Toni Cade Bambara Bambara, Toni Cade (Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism) - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Toni Cade Bambara 1939-1995

(Born Toni Cade) 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. Initially recognized for her short fiction, Bambara eventually garnered critical acclaim for her work in other literary genres and other media. She was a well-respected civil rights activist, professor of English and of African-American studies, and editor of anthologies of African-American literature.

Biographical Information

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 has 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. Later she turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops to train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change. She died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995.

Major Works

Bambara first attracted critical attention as the editor of The Black Woman, an anthology containing poetry, short stories, and essays by such distinguished African-American authors as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. Generally regarded as her first major work, Gorilla, My Love (1972) collects short stories Bambara wrote between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, Gorilla, My Love remains Bambara's most widely read volume and contains the popular stories “Raymond's Run” and “Gorilla, My Love.” Examining 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 purpose and accomplishment. In 1980 Bambara published her first novel, The Salt Eaters. Set in Claybourne, Georgia, the book tells the story of two women: Velma Henry, a community organizer who is experiencing severe emotional problems and has attempted suicide, and Minnie Ransom, a faith healer with an extraordinary reputation. Through the relationship of these two characters, The Salt Eaters explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society. Published posthumously, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (1996) includes short stories as well as essays focusing on Bambara's interest in African-American films and filmmakers.

Critical Reception

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. In particular, Gorilla, My Love is acclaimed for its realistic descriptions of the lives of young people and for its use of dialect. Bambara has been specifically praised for her incorporation of experimental techniques and her examination of community and change. In assessing her oeuvre, commentators additionally note the link between her portraits of African Americans and her dedication to political and social activism.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

The Black Woman: An Anthology [editor and contributor, as Toni Cade] (poetry, short stories, and essays) 1970

Tales and Stories for Black Folks [editor and contributor, as Toni Cade] (short stories) 1971

Zora (screenplay) 1971

Gorilla, My Love (short stories) 1972

The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories (short stories) 1977

The Salt Eaters (novel) 1980

The Long Night (screenplay) 1981

Tar Baby [adaptor; from the novel by Toni Morrison] (screenplay) 1984

Raymond's Run (children's fiction) 1989

Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (short stories, interview, and essays) 1996

Those Bones Are Not My Child (unfinished novel) 1999

Lois F. Lyles (essay date December 1992)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Time, Motion, Sound and Fury in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, December, 1992, pp. 134-44.

[In the following essay, Lyles explores the “revolutionary thrust” of the stories compiled in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive.]

One of the most arresting features of the short stories in Toni Cade Bambara's The Sea Birds Are Still Alive is their revolutionary thrust. The influence of the avenging Fury, revolution, upon the minds, hearts, and actions of the characters in the stories is manifested through the depiction of the characters' sense of time and through the prominence of descriptions of sound and motion.

One characteristic of the revolutionary is that he or she experiences the future as present. The expression, “revolution in my lifetime,” which was the rallying cry of some radical black organizations of the sixties, is the embodiment of the spirit which governs many of the characters in Sea Birds. “Revolution” is future; “my lifetime,” present. The expression conveys the hope and the expectation that the two time frames will congeal.

The revolutionary is always striving for a future in which current modes of action and thought are transformed or even obliterated as a result of the overthrow of “the system”—the government and its social, economic, and military apparatuses. The revolutionary welcomes—indeed, demands—the birth of a new man and a new woman to accompany the beginning of a new political and social order. Bambara's stories reveal characters who seek to be transformed during the revolutionary period so that they may be ready for the new order. The analogy that comes most readily to mind is that of the “born again” Christian, the believer who lives an exemplary life in order to be ready for the New Jerusalem. Although a revolutionary seeks a regeneration of secular, not of spiritual, existence, the revolutionaries in Bambara's stories display a fervor about their causes commensurate with the fervor of the devout.

Since a revolutionary lives by a sense of the presentness of the future, that person tries to create, either in his or her own mind, or in actuality, the environment which will take shape after the revolution. The militants in Sea Birds live in a state of readiness for social and political upheaval. They live in expectation of a time when poverty of pocket and spirit will disappear, so they attempt to create genuine sisterhood and brotherhood among their people. These are characters with eyes fixed on apocalypse.

One such character is Naomi in “The Apprentice.” Although an indefatigable community organizer, she is not young, as might be expected; she is “salt and pepperish in the bush.”1 Her collective feeds needy people and has a police watch to help forestall police brutality. She loves the masses and wants to spur them on to revolution; she dreams of how ideal people would be, once freed of their oppressors.

Naomi's statement, “It's just a matter of time, time and work … cause the revolution is here” (34) implies that effort must be exerted so that the revolution can happen; yet, paradoxically, the revolution is happening. The confusion of present with future in Naomi's thinking suggests that working to create a revolution means immediate apprehension of revolution.

The work revolutionaries do, which gives them a sense of existing concurrently in an oppressive present and in a liberating future, is shown in other stories, such as “The Organizer's Wife.” The woman of the story's title is Virginia, wife of Graham, a teacher in a school attached to a black-owned farm cooperative. Graham teaches the local people about Malcolm X and Fannie Lou Hamer, about Guinea-Bissau and Vietnam. He teaches them that “discipline, consciousness and unity” (13) will overcome the rapacity of the white people who want to seize the blacks' land and keep them downtrodden.

