Bambara, Toni Cade (Short Story Criticism)
Toni Cade Bambara 1939-1995
American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, editor, and author of children's books.
Lauded for her insightful depictions of African-American life, Bambara focused on representing contemporary political, racial, and feminist issues in her writing. While she garnered critical acclaim for her essays and other work, Bambara is best known for her poignant, insightful short stories.
Born Toni Cade in New York City, Bambara later acquired her surname after discovering it as part of a signature on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother's trunk. Her early years were spent in New York City—in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Queens—and in Jersey City, New Jersey. Bambara credited the variety of cultural experiences found in the New York City area, as well as the encouragement of her mother and other women in her neighborhoods, as major influences on her development. In 1959 Bambara's first published work of fiction, "Sweet Town," appeared in Vendome magazine; that same year she earned a B. A. from Queens College. Bambara also attended several European and American universities, dance schools, and the Studio Museum of the Harlem Film Institute. She traveled in the 1970s to Cuba and Vietnam, where she met with representatives from the Federation of Cuban Women and the Women's Union in Vietnam. Upon returning to the United States, Bambara settled in the South, where she became a founding member of the Southern Collective of African-American Writers. In her later years she turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops to train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change.
Bambara's first major work, Gorilla, My Love, collects stories written between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, these tales target problems of identity, self-worth, and belonging. "Raymond's Run" concerns a young girl who excels as a runner and takes great pride in her athletic prowess; in the course of the tale, she learns to appreciate the joy of sport, her competitors, and her ability to train her retarded brother as a runner and thereby endow him with a similar sense of accomplishment. Also featuring a strong-willed girl as a protagonist, the title story of Gorilla, My Love emphasizes themes of disillusionment, self-awareness, betrayal, and familial bonds. Bambara's next book of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, is heavily influenced by her travels and her sociopolitical involvement with community groups and collective organizations. The tales in this collection take place in diverse geographical areas and center chiefly on communities instead of individuals. "For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension," observed Martha Vertreace, adding "her characters and community do a circle dance around and within each other as learning and growth occur."
Bambara's work is often praised for its insights into youth and the human condition, its political focus, and its representations of African-American culture and feminist concerns. Many critics have noted the musical nature of Bambara's language, which she likened to "riffs" and "bebop." Others have studied Bambara's deceptively simple narrative skill, engaging style, and overall craftsmanship.
As Toni Morrison argued, "Although her insights are multiple, her textures layered and her narrative trajectory implacable, nothing distracts from the sheer satisfaction her story-telling provides."
Gorilla, My Love 1972
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive 1977
Other Major Works
The Salt Eaters (novel) 1980
If Blessing Comes (novel) 1987
Raymond's Run (juvenile) 1990
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations [edited by Toni Morrison] (short stories, essays, and interviews) 1996
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SOURCE: "Stories of Solidarity & Selfhood," in The Village Voice, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, April 12, 1973, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Chevigny offers a positive assessment of the stories comprising Gorilla, My Love.]
Readers following at least two movements will welcome more writing by Toni Cade, who edited The Black Woman two years ago. There she deplored stereotyped sex roles ("merchandising nonsense") and called "for Selfhood, Blackhood," and the study of alternatives buried in Third World history. And she urged especially that the revolution begin at home:
It'll take time. But we have time. We'd better take the time to fashion revolutionary selves, revolutionary lives, revolutionary relationships. Mouth don't win the war. Not all speed is movement. Running off to mimeograph a fuck-whitey leaflet, leaving your mate to brood, is not revolutionary. Hopping a plane to rap to someone else's "community" while your son struggles alone with the Junior Scholastic assignment on "The Dark Continent" is not revolutionary. Sitting around murder-mouthing incorrect niggers while your father goes upside your mother's head is not revolutionary. . . . Ain't no such animal as an instant guerrilla.
In Gorilla, My Love, she takes time for a wide range of black relationships at home and in the neighborhood and for the...
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SOURCE: "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love" in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. XXII, No. 1, Fall, 1983, pp. 81-99.
