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A writer and social activist, T. C. (short for Toni Cade) Bambara is ”one of the best representatives of the group of African American writers who, during the 1960s, became directly involved in the cultural and sociopolitical activities in urban communities across the country,” according to Alice A. Deck. Bambara, who initially gained recognition as a short story writer, branched out into other genres and media over the course of her career. All of her work is marked by a focus on issues of racial awareness and feminism.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Born Miltona Mirkin Cade in New York City, she later acquired the name ”Bambara” after discovering it as part of a signature on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother’s trunk. Bambara was generally silent about her childhood, but she did reveal a few details from her youth. In an interview with Beverly Guy-Sheftall in Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature, Bambara discussed some women who influenced her work:
For example, in every neighborhood I lived in there were always two types of women that somehow pulled me and sort of got their wagons in a circle around me. I call them Miss Naomi and Miss Gladys, although I’m sure they came under various names. The Miss Naomi types . . . would give me advice like, ”When you meet a man, have a birth day, demand a present that’s hockable, and be careful.” … The Miss Gladyses were usually the type that hung out the window in Apartment 1-A leaning on the pillow giving single-action advice on numbers or giving you advice about how to get your homework done or telling you to stay away from those cruising cars that moved through the neighborhood patrolling little girls.
After attending Queens College in New York City and several European institutions, Bambara worked as a freelance writer and lecturer, social investigator for the New York State department of welfare, and director of recreation in the psychiatry department at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. As she told Guy-Sheftall, writing at that time seemed to her ”rather frivolous . . . something you did because you didn’t feel like doing any work. But … I’ve come to appreciate that it is a perfectly legitimate way to participate in a struggle.”
Bambara received a bachelor’s degree in theater arts and English from Queens College in 1959. In the following decade she served as a social worker and director of neighborhood programs in Harlem and Brooklyn, published short stories in periodicals, earned a master’s degree in 1964, and spent a year at the Commedia del-l’Arte in Milan, Italy. She also directed a theater program and various publications funded by the City College Seek program. This wide variety of experience inevitably found its way into her fiction and influenced her political sensibility as well.
Bambara’s interest in black liberation and women’s movements led her to edit and publish an anthology titled The Black Woman in 1970. The work is a collection of poetry, short stories, and essays by such celebrated writers as Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Paule Marshall. The Black Woman also contained short stories by Bambara, who was at that time still writing under the name of Cade. According to Deck, Bambara saw the work as ”a response to all the male ‘experts’ both black and white who had been publishing articles and conducting sociological studies on black women.” Another anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, fol lowed in 1971. Bambara explained in the introduction to this short story collection that the work’s aim is to instruct young blacks about ”Our Great Kitchen Tradition,” Bambara’s term for the black tradition of storytelling. In the first part of Tales and Stories, Bambara included works by writers Langston Hughes, Alice Walker, and Ernest Gaines—stories she wished she had read while growing up. The second part of the collection contains stories by students in a first-year composition class Bambara was teaching at Livingston College, Rutgers University.
Writing Career Begins in Earnest
Most of Bambara’s early writings—short stories written between 1959 and 1970 under the name Toni Cade—were collected in her next work, Gorilla, My Love (1972). Bambara told Claudia Tate in an interview published in Black Women Writers at Work that when her agent suggested she assemble some old stories for a book, she thought, ”Aha, I’ll get the old kid stuff out and see if I can’t clear some space to get into something else.” Nevertheless, Gorilla, My Love remains her most widely read collection. Deck noted that after the publication of her first collection, ”major events took place in Toni Cade Bambara’s life which were to have an effect on her writing.” Bambara traveled to Cuba in 1973 and Vietnam in 1975, meeting with both the Federation of Cuban Women and the Women’s Union in Vietnam. She was impressed with both groups, particularly with the ability of the Cuban women to surpass class and color conflicts and with the Vietnamese women’s resistance to their traditional place in society. Furthermore, upon returning to the United States, Bambara moved to the South, where she became a founding member of the Southern Collective of African American Writers. Her travels and her involvement with community groups like the collective influenced the themes and settings of The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977), her second collection of short stories. These stories take place in diverse geographical areas and center chiefly around communities instead of individuals. With both collections, critics noted Bambara’s skill in the genre, and many praised the musical nature of language and dialogue in her stories, which she herself likened to ”riffs” and ”be-bop.”