Graham has a tobacco tin from which he customarily offers the neighboring farmers tobacco. The can is red and pictures a “boy in shiny green astride an iron horse. It was Graham's habit, when offering a smoke, to spin some tale or other about the boy on the indestructible horse, a tale the smoker would finish. The point was always the same—the courage of the youth, the hope of the future” (5). The can signifies both Graham's solidarity with the people (Graham starts spinning the tale of freedom; the listener finishes it) and the need for struggling to bring a future of freedom to fruition. The can has the black nationalist colors: red (for blood), black (for the people), and green (for land). Thus it symbolizes the “new Africa,” the co-op which people are building through the struggle to own and control their own land and thereby control their own lives.

The snake in this garden of black hopes is a white one, of course. As the story opens, Virginia looks at her garden, which has been neglected since her husband's arrest for inciting to riot. She notices that her corn is “bent … grit-laden with neglect. … [S]he saw a white worm work its way into the once-silky tufts turned straw, then disappear” (5). The white worm (figuratively, the serpent, the Devil) is the white man who has renounced his humanity in order to turn a profit from land which a black man would use for subsistence.

At first Virginia despairs of fighting the white power that has stolen the black people's land and jailed her husband because of his work as an organizer. She contemplates leaving the co-op with her family once she raises the money for Graham's bail. But finally Virginia decides to stay and fight alongside her people to win back the land that will feed them. She knows that Graham is convinced that their people “would battle for themselves, the children, the future, would keep on no matter how powerful the thief, no matter how little the rain, how exhausted the soil, cause this was home. … Home in the future. The future here now developing. Home liberated soon” (16-17).

The phrase “home in the future” demonstrates the presentness of the future for the revolutionary. Home is where one lives now; the future is where one is yet to be. The idea “home in the future” juxtaposes both situations.

“Broken Field Running” is a story about two teachers from a black “freedom school” and their charges. These teachers, like the protagonist of “The Apprentice,” strive to bring the future to life now. “Broken Field Running” is set in the black ghetto of Cleveland, in winter, and the cold and snow create a harsh environment symbolic of the bitterness and omnipresence of white domination. The teachers and students of the story anticipate a postrevolutionary society devoid of bitterness because there will be no rich people and no poor people, only free people.

The teachers have names (Dada Lacey and Ndugu Jason) which are part African, part Western. These names suggest the transitional status of the adults, who were brought up in a Western tradition but who have embraced, at maturity, African ways. Some of the children at the school have Western names; a couple (Malaika and Kwane), non-Western. The non-Western names represent the hope that a new generation can be reared in non-Western ways. At the end of the story it is given to Malaika to present, in her innocent, endearing way, her vision of what a world of free people would be like:

“… everybody'll have warm clothes and we'll all trust each other and can stop at anybody's house for hot chocolate cause won't nobody be scared or selfish. Won't even be locks on the doors. And every sister will be my mother.”


Malaika's vision of life after the revolution seems hopelessly ingenuous, yet pleads the case for revolution much better than could any strident harangue by an adult militant. It is a crime, as Malaika tells us her “nana” has said, that old people should have to eat dog food because that is all they can afford (68). It is a crime that poor people like those of “Broken Field Running” are forced to live in prison-like buildings, send their children to prison-like schools,...

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Ann Folwell Stanford (essay date Summer 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “He Speaks for Whom?: Inscription and Reinscription of Women in Invisible Man and The Salt Eaters,” in MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1993, pp. 17-32.

[In the following essay, Stanford analyzes the relationship between Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Bambara's The Salt Eaters.]


What happens to “the second sex” in a novel as powerful as Ellison's Invisible Man where the trope of invisibility functions as a critique of racist American society? When the text itself perpetuates the invisibility it seeks to undo, it seems inevitable that it will invite response and revision. In Toni Cade Bambara's...

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Mary S. Comfort (essay date Fall 1995)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: “Bambara's ‘Sweet Town,’” in Explicator, Vol. 54, No. 1, Fall, 1995, pp. 51-4.

[In the following essay, Comfort considers the mythical allusion in Bambara's “Sweet Town.”]

Toni Cade Bambara's “Sweet Town,” published in Vendome magazine in 1959, appears in her first collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love, published in 1972 and again in 1992. Introducing this account of her first love, Kit remembers a note written by her mother to give her advice: “Take care and paint the fire escape in your leisure” (121). Delighted, Kit says, “And with that in mind and with Penelope splintering through the landscape and the pores...

(The entire section is 1280 words.)

Sandra Cookson (review date Autumn 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 4, Autumn, 1997, pp. 800-01.

[In the following review, Cookson provides a laudatory assessment of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions.]

In the next-to-longest piece in the posthumous collection Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, a piece entitled “How She Came by Her Name,” Toni Cade Bambara gives a description of herself that perfectly captures the writer behind the selections in the volume. She says, in this memoir in the form of an interview: “I never thought of myself as a writer. I always thought of myself as a community person who writes and does a...

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Alice A. Deck (review date Spring 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, in African American Review, Vol. 33, Spring, 1999, pp. 170-72.

[In the following review, Deck contends that Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions “confirms what we already know about Bambara’s artistry and informs us on personal and political matters that allow us to better understand what she saw as her mission.”]

The posthumous publication of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions fills the void I felt open up in my intellectual endeavors when I learned of Toni Cade Bambara's death in 1995. Bambara was part of a major late-twentieth-century renaissance of African American women fiction...

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