Toni Cade Bambara Bambara, Toni Cade (Vol. 88) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Toni Cade Bambara 1939–

(Born Toni Cade) American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, editor, and author of children's books.

The following entry provides an overview of Bambara's career through 1992. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 19.

Lauded for her insightful depictions of African-American life, Bambara has focused on representing contemporary political, racial, and feminist issues in her writing. Initially recognized for her short fiction, Bambara has since garnered critical acclaim for her work in other literary genres and other media. Beverly Guy-Sheftall has stated that Bambara's "particular vision—as a teacher, writer, mother, world traveler, social critic, community worker, and humanist—can provide alternative ways, perhaps, of viewing certain aspects of [African-American] culture."

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 has also attended several European and American universities, dance schools, and the Studio Museum of the Harlem Film Institute. She travelled 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 recent years she has turned her attention to scriptwriting, often conducting workshops that train community-based organizations to use video technology to enact social change. Bambara has additionally been employed as a social worker and worked for a variety of community programs.

Major Works

Bambara first attracted critical attention as the editor of The Black Woman (1970), an anthology containing poetry, short stories, and essays by such distinguished African-American authors as Alice Walker, Audre Lorde, and Nikki Giovanni. Still writing as Toni Cade, Bambara also contributed short stories to this volume as well as to her second edited work, Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971). As she explained in the introduction to Tales and Stories, the aim of this collection is to instruct young African Americans about the storytelling tradition; to this end, in addition to fiction by Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines, she included works by students in her first-year composition class at Livingston College, Rutgers University. 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. 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 (1977), 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. 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. Although the novel takes place within a period of two hours, the narrative is told from an anti-chronological perspective, thus facilitating the inclusion of a wide variety of characters from diverse ethnic and political backgrounds, several differrent narrative voices, and numerous allusions to mythology and folklore. Through the relationship of the two main characters, The Salt Eaters explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society.

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. The Salt Eaters, however, has received mixed reviews. While some critics consider it a problematic first novel—finding fault with its dialogue, its general structure, and its use of an alternating narrative voice—others commend the scope of Bambara's vision. Bambara has been specifically praised for her incorporation of experimental techniques and her examination of community and change. As Carol Rumens states, The Salt Eaters "is a hymn to individual courage, a sombre message of hope that has confronted the late twentieth-century pathology of racist violence and is still able to articulate its faith in 'the dream.'" In assessing Bambara's oeuvre, commentators additionally note the link between her portraits of African Americans and her dedication to political and social activism. Alice A. Deck argues: "The hallmark of Toni Cade Bambara's fiction is her keen ear and ability to transcribe the Afro-American dialect accurately. She writes as one who has had a long personal relationship with the black working class and has said that she is very much interested in continuing to write all of her fiction in this idiom. Writing and teaching others to write effectively has become a tool, a means of working within the community. Hence, her art and her profession have merged."

Principal Works

(Contemporary 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

Toni Cade Bambara with Beverly Guy-Sheftall (interview date 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Commitment: Toni Cade Bambara Speaks," in Sturdy Black Bridges, Roseann P. Bell, Bettye J. Parker, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds., Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1979, pp. 230-49.

[An American educator, editor, nonfiction writer, and critic, Guy-Sheftall has served as director of the Women's Research and Resource Center at Spelman College. In the following interview, Bambara discusses her childhood, her work, and contemporary African-American women writers.]

[Guy-Sheftall]: Would you describe your early life and what caused you to start writing?

[Bambara]: I can't remember a time when I was not writing. The original motive was to try to do things...

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W. Maurice Shipley (review date September 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Salt Eaters, in CLA Journal, Vol. XXVI, No. 1, September, 1982, pp. 125-27.

[In the following positive review of The Salt Eaters, Shipley deems the novel "an unqualified success," concluding that Bambara's literary voice "has refused to be tranquilized into slumber but will share with all women the quality of pain and despair."]

John O. Killers once commented to Maya Angelou that the most difficult kind of writing was the short story. If this is true, then Toni Cade Bambara has, for some time now, had few peers in the area. Already acknowledged as one of the finest short story writers in the country, Toni Cade Bambara has taken her...

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Angela Jackson (review date Fall 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Salt Eaters, in The Black Scholar, Vol. 13, No. 6, Fall, 1982, p. 52.

[Jackson is an American poet, short story writer, and dramatist. Below, she offers a highly favorable assessment of The Salt Eaters.]

