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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)

[7154] Danny Lyon, Atlanta, Georgia–High School Student Taylor Washington Is Arrested at Lebs Delicatessen–His Eighth Arrest (1963), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4843].

In addition to writing many stories and novels, Toni Cade Bambara was a civil rights activist, teacher, and editor. She lived in Harlem for the first ten years of her life, and her fiction reflects her intimate knowledge of city spaces. She also traveled extensively in adulthood, making trips to Cuba and Vietnam and a move to Atlanta. Bambara was committed to using her skills as a writer not only to entertain, but also to educate and contribute to social and political movements. When not writing, she was fervently devoted to activism in other forms. Early in her life she worked “in the trenches” to help minority city dwellers, and late in her life she made activist films, including a television documentary that spotlighted police brutality. In the 1970s and 1980s, she was also involved in the women’s and black liberation movements, and before her death she encouraged many young southern writers to continue to use literature as a tool for social revolution.

In her fiction, Bambara told stories about African Americans in the rural South and the urban North and of immigrants from the Caribbean. She depicted vibrant, though certainly not trouble-free, black communities whose residents were coming to terms with the changes in American society. In a 1982 taped interview with Kay Bonetti of the American Audio Prose Library, Bambara said, “When I look back at my work with any little distance the two characteristics that jump out at me is one, the tremendous capacity for laughter, but also a tremendous capacity for rage.” Both are apparent in most of her works. In “Medley,” for example, we see the laughter shared by women sipping drinks together as well as the frustrations felt by Sweet Pea, the main character, when the men around her act as if her opinion is meaningless. A young feminist who is dedicated to her dream of building a home for herself and her daughter, Sweet Pea, like many nascent feminists at the time, feels uncomfortable “neglecting” or leaving behind the man in her life. Bambara knew that in order to thrive–not just survive–women would need to learn how to adapt to society’s ever-changing rhythms without sacrificing their own identities in the process. In both her fiction and her personal life, Bambara refused to give up the fight, and she continued to work after a cancer diagnosis until her death. She was the epitome of the “liberated woman”–an educated, socially dedicated, creative individual who in every way used the personal to political effect. Bambara’s works include the short story collections Gorilla, My Love (1972) and The Birds Are Still Alive (1977), as well as the novel The Salt Eaters (1978).

Teaching Tips

  • While some students are uncomfortable talking about sexual scenes and issues in class, it is important to address this story’s “shower scenes.” You may want to isolate one of these scenes and read through it with the class, focusing on how Bambara parallels the music that Sweet Pea and Larry create together with their physical intimacy. It may be useful to note that although Sweet Pea seems sexually satisfied, she nonetheless decides that she needs to leave her relationship.
  • Discuss Sweet Pea’s decision to leave her relationship with regard to some of the feminist images provided in this unit and on the American PassagesWeb site. For example, you could analyze her statements about personal independence in light of the following images: [6182] (Woman Power poster); [6190] (I Am a Woman Giving Birth to Myself); and [6191] (Women are Happening). Ask your students to think about Sweet Pea’s struggle for self-determination as part of a larger women’s movement represented in the posters.
  • While the narrative only briefly mentions the Vietnam War, Sweet Pea’s comment about getting “that bloodsucker off our backs” could open the door to a discussion about how and why she identifies with the conflict. Students may be familiar with Muhammad Ali’s stand against the war, and you can use this knowledge as an entrée into a discussion about how and why disenfranchised people frequently sympathize with each other in opposing “the man.” You may also refer interested students to Michael Bibby’s Hearts and Minds: Bodies, Poetry, and Resistance in the Vietnam Era, in which he discusses identification between black nationalists and the Vietcong.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What does Sweet Pea do for a living? Why do the gamblers pay her so much for her service?
  2. Comprehension: As Sweet Pea tells Pot Limit and Sylvia about her return to Larry’s apartment, she admits that she “embroider[s] a little on the homecoming tale” to play to her audience. What does this comment indicate about her reliability as narrator?
  3. Comprehension: How do we know when Sweet Pea is remembering as opposed to storytelling? What is the difference between the two and why is it important?
  4. Context: Locate Sweet Pea’s statements of self-empowerment and resistance to societal double standards for men and women, and consider these statements in relation to Marcia Salo Rizzi’s 1973 poster I Am a Woman Giving Birth to Myself [6190]. Also consider Sweet Pea in relation to Melinda Beck’s drawing, Racism/Sexism [6178]. Do you think that Sweet Pea is “a woman giving birth to herself”? What does this mean?
  5. Context: Muhammad Ali famously refused to fight in the Vietnam War, saying, “Man, ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.” Research Ali’s stance and its aftermath. Also, relate his position to Sweet Pea’s comment that “my nephew’d been drafted and it all seems so wrong to me, our men over there in Nam fighting folks who fighting for the same things we are, to get that bloodsucker off our backs.” Who or what is the bloodsucker, and who is the “our” to whom she refers? Consider Sweet Pea’s opinions and relate them to [6180] (When Women Decide This War Should End, This War Will End poster) and [6217] (It Is a Sin to Be Silent When It Is Your Duty to Protest poster). Should Sweet Pea be more active in opposing the war, or does she have enough to worry about in her personal life?
  6. Context: Compare Sweet Pea’s self-empowerment in “Medley” to Dee/Wangero’s self-empowerment in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” How are they the same? How different? How do you know?
  7. Exploration: Compare Bambara’s use of music, including jazz, in this story to Langston Hughes’s (see Unit 10) and Amiri Baraka’s (see Unit 15) use of jazz in their poetry.
  8. Exploration: Why does Bambara include Larry and Hector’s “best story” about Bam’s funeral? Does it matter that Hector is “not what you’d call a good storyteller”? Consider Sweet Pea’s comment, “There was something in that story about the civil rights workers wanting to make a case cause a white cop had cut Bam down. But looked like Hector didn’t have a hold to that part of the story, so I just don’t know.” Why does Sweet Pea comment on what Hector doesn’t say?
  9. Exploration: Sweet Pea says that her friendships with Pot Limit and Sylvia help her recover from difficult days, but that she worries that no one will “intervene” for Larry in the same way. Consider the role of the African American community in this story. Use the text to identify the values of this community, including its strengths and limitations. You might also compare Bambara’s depiction of community to Zora Neale Hurston’s in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Selected Archive Items

