Bambara, Toni Cade (Vol. 88)
Toni Cade Bambara 1939–
(Born Toni Cade) American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, editor, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of Bambara's career through 1992. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 19.
Lauded for her insightful depictions of African-American life, Bambara has focused on representing contemporary political, racial, and feminist issues in her writing. Initially recognized for her short fiction, Bambara has since garnered critical acclaim for her work in other literary genres and other media. Beverly Guy-Sheftall has stated that Bambara's "particular vision—as a teacher, writer, mother, world traveler, social critic, community worker, and humanist—can provide alternative ways, perhaps, of viewing certain aspects of [African-American] culture."
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 has also attended several European and American universities, dance schools, and the Studio Museum of the Harlem Film Institute. She travelled 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 recent years she has turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops that train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change. Bambara has additionally been employed as a social worker and worked for a variety of community programs.
Bambara first attracted critical attention as the editor of The Black Woman (1970), an anthology containing poetry, short stories, and essays by such distinguished African-American authors as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. Still writing as Toni Cade, Bambara also contributed short stories to this volume as well as to her second edited work, Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971). As she explained in the introduction to Tales and Stories, the aim of this collection is to instruct young African Americans about the storytelling tradition; to this end, in addition to fiction by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines, she included works by students in her first-year composition class at Livingston College, Rutgers University. 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. 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 (1977), 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. 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. Although the novel takes place within a period of two hours, the narrative is told from an anti-chronological perspective, thus facilitating the inclusion of a wide variety of characters from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds, several differrent narrative voices, and numerous allusions to mythology and folklore. Through the relationship of the two main characters, The Salt Eaters explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society.
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. The Salt Eaters, however, has received mixed reviews. While some critics consider it a problematic first novel—finding fault with its dialogue, its general structure, and its use of an alternating narrative voice—others commend the scope of Bambara's vision. Bambara has been specifically praised for her incorporation of experimental techniques and her examination of community and change. As Carol Rumens states, The Salt Eaters "is a hymn to individual courage, a sombre message of hope that has confronted the late twentieth-century pathology of racist violence and is still able to articulate its faith in 'the dream.'" In assessing Bambara's oeuvre, commentators additionally note the link between her portraits of African Americans and her dedication to political and social activism. Alice A. Deck argues: "The hallmark of Toni Cade Bambara's fiction is her keen ear and ability to transcribe the Afro-American dialect accurately. She writes as one who has had a long personal relationship with the black working class and has said that she is very much interested in continuing to write all of her fiction in this idiom. Writing and teaching others to write effectively has become a tool, a means of working within the community. Hence, her art and her profession have merged."
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
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SOURCE: "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks," in Sturdy Black Bridges, Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds., Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979, pp. 230-49.
[An American educator, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic, Guy-Sheftall has served as director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. In the following interview, Bambara discusses her childhood, her work, and contemporary African-American women writers.]
[Guy-Sheftall]: Would you describe your early life and what caused you to start writing?
[Bambara]: I can't remember a time when I was not writing. The original motive was to try to do things that we were not encouraged to do in the language arts programs in the schools, namely, to use writing as a tool to get in touch with the self. In the schools, for example, writing, one of the few crafts we're taught, seems to be for the purpose of teaching people how to plagiarize from the dictionary or the encyclopedia and how to create as much distance from your own voice as possible. That was called education. I'd call it alienation. You had to sift out a lot, distort a lot, and lie a lot in order to jam the stuff of your emotional, linguistic, cultural experience into that form called the English composition.
The original motive for writing at home was to give a play to those notions that wouldn't fit the English...
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SOURCE: A review of The Salt Eaters, in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, September, 1982, pp. 125-27.
[In the following positive review of The Salt Eaters, Shipley deems the novel "an unqualified success," concluding that Bambara's literary voice "has refused to be tranquilized into slumber but will share with all women the quality of pain and despair."]
John O. Killers once commented to Maya Angelou that the most difficult kind of writing was the short story. If this is true, then Toni Cade Bambara has, for some time now, had few peers in the area. Already acknowledged as one of the finest short story writers in the country, Toni Cade Bambara has taken her artistry to the novel—and achieved profound results, with The Salt Eaters. At her best, Toni Cade Bambara has few peers when she is exposing the flaws in black male-female relationships or the unique pain, suffering, and despair that black women experience as they reach out to wholeness. In these respects (and surely others), The Salt Eaters is an unqualified success.