Although Bambara admittedly favored the short story genre, her next work, The Salt Eaters (1980), was a novel. She explained in Black Women Writers:
Of all the writing forms, I’ve always been partial to the short story. … But the major publishing industry, the academic establishment, reviewers, and critics favor the novel. . . . Career. Economics. Critical Attention. A major motive behind the production of Salt.
The novel, which focuses on the recovery of community organizer Velma Henry from an attempted suicide, consists of a ”fugue-like interweaving of voices,” Bambara’s specialty. The Salt Eaters succeeded in gaining more critical attention for Bambara.
Move into Screenwriting
After the publication of The Salt Eaters in 1980, Bambara devoted herself to another medium: film. She told Tate in Black Women Writers at Work:
Quite frankly, I’ve always considered myself a film person. . . . There’s not too much more I want to experiment with in terms of writing. It gives me pleasure, insight, keeps me centered, sane. But, oh, to get my hands on some movie equipment.
Bambara nevertheless remained committed to working within black communities and she continued to address issues of black awareness and feminism in her art. One of her best-known projects for film, The Bombing of Osage, explores a notorious incident in which the Philadelphia authorities used lethal force against a group of militant black citizens. The author did continue to write books; her more recent projects include two other adult novels, Those Bones Are Not My Child (published posthumously in 1999), and a juvenile work, Raymond’s Run (1971), about a pair of siblings who like to run foot races. Toni Cade Bambara died of colon cancer in 1995.
Works in Literary Context
Civil Rights and African American Culture
In many ways Bambara was one of the best representatives of the group of African American writers who, during the 1960s, became directly involved in the cultural and socio political activities in urban communities across the country. Like James Baldwin, Imamu Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker, she immersed herself in civil rights issues by lecturing and helping to organize rallies within the black community, while at the same time using these experiences as the nucleus for her essays and creative writing. Like others of that era, Bambara wrote from a stance of near defiance— pushing the cultural assumptions of the larger American society aside to show her audience what she believed to be the distinguishing characteristics of African American culture. Her fiction reflected the African American idiomatic expressions, habits of interpersonal relationships, and, most important, its myths, music, and history. While some who rode the tide of enormous popularity during the 1960s passed on to virtual obscurity in the 1970s, Bambara was one of the few who continued to work within the black urban communities (filming, lecturing, organizing, and reading from her works at rallies and conferences), producing imaginative reenactments of these experiences in her fiction.
The hallmark of Toni Cade Bambara’s fiction was her keen ear and ability to transcribe the African American dialect accurately. She wrote as one who has had a long personal relationship with the black working class and said that she was very much interested in continuing to write all of her fiction in this idiom. Writing and teaching others to write effectively became a tool, a means of working within the community.
The Short Story
In several interviews and in an essay (”What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow”), Bambara emphasized her preference for the short story as both a convenient tool for use in the classroom and in lecture engagements (she referred to them as ”portable”) and as an easier art form to produce than the novel. The brevity, and its ”modest appeal for attention,” is what she finds most effective about the short story, but in Bambara’s own figurative style of explaining it, she says, ”Temperamentally, I move toward the short story because I’m a sprinter rather than a long-distance runner.”
Bambara could also be a harsh critic of her own work. She commented to an interviewer that she felt that the stories in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive were too long:
To my mind, the six-page story is the gem. If it takes more than six pages to say it, something is the matter. So I’m not too pleased with the new collection The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. Most of these stories are too sprawling and hairy for my taste, although I’m very pleased, feel perfectly fine about them as pieces. But as stories they’re too damn long and dense.
Works in Critical Context
Bambara’s short stories and her novel have frequently been praised for her realistic portrayal of the lives of African Americans, including her ability to capture colloquial African American speech. For example, Susan Lardner remarks in the New Yorker that Bambara’s short stories
describing the lives of black people in the North and the South, could be more exactly typed as vignettes and significant anecdotes, although a few of them are fairly long. . . . All are notable for their purposefulness, a more or less explicit inspirational angle, and a distinctive motion of the prose, which swings from colloquial narrative to precarious metaphorical heights and over to street talk, at which Bambara is unbeatable.
