Toni Cade Bambara
March 25, 1939 – December 9, 1995
Miltona Mirkin Cade was born in Harlem, New York City, and decided around the age of five or six that she wanted to be known as “Toni”, a preference that her mother observed. Sources provided little information about her father or their relationship beyond him having ties to Savannah, Georgia, and taking Cade on trips to the Apollo Theater. But Cade’s mother, Helen Brent Henderson Cade Brehon had lived through the Harlem Renaissance and the experience resulted in her supporting her children’s creative interests. Of particular note, Helen took Cade to Harlem’s famed Speaker’s Corner where she was exposed to various street orators and philosophers.
As a child, Cade also regularly visited the local branch of the New York Public Library where in addition to the work of Gwendolyn Brooks she met Langston Hughes who would stop by to speak with children. Cade was a good student which contributed to her graduating from high school six months early. She enrolled at Queens College where she studied English and theater arts. 1959 was a big year for Cade as she obtained her bachelor’s degree, won two awards for writing, and had her first story published in a magazine.
Cade spent the first two years after graduation as a New York State Department of Welfare investigator. She then spent some time continuing her education abroad in Milan and Florence, Italy as well as Paris, France. Upon returning to New York, Cade balanced various jobs with attending grad school. In 1965, Cade successfully completed her master’s degree in American Literature.
That same year Cade began teaching at City College where she had attended grad school. The college had established the Search for Education, Elevation, Knowledge (SEEK) program. Cade became an English instructor within the program in addition to providing support for its theater program and publications. She would eventually move on to teaching at Livingston College at Rutger’s University where she worked as an assistant professor.
Cade continued to write and publish her short stories but she also edited two anthologies. Released in 1970, the first anthology was meant to provide a more accurate and realistic portrayal of Black women. (That year would also see Cade adopt “Bambara” as her last name after seeing it among her great-grandmother’s belongings.) The second anthology released a year later was geared towards youths with the goal of exposing them to storytelling within Black culture. The anthologies included works from both established writers and college students.
Throughout the 1970s, Bambara held positions at various colleges and institutions. She wrote the first of two screenplays that would be produced for television. Researching women’s political activism and effectiveness, Bambara visited Cuba and Vietnam to learn first-hand about women in communist countries. A collection of her short stories was published in 1972 by Random House under the title, Gorilla, My Love.
In the middle of the decade, Bambara moved to Atlanta where she would teach at both Spellman College and Clark Atlanta University. She became active in the city’s arts and creative scene co-founding the Southern Collective of African-American Writers and the Neighborhood Cultural Arts Center, Inc. The second volume of her short stories was released in 1977 as The Sea Birds Are Still Alive.
At the end of the decade when the Atlanta Child Murders began to haunt the city’s Black residents, Bambara got involved. She researched and recorded whatever information she should find about the cases. Bambara also spoke with residents about how they felt and were coping with the murders. She then shared this information and insights with the community at a time when many felt the police and media were not concerned and/or forthcoming. Her notes and personal experiences from this period would form the foundation of the later novel, Those Bones Are Not My Child. In the midst of the horror of the Atlanta Child Murders, Bambara published her first novel, The Salt Eaters (1980).
After a decade in Atlanta, Bambara relocated once again, this time to Philadelphia. She began teaching script writing at the Scribe Video Center. The move allowed Bambara to explore her interest in film while also nurturing upcoming talent. As always, Bambara continued to work on her writing, completing two novels, nine screenplays, and the third volume of short stories.
Unfortunately, Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993. Toni Cade Bambara died two years later in a Philadelphia hospital on December 9, 1995. She was 56 years old and was survived by her mother and daughter. In the years following her death, Bambara’s unfinished works Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions (1996) and Those Bones are Not My Child (1999) were released.
- “Bambara, Toni Cade 1939—.” 2018. Encyclopedia.com. June 27, 2018. https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/history/historians-miscellaneous-biographies/toni-cade-bambara.
- Goodnough, Abby. 1995. “Toni Cade Bambara, a Writer and Documentary Maker, 56.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company. December 11, 1995. https://www.nytimes.com/1995/12/11/nyregion/toni-cade-bambara-a-writer-and-documentary-maker-56.html.
- Holmes, Linda Janet. n.d. “Toni Cade Bambara.” Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. University of Georgia Libraries. Accessed September 6, 2022. https://georgiawritershalloffame.org/honorees/toni-cade-bambara.
- Horsley, Sarah K. n.d. “Toni Cade Bambara.” FemBio. Accessed September 6, 2022. https://www.fembio.org/english/biography.php/woman/biography/toni-cade-bambara/.
- Stone, Jennifer. 2004. “Toni Cade Bambara.” Pennsylvania Center for the Book. Pennsylvania State University. 2004. https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/literary-cultural-heritage-map-pa/bios/Bambara__Toni_Cade.
- Yoo, Jiwon Amy. 2019. “Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995).” Blackpast.org. August 5, 2019. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/bambara-toni-cade-1939-1995/.
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