Toni Cade Bambara was an educator, author, and community activist who was one of the leading voices of the Black feminist movement in the early ’70’s. Ms. Bambara’s works include short stories, anthologies, and screenplays that documented varying levels of the Black experience.
Bambara was born Miltona Mirkin Cade on March 25, 1939 in Harlem, N.Y. She was raised across the city and in New Jersey eventually earning an undergraduate degree in the arts and theater from Queens College. She picked up the surname Bambara after sifting through her grandfather’s belongings.
In 1964, Bambara earned a master’s from City College and began a career in teaching at several levels. In 1965 she taught English at the City University of New York’s SEEK program, which was aimed at helping disadvantaged youth. From there, Bambara taught at Livingston College along with stints at Rutgers University, Emory University and Atlanta University.
Bambara’s writing career began in 1970 with the publishing of the anthology, The Black Woman, which was the first collection of writing featuring Black feminists. Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and Bambara herself contributed pieces to the book. In 1972, Bambara published the first of her fictional works, a collection of short stories titled Gorilla, My Love.
While Bambara’s writings have been considered feminist in nature, she never completely embraced that title. In the 1981 anthology The Bridge Called My Back for which she wrote the introduction, a chapter in the book “On The Issue of Roles” she rejects the term feminism and instead asks for a focus on “blackhood.”
In the latter part of her career, Bambara focused more on screenplays and visual works, but first novel The Salt Eaters was published in 1980. She also wrote the script for Louis Messiah’s film on the 1985 bombing of the MOVE headquarters. Bambara was also one of four directors who worked on a documentary about W.E.B. Du Bois.
When Bambara succumbed to colon cancer in 1995, she had several works in process. The following year, Toni Morrison edited Bambara’s Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, a collection of short stories. In 2013, Bambara was inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame.
PHOTO: Susan J. Ross