[6178] Melinda Beck, Racism/Sexism (1991), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-115151]. 
Image of a woman gazing into a mirror; her face is labeled with such words as “racism,” “career,” “equal pay,” and “sexism.” Writers like Toni Cade Bambara depict women who feel the pressure of society’s conflicting expectations.

[6180] United Women’s Contingent, When Women Decide This War Should End, This War Will End: Join the United Women’s Contingent on April 24(1971), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-6882]. 
Protest poster against the Vietnam War. The antiwar, civil rights, women’s rights, and gay liberation movements were connected politically and artistically. In 1961, writer and activist Grace Paley founded the Greenwich Village Peace Center, which was integral to draft resistance during the Vietnam War.

[6182] Ivy Bottin, Woman Power (1965), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [POS 6-U.S., no. 548 (C size) <P&P>]. 
The women’s movement sought to change the dominant perception that all women could be satisfied by homemaking. Many feminists argued that liberation must begin at home, where men should share domestic chores.

[6190] Marcia Salo, I Am a Woman Giving Birth to Myself (1973), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [CN POS 6-U.S., no. 306 (C size) <P&P>] and the Times Change Press. 
For many in the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s, there was an intense connection between the personal and the political. Central to these feminists was the fight to gain control over their bodies, as a woman’s ability to control her reproductive fate was necessary for personal and political liberation. The feminists’ resolve to increase education about female anatomy and reproductive health was, at the time, radical.

[6191] Women’s Interart Center, Women are Happening (c. 1973), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Poster advertising a “Mixed Media Happening,” to include workshops on poetry, dance therapy, silkscreen, and Plexiglas sculpture. Writer Toni Cade Bambara was a social activist whose novel The Salt Eaters demonstrates the importance of storytelling in shaping healthy communities.

[6217] Cameron Lawrence, It Is a Sin to Be Silent When It Is Your Duty to Protest (1971), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress. 
Feminist and activist poet Adrienne Rich’s work provokes readers to see the connections between the struggle for women’s rights and other movements, including that against the war in Vietnam.

[7154] Danny Lyon, Atlanta, Georgia– High School Student Taylor Washington Is Arrested at Lebs Delicatessen–His Eighth Arrest (1963), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC4-4843]. 
Photograph of a police officer restraining a young protester. Many writers in the 1960s and 1970s were profoundly affected by the civil rights movement, including activist Toni Cade Bambara. Bambara’s writing focuses on the need for societies to adapt without sacrificing their identities.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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