Toni Cade Bambara
Bambara, Toni Cade 1939—
Toni Cade Bambara 1939—
Community Service, Critical Raves
“It does no good to write autobiographical fiction ’cause the minute the book hits the stand,” averred Toni Cade Bambara in the whimsical “Sort of Preface” to her short story collection Gorilla My Love, friends and relatives become enraged by the personal details that end up in print. Yet her work has largely been proof of the good such fiction can do; her writings explore issues of identity in the black community, particularly as these issues bear on women’s lives. “What pulls us along,” theorized fellow writer Anne Tyler in a Washington Post Book World review, “is the language of [Bambara’s] characters, which is startlingly beautiful without once striking a false note.” As Bambara herself declared to Claudia Tate in an interview for the book Black Women Writers at Work, “I am about the empowerment and development of our sisters and the community. That sense of caring and celebration is certainly reflected in the body of my work.”
She was born Toni Cade in New York in the late 1930s. Her mother, Helen Brent Henderson Cade, was profoundly influenced by what she had seen during the “Harlem Renaissance,” a flowering of African American culture—especially literature—that reached its peak during the 1920s. As a result, she strongly encouraged her children to explore their creativity; Toni’s early interest in story writing flourished with her mother’s care. “She gave me permission to wonder, to dawdle, to daydream,” Bambara recalled to Tate. The writer also cited her visits with Helen to Speaker’s Corner, where New Yorkers of various philosophical persuasions practiced their speechifying, as a powerful influence as well.
After attending a number of public and private schools—in New York, New Jersey, and the Southeast United States, Cade headed for Queens College, part of the City University of New York. She majored in theater arts and English, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 1959, the same year she snared the school’s John Golden Award for Fiction and was handed a Long Island newspaper’s Pauper Press Award for nonfiction. 1959 also saw the first publication of one of her stories, “Sweet Town,” in Vendome Magazine.
Yet a full-time writing career was not immediately in store for her. Instead, Cade worked as an investigator for the New York State Department of Welfare for two years; no doubt what she observed helped fuel her later writing. She studied at Italy’s famed Commedia dell’Arte and at the Ecole de Mime Etienne Decroux in Paris France, but after her return she once again immersed herself in urban life, working at Metropolitan Hospital as the recreation director of its psychiatric ward. Though she returned to school and earned her master’s degree from City College in 1964, she also served as a program director at Colony House Community Center and assisted an array of community outreach and theater programs.
At a Glance…
Born Toni Cade, March 25, 1939, New York, NY; daughter of Helen Brent Henderson Cade; took name ’“Bambara”, 1970; children: daughter, Karma. Education: Queens College, New York, NY, B.A., 1959, City of College of New York, MA., 1964. Also studied at SUNY-Buffalo, Commedia dell’Arte, Italy, and Ecole de Mime Etienne Decroux, Paris, France.
Writer and educator. New York State Department of Social Welfare, investigator, 1956–59; published story “Sweet Town” in Vendome Magazine, 1959; Metropolitan Hospital, psychiatry department, director of recreation, 1961–62; Colony House Community Center, program director, 1962–65; City University of New York’s City College SEEK Program, English instructor, 1965–69; Rutgers University, Livingston College, assistant professor, 1969–74; Atlanta University, visiting professor, 1975, 1977; Neighborhood Arts Center, artist-in-residence, 1975–79; Pamoja Writers Collective, co-founder, 1976, director, 1976–85; Scribe Video Center, instructor, 1986—; cofounder, Southern Collective of African-American Writers.
Awards: Peter Pauper Press Award, 1958; John Golden Award for Fiction, Queens College, 1959; Theatre of Black Experience award, 1969; New York Times Outstanding Book of 1972 for juvenile literature award for Tales and Stories for Black Folks; Black Child Development institute service award, 1973; Encore Black Rose Award, 1973; Black Community Award, Livingston College, 1974; National Association of Negro Business and Professional Women’s Club League awards; George Washington Carver Distinguished African American Lecturer Award, Simpson College; Ebony Achievement in the Arts Award; Black Arts Award, University of Missouri; American Book Award, 1981, for The Salt Eaters; Best Documentary of 1986 Award from Pennsylvania Association of Broadcasters and Documentary Award from National Black Programming Consortium, for The Bombing of Osage; Honorary Doctorate of Letters, SUNY-Albany, 1990; Denison University, 1993.
Addresses: Home—5720 Wissahickon Ave., Apt. E12, Philadelphia, PA 19144.
