A Feminist Writer of Color

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 of self-worth that will enable them to realize those dreams.

Tales of Young Girls Betrayed

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 expresses her happiness about his fall from the roof, one might think that she hates Manny, who, as she says repeatedly, is crazy. Her fights with him are clearly just a part of her tomboy existence, however, a kind of life that is far more interesting than the girlish conduct her mother keeps urging upon her. Her real admiration for Manny becomes evident when she describes his skill with a basketball. When the police interrupt his play and insult him, she defends Manny, all the while expecting him to bring out his hammer and fight, undoubtedly getting them both shot. After a brief resistance, however, Manny proves to be docile, and he permits the policemen to haul him away. Later, the narrator hears that he is in a mental institution, but she never sees him again. Thus, the boy who had almost mythical stature in his neighborhood has been first emasculated in her presence, then imprisoned. If Manny has been destroyed by white society, however, the narrator has been just as surely betrayed by her own society, which finally has confined her within its narrow definition of what a woman should be. She has given up her struggle for independence, discarded her blue jeans for dresses, and set her mind on an upcoming fashion show.

The adult world’s offenses against its children may be sins not of commission but of omission. In “Happy Birthday” (1969), no one intends to mistreat the orphan girl, Ollie. It simply happens that her birthday falls on a summer day when her usual haunts are deserted and her adult friends are away or too busy to talk to her. The two...

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Celebrating Collective Power

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 harassing a black man, she stops and very politely offers to make any necessary telephone calls for her brother, making it evident that the two women will remain as witnesses until the matter is resolved. Then Naomi shows her apprentice how to make a record of the incident, including a description of the police officer, and even how to leave the scene safely. Throughout the story, Naomi continues to teach in this way, showing the narrator how to function and punctuating her own actions with a running commentary, like a master mason showing an apprentice how to lay bricks.

Naomi, however, is doing more than merely transmitting skills; she is also transforming her student in spirit and in will. Whenever the narrator complains, Naomi pulls her up, sometimes shaming her by pointing out that others have sacrificed their lives for the cause, sometimes frightening her with a glimpse of a horrifying future, and sometimes simply hugging her to remind her that she is not alone but is one member of a sisterhood and of a resolute people. Like Bambara herself, Naomi is an educator in the most comprehensive sense. Even her methods are important. Since her student will eventually be tested not on paper but in action, Naomi, like her predecessor in “The Lesson,” teaches not by lecturing but by questioning and commenting. Her goal, like Bambara’s, is not simply to transmit ideas but to produce new leaders for the revolution.

Bambara said that the force that kept her telling stories was the need to preserve the past and to transmit the values of her people to future generations. This pattern of preservation and...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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 Discourse in Bambara’s Short Stories” is particularly useful. Essential reading.

Holmes, Linda Janet, and Cheryl A. Wall, eds. Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Collection of reminiscences, critical analyses, and tributes to Bambara, detailing the effects of her work as a fiction writer, filmmaker, and public figure.

Traylor, Eleanor W. “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. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Argues persuasively that jazz is basic to Bambara’s fiction, both in form and content. A fascinating study.

Vertreace, Martha M. “Toni Cade Bambara: The Dance of Character and Community.” In American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Concentrates on the relationship between community and identity in Bambara’s writing. The strength of her heroines is not inborn but is developed in communal interaction. Helpful bibliographical references.