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."
Gorilla, My Love 1972
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive 1977
Other Major Works
The Salt Eaters (novel) 1980
If Blessing Comes (novel) 1987
Raymond's Run (juvenile) 1990
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations [edited by Toni Morrison] (short stories, essays, and interviews) 1996
SOURCE: "Stories of Solidarity & Selfhood," in The Village Voice, Vol. XVIII, No. 15, April 12, 1973, pp. 39-40.
[In the following review, Chevigny offers a positive assessment of the stories comprising Gorilla, My Love.]
Readers following at least two movements will welcome more writing by Toni Cade, who edited The Black Woman two years ago. There she deplored stereotyped sex roles ("merchandising nonsense") and called "for Selfhood, Blackhood," and the study of alternatives buried in Third World history. And she urged especially that the revolution begin at home:
It'll take time. But we have time. We'd better take the time to fashion revolutionary selves, revolutionary lives, revolutionary relationships. Mouth don't win the war. Not all speed is movement. Running off to mimeograph a fuck-whitey leaflet, leaving your mate to brood, is not revolutionary. Hopping a plane to rap to someone else's "community" while your son struggles alone with the Junior Scholastic assignment on "The Dark Continent" is not revolutionary. Sitting around murder-mouthing incorrect niggers while your father goes upside your mother's head is not revolutionary. . . . Ain't no such animal as an instant guerrilla.
In Gorilla, My Love, she takes time for a wide range of black relationships at home and in the neighborhood and for the discovery of complexity in black unity. It is interesting that none of these 15 stories, written in the last 13 years, center on relations between black men and women (though in two, women deal with separation from their lovers). The characters of whom she writes most often and with the greatest tenderness and subtle invention are adolescents and old people, mostly female. It is as if before treating the fraught relations between men and women she must draw in her writing on the knowledge of those for whom sexual conflict is past and those for whom sexual differentiation has not yet become rigid.
I find much of the writing here wonderful and well worth anyone's attention. The stories are often sketchy as to plot, but always lavish in their strokes—there are elaborate illustrations, soaring asides, aggressive sub-plots. They are never didactic, but they abound in far-out common sense, exotic home truths. The black life she draws on—mostly in New York City but sometimes in the rural South—whether bizarre, poignant, or hilarious, is so vividly particularized you don't feel the wisdom or bite till later.
The collection begins, as if in a caveat for ideologues, with the story of Mama Hazel in her 60s being scolded by her nouveau radical children for dancing too close and humming with the old blind man Bovanne at a "grass roots" dance. "I was just talking on the drums,' I explained when they hauled me into the kitchen. I figured drums was my best defense. They can get ready for drums what with all this heritage business. And Bovanne stomach just like that drum Task give me when he come back from Africa. You just touch it and it hum thizzm, thizzm." Affronted, she takes off with Bovanne and plans a showdown by which her family will learn that "old folks is the nation."
Like the old folks, the adolescents are scrupulous about truth to feeling and are...
(The entire section is 1374 words.)
SOURCE: An interview with Toni Cade Bambara, in Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate, Continuum, 1983, pp. 12-38.
[In the following interview, Bambara discusses her writing philosophy and the ways in which being an African-American woman influences her work.]
Revolution begins with the self, in the self. The individual, the basic revolutionary unit, must be purged of poison and lies that assault the ego and threaten the heart, that hazard the next larger unit—the couple or pair, that jeopardize the still larger unit—the family or cell, that put the entire movement in peril.
—"On the Issue of Roles," from...
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SOURCE: "Desire, Ambivalence, and Nationalist-Feminist Discourse in Bambara's Short Stories," in Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade B ambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 91-122.
[In the following essay, Butler-Evans explores B ambara's attempt to synthesize African-American nationalist and feminist ideologies in her short stories.]
The several ways in which Toni Cade Bambara's short stories were produced assured them a wide audience. Collected and presented as single texts, they were widely anthologized in feminist anthologies, particularly those produced by "women of color";1...
(The entire section is 10979 words.)
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.
[In the following essay, Vertreace examines the themes of community and identity in Bambara's stories.]
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...
(The entire section is 4516 words.)
SOURCE: "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run'," in English Language Notes, Vol. XXVIII, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67-72.
[In the following essay, Gidley discusses the narrative technique of "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.1 Squeaky is assertive, challenging, even combative, and concerned to...
(The entire section is 2546 words.)
SOURCE: A preface to Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, edited by Toni Morrison, Pantheon, 1996, pp. vii-xi.
[In the following preface to Bambara's posthumous collection of essays and short fiction, Morrison praises her talent as a writer and offers personal reminiscences of the author.]
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions is unlike other books by Toni Cade Bambara. She did not gather or organize the contents. She did not approve or choose the photograph on the jacket. She did not post a flurry of letters, notes and bulletins on the design, on this or that copy change, or to describe an innovative idea about the...
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Aiken, Susan Hardy. "Telling the Other('s) Story, or, the Blues in Two Languages." In Dialogues/Dialogi: Literary and Cultural Exchanges Between (Ex)Soviet and American Women, pp. 206-23. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1994.
Explores the complex sense of female identity portrayed in Bambara's "Witchbird" and Liudmila Petrushevskaia's 'That Kind of Girl."
Comfort, Mary S. "Bambara's 'Sweet Town'." The Explicator 54, No. 1 (Fall 1995): 51-4.
Explicates Bambara's short story.
Guy-Sheftall, Beverly. "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks." In Sturdy Black...
(The entire section is 238 words.)