[In the following essay, Hargrove lauds Bambara's portrayal of young characters in her first short fiction collection, maintaining that one of her "special gifts as a writer of fiction is her ability to portray with sensitivity and compassion the experiences of children from their point of view. "]
In reading Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972), one is immediately struck by her portrayal of black life and by her faithful reproduction of black dialect. Her first-person narrators speak conversationally and authentically: "So Hunca Bubba in the back with the pecans and Baby Jason, and he in love. . . . there's a movie house . . . which I ax about. Cause I am a movie freak from way back, even though it do get me in trouble sometime" (14). What Twain's narrator Huck Finn did for the dialect of middle America in the mid-nineteenth century, Bambara's narrators do for contemporary black dialect. Indeed, in the words of one reviewer, Caren Dybek, Bambara "possesses one of the finest ears for the nuances of black English" (Black Literature). In portraying black life, she presents a wide range of black characters,1 and she uses as settings Brooklyn, Harlem, or unnamed black sections of New York City, except for three...
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SOURCE: An interview with Toni Cade Bambara, in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1983, pp. 12-38.
[In the following interview, Bambara discusses her writing philosophy and the ways in which being an African-American woman influences her work.]
Revolution begins with the self, in the self. The individual, the basic revolutionary unit, must be purged of poison and lies that assault the ego and threaten the heart, that hazard the next larger unit—the couple or pair, that jeopardize the still larger unit—the family or cell, that put the entire movement in peril.
—"On the Issue of Roles," from The Black Woman p. 109.
[CLAUDIA TATE]: What has happened to the revolutionary fervor of the sixties?
[TONI CADE BAMBARA]: The energy of the seventies is very different from that of the previous decade. There's a different agenda and a different mode of struggle. The demystification of American-style "democracy," the bold analytical and passionate attention to our condition, status and process—the whole experience of that era led us to a peculiar spot in time, the seventies. Some say it's been a period of retreat, of amnesia, of withdrawal into narcissism. I'm not so sure. I'd say the seventies is characterized by a refocusing on the self, which is, after all, the...
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SOURCE: "Desire, Ambivalence, and Nationalist-Feminist Discourse in Bambara's Short Stories," in Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade B ambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 91-122.
[In the following essay, Butler-Evans explores B ambara's attempt to synthesize African-American nationalist and feminist ideologies in her short stories.]
The several ways in which Toni Cade Bambara's short stories were produced assured them a wide audience. Collected and presented as single texts, they were widely anthologized in feminist anthologies, particularly those produced by "women of color";1 and Bambara often read them aloud as "performance pieces" before audiences. Yet they have rarely been the object of in-depth critical attention.2
Bambara's role as storyteller resembles Walter Benjamin's description of such a person, Benjamin's storyteller, a person "always rooted in the people," creates a narrative largely grounded in the oral tradition of his or her culture and containing something useful in the way of a moral, proverb, or maxim that audiences can integrate into their experiences and share with others. Hence, the story becomes the medium through which groups of people are unified, values sustained, and a shared world view sedimented.3
Benjamin's reflections on the story in...
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SOURCE: "The Dance of Character and Community," in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, The University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155-71.
[In the following essay, Vertreace examines the themes of community and identity in Bambara's stories.]
The question of identity—of personal definition within the context of community—emerges as a central motif for Toni Cade Bambara's writing. Her female characters become as strong as they do, not because of some inherent "eternal feminine" quality granted at conception, but rather because of the lessons women learn from communal interaction. Identity is achieved, not bestowed. Bambara's short stories focus on such learning. Very careful to present situations in a highly orchestrated manner, Bambara describes the difficulties that her characters must overcome.
Contemporary literature teems with male characters in coming-of-age stories or even female characters coming of age on male typewriters. Additional stories, sometimes written by black authors, indeed portray such concerns but narrowly defined within crushing contexts of city ghettos or rural poverty. Bambara's writing breaks such molds as she branches out, delineating various settings, various economic levels, various characters—both male and female.
Bambara's stories present a decided emphasis on the centrality of...
