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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Toni Cade Bambara

In a revealing essay called “Black English” (1972), Toni Cade Bambara summarized those attitudes which by 1970 had become the dramatic center of the fifteen stories included in her first short story collection, Gorilla My Love (1972). One of those attitudes, that “language is [as often] used to mis-inform, to mis-direct, to smoke out, to screen out, to block out, to intimidate as it is to inform,” is one theme of the title story of that collection; another, that “language certainly determines how we perceive the world” (limiting or expanding it), is the thematic core of “Playing with Punjab,” “Maggie of the Green Bottles,” and, especially, “My Man Bovanne.” As superb a linguist as she was satirist, as splendid a storyteller as she was cultural ecologist, and as crucial a thinker as she was intrepid force for social transformation, Toni Cade, adopting the name Bambara, which she discovered as a signature on a sketchbook in her great-grandmother’s trunk, grew up like most of the narrators of her fiction, in an urban neighborhood whose rituals shaped her critical imagination.

In the New York City neighborhoods of Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Queens, she and her brother Walter (now a painter) cut through the pernicious urban miasma which her fiction rigorously, often humorously, assails. Here in the “games, chants, jingles” of her peers, in the eloquence of the Seventh Avenue street speakers, in the elegance of the church-inspired club-inspired music of her neighborhood, in the talk and humor at home, and in the “space” allowed her by her parents, Walter and Helen (Henderson) Cade, who understood the necessity of encouraging a child’s interior life, Toni Cade Bambara began to forge the language characteristic of the folk-based music, poetry, and prose of African American blues-jazz expressive modes. She completed a bachelor’s degree in theater and literature from Queens College in 1959 and a master’s in modern American literature from the City College of New York in 1963, studying, subsequently, at the Commedia del’ Arte in Milan. She also studied filmmaking in England.

It is not surprising that during a period of tremendous political activism in which she matured—the struggle for civil rights in America, the struggle for the economic, political, and cultural empowerment of black Americans, an international resistance of colonialism, a demand for political and cultural self-determination in the Caribbean and on the continents of Africa and Asia, and a vigorous protest against war and nuclear weaponry—many young African American intellectuals, like Toni Cade Bambara, found a common cause. Still, her personal voice continues to find its deepest resonance in the cadences of the womanly themes of re-creation and renewal found in “My Man Bovanne,” the story which opens Gorilla My Love. The pervasive melody harmonizing her work and embracing the specific emphasis of recent African American women writers is the theme of “a certain way of being in the world,” nowhere more fully orchestrated than in her novel, The Salt Eaters (1980), and in her second book of short stories, The Sea Birds Are Still Alive (1977).

Eleanor W. Traylor
Howard University

In the Heath Anthology
My Man Bovanne (1972)

Other Works
"Black Theatre," Black Expressions: Essays by and about Black Americans in the Creative Arts (1969)
The Black Woman: An Anthology, edited, with contributions by Toni Cade (1970)
Tales and Stories for Black Folks, edited, with contributions by Toni Cade Bambara (1971)
Zora, WGBH (television script) (1971)
"Black English," Curriculum Approaches From a Black Perspective (1972)
"The Johnson Girls," Soul Show, NEA (television script) (1972)
Gorilla My Love (1972)
The Sea Birds are Still Alive: Collected Stories (1977)
The Salt Eaters (1980)
The Long Night, ABC (television script) (1981)

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The Lesson
Text of Bambara's short story.

In Praise of Toni Cade Bambara
A biography, a text of Praise to the Writer, and video files of Bambara performing a reading.

Perspectives in American Literature
Paul Reuben's site; offers a list of primary works and secondary resources.

Vigilance and Heart-Cling
An essay on Bambara by Toni Morrison.

Secondary Sources