Toni Cade Bambara

American author, activist, professor

Toni Cade Bambara, born Miltona Mirkin Cade (March 25, 1939 – December 9, 1995) was an African-American author, documentary film-maker, social activist and college professor.

Quotes edit

Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (1996) edit

"Education of a Storyteller" edit

  • It was Grandma Dorothy who taught me critical theory, who steeped me in the tradition of Afrocentric aesthetic regulations, who trained me to understand that a story should be informed by the emancipatory impulse that characterizes our storytelling trade in these territories as exemplified by those freedom narratives which we've been trained to call slave narratives for reasons too obscene to mention, as if the "slave" were an identity and not a status interrupted by the very act of fleeing, speaking, writing, and countering the happy-darky propaganda. She taught that a story should contain mimetic devices so that the tale is memorable, shareable, that a story should be grounded in cultural specificity and shaped by the modes of Black art practice-call-and-response but one modality that bespeaks a communal ethos. I would later read Fanon on the subject-"To speak is to assume a culture and to bear responsibility for a civilization." Later still, I read Paolo Freire, speaking on activist pedagogy, engaged cultural work. "The purpose of educational forms is to reflect and encourage the practice of freedom."
  • But in the storytelling arenas, from kitchen tales to outdoor university anecdotes, "women's morality" was much more expansive, interesting, it took on the heroic-Harriet T. and Ida B. and the women who worked with W. E. B. Du Bois, the second wife of Booker T. and the Mother Divine of the Peace and Co-op Movement, and Claudia Jones, organizer from Trinidad who was deported during the Crackdown, when the national line shifted from "blacks as inferior" to "blacks as subversive" and wound up in a stone quarry prison and wrote "In every bit as hard as they hit me." These women were characterized as "morally exemplary," meaning courageous, disciplined, skilled and brilliant, responsive to responsibility for and accountable to the community. The other type of memorable tale bound up in these women heroics was tales of resistance-old and contemporary-insurrections, flight, abolition, warfare in alliance with Seminoles and Narragansetts during the period of European enslavement; the critical roles men and women played in the revolutionary overthrow of slavery; and in the Reconstruction self-help enterprises founded, the self-governing townships founded, the political convention convened and progressive legislation pressed through; and in days since the mobilization, organization, agitation, legislation, economic boycotts, protest demonstrations, rent strikes, parades, consumer-cooperative organizations.
  • Grandma Dorothy, in an effort to encourage our minds to leap, would tell us, "Of course we know how to walk on the water, of course we know how to fly; fear of sinking, though, sometimes keeps us from the first crucial move, then too, the terrible educations you liable to get is designed to make you destruct the journey entire. So send your minds on home to the motherland and just tell the tale, you little honeys." And my mama-not one to traffic in metaphors usually, being a very scientific woman-would add, "Yeah, speak your speak, 'cause every silence you maintain is liable to become first a lump in your throat, then a lump in your lymphatic system."

"What It Is I Think I'm Doing Anyhow" edit

In The Writer on Her Work edited by Janet Sternburg (1990)