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SOURCE: "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run'," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67-72.
[In the following essay, Gidley discusses the narrative technique of "Raymond's Run."]
Toni Cade Bambara's "Raymond's Run" (1971), reprinted in her first collection of tales, Gorilla, My Love (1972), seems an exuberantly straightforward story: the first person, present tense narration of specific events in the life of a particular Harlem child, "a little girl with skinny arms and a squeaky voice," Hazel Elizabeth Deborah Parker, usually called Squeaky.1 Squeaky is assertive, challenging, even combative, and concerned to display herself as she is—at one point stressing her unwillingness to act, even in a show, "like a fairy or a flower or whatever you're supposed to be when you should be trying to be yourself" (27). Above all, she's a speedy runner, "the fastest thing on two feet" (23), and proud of it. "I run, that is what I am all about," she says (28).
Squeaky's narrative records the movement towards a race she has won easily in previous years, the May Day fifty-yard dash. This year she is pitted against a new girl, Gretchen, and the organizing teacher, Mr. Pearson, comes close to suggesting that, as "a nice gesture" towards the new girl, she might consider losing the race (29). ("Grownups got a lot of nerve sometimes," Squeaky snorts.)...
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SOURCE: "Time, Motion, Sound and Fury in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive," in CLA Journal, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, December, 1992, pp. 134-44.
[In the following essay, Lyles explores the role of revolution in Bambara's collection, maintaining that revolutionary thought "is manifested through the depiction of the characters' sense of time and through the prominence of descriptions of sound and motion."]
One of the most arresting features of the short stories in Toni Cade Bambara's The Sea Birds Are Still Alive is their revolutionary thrust. The influence of the avenging Fury, revolution, upon the minds, hearts, and actions of the characters in the stories is manifested through the depiction of the characters' sense of time and through the prominence of descriptions of sound and motion.
One characteristic of the revolutionary is that he or she experiences the future as present. The expression, "revolution in my lifetime," which was the rallying cry of some radical black organizations of the sixties, is the embodiment of the spirit which governs many of the characters in Sea Birds. "Revolution" is future; "my lifetime," present. The expression conveys the hope and the expectation that the two time frames will congeal.
The revolutionary is always striving for a future in which current modes of action and thought are transformed or even...
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SOURCE: A preface to Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following preface to Bambara's posthumous collection of essays and short fiction, Morrison praises her talent as a writer and offers personal reminiscences of the author.]
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions is unlike other books by Toni Cade Bambara. She did not gather or organize the contents. She did not approve or choose the photograph on the jacket. She did not post a flurry of letters, notes and bulletins on the design, on this or that copy change, or to describe an innovative idea about the book's promotion. And of her books published by Random House (Gorilla, My Love, The Seabirds Are Still Alive and Salt Eaters) only this one did not have the benefit, the joy, of a series of "editorial meetings" between us. Hilarious title struggles. Cloaked suggestions for ways to highlight, to foreground. Breathless discussions about what the whores really meant. Occasional battles to locate the double meaning, the singular word. Trips uptown for fried fish. Days and days in a house on the river—she, page in hand, running downstairs to say, "Does this do it?"
Editing sometimes requires re-structuring, setting loose or nailing down; paragraphs, pages may need re-writing, sentences (especially final...
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Aiken, Susan Hardy. "Telling the Other('s) Story, or, the Blues in Two Languages." In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, pp. 206-23. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Explores the complex sense of female identity portrayed in Bambara's "Witchbird" and Liudmila Petrushevskaia's 'That Kind of Girl."
Comfort, Mary S. "Bambara's 'Sweet Town'." The Explicator 54, No. 1 (Fall 1995): 51-4.
Explicates Bambara's short story.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks." In Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, edited by Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, pp. 230-50. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1979.
Interview in which Bambara discusses her background, influences, and attitudes toward African-American women writers.
Willis, Susan. "Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara's Stories for the Revolution." In Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, pp. 129-58. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.
Examines the political nature of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, The Salt Eaters, and Gorilla, My Love....
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