Authors: Toni Cade Bambara

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist and short-story writer

Identity: African American

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Salt Eaters, 1980

Those Bones Are Not My Child, 1999

Short Fiction:

Gorilla, My Love, 1972

The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories, 1977

Raymond’s Run: Stories for Young Adults, 1989

Screenplays:

The Bombing of Osage Avenue, 1986 (documentary)

W. E. B. Du Bois–A Biography in Four Voices, 1995 (with Amiri Baraka, Wesley Brown, and Thulani Davis)

Edited Texts:

The Black Woman: An Anthology, 1970

Tales and Stories for Black Folks, 1971

Southern Exposure 3, 1976 (periodical; Bambara edited vol. 3)

Miscellaneous:

“What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow,” The Writer on Her Work, 1981 (Janet Sternburg, editor)

Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, 1996

Biography

Toni Cade Bambara (bam-BAHR-ah), born Miltona Mirkin Cade, was one of a group of African American writers who became involved in urban cultural and political activities in the 1960’s. While she lectured and organized rallies on civil rights issues, Bambara used these experiences as sources for essays and fiction. Bambara continued to work within the black urban environment by lecturing, filming, organizing, and teaching in colleges and community schools.{$I[AN]9810002018}{$I[A]Bambara, Toni Cade}{$S[A]Cade, Miltona Mirkin;Bambara, Toni Cade}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Bambara, Toni Cade}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Bambara, Toni Cade}{$I[geo]AFRICAN AMERICAN/AFRICAN DESCENT;Bambara, Toni Cade}{$I[tim]1939;Bambara, Toni Cade}

Toni Cade Bambara

(Joyce Middler)

Reared with her brother by a single mother in New York City, Bambara was encouraged to be self-sufficient and competent, yet she found women in every neighborhood who cared about black girls and offered liberal advice. One of Bambara’s major themes is that a strong ethic of caring for and helping one another sustains African Americans.

Bambara’s first published story, “Sweet Town,” appeared in Vendome magazine in 1959, the same year she received her B.A. in theater arts/English and the John Golden Award for Fiction from Queens College. During the 1960’s, Bambara did graduate work at City College of New York and social work for the Harlem Welfare Center, published her second story, “Mississippi Ham Rider,” in the Massachusetts Review, and studied at the Commedia del’Arte in Milan, Italy. She also completed her master’s degree, directed programs at Colony House in Brooklyn, and was a therapist for Metropolitan Hospital’s psychiatric division. She directed many local programs, including the Equivalency Program, the Veteran Reentry Program, the 8th Street Play Program, and the tutorial program at the Houston Street Public Library. From 1965 to 1969, she taught at City College of New York while she published widely in journals and magazines.

Bambara, still using the name Cade, published and edited an anthology entitled The Black Woman in 1970, a collection of poetry, short stories, and essays by well-known black writers and women students. Including some of her own work, it was the first of its kind in the United States. Shortly after its publication, she legally adopted the last name Bambara. A second anthology she edited, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, had great appeal in the black community. Many of the stories Bambara wrote as Toni Cade between 1959 and 1970 appeared in her most widely read collection, Gorilla, My Love. The stories focus on relationships between African Americans, and eight of the stories center on young children and adolescents as they respond to their environment. The title story is the most appealing. It is narrated by Hazel, a young girl frustrated and angry with “grown-ups” who never keep their promises to children, thereby creating confusion and disappointment. In another story, “The Johnson Girls,” Bambara illustrates the way a supportive group of family and friends helps a young woman survive personal crises.

Although Gorilla, My Love received enthusiastic reviews, there was a five-year span before the publication of her second collection of stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. During these years, Bambara visited Cuba and Vietnam, where she met with numerous women and was impressed with the way they resolved color and class conflicts. She also relocated to Atlanta, Georgia, with her young daughter in 1974 and was writer-in-residence at Spelman College until 1977.

These experiences influenced The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, which contains a title story set in Southeast Asia. The focus of the characters is less on personal relationships and more on their involvement with community organizations. At least five of the stories focus on the need for people to organize and retain faith in their goals. Another five stories focus on relationships between black men and women. The stories are told with less humor than those in her first collection, and the communities are riven by strained or exploited relationships. Reviews were mixed, with some critics taking aim at the use of characters as vehicles for Bambara’s ideology.

