10 Reasons to Love Toni Cade Bambara

25th Mar 2014

Born in NYC in 1939, Toni Cade Bambara was a pioneering author, activist and film-maker, with a lifelong commitment to community, grassroots politics and social justice.

So, on what would’ve been her 75th birthday, here’s ten reasons to delve deeper into her life, legacy and work…

1. Her name

Born Miltona Mirkin Cade, African-American Toni Cade Bambara began using her chosen first name when she was still in kindergarten.

The surname Bambara, the name of a West African people, she adopted after seeing it incorporated into a signature in a sketchbook found in her great-grandmother’s trunk, changing it legally in 1970.

2. The Black Woman

In the turbulent and politically-charged context of NYC during a period of gathering momentum for both the women’s and civil rights movements, Toni Cade Bambara coordinated a groundbreaking collection.

Published in 1970, The Black Woman: An Anthology was the first feminist collection of its kind. Compiled and edited by Toni Cade Bambara, it featured poems, essays and stories from many then-emerging women writers of colour (including Audre Lorde and Alice Walker, among others) who would go on to become world-famous for their incredible, visionary work.

3. Gorilla, My Love

Bambara’s first short story collection, Gorilla, My Love, was published in 1972, containing fifteen stories penned between 1950 and 1970, described by Bambara as “on-the-block, in-the-neighborhood, back glance pieces,” and featuring a motley crew of compelling, charismatic characters from uptown NY to rural Carolina.

Told almost entirely in first-person stream-of-consciousness by its upbeat, brave narrators (almost exclusively young, working class women), the anthology had a distinctive voice and style, establishing Bambara’s unique perspective and talent. Read the title story here.

4. The Salt Eaters

Published in 1980, The Salt Eaters charts the journey of a community towards healing and wholeness. Experimental in form, but with Bambara’s signature richness and colour in terms of character, place and dialogue, it won a host of prizes and awards.

A multi-layered debut novel that blurs boundaries of time, space, imagination and reality, it was described by the New York Times as “almost an incantation, poem-drunk, myth-happy, mud-caked, jazz-ridden, prodigal in meanings.” Lush.

5. Those Bones Are Not My Child

Before her death in 1995, Toni Cade Bambara had worked on her novel Those Bones Are Not My Child for twelve years. Edited by Toni Morrison and eventually published posthumously, it’s a harrowing but beautifully-written alternative account of a series of real-life murders of black children in Atlanta.

Combining suspense, storytelling and incisive cultural criticism, the novel explores racial, political and familial tensions in a dark and disturbing account of a nightmarish time, based on Bambara’s experiences of living in Atlanta during the disappearances.

6. Support for emerging authors, activists and film-makers

Along with her own fiction, essays and films, Bambara supported other creative types in a variety of ways; lecturing, working with black theatre and other community groups, and hosting a series of now-legendary potluck dinners for emerging authors at her home.

Bambara also wrote the introduction for the landmark 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour, and has been cited by Aishah Shahidah Simmons, the producer and director of No! The Rape Documentary as the catalyst for its creation.

7. The importance of community

Throughout the 1960s, Bambara served as a social worker and director of neighborhood programs in her hometown of Harlem and Brooklyn, and she frequently spoke and wrote about the need to for communities to capture and claim their experiences, frustrations and identities:

“Our lives preserved. How it was; and how it be. Passing along in the relay. That is what I work to do: to produce stories that save our lives.”

She traveled extensively, to Cuba and Vietnam among other places, where she worked with women’s and activist groups, continually asserting that “writing is a legitimate way, an important way, to participate in the empowerment of the community that names me.”

8. Her screenplays

As well as writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Bambara was involved in several other film projects, including the award-winning documentary The Bombing of Osage Avenue (1986), and the collaborative W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices.

9. Her relationship with her mother

Bambara frequently acknowledged the importance and influence of her relationship with her mother, who encouraged her in discovering and developing her creativity, politics and African-American identity from an early age.

In tribute, The Salt Eaters is sweetly and poignantly dedicated 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.”

10. Views on writing

Toni Cade Bambara believed that “writing could be a way to engage in struggle, it could be a weapon, a real instrument for transformation politics,” and she is responsible for one of our absolute favourite quotes about authors, writing and politics:

“The job of the writer is to make revolution irresistible.”

For more from Toni Cade Bambara, read Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, an anthology of previously unpublished fiction, essays and other writing, collected and compiled by Bambara’s daughter after her death, edited by Toni Morrison and published posthumously in 1996.