Toni Cade Bambara – revered Atlanta writer, teacher, and activist – devoted her work to the belief that the artist's job is determined always by the community that she serves.
New York-born but connected by both parents to Georgia, Bambara brought her talent and convictions to Atlanta in 1974, and for a decade the city was a spiritual and geographical base for her, a community where she worked, wrote and taught, and where she influenced many artists, especially black women, by her example.
When interviewed about how she came to relocate to Atlanta, Bambara said:
"My people are from Atlanta. My mama's folks are from Atlanta. My Daddy's folks are from Savannah. I've always been very at home in the South.... One of the things that I like about Atlanta is that old folks are very accessible here. I think that at least sixty percent of the population are elders, and that suits me fine. I like that."[i]
Atlanta, she told an interviewer in 1982, “is a city rich in metaphysical-training possibilities. People adept in clairvoyance, dream analysis, telepathy, healing, and precognition are in abundance here.” Atlanta was the perfect place, she added, “to expand my vision.”[ii]
When she moved to Georgia, Bambara was already a seasoned writer, college teacher, and a published author with an acclaimed collection of short stories, Gorilla, My Love (1972). She immediately involved herself in the heart of Atlanta’s radical black arts movement as writer-in-residence at the Neighborhood Arts Center. The editor of a trailblazing feminist anthology, The Black Woman (1970), and a similarly radical assemblage of short fiction, Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971), which mixed the work of well-known writers with that of unknown, unpublished college students, in Atlanta she continued working to build communities of artists, challenging barriers of class and gender as she did so. "She worked to organize the Southern Collective of African American Writers. She co-edited a special issue for the regional journal Southern Exposure ("Southern Black Utterances Today") that she described as Black Southern writings "drawn from the community, that is, from the campus forces, the street forces, the prison forces, and from the intellectual circles."[iii]
Bambara taught writing and Afro-American studies to college students at Spelman College, Emory University and Atlanta University, but it was in Atlanta’s living rooms and community meetings of artists and neighbors that she thrived, at the center of spirited gatherings of intellects, music and food that echoed the intimate vibe of the Harlem neighborhood where grew up in the 1940s. Thus when Spelman administrators turned down her proposed course on black women writers, Bambara turned around and taught the class out of her house on Simpson Avenue, a gathering that became the Pamoja (Kiswahili for unity) Writing Workshop, whose alumna include award-winning writers Shay Youngblood and Nikky Finney. Her friend and fellow Atlanta writer Pearl Cleage recalled:
My friend Toni Cade Bambara … said that she didn’t like to call herself an artist because then it made you start acting precious like you were so above everybody else, that she thought that we should call ourselves cultural workers because we were no better than people who worked in factories, no better than people who taught school, no better than people who were nurses and doctors and all of that. We were cultural workers.[iv]
While mentoring others, programming art workshops for schools, and networking with collectives of African-American writers, scholars, and organizers, Bambara never slowed her personal output of writing. A second collection of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, appeared in 1977, followed by her first novel, the American Book Award-winning The Salt Eaters, in 1980. Horrified and galvanized by Atlanta’s missing and murdered children case between 1979 and 1982, she plunged early on into recording, sifting and organizing information on the developing cases to inform the increasingly terrified community. She filled journals as well on how everyday black Atlantans coped with the climate of fear that enveloped parents and children, then fed what she learned back into the community. She worked with street people who organized patrols, and monitored the media and ensure valid information and alerts reached the community, which mistrusted reactions of police, media and politicians who misread, mishandled and exploited the tragedy. From her immersion in the horror grew what is considered by many to be her magnum opus, the novel Those Bones Are Not My Child, which was issued posthumously by her longtime friend, fellow author and editor Toni Morrison.
In 1985 Bambara left Atlanta to live in Philadelphia. There with characteristic energy she plunged into a desire to work in film, which had been sidetracked by her work on Those Bones. Working with the Scribe Video Center she co-produced and narrated the documentary The Bombing of Osage Avenue, about the police bombing of a black Philadelphia neighborhood in 1985. With Scribe she also worked on, among others, the 1995 documentary W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices.
In 1993, Toni Cade Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer. Fighting the disease in her own way, she continued up until her death in 1995 to lead as a “cultural worker,” whether it meant assisting a collective of young women video artists, reading film scripts, or accepting invitations to read her own work at women’s prison. Since 2000, Spelman College’s annual Toni Cade Bambara Scholar-Activism Conference has honored Her legacy of involvement, drawing students to engage in scholarship and activism, and to explore the lives of Black/African women.
A biography, A Joyous Revolt: Toni Cade Bambara, Writer and Activist, by Linda Janet Holmes, is scheduled to be published in the spring of 2014.
[ii] “Interview with Toni Cade Bambara,” Deborah Jackson, Drum (Spring 1982), quoted in “Poised for the Light,” Linda Janet Holmes, Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara, ed. Linda Janet Holmes, Cheryl A. Wall. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 2007.
[iv] Pearl Cleage, quoted in “Pearl Cleage and Rosemary Magee: Notes on History, Music, and Literature,” Emory University Creativity Conversations. http://creativity.emory.edu/programs/creativity-conversations/Cleage-magee-cc-0911.html. September 22, 2011. Transcript. Web. September 16, 2013.
Gorilla, My Love. [Uncorrected page proof]. New York: Random House, 1972.
Gorilla, My Love. New York: Random House, 1972.
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories. New York: Random House, c1977.
The Salt Eaters. New York: Random House, 1980.
Gorilla, My Love. New York: Vintage Books, 1981.
The Salt Eaters. London: Women’s Press, 1982.
Gorilla, My Love. London: Women’s Press, 1984.
State of the Art. [Broadside] Minneapolis: Minnesota Center for Book Arts, 1988: Tournesol Press.
Raymond’s Run. Mankato, Minn. : Creative Education, c1990.
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations. Edited And With A Preface By Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon Books, c. 1996
Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions. London: Women’s Press, 1997.
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. London: Women’s Press, 1997.
Those Bones Are Not My Child. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1999.
Those Bones Are Not My Child. London: Women’s Press, 2000.
The Black Woman : an anthology. [Edited by] Toni Cade Bambara ; with an introduction (2005) by Eleanor W. Traylor. New York : Washington Square Press. c1970, 2005.
Savoring the Salt: The Legacy of Toni Cade Bambara. Holmes, Linda J., and Cheryl A. Wall, eds. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.
Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. Edited by Thabiti Lewis. Jackson : University Press of Mississippi, 2012.
The Spelman College Archives in Atlanta GA is the repository for Toni Cade Bambara’s personal papers.
Born: March 25, 1939
New York, NY
Died: December 9, 1995