Cade’s teaching career began at City College’s “Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge,” or SEEK program, where she worked as an English instructor, aided the flowering of the Theater of the Black Experience, and served as adviser to a number of SEEK-related publications. At the same time, she continued writing short stories that appeared in such periodicals as Redbook and Prairie Schooner. She became an assistant professor at Rutgers University’s Livingston College in 1969. The following year, while searching through materials in her great-grandmother’s trunk, she came upon a sketchbook with “Bambara” written on it and decided to adopt the name as her own.
1970 was a milestone for black American women’s literature; during that year landmark works by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and several others saw publication. This sudden recognition enabled Bambara to edit a literary collection, The Black Woman: An Anthology, that included both established professional writers and fledgling authors from the SEEK program. Intended to respond to men’s and white feminists’ generalizations and misconceptions with unvarnished testimony, the collection filled a decided void in both Black Studies and Women’s Studies reading lists. The next year, Bambara assembled Tales and Stories for Black Folks, an anthology to show young readers the importance and development of storytelling in black culture. She further contributed to the burgeoning celebration of African American cultural history with two screenplays for public television, Zora and an adaptation of her story The Johnson Girls.
In 1972 Random House published Gorilla, My Love, a collection of 15 stories Bambara had written between 1959 and 1970. Critics praised her ability to evoke the music of real conversation in her prose; many reviewers suggested that Bambara’s feel for the rhythms of speech owes more to jazz music than to specific literary predecessors. “For the most part, the voice of my work is bop,” the author confirmed to Tate. “The improvising, styling, vamping, re-creative method of the jazz composer is the formal method by which the narrative genius of Toni Cade Bambara” balances conflicting elements of experience, ventured critic Eleanor W. Traylor in the anthology Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation. A reviewer for Newsweek admired its “situations that build like improvisations of a melody.” Saturday Review opined that “Bambara writes with pride, wit, and a generous portion of human warmth.” At the same time, Gorilla manages to take a hard look in most of its stories at both race and gender. Its title piece was adapted for the screen.
Community Service, Critical Raves
Bambara spent much of the 1970s as a visiting professor, adviser, or artist-in-residence at a number of institutions—including the New Jersey Department of Corrections, for which she served as Humanities consultant. She also found time to visit Cuba and Vietnam, two Communist countries with which the United States had been in conflict, to meet with politically active women’s organizations. In 1974 she and her daughter Karma moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where she was writer-in-residence at Spelman College and co-founded the Southern Collective of African-American Writers and the Neighborhood Cultural Arts Center, Inc.
A strong advocate of writing collectives, both for their protection of writers’ interests and the relief they provide for writerly solitude, Bambara has attempted to use in-class exercises as a way of both guiding her students to revelatory truth-telling and uplifiting other people in the community. “I’m a very seductive teacher, persuasive, infectious, overhwelming, irresistible,” she proclaimed to Tate. One exercise asked students to compare incidents of shame and pride around the mention of Africa in school; some works inspired by this process were then shared with inner-city schoolkids.
Bambara published her second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive to generally rapturous reviews in 1977; Tyler, in a National Observer notice, asserted that the volume’s tales “positively sing.” Robie Macauley observed in the New York Times Book Review that “reading her stories is like coming in a crowded, hot, smoky room where a dozen different voices—most of them speaking ’Black English’—are telling a dozen disparate tales.” Macauley felt that “some of the stories fail just because there is too much verbal energy” but praised the collection’s title story in particular for its narrator, a character “so full of life she almost bursts from the page.”
Bambara’s first novel, The Salt Eaters, appeared in 1980; it garnered the American Book Award and more rhapsodic praise from critics who admired its dream logic and jazz-influenced prose. Carol Rumens of the Times Literary Supplement applauded the book as “a hymn to individual courage, a sombre message of hope” in the face of incessant racism. The Salt Eaters, Tyler wrote in her piece for the Washington Post Book World, “is a long, rich dream pivoting on a hospital stool.” It tells the story of Velma Henry, a Georgia woman who suffers a crippling depression and undergoes a healing ritual at the hands of another woman, Minnie Ransom.
This scenario allowed Bambara to move back and forth in time and space, as events in the lives of Velma and the people she knows swirl about in a phantasmagoria of memory. It also afforded her the opportunity to further explore the differing music in the speech of a wide variety of characters with varying intellectual and social points of reference. “I work to celebrate struggle,” Bambara insisted to Tate, “to applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block, who’ve been waiting in the wings, characters we thought we had to ignore because they weren’t pimp-flashy or hustlerslick or because they didn’t fit easily into previously acceptable modes or stock types.”
