Miltona Mirkin Cade changed her name to “Toni” while just a kindergartner, showing an independent mind even as a young girl. The child who would later be known as Toni Cade Bambara grew up during the immediate years following the Harlem Renaissance and credited the musicians of the forties and fifties for her "voice and pace and pitch."
Born in 1939, Bambara lived on 151st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam where African-American culture was celebrated and lauded, where the denizens, many of them transplanted migrants, experienced a spiritual emancipation from the diminishment and disparagement they had known in the South. The neighborhood provided Bambara with rich characters for the stories she would later write, and the little girl often “adopted” the people around her to stand in the stead of relatives. She was never wanting for “grandmothers,” but the greatest influence in her life was her mother, Helen Brent Henderson Cade Brehon, a woman she acknowledged as the source of her strength and her eye-opener to the world around her. She once wrote: "My mother gave us the race thing. [In school] we were to report back to her any stereotypic or racist remark." (Deep Sightings 216).
Bambara graduated from Queen’s College in 1959 with a B.A. in Theater Arts and English. Shortly after, she published her first short story Sweet Town for which she won the John Golden Award for fiction. After receiving her master’s degree in 1965, Bambara began teaching at the City College of New York where she remained until 1969. During that time, she became involved with many socio-political groups, voicing her thoughts on both the civil rights and women’s movements. She edited and published The Black Woman in 1970, a feminist anthology of fiction, poetry, and essays by contributors such as Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Paule Marshall. This work was her response to the absence of black women’s writings about black women, and for the first time the literary world heard the contemporary black woman’s views on racism, sexism, on the frustration of being expected to remain silent and retiring, of being a woman in a society where some women were willing “to walk ten paces back to give men the illusion of walking ten paces ahead.”
Bambara edited her next anthology, Tales and Stories for Black Folks in 1971 while teaching at Rutgers. Falling under the “Great Kitchen Tradition” of oral folktales, the compilation of short stories depicted the lives of African-American families, cousins, uncles and granddaddies speaking in their own voices, the dialect of both the south and urban north. These were stories long overdue, stories Bambara wished she had read while growing up.
Following Tales, Bambara wrote the first book containing nothing but her own stories. Gorilla, My Love (1972) went back to the neighborhood, showcasing the strength of community through the women who reside in it and are shaped by it, and how community passes from one generation to the next.
Bambara’s feminist voice resonates in her next collection, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, whose stories depict the women she met on her travels to Cuba, Vietnam and other parts of the world. Again she gave voice to those who were expected to remain silent, women and children who worked in factories and in the streets, victims of injustices who still managed to struggle against their oppression and “break through traditional expectations.”
In 1978, Bambara published her first novel, The Salt Eaters. Trying to show the strength of community (a common theme), her characters, residents of the small town of Claybourne, Georgia, set out to find the healing properties of salt. Shown through the eyes of community organizer, Velma Henry, and faith healer, Minnie Ransom, the tale diverges from the regular narrative voice, letting the characters’ thoughts speak more loudly than their words.
Bambara later settled in Atlanta, Georgia, where she established both the Southern Collective of African American Writers and the First World Writers, both of which provided mentoring to the young writers of Atlanta. She kept busy with her writings, at one point delving into filmmaking, which allowed her to translate three of her stories to film. Still busy at 54, she finally had to slow down after being diagnosed with colon cancer. She lost her battle in 1996 at the age of 57. But her voice still lived on in two posthumous works, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (1995), and Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999), the last edited by her good friend, Toni Morrison.
Writer and feminist, Cade left a literary legacy to women of all races, and offered a voice to those who needed to be heard. Below is a story excerpted from her collection Gorilla My Love. Read "The Lesson".