TONI (MILTONA MIRKIN) CADE BAMBARA—activist and remarkable cultural worker, was born on March 25, 1939 in Harlem, New York. As a child, she saw Langston Hughes give presentations at the local library, inherited street smarts from the elder women who looked after her, and stoked her social curiosities through the open- door policy practiced by many apartment buildings and local shops. From a young age, her parents enrolled her in The Apollo, Speaker’s Corner, Michaux’s Book Store, and other neighborhood “schools” where she “learned the power of the word and the particularity of the Afro-centric perspective [and] to appreciate the continuity of the community’s wisdoms.”
Bambara first entered the City University of New York in the late 1950s as a Queens College undergraduate studying Theater Arts and English Literature. Upon graduation in 1959, she traveled to Italy to study theatrical performance, and then returned to New York City to work as a welfare social worker and occupational therapist. She was a multi-faceted artist who learned dance, mime, and writing as she spent time in the Lower East Side and Harlem around UMBRA, the Beats, and other counter-cultural scenes. In 1961, Bambara enrolled in the City College of New York for a master’s program in American Literature. Bambara’s 1964 M.A. thesis, “The American Adolescent Apprentice Novel,” would inform the short fiction that she began to write through the mid-60s for Liberator Magazine (for which she was also a book reviews editor), Negro Digest, and Redbook.
Bambara’s 1960s early interventions in Black/women’s studies at the City College of New York—as part of a wave of US uprisings on campuses and cities—inspired Black and Puerto Rican students and teachers in 1969 to take over the campus and create “Harlem University.” In fall 1969, Bambara moved to Livingston College, a semi-autonomous college in Rutgers University. She brought several years of counter-institution-building with her as she collaborated alongside Aijaz Ahmad, Miguel Algarin, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and A.B. Spellman.
Her 1970 mass-produced anthology, The Black Woman, assembled Black and Third World feminist women, including students and teachers from City College and CUNY. In 1971, her Tales and Stories for Black Folks combined various fiction models to remix the grounds on which counter-canons could emerge. Her 1972 short fiction collection, Gorilla, My Love, centered Black women and children protagonists, with a deceptively laconic pedagogy that centered fallible characters in the process of absorbing life lessons.
After resigning from a tenured position at Livingston in 1974, Bambara moved to Atlanta, where she contributed to an outpouring of cultural and political networks of Black Arts, Black Power, and Third World consciousness across “Blacksouth.” Her 1977 short fiction collection, The Sea Birds are Still Alive, embedded transnational solidarity lessons from her 1973 visit to Cuba (the first of three in her life) and 1975 visit to Vietnam. Her 1980 novel, The Salt Eaters, posed the question—“are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well? . . . cause wholeness is no trifling matter”—to conjoin healing and revolution for a new embattled generation under Reagan’s neoliberal shock doctrines. Her introduction to the 1981 anthology This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, blessed a new generation of Third World radical women coming together in a way that The Black Woman had done a decade earlier.
Her 1980s-90s creation of and advocacy for Black independent cinema pivoted her radical politics onto movie theater and television screens. After moving to Philadelphia in 1985, Bambara collaborated with Louis Massiah, Founder and Executive Director of Scribe Video Center. As she had revitalized Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy in an early 70s screenplay, Bambara created films on W.E.B. DuBois and Cecil B. Moore that reached the Philadelphia public WHYY-TV channel. Toni Cade Bambara died of colon cancer on December 9, 1995. She was 56 years old. In 1999 and 2000, Bambara’s editor Toni Morrison posthumously published her collection Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, as well as Bambara’s magnum opus, Those Bones Are Not My Child, which chronicles how people in Atlanta mourned and organized for justice after at least 28 Black children, teens, and adults were mysteriously killed from 1979 to 1981. In 2004, Karma Bambara Smith donated her mother’s archives to Spelman College, where they thrive today.
MAKEBA LAVAN is a doctoral student and contributing editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research focuses on (African) American Studies, Speculative Fiction and Popular Culture. In addition to her studies, she teaches English composition and literature courses at Lehman College.
CONOR TOMÁS REED is an archivist, doctoral student, educator, and organizer at the City University of New York, a contributing editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, and a co-founding participant in the Free University of New York City. Conor’s dissertation-in-progress is entitled CUNY will be Free: Black, Puerto Rican, and Feminist Compositions, Literatures, and Studies in the City College of New York and New York City, 1960-1980.