Thabiti Lewis is the author of Ballers of the New School: Race and Sports in America (Third World Press, 2010) and of the forthcoming edited book, Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara (University Press of Mississippi, Spring 2012)
Every time I talk or write about Toni Cade Bambara I laugh thinking about how a graduate school professor attempted to convince me her work was too narrow for a dissertation topic. Bambara would certainly have chuckled at his ignorance. Anyone who knows a little bit about her work is aware of how her work embraces many elements at one time. Indeed her vision is what literary critic Joyce A. Joyce once called “a panoramic” because she explores the full scope of Black life and culture in her fiction from history, feminism, and geology to blues, jazz, clairvoyance, spiritual renewal, religion, cinematography and physics. A Black Arts movement writer, her use of West African religions, and African and African American folk culture reflect African American literary scholars such as myself are interested in exploring: (1) how social, historical, and political conditions frame and have framed production; or (2) how African descended peoples in the United States and throughout the African Diaspora have produced texts.
Given her enormous talent and contribution to African American life and letters, I am puzzled why there has not been SIGNIFICANT attention paid to her work. We are thankful for good friend and long-time editor Toni Morrison for her commitment to Bambara's legacy, as well as Linda Holmes and Cheryl Wall who published an important book honoring her memory, Savoring the Salt, in 2008. Still, since her death in 1995 there remains a huge void in the amount of critical attention paid to Bambara’s vision and extraordinary creative talent. Her fiction, especially her two novels, can be intimidating because of panoramic lens required for understanding her artistic vision that conjures stories that convert elements/invisible pieces of African and African American culture into a whole. Her literary purpose is one of saving lives or spirits where there are voids, particularly regarding women and children. As she explains in “Salvation is the Issue,” what she works to do is “to produce stories that save our lives."
I hope that when my edited volume of her interviews, Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara is released in April 2012, people will peruse it to gain a better understanding of this outstanding writer, community worker, and film maker. What readers will learn is that Bambara was talking and doing "Womanism" before it received a name as such. We need a revival of Bambara and her legacy similar to the type of revival Zora Neale Hurston's work received several decades ago.