It would be seven years before Bambara published another novel—If Blessing Comes —but after relocating to Philadelphia Bambara continued her multi-faceted creative work. She wrote several screenplays, including an adaptation of Morrison’s novel Tar Baby and a piece called The Bombing of Osage, which garnered two “Best Documentary” awards in 1986.” I always have ten or 15 projects cooking,” she related to Zala Chandler in an interview for the book Wild Women in the Whild-wind, “because I never know which one is going to fly first or which one is going to get past that bend in the tunnel where the light is stuck.”
Though her published output in the ensuing years has been minimal, Bambara has played a vital role in contemporary literature, and been acknowledged as a noted film and television writer, all the while working tirelessly in community service. Indeed, in the words of Chandler, her multiple cultural activities have rendered her “a conveyer belt of history. “She has earned myriad awards, but capturing the experience of the marginalized and disenfranchised has remained her primary concern.
“It’s a tremendous responsibility—responsibility and honor—to be a writer, an artist, a cultural worker … whatever you call this vocation,” Bambara related to Tate. “One’s got to see what the factory worker sees, what the prisoner sees, what the welfare children see, what the scholar sees, got to see what the ruling-class mythmakers see as well, in order to tell the truth and not get trapped.”
Gorilla, My Love, Random House, 1972.
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, Random House, 1977.
The Salt Eaters, Random House, 1980.
(preface) Smith, Cecelia, Cracks, Select Press, 1980.
(foreword) Moraga, Cherrie, and Gloria Anzaldua, editors, This Bridge Called My Back: Radical Women of Color, Persephone Press, 1981.
(foreword) The Sanctified Church: Collected Essays by Zora Neale Hurston, Turtle Island, 1982.
If Blessing Comes, Random House, 1987.
Also edited collections The Black Woman: An Anthology, 1970 (as Toni Cade), and Tales and Stories for Black Folks, 1971.
Bambara, Toni Cade, Gorilla, My Love, Random House, 1972.
Clark, Darlene, editor, Black Women in America: An Historical Encylopedia, vol. 1, Carlson Publishing Inc., 1993, pp. 80–83.
Evans, Mari, editor, Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, Doubleday, 1984.
McLaughlin, Joanna M. and Andrée Nicola, editors Wild Women in the Whirlwind: Afra-American Culture and the Contemporary Literary Renaissance, Rutgers University Press, 1990, pp. 342–53.
Serafin, Steven R., editor, Modern Black Writers, Supplement, vol. 2, Ungar, 1995, pp. 65–69.
Tate, Claudia, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983, pp. 12–38.
National Observer, May 9, 1977, p. 23.
Newsweek, May 2, 1977.
New Yorker, May 5, 1980.
New York Times Book Review, February 21, 1971; May 2, 1971; November 7, 1971; October 15, 1972; December 3,1972; March 27,1977; June 1, 1980, p. 14; November 1, 1981.
Saturday Review, December 1972, pp. 97–98.
Times Literary Supplement, June 18, 1982; September 27, 1985.
Washington Post Book World, November 18, 1973; March 30, 1980, pp. 1–2.
Toni Cade Bambara
Toni Cade Bambara
Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995), who initially gained recognition as a short story writer, has branched out into other genres and media in the course of her career, yet she continues to focus on issues of racial awareness and feminism in her work.
Born Toni Cade on March 25, 1939, in New York City, she later acquired the name "Bambara" after discovering it as part of a signature on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother's trunk. Bambara was generally silent about her childhood, but she revealed a few details from her youth. In an interview with Beverly Guy-Sheftall in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Bambara discussed some women who influenced her work: "For example, in every neighborhood I lived in there were always two types of women that somehow pulled me and sort of got their wagons in a circle around me. I call them Miss Naomi and Miss Gladys, although I'm sure they came under various names. The Miss Naomi types … would give me advice like, 'When you meet a man, have a birthday, demand a present that's hockable, and be careful.' … The Miss Gladyses were usually the type that hung out the window in Apartment 1-A leaning on the pillow giving single-action advice on numbers or giving you advice about how to get your homework done or telling you to stay away from those cruising cars that moved through the neighborhood patrolling little girls." After attending Queens College in New York City and several European institutions, Bambara worked as a free-lance writer and lecturer, social investigator for the New York State Department of Welfare, and director of recreation in the psychiatry department at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. As she told Guy-Sheftall, writing at that time seemed to her "rather frivolous … something you did because you didn't feel like doing any work. But … I've come to appreciate that it is a perfectly legitimate way to participate in a struggle."
