Toni Cade Bambara

A few weeks ago I was asked to write a few thoughts about Toni Cade Bambara, the writer and social activist who died in 1995.

I think I first met Toni through Mary Helen Washington when Toni was holed up in Mary Helen’s spare room writing an overdue script for WGBH-TV in Boston; I’m pretty sure she was writing about Hurston. She had 48 hours to deliver and most of it was not yet written.

 In the 1980s I was teaching at MIT in what was then called The Writing Program, when a group of mainly, but not exclusively, women drew up a proposal for a Women’s Studies program. I was a member of that initial board. Many of us offered cross-registered courses. I developed one called Black Women Writers: Texts and Critics, and got funding to invite a few writers and critics to campus.

 At the same time, I was head of the Writing Program Speakers Committee, so there was considerable overlap as speakers came for class meetings and larger gatherings open to the public. They included Nellie McKay, Deborah McDowell, Dorothy Sterling, Gwendolyn Brooks, Alice Walker, Ann Petry, and Dorothy West among others, to give you a taste of those days.

A few of us who admired or were, as I was, teaching Toni’s work, invited her to campus. Her fee for meeting with one or two classes and then giving a public talk in the evening was $1,000 per day plus expenses. Toni came a few times as a speaker and once as a short-term artist in residence. Of course her warmth, brilliance and wit always left people wanting more of her time and energy.

Her visits were wonderful occasions. She spoke about her work, answered specific questions, asked questions, drew students into real discussions and often linked it all to the larger political context of the day or that of the period in which the writing was set.

 Her talks often began with one or more of her famous revamped fairy tales – – a serio-comic, socio-politico-feminist analysis of Goldilocks and The Three Bears, for example; they were a sort of mental limbering up exercise that always caused widespread aha! moments throughout her audience. 

 My last visit with Toni was when I drove her back to her hotel after a day of classes and an evening program in which she discussed her Atlanta murders work in progress. We went to the piano lounge for a nightcap.

 The pianist was into a lovely American songbook groove, and Toni and I stayed late playing an impromptu fill in the blank game. “The smile of Garbo and the scent of roses/The waiter whistling as the last bar closes.” Or, “…Except perhaps in spring/But I should never think of spring…” And, a few drinks into it “…The greatest thing/You’ll ever learn…”

We both had a not particularly secret fantasy of being a night club singer (too bad I can’t carry a tune) and both had the quirky gift of remembering the most obscure lyrics to endless numbers of wonderful songs – – if he played it, one of us knew it by heart. We stayed through the set.

When Toni died, folks in Women’s Studies, moved by the depth of our feelings of loss, held a memorial gathering of readings, remembrances, and good stories. The sizeable room was full.

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