In 1978, Bambara started writing her first novel, The Salt Eaters, which grew out of her concern that the black community was becoming splintered. Set in Claybourne, Georgia, the main character is Velma Henry, an effective organizer who is suffering a severe mental crisis and has attempted suicide. The breakdown is symbolic of the chaos of the entire community, for she and her husband, Obie, have been working to bring conservative and radical factions of Claybourne together. The major issues of the novel are whether Velma Henry and her community want to be healed and whether they can maintain themselves in a healthy state. The novel is rich and complex, with numerous characters contributing to the chorus of voices. Bambara suggests that spiritual renewal is possible among ethnic groups after the 1960’s.

Reviews of The Salt Eaters were mixed, with some reviewers troubled by its fractured time structure, fragmented dialogue, and repetitions. Bambara said that the novel is based on the rhythms of jazz. Although it was initially hard to sell this difficult first novel, both The Salt Eaters and Gorilla, My Love came out in paperback editions in 1980, and The Salt Eaters won the American Book Award.

Bambara worked mostly in the film medium from the mid-1980’s to her death in late 1995, teaching scriptwriting and producing numerous scripts for television. Among her work was a documentary about the 1985 bombing of the MOVE headquarters, a collaboration with Louis Massiah entitled The Bombing of Osage Avenue. Some of her stories have also been adapted for film, including “Gorilla, My Love,” “Medley,” and “Witchbird.” Another collection of her short stories, titled Raymond’s Run: Stories for Young Adults, appeared in 1989. She died in a hospice in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, after a two-year struggle with cancer.

BibliographyAlwes, Derek. “The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 30, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 353-365. Compares the works of Morrison and Bambara, arguing that whereas Morrison wants readers to participate in a choice, Bambara wants them to choose to participate. Asserts that Bambara’s message is that happiness is possible if people refuse to forget the past and continue to participate in the struggle.Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989. In the first book-length study to treat Bambara’s fiction to any extent, Butler-Evans uses narratology and feminism to explore Bambara’s works as well as those of two other important female African American writers.Collins, Janelle. “Generating Power: Fission, Fusion, and Post-modern Politics in Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” MELUS 21, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 35-47. Examines nuclear power as a key metaphor in the novel, noting how Bambara raises ecological and ethical concerns about nuclear energy. Argues that Bambara’s nationalist and feminist positions inform the novel’s text as the author advocates political and social change.Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers (1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. In the essay “Salvation Is the Issue,” Bambara says that the elements of her own work that she deems most important are laughter, use of language, sense of community, and celebration.Hargrove, Nancy. “Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love.” In Women Writers of the Contemporary South, edited by Peggy Whitman Prenshaw. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1984. A thorough examination of an important feature of Bambara’s most successful collection of short fiction–namely, that most of the best stories center on young girls.Holmes, Linda J., and Cheryl A. Wall, eds. Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007. Collection of insightful essays commemorates Bambara’s life, her writings, and the importance of her contributions to African American literature. Contributors include Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, Ruby Dee, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde.Shinn, Thelma J. “Orbiting Home: Toni Cade Bambara.” In Women Shapeshifters: Transforming the Contemporary Novel. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996. Chapter on Bambara’s novels is included in a larger examination of how twentieth century women authors transformed the novel’s structure by combining the traditions of Romantic and realistic fiction.Taylor, Carole Anne. “Postmodern Disconnection and the Archive of Bones: Toni Cade Bambara’s Last Work.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 35 (Spring/Summer, 2002): 258-280. Discusses Bambara’s self-referential storytelling in Deep Sightings and Rescue Misions, where the stories refer to their own creation, and in her last novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child, which refers to Bambara’s own life as a mother, writer, activist, and filmmaker.Vertreace, Martha M. Toni Cade Bambara. New York: Macmillan Library Reference, 1998. The first full-length resource devoted to the entirety of Bambara’s career. Provides information useful for students of the author’s works.Willis, Susan. “Problematizing the Individual: Toni Cade Bambara’s Stories for the Revolution.” In Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. Clear and informative essay analyzes Bambara’s work, focusing largely on The Salt Eaters while also commenting on her most important short fiction.
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