Toni Cade Bambara

(1939–1995)

Toni Cade Bambara dedicated her career to celebrating her African American heritage and to exploring the complexities of urban life. As an educator, writer, and student of the visual and performing arts, Bambara shared her talent with a broad array of civic groups, including museums, libraries, community centers, hospitals, and prisons. In her life as an artist, her goal was nothing less than to remake readers' understanding of African Americans and African Americans' understanding of themselves. In an interview, Bambara described her vision: "…I began to think that writing could be a way to engage in struggle, it could be a weapon, a real instrument for transformation…"

Born Toni Cade in New York City in 1939, Bambara adopted her surname in 1970 to honor her great-grandmother, whose sketchbook she discovered in an attic trunk. After she graduated from Queens College, Bambara studied performing arts in Europe for several years: first at the University of Florence in Italy and then at a special school in Paris, France, which focused on the art of pantomime. After she returned to the United States, she undertook additional studies in dance and film and earned a graduate degree at City College in New York.

During the 1960s, Bambara worked as a social investigator for the New York State Department of Welfare, as a recreation director for a hospital, and as the program director for a community center. This broad range of experiences was especially helpful for Bambara's career as a writer, since she became intimately acquainted with many different aspects of urban life.

Bambara's first important publication was The Black Woman (1970), an anthology of essays, poems, and short stories by African American woman writers. The following year, she published another anthology focusing on the storytelling tradition, Tales and Stories for Black Folks. In this collection, she included works by her students at Rutgers University, where she taught from 1969 to 1974.

In 1972, Bambara published the first collection of her own stories, entitled Gorilla, My Love. The anthology contained one of Bambara's best-known stories, "Raymond's Run." In this volume, the experiences of young people growing up—often humorous, but sometimes awkward or even painful—emerged as a major theme in Bambara's fiction. In praising the author, a critic for The New York Times noted that Bambara was "an articulate, intelligent, and sensitive writer who happens to be very funny, hip, warm, and unmistakably her own black woman."

During the 1970s, Bambara deepened her sociopolitical involvement with civil rights groups, community organizations, women's causes, and writers' collectives. She traveled widely, teaching and conducting literary readings throughout the United States. In 1977, she published a second volume of stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. Many of these tales concern community issues. In addition to her fiction, Bambara wrote teleplays and essays.

In 1980, Bambara published an eagerly awaited first novel, The Salt Eaters. In this work, she traces the friendship between two women—one a community organizer and the other a faith healer—in the rural South. One reviewer praised the work as a "hymn to individual courage, a somber message of hope." Among Bambara's major themes are identity, self-worth, the opportunity for spiritual renewal, and the possibility of social change.

Among Bambara's later works were a film adaptation of Toni Morrison's novel Tar Baby (1984), as well as a second novel, If Blessing Comes (1987). She received several awards for her television documentary The Bombing of Osage (1986). In 1995, while still in her mid-fifties, Bambara died of cancer. The following year, a volume of her fiction, essays, and interviews was published, entitled Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions.

In summing up Bambara's achievements, the critic Alice A. Deck described the writer's outlook this way:

The basic implication of all of Toni Cade Bambara's stories is that there is an undercurrent of caring for one's neighbors that sustains black Americans. In her view the presence of those individuals who intend to do harm to people is counterbalanced by as many if not more persons who have a genuine concern for other people.

As an example of public art, the community mural in Bambara's story "The War of the Wall" is part of a long, diverse tradition. Public art can be defined as making and installing art outside conventional spaces such as museums or galleries. Types of public art include outdoor sculpture, community murals, monuments, landscaping in public gardens, subway or bus shelter art, stamp and coin design, laser shows, and landmark symbols of cultural identity, such as the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France. Such a wide variety of forms and styles makes it difficult to generalize about public art. Nevertheless, much public art has three features in common: First, this type of art is often created by an anonymous artist or by more than one person; second, public art is targeted to a mass audience, not just to a small set of museum visitors, and it is often placed outdoors; third, public art often focuses on the history, concerns, or values of a specific community.