Toni Cade Bambara

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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.


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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 Morrison and Alice Walker alongside emerging voices. A second edited collection, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, followed in 1971. By now a number of Bambara’s stories had appeared in print, and interest was expressed by Random House to publish a collection of her short fiction. Gorilla, My Love appeared in 1972 to critical acclaim. A second volume of her collected stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive was published in 1977. Both collections presented stories about the African American experience as told from the perspective of women.

Bambara’s academic career became more fluid in the 1970’s as she accepted visiting professorships, first at Stephens College in Columbia and later at Spelman College in Atlanta, where she relocated with her daughter, Karma. She traveled abroad during this decade, expanding the venue for her social activism. She visited both communist Vietnam and Cuba in order to meet with women’s collectives and discuss their goals for empowerment. The end of the decade saw her completing her first novel, The Salt Eaters (1980). The new genre allowed more room for experimentation with form, a decision that garnered mixed critical responses.

During the 1980’s, Bambara moved to Philadelphia to work as a television production consultant. She turned to film as a new outlet for her political views. In 1989, she produced The Bombing of Osage Avenue, documenting the Cobb’s Creek bombing of the MOVE headquarters. The bomb ignited an entire neighborhood, killing five children and six adults and depriving more than sixty families of their homes. Bambara thought it was important for black filmmakers to claim their stories. The support she had shown emerging African American writers by including them in her edited anthologies in the 1970’s she aimed to extend to emerging filmmakers in the 1980’s.

In the early 1990’s, Bambara experienced unaccustomed fatigue and was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. Though she would not recover from her illness, she continued to be productive, working on new film projects, including W. E. B. Du Bois—A Biography in Four Voices (1995, with Amiri Baraka, Wesley Brown, and Thulani Davis). The documentary was released shortly before her death in Philadelphia on December 9, 1995. Two posthumous works, a collection of her essays and stories titled Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (1996) and the novel Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999) are testimony to her continuing legacy.

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