Reference Entry

Bambara, Toni Cade

Aisha X. L. Francis

in Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present: From the Age of Segregation to the Twenty-first Century

Published in print January 2009 | ISBN: 9780195167795
Bambara, Toni Cade

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(b. 25 March 1939; d. 9 December 1995), author, activist, essayist, film critic, and educator. Bambara was born in New York City and raised in and around the New York–New Jersey area. Her given name was Miltona Mirkin Cade, which she shortened to Toni at age five. As an adult she added Bambara to her signature after discovering that one of her grandmothers had used the name in her sketchbooks. In 1970 she had her name legally changed to Toni Cade Bambara. Her mother, Helen Brent Henderson Cade Brehon, to whom Bambara's first novel, The Salt Eaters (1980) is dedicated, encouraged her love of learning and her appreciation for oral history. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in theater arts from Queens College in 1959, she became a social worker with the Colony Settlement House in Brooklyn while studying for her MA in English, which she completed in 1965.Considering her role as a cultural critic, an intellectual, and a champion for disfranchised people of color in the United States and abroad, Bambara's oeuvre reflects her commitment to the black poor and working class, who are often portrayed stereotypically in American literature and culture. Her work consistently reflects a dual commitment to facilitating social justice and promoting artistry. As such, Bambara's writing explores the role of community in deflecting the debilitating effects racism, sexism, and classism have on people of color as they struggle daily to maintain their dignity. Bambara's lifework was informed both by her professional understanding of sociological frameworks and by her lived experience of preserving and showcasing stories of blacks, whose lives, she felt, could be both enriched and expressed through good literature.Toni Cade Bambara, c. 1971. Photograph by Chester Higgins. © Chester Higgins Jr.Bambara was a prolific writer whose intense political and cultural involvement in African American life led her to edit The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970). This important book was the first collection featuring black women authors and activists, many of whom subsequently gained fame, including Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, and Audre Lorde. Released to critical acclaim, Bambara's first solo collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972), reflected her keen sense of voice and characterization, especially as expressed by preadolescent black female protagonists.In 1974 Bambara and her daughter Karma moved to Atlanta, Georgia, where Bambara continued her work as a grassroots organizer, taught and lectured extensively, and built productive creative communities for writers of color. She founded the Southern Collective of African American Writers and the First World Writers, two groups that fostered intellectual and interpersonal exchange among African American writers. In the mid-1970s Bambara broadened the international scope of her work with extensive travel opportunities. In particular her visits to Cuba in 1973 and to V ietnam in 1975 had a powerful impact on her story collection, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977).In her mid-career, Bambara passionately explored the medium of film, becoming an influential critic and champion of black independent cinema. In the 1980s she frequently traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she learned cinematography from Louis Massiah, the founder and director of the Scribe Video Center. Bambara collaborated on two documentary projects, The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1986) and W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices (1995). Three of her short stories, “Gorilla, My Love,” “Medley,” and “Witchbird,” have been adapted to film, while others (especially “Raymond's Run” and “The Lesson”) are widely anthologized.

Reference Entry.  608 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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