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Thinking of Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995)
Wanda Coleman’s eloquent post “To Fill the Absence” made me think of ways in which remembering can teach us so much. And Rigoberto’s inimitable combination of cheerleader and reprimanding school ma’am in his piece, “Casa Pequeñita”, reminded me of the importance of giving thanks.
For some reason, my mind went to Toni Cade Bambara who died some years ago. The thing is, I could not say that Toni and I were friends because we only met once, and exchanged emails briefly after that meeting. And yet, I knew she was my friend because of that meeting and because of what she did when we met.
It was long enough ago—sometime in 1993 or 1994—for me to know that I was an insecure writer, someone quite sure that I was a bit of an imposter in the game, and that I would never get over the uneasiness of always feeling deep awe and worthlessness around writers who seemed to be know their power and worth, who had great success and who seemed completely self-assured about what they were doing. Some were even my age, a few younger than me.
I know, too, that I was thinking a lot about this thing called “my career as a writer”. What did I need to do to make myself a real writer? I had a book published, but I could list all the handicaps that came with whatever success I had. In other words, I had managed to construct full-blown narratives of why whatever success I had was some kind of fluke or had come because of the mercy of others. I put it best in a poem I wrote referring to Derek Walcott:
I was jealous when at twenty, I found
a slim volume of poems you had written
before you reached sixteen. It has stitched in me
a strange sense of a lie, as if all this
will be revealed to be dust—as if I learned
to pretend one day, and have yet to be found out.
I clearly was not writing about what I felt like at twenty, but about what I felt like in my early thirties.
That is when I met Toni Cade Bambara. We were in Ottawa. I remember this only because I remember the museum with massive totem poles rising many stories high in the spacious glass building. We were at a conference. The kind of conference that made you feel as if you were, somehow, a forgettable speck in a sea of relevance.
I think I went to a session in which she was a presenter, and she talked with sharp wit, with laughter and liveliness. I am not sure how we were introduced or if we were introduced. Perhaps she heard me read or say something, but quite suddenly she said to me, “Come, let’s get out of here.”
I followed her like I would follow a favorite adventure filled aunt. She talked quickly and made jokes about the discussion, and she said she needed to get something real to eat and to clear her head. So we took off for a few hours, had a meal, chatted about so much and so little. She let me talk about my writing. She was interested in my background, in Ghana and Jamaica and the paths that led me to this conference.
She told me about her work. She did not make much of the fact that what I knew about her was mostly the headline stuff: that she was famous, well-published and capable of generating a serious fan following. I did not know her work very well. For her, all of that was just nonsense, really. She did not embarrass me about it. She was trying to make ends meet, living from day to day, hoping to write more, make more films, and to produce good work.
I will never forget how generous this dreadlocked, intense woman was about the stories she remembered about being engaged in the struggle for social justice and about how important it was to be that way. She let me know that she enjoyed what I had said and was encouraging to me about my writing.
The thing is, most of the time was spent just being two people trying to make sense of this business of being writers. It impressed me that she found it all a little ridiculous, this, despite her years in the business.
After several hours, we walked back to the conference, exchanged contact information and thanked each other for making a miserable and boring day come alive for a minute. Toni Cade Bambara did not forget me after that. She mentioned my name to some folks here and there, and with little fanfare, she opened these doors for me. It is telling that I can’t even trace back what specific doors she opened.
The best I could do in return was teach her work every time I taught African American literature, which was once, sometimes twice a year. And every time, I would say with pride, “She is the kindest, funniest woman in the world. I met her.”
Her real gift to me, however, was acceptance. That giddy, comfortable friendliness that she showed to me—that commanding reassurance, knowing that I may have been ill-at-ease. She said, “Come, let’s get out of here,” to a complete stranger who was a fellow writer. Her gesture gave me so much confidence, so much ease about where I was as a writer and that it was going to be alright.
In the grand scheme of things, I was a blip in her life. I would never register in any account of Toni Cade Bambara’s life. Why should I? But she registered in my life for what she gave me that day.
Toni died two years later. She had actually being ill when we met, but it had not come up. It was hard to know how to respond. I wanted to mourn, and did so, but quietly and privately, because I did not feel I had a right to do so. I remembered a few of her emails with fondness.
I don’t do what she did for me often enough. Sometimes I forget that I have earned enough success and understanding of the relative nature of that success to at least not be insecure about what I do. I forget that I am the one who should say to a younger writer, “Come, let’s get out of here and talk.” It is good to remember this.
Yes, Rigoberto, sometimes this is quite a lovely little familia.