One reviewer/critic describes Ms. Bambara's style as "… comedy with a knife's edge, and tragedy with balm." I cannot agree. For me, The Salt Eaters is a tragedy; comedy is only a "vehicle" that is sometimes used to vivify the tragedy. As one of my former mentors once defined it, quoting the dramatist Pirandello, "tragedy is comedy...
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SOURCE: A review of The Salt Eaters, in The Black Scholar, Vol. 13, No. 6, Fall, 1982, p. 52.
[Jackson is an American poet, short story writer, and dramatist. Below, she offers a highly favorable assessment of The Salt Eaters.]
Some extraordinary books define their time. By so doing they become historical events. Some momentous books transform the sense of the time, the order. By so doing they become political movement. Some most rare books are a healing session: they cleanse, rename, baptize, and confirm us as adults, responsible intelligences. They are spiritual acts of a high order and dangerously wonderful.
Some stories, in their telling, extend the language to music; fine tuning the seeming diverse moments of reality into a divine order. By the author's authority we are permitted to see with an eye of the universe; in balancing this, the narrative logic pulls all into place. In this way Vision and Voice, Feeling and Form are one—in awesome perfection. This is High Art.
The Salt Eaters by Toni Cade Bambara is such an extraordinary, momentous, most rare, and visionary story. This is literature in preparation for the Twenty-First Century. It is written in a new time and from another place, a step ahead. The Salt Eaters is strong premonition. It is where we should want to be. Where we will be.
It is a healing time. The...
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SOURCE: "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love," in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 215-32.
[Hargrove is an American educator and the author of works on T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. In the following essay, first published in 1983 in Southern Quarterly, she examines Bambara's focus on adolescence and youth in Gorilla, My Love.]
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." 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." In portraying black life, she presents a wide range of black characters, and she uses as settings Brooklyn, Harlem, or unnamed black sections of New York City, except for three stories which take place in rural areas. Finally,...
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SOURCE: "Soundings," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2771, April 27, 1984, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, McRobbie praises Gorilla, My Love for its political focus, poetic aspects, and its accurate representations of African-American culture.]
[Gorilla, My Love,] Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories written over the last 15 years is so great it lifts you off the ground. It lets you hear the best sounds of the (black American) city and treats you to a series of narratives which move past you like flickering images from a silent movie. When they do slow down they resemble those photographs whose naturalness makes them seem like chance snapshots, but whose simplicity belies the craft, skill, artifice and imagination of the photographer.
Together the stories sail effortlessly into that territory much beloved and preciously guarded by men. For so many writers and sociologists, musicians and film-makers (all men), the city has been the subject of our time. And how women fit in depends very much on their idiosyncracies, their quirks, their views on sexual politics. Bambara pushes her way through all this prejudice and shows how urban life can vibrate and reverberate just as much for women. And by placing both old and young women at the centre of her vision of the city, she debunks so many of the male myths. Which is to say that there is little...
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SOURCE: "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, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 48-57.
[In the following essay, Burks analyzes the emphasis on communication and dialogue in Bambara's fiction, noting in particular the relationship Bambara sees between language and the Black freedom movement of the twentieth century.]
A title with a religious allusion ["From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language"] may seem inappropriate for an essay on the works of Toni Cade Bambara since religion, i.e., Christianity, as it is often depicted in the works of Black writers with their depictions of hair straightening, signifying in church, and preacher men—sometimes more physically passionate than spiritually—is conspicuously absent here. In fact, many of the usual concerns, about color and class, frequently found in the writings of other Black women prosaists, are absent. Bambara appears less concerned with mirroring the Black existence in America than in chronicling "the movement" intended to improve and change that existence. Like a griot, who preserves the history of his or her people by reciting it, Bambara perpetuates the struggle of her people by literally recording it in their own voices.
Her three major works of fiction, Gorilla,...
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SOURCE: "Music as Theme: The Jazz Mode in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 58-70.
[Traylor is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, she examines Bambara's prose style, particularly its jazz-like characteristics.]