  • Winter 1979. We are now in the fourth year of the last quarter of the twentieth century. And the questions that face the millions of us on the earth are-in whose name will the twenty-first century be claimed? Can the planet be rescued from the psychopaths? Where are the evolved, poised-for-light adepts who will assume the task of administering power in a human interest, of redefining power as being not the privilege or class right to define, deform, and dominate but as the human responsibility to define, transform, and develop?
  • Writing is one of the ways I participate in struggle-one of the ways I help to keep vibrant and resilient that vision that has kept the Family going on. Through writing I attempt to celebrate the tradition of resistance, attempt to tap Black potential, and try to join the chorus of voices that argues that exploitation and misery are neither inevitable nor necessary. Writing is one of the ways I participate in the transformation-one of the ways I practice the commitment to explore bodies of knowledge for the usable wisdoms they yield. In writing, I hope to encourage the fusion of those disciplines whose split (material science versus metaphysics versus aesthetics versus politics versus...) predisposes us to accept fragmented truths and distortions as the whole. Writing is one of the ways I do my work in the world. There are no career labels for that work, no facile terms to describe the tasks of it. Suffice to say that I do not take lightly the fact that I am on the earth at this particular time in human history, and am here as a member of a particular soul group and of a particular sex, having this particular adventure as a Pan-Africanist-socialist-feminist in the United States. I figure all that means something about what I'm here to understand and to do.
  • I'm interested in usable truths. Which means rising above my training, thinking better than I've been taught, developing a listening habit, making the self available to intelligence, engaging in demystification, and seeking out teachers at every turn. In many respects the writings are notebooks I'm submitting to those teachers for examination.
  • When I look back on the body of book reviews I've produced in the past fifteen years, for all their socioideolitero brilliant somethinorother, the underlying standard always seemed to be-Does this author here genuinely love his/her community?
  • The greatest challenge in writing, then, in the earlier stages was to strike a balance between candor, honesty, integrity, and truth-terms that are fairly synonomous for crossword puzzlers and thesaurus ramblers but hard to equate as living actions.
  • Certain kinds of poisons, for example-rage, bitterness, revenge-don't need to be in the atmosphere, not to mention in my mouth.
  • I don't, for example, conjure up characters for the express purpose of despising them, of breaking their humps in public. I used to be astounded at Henry James et al., so nice nasty about it too, soooo refined. Gothic is of no interest to me. I try not to lend energy to building grotesqueries, depicting morbid relationships, dramatizing perversity.
  • If I'm not laughing while I work, I conclude that I am not communicating nourishment, since laughter is the most sure-fire healant I know. I don't know all my readers, but I know well for whom I write. And I want for them no less than I want for myself-wholesomeness. It all sounds so la-di-da and tra-la-la. I can afford to be sunny. I'm but one voice in the chorus. The literature(s) of our time are a collective effort, dependent on so many views, on so many people's productions.
  • There aren't even phrases in the languages for half the things happening just on the block where I live, not yet anyhow.
  • I read everybody I can get to, and I appreciate the way "American literature" is being redefined now that the Black community is dialoguing without defensive postures, now that the Puerto Rican writers are coming through loud and clear, and the Chicano and Chicana writers, and Native American and Asian-American.
  • For my own writing, I prefer the upbeat.
  • Muhammad Ali, in his autobiography, I Am the Greatest, defines a champion as one who takes the telling blow on the chin and hits the canvas hard, can't possibly rally, arms shot, energy spent, the very weight of the body too heavy a burden for the legs to raise, can't possibly get up. So you do. And you keep getting up. The Awakening by Kate Chopin is not my classic. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is. Sylvia Plath and the other obligatory writers on women's studies list-the writers who hawk despair, insanity, alienation, suicide, all in the name of protesting woman's oppression, are not my mentors. I was rasied on stories of Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells, Paul Robeson, and my grandmother, Annie, whom folks in Atlanta still remember as an early Rosa Parks.
  • The short story is a piece of work. The novel is a way of life. When I replay the tapes on file in my head, tapes of speeches I've given at writing conferences over the years, I invariably hear myself saying "A writer, like any other cultural worker, like any other member of the community, ought to try to put her/his skills in the service of the community."
  • Since the breakthrough achieved in the sixties by the Neo-Black Arts Movement, the possibilities are stunning. Characters that have been waiting in the wings for generations, characters that did not fit into the roster of stereotypes, can now be brought down center stage.
  • I'm attempting to blueprint for myself the merger of these two camps: the political and the spiritual. The possibilities of healing that split are exciting. The implications of actually yoking those energies and of fusing that power quite take my breath away.

The Salt Eaters (1980) edit

  • Got to give it all up, the pain, the hurt, the anger and make room for lovely things to rush in and fill you full.
  • She would not break her discipline to comfort herself in a shallow way. Would no more break discipline with her Self than she would her covenant with God.
  • Then the silence. A whole generation silent
  • Then M’Dear Sophie always said, “Find meaning where you’re put, Vee.” So she exhaled deeply and tried to relax and stick it out and pay attention.”
  • "I’m available to any and every adventure of the human breath.”
  • Take away the miseries and you take away some folks’ reason for living. Their conversation piece anyway.
  • Silence. Stillness. To give her soul a chance to attend its own affairs at its own level.
  • “Keep the focus on the action not the institution; don’t confuse the vehicle with the objective; all cocoons are temporary and disappear”
  • So used to being unwhole and unwell, one forgot what it was to walk upright and see clearly, breathe easily, think better than was taught, be better than one was programmed to believe—so concentration was necessary to help a neighbor experience the best of herself or himself. For people sometimes believed that it was safer to live with complaints, was necessary to cooperate with grief, was all right to become an accomplice in self-ambush.

Miscellaneous quotations edit

  • There have been a lot of things in ... the Black experience for which there are no terms, certainly not in English at this moment. There are a lot of aspects of consciousness for which there is no vocabulary, no structure in the English language which would allow people to validate that experience through language. I'm trying to find a way to do that....I'm trying to break open and get at the bones, deal with symbols as though they were atoms. I'm trying to find out not only how a word gains meaning, but how a word gains power."
    • Bettina Aptheker Tapestries of Life: Women's Work, Women's Consciousness, and the Meaning of Daily Experience (1989)

