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."
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.
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.
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."