Ultimately the genuinely modern writer "assumes a culture and supports the weight of a civilization." That assumption connects the present moment both to an immediate and to a remote past. From such a writer, we learn that whoever is able to live completely in the present, sustained by the lesson of the past, commands the future. The vitality of the jazz musician, by analogy, is precisely this ability to compose, in vigorous images of the most recent musical language, the contingencies of time in an examined present moment. The jam session, the ultimate formal expression of the jazz musician, is, on the one hand, a presentation of all the various ways, past and present, that a tune may be heard; on the other, it is a revision of the past history of a tune, or of its presentation by other masters, ensuring what is lasting and valuable and useful in the tune's present moment and discarding what is not. Constructing rapid contrasts of curiously mingled disparities, the jam session is both a summing up and a part-by-part examination by various instruments of an...
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SOURCE: "'What It Is I Think She's Doing Anyhow': A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 216-32.
[Hull is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on Black American literature and Black women writers. She coedited All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982) and wrote Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). In the essay below, she offers a detailed thematic and stylistic analysis of The Salt Eaters.]
Although everyone knows instinctively that Toni Cade Bambara's first novel, The Salt Eaters, is a book that he or she must read, many people have difficulty with it. They get stuck on page ninety-seven or give up after muddling through the first sixty-five pages twice with little comprehension. Some cannot get past chapter one. Lost and bewildered, students decide that it is "over their heads" and wonder what made their teacher assign it in the first place.
There are compelling reasons for studying the novel. It is a daringly brilliant work that accomplishes even better for the 1980s what Native Son did for the 1940s, Invisible Man for the 1950s, or Song of Solomon for the...
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SOURCE: "Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara's Stories for the Revolution," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 129-58.
[In the following essay, Willis discusses the political nature of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, The Salt Eaters, and Gorilla, My Love, noting Bambara's emphasis on the importance of community, individuality, and political and social activism.]
Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salt Eaters represents the attempt to link the spirit of black activism generated during the sixties to the very different political and social situation defined by the eighties. The swing toward political conservatism in national politics makes this a project fraught with problems and frustration. I know of no other novel that so poignantly yearns for cataclysmic social upheaval and understands so clearly the roots of black people's oppression in post-Civil Rights American society. It seems, in reading the novel, that revolution is only pages away. But for all its yearning and insight, the novel fails to culminate in revolution, fails even to suggest how social change might be produced.
The reasons why this is so derive from the broadly felt political dismay of the post-Vietnam years and include the recognition among radical leaders that the political movements organized around minority...
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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.
[Vertreace is an American poet, educator, editor, and author of children's books. In the following essay, she examines the theme of community in Bambara's short fiction.]
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.
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SOURCE: "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run,'" in English Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67-72.
[Gidley is an English educator and critic who frequently writes about Native Americans. In the essay below, he discusses narrative perspective in "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. 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." Above all, she's a speedy runner, "the fastest thing on two feet," and proud of it. "I run, that is what I am all about," she says.
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. ("Grownups got a lot of...
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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 discusses how Bambara's descriptions of sound and motion support the theme of revolution 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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Bryan, C. D. B. Review of Gorilla, My Love, by Toni Cade Bambara. The New York Times Book Review (15 October 1972): 31-3.
Comparative review of Bambara's Gorilla, My Love, Martha Foley's The Best American Short Stories 1972, and Norma Klein's Love and Other Euphemisms. Bryan praises Bambara's manner of discussing race and gender in Gorilla, My Love, concluding that Bambara is "an articulate, intelligent and sensitive writer who happens to be very funny, hip, warm and unmistakably her own black woman."
Kelley, Margot Anne. "'Damballah is the First Law of Thermodynamics': Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters." African American Review 27, No. 3 (Fall 1993): 479-93.
Discusses Bambara's The Salt Eaters within the framework of scientific theories regarding such concepts as thermodynamics and time. Kelley argues that the use of scientific methods of inquiry assists in the analysis of Bambara's text.
Marcus, Laura. "Feminism into Fiction: The Women's Press." The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4303 (27 September 1985): 1070.
Overview of feminist writings published in Great Britain in which the critic offers mixed reviews of Bambara's Gorilla, My Love and The...
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