- A Retrospective of the Revolutionary Spirit of Toni Cade Bambara
Toni Cade Bambara, a multitalented filmmaker, writer, activist, and teacher died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995, in Philadelphia. The life she lived was one that made significant contributions in African American literature, culture, independent film, and feminism. Sixteen years after her death, there remains a void in the amount of critical attention paid to Bambara's vision and extraordinary creative talent. I will publish Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara with the University Press of Mississippi in 2012, and Linda Holmes and Cheryl Wall put together a collection honoring her memory, Savoring the Salt, in 2008. Still, not enough scholarly attention has been paid to her amazing body of work.
To read Toni Cade Bambara's fiction is to encounter many issues and themes simultaneously. Indeed, her art is what literary critic Joyce A. Joyce once termed "panoramic." Bambara fluidly incorporates into her fiction a wide landscape of topics, ideas, issues, and concerns ranging from feminism, geology, and music to politics, civil rights, spiritual renewal, cinematography, and physics. Bambara's fiction is about a reverence for the multidimensional nature of African and African American cultural traditions and black feminism, all the while mindful to lay a foundation that is antiessentialist and recognizes the multiple experiences of black identity that balance an African-centered/ feminist agenda, while embracing the improvisational spirit of black culture.
Bambara's long-time friend and editor Toni Morrison proclaimed Bambara's writing to be "absolutely critical to twentieth century literature."1 Further, she described Bambara as "an unreconstructed rebel—I mean, beautiful in every [End Page 107] aspect of that . . .; was just outrageously brilliant."2 Bambara was undeniably an "unreconstructed rebel"; and others who knew her would concur. This assessment resonates in her work, as she displayed a penchant for extending the limits of language, narrator roles, and narrative structure. Her acts of literary extension were derived from her sentiments, as expressed in The Black Woman, that "[w]e are involved in a struggle for liberation: liberation from the exploited and dehumanizing system of racism . . . liberation from the constrictive norms of 'mainstream' culture; from the synthetic myths that encourage us to fashion ourselves visibly from without (reaction) rather than from within (creation) . . . and a turning towards each other."3 Bambara was capable of and interested in writing what she termed "straight up fiction."4 Indeed, Bambara champions the everyday folk; she celebrates struggle and ALL who are part of it—from the artistic to the political to the person on the corner.
To understand Bambara's insistence on championing the person on the corner requires knowing more about her. Toni Cade Bambara was originally born Miltona Mirkin Cade on March 25, 1939, to Helen Cade Brehon and Walter Cade II.5 They lived in Harlem for the first ten years of her life. It is this same Harlem community that had a significant influence on her writing and life. Once, when reflecting upon how she came to be, she always spoke fondly of "living on 151st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam" absorbing the jazz music "of the forties and fifties" and the culture of the Apollo Theatre with her father, and hearing from the Speakers Corner the arguments of trade unionists, Rastas, and Pan-Africanists.6 She credits as critical to her early development the many life and cultural lessons learned while living among the diverse population of her neighborhood in Harlem. These experiences shaped the unique vision that is prominently featured in her films, essays, and fiction.
It is impossible to categorize her as simply a woman of letters. For example, when Kay Bonetti pressed Bambara in a February 1982 interview 7 to describe herself as a writer, Bambara explained that she had, "always thought of [herself] as a teacher who writes, a social worker who writes, a youth worker who writes, a mother who writes." Ironically, each of these personas—teacher, social worker, youth worker, writer—finds space and voice in her fiction. While she certainly wrote short stories, novels, poetry, plays, essays, and screenplays, it was film that was, in fact, her first love. But she always found a...