Toni Cade Bambara feature image

Toni Cade Bambara

Kerrie Wilson
English 6923: Working Class Literature
Fall 2003


Toni Cade Bambara was born in 1939 in Harlem. Toni's given name was Miltona Mirkin Cade, after her father's white boss Milton Mirkin (Hull 2). She changed it to Toni around age five (Schirack 1). While searching through her grandmother's trunk, Toni found a sketchbook that contained a signature, Bambara. This became her adopted last name (Lauter 1). Maureen Schirack wrote, "the author's greatest influence and inspiration was her mother"(2). This strong influence helped Bambara become the social and political activitist that she is remembered for. Bambara received a bachelor's in theater and literature and a master's in modern American literature. Her education also took her abroad, where she studied filmmaking in England (Lauter 1). Bambara had many jobs before settling on teaching and writing. She worked as an investigator for the welfare office in New York , served at the Venice Ministry of Museums in Italy, a literacy instructor, college professor, and filmmaker (Hunt 1). Bambara published her first short story while an undergraduate. "Sweet Town" won the John Golden Award for fiction (Schirack 2). Bambara wrote two collections of short stories, three novels and edited some groundbreaking African-American writing. In 1986, Bambara won an Oscar for her documentary The Bombing of Osage Avenue about the bombing of the MOVE headquarters (a newly started black organization) in Philadelphia. Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993 and died December 9, 1995 (Schirack 5).

Discussion of author's work

Bambara's work never loses sight of working-class themes. Her short stories best capture people struggling in a day-to- day existence, trying to survive in society, but doing it together. Capitalistic society is what Bambara's characters are fighting against. In her short story "Broken Field Running", Bambara writes about the struggle that poor, working class people have against the rich in a capitalistic society. "There's poor people because there's rich people", Bambara writes, "And there's rich people cause they steal from the poor"(50). This sentiment is seen throughout her collection of short stories in The Sea Birds Are Still Alive. In the various stories, Bambara shows people at work. There is a character that works in a salon, another who works in a drug store, and the wife of an organizer. Throughout most of the ten stories, the characters are shown trying to make ends meet. In "The Sea Birds are Still Alive", Bambara writes, "Nothing to sell, then nothing to eat and nothing to wear"(75). Only one story has a character that is middle class. The rest are working class. The stories in this book are not an easy read. Readers must really look at the details and the language in order to understand what is going on. Bambara makes sure that the reader thinks about what is written. After a person reads these stories, Bambara wants him or her to remember and internalize what was said so that he or she can be somehow changed.

Bambara is not only a working-class writer, but an African-American and feminist writer as well. Bambara's cultural identity is seen throughout every piece of literature that she has written. Almost all of Bambara's main characters are female and/or black.

Bambara published and edited an anthology of African-American women writers entitled The Black Woman in 1970. This anthology showcased such groundbreaking writers as Alice Walker, Nikki Giovanni, and Audre Lorde. Bambara herself wrote three of the essays featured in the anthology. These works showed how black women were tired of black men putting them down and how black women must rise up and do the unexpected. Bambara's cultural identity influenced her need to write about prejudice against black women in a man's society. Bambara proved that black women are just as intelligent and thought provoking as anyone else. Before this anthology, only black men such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and others were seen as prominent writers. Bambara showed that black women could do the same.

In 1971, Bambara edited another anthology entitled Tales and Stories for Black Folks. Bambara's goal for this anthology was to show how African-American family traditions of exchanging oral stories are read by all young people and to make those stories available to larger audiences by publishing them in written form. Bambara's perspective as a working-class, African-American women how and why this anthology came about. It shows the working-class themes such as family and community. Bambara shows that family and community is important to every race and culture, but her emphasis is on the African-American family and community.

Working-class literature can be defined across genres into African-American Studies, Women Studies, Gay/Lesbian Studies, etc. Every working-class author has some influence that affects how they write, what they write, why they write, and whom they write about. Bambara is no different. Her experience of growing up in Harlem taught her the value of community and family. Bambara's mother taught her about race. Bambara herself became a feminist from her studies while achieving her Bachelor's and Master's Degrees. These influences helped Bambara become the writer that she did with groundbreaking work on African-American writers, in particular female African-American writers. Her work influenced Toni Morrison and many other female African-American writers of the day. Bambara may have written working-class literature if she was not black or a woman, but her work would not have the same themes in them. Yes, there would probably be people struggling for work and the group would be emphasized, but the feminism and racial overtones would be absent. Bambara's racial and cultural identity is seen throughout her work and had made her the influential author that she became.

Annotated Bibliography

Those Bones Are Not My Child (1999)

This book was published posthumously and edited by Toni Morrison. It focuses on a black family whose son is missing at the beginning of the early 1980's when forty children were murdered in Atlanta and their bodies were found strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted.

Deep Sightings and Rescue Mission (1996)

This collection of short stories, essays and interviews by Bambara was also published posthumously and edited by Toni Morrison.

The Bombing of Osage Avenue (Documentary on videotape) (1986)

This documentary, about the bombing of MOVE (a black organization) in 1985, won the 1986 Best Documentary Academy Award. The bombing was ordered by the Philadelphia mayor, W. Wilson Goode where a 90 minute gun battle with 500 hundred police officers ensued.

If Blessings Come (1987)

I could not find any details about this book.

The Salt Eaters (1980)

This book is about the strength of a community who finds the healing properties of salt. The main character is Velma Henry, a long time civil rights and feminist activist who is sick because of racial and sexual injustice.

The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977)

This collection of short stories depict women who Bambara met on her travels to Cuba, Vietnam, and other parts of the world and their struggle against oppression.

Gorilla, My Love (1972)

This collection of fifteen short stories depicts the community of women in the same neighborhood and how the community passes from one generation of women to the next.

Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971)

Bambara edited this collection of short stories that show the lives of African-American families speaking in their own voices.

The Black Woman (1970)

This feminist anthology of fiction, poetry and essays by female African-American authors gives their view on racism and sexism.


Hull, Akasha. "The Renaissance Woman." Women's Review of Books. XIV (10-11) (1997): 31-32.

Hunt, Douglas. "Toni Cade Bambara". The Dolphin Reader.

Lauter, Paul. "Toni Cade Bambara". The Heath Anthology of American Literature.

Schirack, Maureen. "Toni Cade Bambara". Voices From The Gaps: Women Writers of Color.