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. □