has captured, which he nails to the barn door. The hawk's outraged mate is drawn to the scene and attacks the film crew while Granddaddy Cain dismantles their camera. The children understand this as an exercise of personal power and autonomy.

A persistent emphasis on diversity of character and experience shapes Bambara's fiction. In "The Lesson" Miss Moore, the staid newcomer, takes a wild bunch of street kids on a window-shopping expedition to teach them arithmetic and basic economics. They go to F A O Schwarz, and the young black children view the amazing, outrageous toys of the rich. She encourages the children to draw their own economic and political conclusions from the price tags around them. The strange outsider has taught the hip street urchins an important lesson in the real political meaning of their situation.

Other stories detail the lives of violent, lost characters like Punjab the gambler and loan shark who meets a canny opponent in Miss Ruby, a white social worker, in "Playin with Punjab." The hopeless Sonny of "Talking about Sonny" cuts his wife's throat and can only say, "Something came over me." Manny, the boy in "The Hammer Man," threatens to kill his friends and is taken away by the police. The narrator says, "Crazy or no crazy, Manny was my brother at that moment and the cop was my enemy."

Music and musical analogies shape and texture Bambara's stories. In a complex love story, "Medley," she creates a free-form jazz composition that reflects the romance between Larry, a mediocre bass player, and Sweet Pea, a manicurist-vocalist. The story cleverly interweaves jazzy improvisation and sexuality to develop the musical-sensual characterizations. In "Mississippi Ham Rider" she describes a legendary blues singer who turns out to be a unique individual, not the walking cliché people expect.

Bambara's observations and concerns are politically oriented, but she is also a careful artisan, using her finely tuned ear for African American diction and syntax to shape the rhythms of her stories and drawing characters that are both social types and individuals. Her stories are warm and funny, and she writes accurately and sympathetically about ordinary people without condescension or sentimentality. Her sharply focused snapshots of the daily lives of black people, urban and rural, in the contemporary world are important contributions to American literature.

—William J. Schafer

See the essay on "Gorilla, My Love."

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