Bambara, Toni Cade (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)
Toni Cade Bambara 1939-1995
(Born Toni Cade) 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. Initially recognized for her short fiction, Bambara eventually garnered critical acclaim for her work in other literary genres and other media. She was a well-respected civil rights activist, professor of English and of African-American studies, and editor of anthologies of African-American literature.
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 has 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. Later she turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops to train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change. She died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995.
Bambara first attracted critical attention as the editor of The Black Woman, an anthology containing poetry, short stories, and essays by such distinguished African-American authors as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. Generally regarded as her first major work, Gorilla, My Love (1972) collects short stories Bambara wrote between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, Gorilla, My Love remains Bambara's most widely read volume and contains the popular stories “Raymond's Run” and “Gorilla, My Love.” Examining 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 purpose and accomplishment. In 1980 Bambara published her first novel, The Salt Eaters. Set in Claybourne, Georgia, the book tells the story of two women: Velma Henry, a community organizer who is experiencing severe emotional problems and has attempted suicide, and Minnie Ransom, a faith healer with an extraordinary reputation. Through the relationship of these two characters, The Salt Eaters explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society. Published posthumously, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (1996) includes short stories as well as essays focusing on Bambara's interest in African-American films and filmmakers.
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. In particular, Gorilla, My Love is acclaimed for its realistic descriptions of the lives of young people and for its use of dialect. Bambara has been specifically praised for her incorporation of experimental techniques and her examination of community and change. In assessing her oeuvre, commentators additionally note the link between her portraits of African Americans and her dedication to political and social activism.
The Black Woman: An Anthology [editor and contributor, as Toni Cade] (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1970
Tales and Stories for Black Folks [editor and contributor, as Toni Cade] (short stories) 1971
Zora (screenplay) 1971
Gorilla, My Love (short stories) 1972
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories (short stories) 1977
The Salt Eaters (novel) 1980
The Long Night (screenplay) 1981
Tar Baby [adaptor; from the novel by Toni Morrison] (screenplay) 1984
Raymond's Run (children's fiction) 1989
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (short stories, interview, and essays) 1996
Those Bones Are Not My Child (unfinished novel) 1999
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SOURCE: “Time, Motion, Sound and Fury in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, December, 1992, pp. 134-44.
[In the following essay, Lyles explores the “revolutionary thrust” of the stories compiled in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive.]
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 obliterated as a result of the overthrow of “the system”—the government and its social, economic, and military apparatuses. The...
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SOURCE: “He Speaks for Whom?: Inscription and Reinscription of Women in Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 17-32.
[In the following essay, Stanford analyzes the relationship between Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Bambara's The Salt Eaters.]
What happens to “the second sex” in a novel as powerful as Ellison's Invisible Man where the trope of invisibility functions as a critique of racist American society? When the text itself perpetuates the invisibility it seeks to undo, it seems inevitable that it will invite response and revision. In Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters we can discern an argument, not with Ellison's manifest text of invisibility and “the blackness of blackness,” but with the subtext of gender erasure.
African American feminist critics have, especially in the last fifteen or twenty years, articulated the problematic of double invisibility, the double jeopardy that results from being both black and female. They have sought to add gender to Du Bois's well known analysis of the sense of double—consciousness” with which many African Americans live (3). Bell Hooks claims that “no other group in America has so had their identity socialized out of existence as have black women” (7). It is not simply that race, gender and class compound oppression...
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SOURCE: “Bambara's ‘Sweet Town,’” in Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 51-4.
[In the following essay, Comfort considers the mythical allusion in Bambara's “Sweet Town.”]
Toni Cade Bambara's “Sweet Town,” published in Vendome magazine in 1959, appears in her first collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love, published in 1972 and again in 1992. Introducing this account of her first love, Kit remembers a note written by her mother to give her advice: “Take care and paint the fire escape in your leisure” (121). Delighted, Kit says, “And with that in mind and with Penelope splintering through the landscape and the pores secreting animal champagne, I bent my youth to the season's tempo and proceeded to lose my mind” (122). To understand Kit's reaction to the note, it is helpful to consider the implications of her allusion to Penelope.
Kit compares her first love to love “on the printed page or MGM movies” and feels as if she is in the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. But references to Pan and to Apollo point to classical mythology as the source for Kit's Penelope (123-124). “Sweet Town” might be considered a lighthearted retelling of the story of Penelope and Ulysses. Like Ulysses, who leaves Penelope after only a year of marriage, B. J. spends only one spring and one summer with Kit before announcing that he and his friend...
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SOURCE: A review of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, pp. 800-01.
[In the following review, Cookson provides a laudatory assessment of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions.]
In the next-to-longest piece in the posthumous collection Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, a piece entitled “How She Came by Her Name,” Toni Cade Bambara gives a description of herself that perfectly captures the writer behind the selections in the volume. She says, in this memoir in the form of an interview: “I never thought of myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as a community person who writes and does a few other things.”
Indeed, the selections represented here seem chosen to limn the author's life in the resistance—as community activist, producer, editor, writer and teacher of film, as well as the powerfully innovative writer of the short-story volumes Gorilla, My Love, and The Seabirds Are Still Alive and the novel The Salt Eaters.
The book does contain six previously unpublished short stories. Several feature a character who is an artist, a painter, though this fact may be incidental rather than central to the story. In “How She Came by Her Name” Bambara offers a tantalizing insight into the presence of painters in the stories. In noting her identification with artists,...
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SOURCE: A review of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, in African American Review, Vol. 33, Spring, 1999, pp. 170-72.
[In the following review, Deck contends that Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions “confirms what we already know about Bambara’s artistry and informs us on personal and political matters that allow us to better understand what she saw as her mission.”]
The posthumous publication of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions fills the void I felt open up in my intellectual endeavors when I learned of Toni Cade Bambara's death in 1995. Bambara was part of a major late-twentieth-century renaissance of African American women fiction writers which includes Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, ntozake shange, and Paule Marshall. Though she had not published a book in the fourteen years prior to her death (her research, teaching, and writing had turned to African American film and independent black film makers), a re-reading of her two collections of short stories (Gorilla My Love  and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive ) and of her one novel (The Salt Eaters ) shows that Bambara was a very contemporary writer. She believed in the simultaneity of art and politics, and understood the value of what she wrote in service to the black community. Hence, community activists, cultural workers, and social workers figure prominently in all of her...
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