A Feminist Writer of Color (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Toni Cade Bambara was one of the first writers to approach the search for black identity from a feminist perspective. In her fiction, as in the anthologies she edited, Bambara explored the world of black women, encouraging them to defeat sexism and social injustice through the exertion of their own powerful wills within a larger community.
While she was still in elementary school in New York City, Bambara was already writing stories, skits, and plays. As a student at Queens College in New York, she essayed everything from novels to film scripts. After graduation in 1959, Bambara pursued various interests, studying theater in Florence and Paris, holding various positions in areas of social work and community service, and, after receiving her master’s degree in 1964 from the City University of New York, teaching on the college level.
Throughout those years, Bambara also continued to write, producing and publishing many of the stories later collected in Gorilla, My Love (1972). Bambara described the works in this collection as “on-the-block, in-the-neighborhood, back-glance pieces,” which she said were inspired by a specific concern, the need to “insure space for our children.” What Bambara means by space, of course, is much more than playgrounds, which in high-rise ghettos have disappeared or turned into no-man’s-lands; she means also room for the spirit, room for children to dream, and, most important, to achieve the sense...
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Tales of Young Girls Betrayed (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
In these early stories, Bambara’s abiding interest in black women is already evident. Typically, her protagonist is a young girl who lives in the ghetto, and the barricades to her full development have been erected not only by a white-ruled establishment but also by the black males within her own society. For example, “Sweet Town” (1959), the first story of the collection to have been published, dramatizes the disillusionment of the narrator, Kit, who in her fifteenth spring had been swept away by a Dionysian ecstasy, diagnosed by her mother as simply “sex.” With her equally mad companions, the handsome B. J. and his friend Eddie, Kit races through the summer, unaware that as a female she is not a full member of their little group. She participates fully in their dreams of going to California. Then B. J. awakens Kit, literally and symbolically, to tell her good-bye. B. J. and Eddie are going west; Kit will be left behind. At this point, she can find no consolation in knowing that she is intellectually superior to most of her friends, including these boys, or even in looking forward to college. She feels that she has been betrayed, as women are so often betrayed by the men who enjoy them and abandon them.
Betrayal is also the theme of another early story, “The Hammer Man” (1966). Again the narrator is a young black girl, and again the situation involves her relationship with a boy. From the first line of the story, in which the narrator...
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Celebrating Collective Power (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Two stories in Gorilla, My Love forecast the direction that Bambara was to take in her later work. In “The Johnson Girls” (1972), women of various ages gather to help a family member make a decision about a philandering man. In “The Lesson,” a woman activist and teacher teaches a group of children how unjust their world is. The first of these stories reflects Bambara’s feminism, the second her social activism. In their different ways, however, both of these stories suggest that a group can achieve far more than an individual can. Furthermore, both stories show women not as followers but as leaders, demanding change. This synthesis of feminism and activism, which was suggested in Bambara’s early stories, was firmly established in The Black Woman, the important and influential anthology that Bambara published in 1970. In her second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), the political and social messages are explicit.
According to Bambara, many of the stories in this collection are “both on-the-block and larger-world-of-struggle pieces.” One of the works she mentions in this connection is “The Apprentice” (1977), which tells the story of a part of one day in the life of a black woman revolutionary, as seen through the eyes of her admiring but apprehensive young woman trainee. The revolutionary, Naomi, is not only courageous but also canny. For example, when she sees a police officer...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bambara, Toni Cade. “Salvation Is the Issue.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Explains Bambara’s didactic purpose and outlines her artistic development, with comments on the changing form and content of her short stories.
Bambara, Toni Cade. “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow.” In The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. New York: W. W. Norton, 1980. An informal commentary on the writer’s intentions in which she explains her partiality for the short story.
Burks, Ruth Elizabeth. “From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Argues that Bambara’s fiction shows the “inadequacy of language and the powers of the spirit” in the tradition of African American religious practice. Burks supports her thesis with references to many of the short stories. Interesting.
Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. The chapter devoted to “Desire, Ambivalence, and Nationalist-Feminist...
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