Toni Cade Bambara 1939-1995
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. While she garnered critical acclaim for her essays and other work, Bambara is best known for her poignant, insightful short stories.
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 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. In her later years she turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops to train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change.
Bambara's first major work, Gorilla, My Love, collects stories written between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, these tales target 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 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, 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. "For Bambara the community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension," observed Martha Vertreace, adding "her characters and community do a circle dance around and within each other as learning and growth occur."
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. Many critics have noted the musical nature of Bambara's language, which she likened to "riffs" and "bebop." Others have studied Bambara's deceptively simple narrative skill, engaging style, and overall craftsmanship.
As Toni Morrison argued, "Although her insights are multiple, her textures layered and her narrative trajectory implacable, nothing distracts from the sheer satisfaction her story-telling provides."