Some extraordinary books define their time. By so doing they become historical events. Some momentous books transform the sense of the time, the order. By so doing they become political movement. Some most rare books are a healing session: they cleanse, rename, baptize, and confirm us as adults, responsible intelligences. They are spiritual acts of a high order and dangerously wonderful.

Some stories, in their...

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Nancy D. Hargrove (essay date 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love," in Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw, University Press of Mississippi, 1984, pp. 215-32.

[Hargrove is an American educator and the author of works on T. S. Eliot and Sylvia Plath. In the following essay, first published in 1983 in Southern Quarterly, she examines Bambara's focus on adolescence and youth in Gorilla, My Love.]

In reading Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972), one is immediately struck by her portrayal of black life and by her faithful reproduction of black dialect. Her first-person narrators speak...

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Angela McRobbie (review date 27 April 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Soundings," in New Statesman, Vol. 107, No. 2771, April 27, 1984, p. 22.

[In the following excerpt, McRobbie praises Gorilla, My Love for its political focus, poetic aspects, and its accurate representations of African-American culture.]

[Gorilla, My Love,] Toni Cade Bambara's collection of short stories written over the last 15 years is so great it lifts you off the ground. It lets you hear the best sounds of the (black American) city and treats you to a series of narratives which move past you like flickering images from a silent movie. When they do slow down they resemble those photographs whose naturalness makes them seem like chance...

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Ruth Elizabeth Burks (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 48-57.

[In the following essay, Burks analyzes the emphasis on communication and dialogue in Bambara's fiction, noting in particular the relationship Bambara sees between language and the Black freedom movement of the twentieth century.]

A title with a religious allusion ["From Baptism to Resurrection: Toni Cade Bambara and the Incongruity of Language"] may seem inappropriate for an essay on the works of Toni Cade Bambara since religion, i.e., Christianity, as it...

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Eleanor W. Traylor (essay date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Music as Theme: The Jazz Mode in the Works of Toni Cade Bambara," in Black Women Writers (1950–1980): A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984, pp. 58-70.

[Traylor is an American critic and educator. In the following essay, she examines Bambara's prose style, particularly its jazz-like characteristics.]

Ultimately the genuinely modern writer "assumes a culture and supports the weight of a civilization." That assumption connects the present moment both to an immediate and to a remote past. From such a writer, we learn that whoever is able to live completely in the present, sustained by the lesson of the past, commands the...

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Akasha (Gloria) Hull (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'What It Is I Think She's Doing Anyhow': A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters," in Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers, Indiana University Press, 1985, pp. 216-32.

[Hull is an American educator and critic who has written extensively on Black American literature and Black women writers. She coedited All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (1982) and wrote Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance (1987). In the essay below, she offers a detailed thematic and stylistic analysis of The Salt...

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Susan Willis (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara's Stories for the Revolution," in Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience, The University of Wisconsin Press, 1987, pp. 129-58.

[In the following essay, Willis discusses the political nature of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, The Salt Eaters, and Gorilla, My Love, noting Bambara's emphasis on the importance of community, individuality, and political and social activism.]

Toni Cade Bambara's novel The Salt Eaters represents the attempt to link the spirit of black activism generated during the sixties to the very different political and social situation defined by the eighties....

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Martha M. Vertreace (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

[Vertreace is an American poet, educator, editor, and author of children's books. In the following essay, she examines the theme of community in Bambara's short fiction.]

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...

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Mick Gidley (essay date September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run,'" in English Language Notes, Vol. 28, No. 1, September, 1990, pp. 67-72.

[Gidley is an English educator and critic who frequently writes about Native Americans. In the essay below, he discusses narrative perspective in "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. Squeaky is...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Bryan, C. D. B. Review of Gorilla, My Love, by Toni Cade Bambara. The New York Times Book Review (15 October 1972): 31-3.

Comparative review of Bambara's Gorilla, My Love, Martha Foley's The Best American Short Stories 1972, and Norma Klein's Love and Other Euphemisms. Bryan praises Bambara's manner of discussing race and gender in Gorilla, My Love, concluding that Bambara is "an articulate, intelligent and sensitive writer who happens to be very funny, hip, warm and unmistakably her own black woman."

Kelley, Margot Anne. "'Damballah is the First Law of Thermodynamics':...

(The entire section is 348 words.)