Reference Entry

Bambara, Toni Cade (1939 - 1995), Fiction Writer, Political Activist

Jennifer Wood

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Bambara, Toni Cade (1939 - 1995), Fiction Writer, Political Activist

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writer, activist, screenwriter, and educator, was born Miltona Mirkin Cade to Walter and Helen Cade in New York City. Originally named for her father's employer, she renamed herself Toni in kindergarten, revealing an independent and imaginative streak at an early age. She took the surname Bambara after discovering it signed on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother's trunk in the attic; who this original Bambara was is now unknown. She legally changed her name in 1970. Bambara spent her childhood exploring Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Queens, and Jersey City with her brother, Walter. Through exploring these areas she developed her sharp eye for political activism and the power of the word, the tones of blues and jazz that she would translate into her written work (particularly through going to the Apollo Theater with her father), and listening to the stories told by those in her community. Raised in a family with few extended relatives, as a child she would often “adopt” the people she met in her neighborhood, including numerous “grandmothers.”Bambara worked for the Department of Social Welfare in New York City in the late 1950s as a social investigator with a goal of improving the living conditions of minority residents, and then went on to be the director of recreation in the psychiatry department of Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. After earning a BA in Theater Arts and English from Queens College in 1959 she studied acting and mime at the University of Florence in Italy and Ecole de pantomime Etienne Decroux in Paris in 1961. She then earned an MA in Modern American Literature from the City University of New York in 1964 while working as the program director of the Colony House Community Center. She served at the Venice, Italy, Ministry of Museums, pursued filmmaking in the United Kingdom, conducted doctoral work at the State University of New York in Buffalo, studied at the Commedia del' Arte in Milan, and attended Katherine Mary Dunham'S Dance Studio. After teaching English at the City College of the City University of New York in the late 1960s she went on to teach at Rutgers University, Duke University, Spelman College, Barnard College, Atlanta University, Stephens College, and the School of Social Work.Toni Cade Bambara, attending a national conference of African American writers at Howard University, 1976. (Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Photograph by Calvin Reid.)Bambara wrote her first story, “Sweet Town,” as an undergraduate, and the piece won the John Golden Award for fiction. In 1970 she edited the path-breaking anthology The Black Woman, which featured the work of Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, Paule Marshall, and Bambara's own writing. The anthology, published during the Black Arts Movement, helped to signal a body of feminist work by black women writers who would emerge during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1971 she published her second anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks, focused on African American folk heritage, with an emphasis on storytelling, and featuring tales that Bambara reportedly wished had been available to her when she was growing up. She then published two short story collections of her own work, Gorilla, My Love in 1972, which featured the renowned stories “My Man Bovanne,” “The Lesson,” “Black English,” and “Raymond's Run,” and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive in 1977, which featured the stories “The Organizer's Wife” and “The Apprentice.” Bambara realized the political power of writing, and her work often featured strong black women as protagonists and a powerful sense of orality, urbanity, and musicality.Traveling to Cuba, Vietnam, Brazil, and Guinea-Bissau in 1973 and 1975 with the North American Academic Marxist-Leninist Anti-Imperialist Feminist Women gave Bambara a deeper understanding of women's movements and grassroots organizing on an international level. Upon her return to the United States, she lectured extensively throughout the nation on political issues and founded the Southern Collective of African American Writers and the Pamoja Writers Collective after moving to Atlanta.Although she was best known for her work in the short story genre, Bambara published a novel, The Salt Eaters, in 1980. Her mother's influence is illustrated by Bambara's dedication of the book to: “Mama, Helen Brent Henderson Cade Brehon, who in 1948, having come upon me daydreaming in the middle of the kitchen floor, mopped around me.” Set in Claybourne, Georgia, the novel focuses on Velma Henry, a dispirited social and political activist who has attempted suicide, who finds herself in the hospital being cared for by Minnie Ransom, a traditional healer who works with people to mend their physical and psychical pain. This complex novel featured an experimental nonlinear writing style (which garnered mixed reviews), and focused on healing, spirituality, political and social change, personal empowerment, and environmental issues related to nuclear waste, all told with Bambara's signature bravura when dealing with matters of working-class struggle and race.She also wrote screenplays, arguing that mainstream films, particularly those about people of color, were often racist. She wrote more than ten scripts and screenplays, many based on her own short stories: “Zora” in 1971; “Gorilla, My Love” and “The Johnson Girls” in 1972 (the latter produced in 1996); “Transactions” in 1979; “The Long Night” in 1981; “Epitaph for Willie” in 1982; “Tar Baby,” based on Toni Morrison's novel of the same title, in 1984; “Raymond's Run” in 1985; and “If Blessing Comes” in 1987.She also collaborated with Julie Dash and Bell Hooks on Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman's Film (1991), and then wrote an article on the film for Black American Cinema in 1993. In moving toward film Bambara took her political ideals with her, something made evident in her narrating and writing The Bombing of Osage Avenue in 1986, a film directed by Louis Massiah about the city of Philadelphia's police force shooting and then bombing the headquarters of MOVE, a black organization, which resulted in the destruction of sixty-one homes and the loss of eleven lives in May 1985. Bambara won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film for this work, which was. Bambara and Massiah collaborated again on W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices, which was released in early 1995. Each of the four acts was written and narrated by an African American author: Bambara, Wesley Brown, Thulani Davis, and Amiri Baraka. She also provided commentary for an American Experience documentary, Midnight Ramble: Oscar Micheaux and the Story of Race Movies, which aired on PBS in-1994.After battling colon cancer Bambara died in Philadelphia at the age of fifty-six, survived by her daughter, Karma Bene Bambara. Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, a collection of Bambara's published and unpublished short stories, essays, and conversations, was published in 1996, and Those Bones Are Not My Child, a novel by Bambara based on the more than forty child abductions and murders that took place in Atlanta in the early 1980s, was published in 1999. Bambara, who was living in Atlanta at the time of the murders, had researched them for twelve years. Both books were edited and published after Bambara's death by Toni Morrison, who had long been a close friend.While Bambara explored diverse media and genres, she never strayed from her portrayal of the sociopolitical aspects of black culture and communities, and continued to raise awareness of racial and feminist causes. Bambara was a major figure in twentieth-century African American literature, and her strongly held beliefs regarding the importance of political activism were evident in her immersion in civil rights issues around the world and her ability to translate her passion for this work onto the page and screen.

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Subjects: History

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