Quotes about Toni Cade Bambara edit

  • I read the same five people over and over again. But it’s Toni Morrison; Toni Cade Bambara is a huge influence...If you want to talk about studying how somebody can use voice, her fiction is absolutely astonishing in that way. But she was also a genius in sort of a million ways. She was a cultural essayist and very clear about how she understood herself and her work in the world. A hugely influential work for me is her essay, “What It Is I Think I’m Doing Anyhow,” where she talks about, what is the work of a writer? What is the work of what I write? And what are the traditions that I’m going to actively be pulling from? She was really clear—again, sort of like Morrison, they were very close friends—she was really clear about when she was writing about Black women, that she was not writing into the tradition of white feminist literature. She name-checked “The Yellow Wallpaper” and just was like, I’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in talking about characters who are, in her opinion, wallowing in this thing. These characters are going to be actively engaged with the world around them in a very specific way. And that’s the tradition that I’m writing into because that’s the cultural tradition that I understand and see around me in the people around me.
  • As the writer Toni Cade Bambara once put it, the role of the artist is to "make revolution irresistible." Make no mistake about it: overthrowing the fossil-fuel industry is nothing short of a revolution, a rebirth.
  • When contemporary feminist movement first began, feminist writings and scholarship by black women was groundbreaking. The writings of black women like Cellestine Ware, Toni Cade Bambara, Michele Wallace, Barbara Smith, and Angela Davis, to name a few, were all works that sought to articulate, define, speak to and against the glaring omissions in feminist work, the erasure of black female presence.
    • bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)
  • She made revolution irresistible
    • Louis Massiah, attributed in Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (1996)
  • In a uniquely distinct way, Audre Lorde's and Toni Cade Bambara's presence in Bridge also impacted Bridge's success. Audre and Toni were exemplary sister-writers, emblematic of that great surge of Black feminist writing spilling into our hands in 1970s and 80s. As "sisters of the yam"... they stood up in unwavering solidarity with the rest of us "sisters of the rice, sisters of the corn, sisters of the plantain" and that mattered. It helped put Bridge, coedited by two "unknown" Chicana writers, on the political-literary map. All in all, it was a brave moment in feminist history.
  • The writer and activist Toni Cade Bambara, who first introduced This Bridge Called My Back twenty years ago, countered institutionalized amnesia in her own dangerous writings before her untimely death from cancer in 1995. She wrote in her novel Those Bones Are Not My Child: "Maybe you are a crazy woman, but you'd rather embrace madness than amnesia." In this statement resides our shared resistance mission as women-of-color writers and activists living inside the numbing forgetfulness of an "occupied América." Our task is to remember...Toni Cade Bambara believed that we women of color have not forgotten, not in that cave of memory where the freest part of us resides, the basic elements of our lives: the mother-ground that brings sweet sustenance to the world's children; the mother-ground in which we finally lay down our bones and brain to rest. A women-of-color movement is a movement in the act of remembering earth.
  • In her novel The Salt Eaters, published in the year before This Bridge Called My Back, Toni Cade Bambara proffered this question to women of color: "Can you afford to be whole?" It is a question to ask myself, it is a question to ask my country.
  • my "sisters of the corn," as Toni Cade Bambara called Native women.
  • I don't know if she knew the heart cling of her fiction. Its pedagogy, its use, she knew very well, but I have often wondered if she knew how brilliant at it she was. There was no division in her mind between optimism and ruthless vigilance; between aesthetic obligation and the aesthetics of obligation. There was no doubt whatsoever that the work she did had work to do. She always knew what her work was for. Any hint that art was over there and politics was over here would break her up into tears of laughter, or elicit a look so withering it made silence the only intelligent response. More often she met the art/politics fake debate with a slight wave-away of the fingers on her beautiful hand, like the dismissal of a mindless, desperate fly who had maybe two little hours of life left...Of course she knew...Perhaps my wondering whether or not she realized how original, how rare her writing is is prompted by the fact that I knew it was not her only love. She had another one. Stronger. As the Essays and Conversations portion of this collection testifies, (especially after the completion of her magnum opus about the child murders in Atlanta) she came to prefer film: writing scripts, making film, critiquing, teaching, analyzing it and enabling others to do the same. The Bombing of Osage Avenue and W. E. B. Du Bois: A Biography in Four Voices contain sterling examples of her uncompromising gifts and her determination to help rescue a genre from its powerful social irrelevancy. In fiction, in essays, in conversation one hears the purposeful quiet of this ever vocal woman; feels the tenderness in this tough Harlem/Brooklyn girl; joins the playfulness of this profoundly serious writer. When turns of events wearied the gallant and depleted the strong, Toni Cade Bambara, her prodigious talent firmly in hand, stayed the distance.
    • Toni Morrison, preface to Deep Sightings & Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations (1996)
  • I read writers like Toni Cade Bambera and Toni Morrison because they write fiction that is not boring or alienating to me but moving
    • Marge Piercy "An Appreciation of Joanna Russ" in Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt (1983) First published as "From Where I Work," in American Poetry Review 6, no. 3 (1977).
  • I look everywhere for signs of that fusion I have glimpsed in the women's movement, and most recently in Nicaragua. I turn to Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters or Ama Ata Aidoo's Our Sister Killjoy or James Baldwin's Just above My Head...This kind of art-like the art of so many others uncanonized in the dominant culture-is not produced as a commodity, but as part of a long conversation with the elders and with the future. Such artists draw on a tradition in which political struggle and spiritual continuity are meshed. Nothing need be lost, no beauty sacrificed. The heart does not turn to a stone.
  • the purpose of a writer, as Toni Cade Bambara said, "is to make revolution irresistible"
    • Sheree Thomas Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements (2015)

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