Toni Cade Bambara

Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995) was an African American short story writer, novelist, scriptwriter, editor and political activist, who was born with the name Miltona Mirkin Cade. She changed Miltona to Toni when she was five and later on, she adopted the last name Bambara after a signature she discovered in a sketchbook while searching through her grandmother's trunk.

Bambara spent her early years in New York City - in Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Queens - before moving to Jersey City, New Jersey. She graduated from Queens College with a BA in Theater Arts/English in 1959. That same year Bambara published her first short story Sweet Town, which won the John Golden Award for Fiction. In 1961, she went to Europe, where she studied acting, dance and mime in Italy and France. When she returned to New York, she completed an MA in American studies from City College of the City University of New York. Bambara taught English and African-American studies at City College of New York, in addition to periods as a lecturer at the Rutgers University in New Jersey, Spelman College and Emory University in Atlanta and Atlanta University. From 1986, Bambara was a teacher of film-script writing at Louis Massiah's Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia.

Bambara was a well-respected civil rights activist and during her life she also worked as a social investigator for New York City's Department of Welfare, a recreation director at the psychiatric ward in New York Metropolitan hospital and a program director at Colony House Community Center. 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.

In her writing, Bambara focused on representing contemporary political, racial and feminist issues and was lauded for her insightful depictions of African American life. She wrote two collections of short stories, three novels and edited anthologies of African American literature. Bambara's writing style was notably different from the styles of her contemporaries. She did not stick to linear story plot but used flashbacks, streams of consciousness and subplots entwined within the main plot. Bambara also had a unique flair for dialect and conversational tone.

Her first major work, Gorilla, My Love, published in 1972, was a collection of short stories Bambara wrote between 1959 and 1970. Focusing largely on the developmental experiences of young people, the book marked Bambara's debut as a spokesperson for black cultural nationalism. The stories in this volume were generally perceived as innocent children's narratives that presented realistic depictions of an organic community and dealt exclusively with the "inner world" of African Americans. The stories challenged gender-determined roles for girls and women and addressed feminine-feminist discourse.

Bambara's stories are nothing like the fiction produced by African American men committed to the discourse and ideology of cultural nationalism where a male figure usually embodies self-sufficiency and heroism. In Bambara's stories, the male figure is demythologized and ultimately displaced by an alternative mythical construct: a questioning and assertive African American female, who signifies an emergent feminine-feminist consciousness.

In 1980, Bambara published her first novel The Salt Eaters. Set in the fictional town of Claybourne, Georgia, the book tells the story of two women - Velma Henry, a community activist who has attempted suicide, and the faith healer Minnie Ransom. Through the relationship of these two characters the book explores the possibilities for spiritual renewal and social change in contemporary society.

Bambara contributed greatly to African American literature as an editor in addition to her writing. She was responsible for editing and developing the ideas behind one of the defining texts of black feminism, The Black Woman: an Anthology. Published in 1970, this anthology showcased groundbreaking writers such as Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde. In 1971, Bambara edited another anthology entitled Tales and Stories for Black Folks.

In 1986, Bambara won an Oscar for her documentary The Bombing of Osage Avenue about the attack on the headquarters of MOVE, a new African American organization in Philadelphia. Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993 and died two years later, at the age of 56. Her last novel Those Bones Are Not My Child or If Blessings Come, the original title of the manuscript, was published posthumously in 1999.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker
Elliott Butler-Evans.
Temple University Press, 1989
Envisioning the New Adam: Empathic Portraits of Men by American Women Writers
Patricia Ellen Martin Daly.
Praeger, 1997
Librarian’s tip: "A Tender Man" by Toni Cade Bambara begins on p. 90
Women Shapeshifters: Transforming the Contemporary Novel
Thelma J. Shinn.
Greenwood Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Orbiting Home: Toni Cade Bambara"
Reclaiming Community in Contemporary African-American Fiction
Philip Page.
University Press of Mississippi, 1999
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "'Across the Borders': Imagining the Future in Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters"
Caribbean Women Writers: Essays from the First International Conference
Selwyn Reginald Cudjoe.
University of Massachusetts Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: "Go Eena Kumbla: A Comparison of Erna Brodber's Jane and Louisa Will Soon Come Home and Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters" begins on p. 169
"Damballah Is the First Law of Thermodynamics": Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara's 'The Salt Eaters.' (Women's Culture Issue)
Kelley, Margot Anne.
African American Review, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 1993
He Speaks for Whom?: Inscription and Reinscription of Women in 'Invisible Man' and 'The Salt Eaters.' (Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)
Stanford, Ann Folwell.
MELUS, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer 1993
Bambara's Feisty Girls: Resistance Narratives in Gorilla, My Love
Muther, Elizabeth.
African American Review, Vol. 36, No. 3, Fall 2002
A Reader's Companion to the Short Story in English
Erin Fallon; R. C. Feddersen; James Kurtzleben; Maurice A. Lee; Susan Rochette-Crawley.
Greenwood Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: "Toni Cade Bambara (March 25, 1939 - December 9, 1995)" begins on p. 38
Black American Women Fiction Writers
Harold Bloom.
Chelsea House, 1995
Librarian’s tip: "Toni Cade Bambara: B. 1939" begins on p. 16
Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-Bibliographical Critical Sourcebook
Emmanuel S. Nelson.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)" begins on p. 22
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