Celebrating Black History Month: Toni Cade Bambara
All February long, City Lights Bookstore is honoring national Black History Month by featuring authors and books that we feel are essential reading for anyone interested in African American and Black Studies — from the well-known to the less-known, the classics to the contemporary.
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TONI CADE BAMBARA
“Toni Cade Bambara was born on March 25th, 1939 as Miltona Mirkin Cade. She changed her name to Toni when she was in Kindergarten. Bambara lived in Harlem for the first ten years of her life, during an era in Harlem’s history that had a particular impact on Bambara’s development as an artist and a community activist. As she says “I was born in 1939, and the radical thirties were still spilling over into the forties. There was still that notion that an active political life was a perfectly normal thing. People had to organize against the crackdown forces which, in those days, was the police, the FBI, Immigration, the Draft Board, and the Mob, which are pretty much the crackdown forces today, except people don’t acknowledge Mob participation too much.” Harlem’s political life also had a tremendous influence on Bambara as ‘speaker’s corner’ encouraged her to view politics as a vocal, community based activity.
Toni Cade Bambara moved around New York City and in 1959 graduated from Queens College with a BA in Theater Arts/ English. In 1961 she went to Europe, studying acting and mime in Italy and in France. In Italy Bambara served at the Venice Ministry of Museums. She returned to New York and received an M.A. in 1964 from City College of the City University of New York. Bambara taught at City College of New York from 1965 to 1969, as well as at Rutgers University and Spelman College. Bambara also worked as a social investigator for New York City’s Department of Welfare, a recreation director in New York Metropolitan, a psychiatric hospital and a program director at Colony House Community Center.
In the mid 1970s Bambara traveled as part of the ‘North American Academic Marxist-Leninist Anti Imperialist Feminist Women’ delegation to Cuba, Vietnam, Brazil, Guinea Bissau which had an important impact on shaping her understanding of feminist concerns globally and laid the foundation for ideas she would express in works later in life on the importance of collaboration and unity among all people of color. This unity is an important thread through much of Bambara’s work as it functions to discredit the counter-productive binary logic of the mainstream.
Bambara also credits this trip to Cuba with encouraging her to believe that “writing could be a way to engage in struggle, it could be a weapon, a real instrument for transformation politics.”
While Bambara says “I never thought of myself as a writer, I always thought of myself as a community person who writes and does a few other things,” she was a prolific writer, contributing her unique voice to literary discussions across genres. Her works include, short stories, essays, films, and novels. Much, if not all of Bambara’s work was directly related to Bambara’s activism as it functioned to fulfill various need’s of the community. When speaking of Tales and Stories for Black Folks Bambara says these stories are also representative of the kinds of stories “I wished I had read growing up.” With a similar goal of fulfilling a need not previously met for her community, Bambara was responcible for editing and developing the ideas behind one of the defining texts of black feminism, The Black Woman: An Anthology.
Not only is community a thread that binds her work together, but also the identity of women within community appears as a significant theme.
Ms. Bambara passed away December 9th 1995 after battling colon cancer.”
Published in 1980, Bambara said the novel “came out of a problem-solving impulse. ” She was interested in bringing together the activists, warriors, and medicine people within her community to “fuse those camps” into a venerable force. Set in Claybourne, Georgia, the novel is about a community of black people searching for the healing properties of salt. In a recorded interview with Kay Bonetti (1982), Bambara reflects on the symbolism of salt and the African flying myth, both critical metaphorical components to the novel. Her reflection is itself wonderfully representative of the eloquent oral tradition of the African-American community: “We got grounded because we ate too much salt, but some folks say it, we got grounded because we opened ourselves up to horror — invited it onto the continent — that created tears. And it was that salt that drowned our wings and made us earth-bound. ” The novel centers on Velma Henry, a community organizer who experiences both a mental and emotional crisis, and Minnie Ransom, a faith healer. However, according to Ruth Elizabeth Burks (“From Baptism to Resurrection”), “the characters speak little, because they have lost the desire to communicate through words. Their thoughts, as conveyed by Bambara, are more real to them than that that is real” (qtd. in Butler-Evans 173). For Bambara, this is purposeful; she looked for “a new kind of narrator — narrator as medium . . . a kind of magnet through which other people tell their stories. “
A collection of early, emerging works from some of today’s most celebrated African American female writers.
When it was first published in 1970, The Black Woman introduced readers to an astonishing new wave of voices that demanded to be heard. In this groundbreaking volume of original essays, poems, and stories, a chorus of outspoken women — many who would become leaders in their fields: bestselling novelist Alice Walker, poets Audre Lorde and Nikki Giovanni, writer Paule Marshall, activist Grace Lee Boggs, and musician Abbey Lincoln among them — tackled issues surrounding race and sex, body image, the economy, politics, labor, and much more. Their words still resonate with truth, relevance, and insight today.
Biography from students at Columbia University and Barnard College enrolled in ‘Black Movements in the U.S.’ taught by Professor Robin D. G. Kelley.
Information about The Salt Eaters from Voices from the Gaps at University of Minnesota.