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.
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.
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.
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.