Bambara's interest in black liberation and women's movements led her to edit and publish an anthology entitled The Black Woman in 1970. The work is a collection of poetry, short stories, and essays by such celebrated writers as Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Paule Marshall. The Black Woman also contains short stories by Bambara, who was at that time still writing under the name of Cade. According to Deck, Bambara saw the work as "a response to all the male 'experts' both black and white who had been publishing articles and conducting sociological studies on black women." Another anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, followed in 1971. Bambara explained in the introduction to this short story collection that the work's aim is to instruct young blacks about "Our Great Kitchen Tradition," Bambara's term for the black tradition of storytelling. In the first part of Tales and Stories, Bambara included works by writers like Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines—stories she wished she had read while growing up. The second part of the collection contains stories by students in a first year composition class Bambara was teaching at Livingston College, Rutgers University. Deck wrote that Bambara's inclusion of professional writers and students in a single work "shows her desire to give young writers a chance to make their talents known to a large audience." Additionally, such a mixture "would have helped her inspire young adults to read, to think critically, and to write."
Most of Bambara's early writings—short stories written between 1959 and 1970 under the name Toni Cade—were collected in her next work, Gorilla, My Love (1972). Bambara told Claudia Tate in an interview published in Black Women Writers at Work that when her agent suggested she assemble some old stories for a book, she thought, "Aha, I'll get the old kid stuff out and see if I can't clear some space to get into something else." Nevertheless, Gorilla, My Love remains her most widely read collection. Deck noted that after the publication of her first collection, "major events took place in Toni Cade Bambara's life which were to have an effect on her writing." Bambara traveled to Cuba in 1973 and Vietnam in 1975, meeting with both the Federation of Cuban Women and the Women's Union in Vietnam. She was impressed with both groups, particularly with the ability of the Cuban women to surpass class and color conflicts and with the Vietnamese women's resistance to their traditional place in society. Furthermore, upon returning to the United States, Bambara moved to the South, where she became a founding member of the Southern Collective of African-American Writers. Her travels and her involvement with community groups like the collective influenced the themes and settings of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), her second collection of short stories. These stories take place in diverse geographical areas, and they center chiefly around communities instead of individuals. With both collections, critics noted Bambara's skill in the genre, and many praised the musical nature of language and dialogue in her stories, which she herself likens to "riffs" and "be-bop."
Although Bambara admittedly favored the short story genre, her next work, The Salt Eaters (1980), is a novel. She explained in Black Women Writers: "Of all the writing forms, I've always been partial to the short story… But the major publishing industry, the academic establishment, reviewers, and critics favor the novel … Murder for the gene-deep loyalist who readily admits in interviews that the move to the novel was not occasioned by a recognition of having reached the limits of the genre or the practitioner's disillusion with it, but rather Career. Economics. Critical Attention. A major motive behind the production of Salt." The novel, which focuses on the recovery of community organizer Velma Henry from an attempted suicide, consists of a "fugue-like interweaving of voices," Bambara's speciality. The Salt Eaters succeeded in gaining more critical attention for Bambara, but many reviewers found the work to be confusing, particularly because of breaks in the story line and the use of various alternating narrators. Others appreciated her "complex vision," however, and further praised her ability to write dialogue.
Since the publication of The Salt Eaters in 1980, Bambara devoted herself to another medium, film. She told Tate in Black Women Writers at Work: "Quite frankly, I've always considered myself a film person. … There's not too much more I want to experiment with in terms of writing. It gives me pleasure, insight, keeps me centered, sane. But, oh, to get my hands on some movie equipment." Bambara nevertheless remained committed to working within black communities, continuing to address issues of black awareness and feminism in her art.
On December 9, 1995, Bambara died of colon cancer in Philadelphia.
Beizer, Janet L., Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Books, 1979.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 19, Gale, 1984.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 38: Afro-American Writers after 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, Gale, 1985.
Parker, Bell and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Doubleday, 1979.
Pearlman, Mickey, editor, American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, Universty Press of Kentucky, 1989.
Prenshaw, Peggy Whitman, editor, Women Writers of the Contemporary South, University Press of Mississippi, 1984.
Tate, Claudia, editor, Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983. □