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive
A critic writing in Newsweek describes Bambara’s second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, in this manner: ”Bambara directs her vigorous sense and sensibility to black neighborhoods in big cities, with occasional trips to small Southern towns. . . . The stories start and stop like rapid-fire conversations conducted in a rhythmic, black-inflected, sweet-and-sour language.” In fact, according to Anne Tyler in the Washington Post Book World, Bambara’s particular style of narration is one of the most distinctive qualities of her writing. ”What pulls us along is the language of [her] characters, which is startlingly beautiful without once striking a false note,” declares Tyler. ”Everything these people say, you feel, ordinary, real-life people are saying right now on any street corner. It’s only that the rest of us didn’t realize it was sheer poetry they were speaking.”
The Salt Eaters
In 1980 Bambara published her first novel, a generally well-received work titled The Salt Eaters. Written in an almost dreamlike style, The Salt Eaters explores the relationship between two women with totally different backgrounds and lifestyles brought together by a suicide attempt by one of the women. John Leonard, who describes the book as “extraordinary,” writes in the New York Times that The Salt Eaters
is almost an incantation, poem-drunk, myth-happy, mud-caked, jazz-ridden, prodigal in meanings, a kite and a mask. It astonishes because Toni Cade Bambara is so adept at switching from politics to legend, from particularities of character to prehistorical song, from LaSalle Street to voodoo. It is as if she jived the very stones to groan.
In a Times Literary Supplement review, Carol Rumens states that The Salt Eaters ”is a hymn to individual courage, a sombre message of hope that has con fronted the late twentieth-century pathology of racist violence and is still able to articulate its faith in ‘the dream.”’ And John Wideman notes in the New York Times Book Review:
In her highly acclaimed fiction and in lectures, [Bambara] emphasizes the necessity for black people to maintain their best traditions, to remain healthy and whole as they struggle for political power. The Salt Eaters, her first novel, eloquently summarizes and extends the abiding concerns of her previous work.
In addition to this praise from reviewers, there was considerable criticism of the structure, the dialogue, and the general expansiveness of The Salt Eaters. The numerous breaks in the story line required to accommodate the various narrative strains became the sticking point for most who reviewed the novel. As one critic said in First World, the very act of reading The Salt Eaters through requires transformative agility.” Reviewing the novel for the Washington Post, Anne Tyler commented that too many people swarm by too quickly. Too much is described too elliptically, as if cutting through to the heart of the matter might be considered crude, lacking in gracefulness, not sufficiently artistic.” Judith Wilson, in another review, noted that while the novel contained much food for thought on all of the sociopolitical issues raised by the characters, Bambara’s facility for dialogue sometimes leads her astray. Too many snatches of conversation, though clever and convincing, repeat previously stated themes or offer trivial observations that disrupt the narrative.”
- Bell, Roseann P., Bettye J. Parker, and Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. Sturdy Black Bridges: Visions of Black Women in Literature. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1979.
- Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press, 1989.
- Franko, Carol. ”Toni Cade Bambara.” In A Reader’s Companion to the Short Story in English, edited by Erin Fallon, R. C. Feddersen, James Kurtzleben, Maurice A. Lee, and Susan Rochette-Crawley. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001, pp. 38^7.
- Hull, Akasha (Gloria). ”What It Is I Think She’s Doing Anyhow: A Reading of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” In Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, edited by Barbara Smith. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000, pp. 124-142.
- Milne, Ira Mark, ed. ”Gorilla, My Love.” In Short Stories for Students. Vol. 21. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2005.
- Nelson, Emmanuel S., ed. Contemporary African American Novelists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.
- Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1983.
- Wilentz, Gay. Healing Narratives: Women Writers Curing Cultural Disease. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2000.
- Barrett, Lindon. ”Identities and Identity Studies: Reading Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘The Hammer Man.”’ Cultural Critique 39 (1998): 5-29.
- Muther, Elizabeth. ”Bambara’s Feisty Girls: Resistance Narratives in Gorilla, My Love.” African American Review 36, no. 3 (2002): 447-459.
- Taylor, Carole Anne. ”Postmodern Disconnection and the Archive of Bones: Toni Cade Bambara’s Last Work.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 35, nos. 2-3 (2002): 258-280.
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