Toni Cade Bambara Biography

Toni Cade Bambara Biography

Toni Cade Bambara may not have gained as much acclaim and fame as her contemporaries Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, but she ranks with them in terms of influencing subsequent generations of writers. Bambara, like Walker and Morrison, helped define (and redefine) the voice of African American women. Bambara helped assert that voice by narrating her tales from a first-person point of view. This intimate approach to storytelling invited audiences to share in her characters’ struggles and joys. Bambara also set herself apart with her positive tone, exploring the African American female psyche through growth and happiness. Her contributions to African American literature have earned Bambara the reputation of a pioneer.

Facts and Trivia

  • Education was as much a part of Bambara’s career as her writing. She taught courses at Rutgers University and Spelman College.
  • In addition to her fiction writing, Bambara dabbled in other art forms as well. She completed several scripts and contributed to a documentary about W. E. B. Du Bois.
  • Bambara died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995.
  • One of Bambara’s most important works, Those Bones Are Not My Child, was published posthumously. This unfinished account of the child murders that plagued Atlanta, Georgia, during the late 1970s and early 1980s was completed based on Bambara’s extensive notes.
  • Toni Morrison also published a posthumous collection of Bambara’s nonfiction under the title Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions.


Born Toni Cade in New York City in 1939 to Helen Brent Henderson Cade, the author would legally add Bambara to her surname in 1970. She claims to have stumbled across the word in her grandmother’s sketch pad, and it is the name by which she is recognized as an influential African American writer of the latter twentieth century. Bambara’s mother, Helen, attracted to the artistic wellspring of the Harlem Renaissance of her day, encouraged her daughter to partake of the cultural resources available in New York City during the 1940’s and 1950’s, including museums, galleries, and performance spaces.

Following this enriching childhood, Bambara attended Queens College, majoring in theater and English and earning her bachelor of arts degree in 1959. Employment as a social worker followed, and she wrote fiction in her spare time, publishing her first piece at the age of twenty. Bambara left for Europe in 1961 to continue her arts training; in Paris, she practiced mime at the Ecole de Mime Etienne Decroux and studied commedia dell’arte at the University of Florence in Italy. Returning to New York, Bambara earned her M.A. from City College in 1964, where she first taught courses in English. By 1969, she was an assistant professor at Rutgers University. In addition to her classroom activities, Bambara continued to write and to serve her community through various arts outreach programs.

In 1970, Bambara began her work as an editor of ethnic anthologies. The Black Woman: An Anthology contained works by established writers such as Toni...

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Bambara writes powerfully about the varied experiences of African American women across three decades of change: the 1960’s, 1970’s, and 1980’s. In her stories and novels, characters’ expectations for a shared social consciousness are grounded by the realities of racial prejudice, sexual oppression, and class divide. However, her characters never abandon hope to embrace despair; instead, they take action. By imaginatively re-creating the patterns and sounds of ethnic speech, Bambara extends the range of voices heard in late twentieth century American literature.

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Toni Cade Bambara was born Miltona Mirkin Cade in New York City in 1939 and grew up in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Queens, New York, and in Jersey City, New Jersey. She attended Queens College in New York and received a B.A. degree in theater arts in 1959, the same year she published her first short story, “Sweet Town.” From 1960 to 1965, she worked on an M.A. degree in American literature at City College of New York, while also working as a caseworker at the Department of Welfare, and later as program director of the Colony Settlement House. Starting in 1965, she taught at City College for four years before moving on to Livingston College at Rutgers University in 1969. She also taught at Emory University, Spelman College...

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Miltona Mirkin Cade was born in New York City on March 25, 1939, to Helen Brent Henderson Cade. She grew up in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Queens, where she lived with her mother and her brother, Walter. She credited her mother with “cultivating her creative spirit and instilling in her a sense of independence and self-sufficiency.” In 1970, after finding the name Bambara written in a sketchbook in her grandmother’s trunk, she legally changed her surname to Bambara. She received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and English literature from Queens College in 1959, and that same year her first short story, “Sweet Town,” was published in Vendome magazine. After studying in Italy and Paris, she earned a master’s degree in American literature at City College of New York and completed additional studies in linguistics at New York University and the New School for Social Research. She was a social worker for the Harlem Welfare Center and director of recreation in the psychiatric division of Metro Hospital in New York City. She also taught in the Search for Education, Elevation, Knowledge (SEEK) program at City College.

In 1970, under the name Toni Cade, she published The Black Woman: An Anthology, a collection of essays, short fiction, poetry, and letters exploring the experiences of black women, with emphasis on their involvement with the Civil Rights movement and the women’s movement. In 1971 she edited Tales and...

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