Personal is Political: Toni Cade Bambara’s “Toni-Isms” – The Feminist Wire

Personal is Political: Toni Cade Bambara’s “Toni-Isms”

By Carole Brown

Beloved Toni:

Just because it’s impossible for me to reach out to hug, speak, or laugh with you on your 75th birthday celebration, doesn’t mean that I can’t reach out to you in spirit. I have saved several of your long letters that you wrote on your favorite long yellow pads in a special place. Yes, I remember your hieroglyphic, scribbly hand-writing and your love for #2 blue Bic pens. Imagine, today you would have a computer and a printer. How did you knock out all those books on your IBM Selectric, and even more medieval, on that old Royal typewriter? You are super-baad!

Carole Brown and Toni Cade Bambara circa 1950s courtesy: Carole Brown

Carole Brown and Toni Cade Bambara circa 1950s
courtesy: Carole Brown

Indeed, we were “Harlem girls” who grew up within 4 blocks of one another. You were on West 151st Street between Amsterdam and Broadway, and me on 147th Street at Convent Avenue. We kind of got separated before I took off for California in 1960, because you moved to Jamaica, Queens and attended high school there. Yes, we wound up on different coasts, but always stayed in contact. So many memories—there was the time when you were only 13 and managed “Toni-style” to get into Birdland by putting your age up to 18. You brought your date by the house to see cousin Ozella, cousin Ken (artist and your frequent typist), Brother Walter Cade, III. (acclaimed artist) to meet your date en route to Birdland. This really blew me away—I was so impressed with your gumption. Yet, I wasn’t too surprised, because while I was listening to the Five Satins’ “In the Still of the Night” and other “Doo-Wop,” you were vibing to Monk and Coltrane. Toni, you were always way ahead of other folks, way ahead in your thoughts, actions, and leadership ability. One of my most favorite of your articles so relevant today is “The Children Who Get Cheated” published in Redbook Magazine (1970) under Toni Cade. It’s like it was written yesterday, and I recommend it to Black History educators and others all the time. It is a “must read.” Absolutely one of your best.

Helen Cade Brehon and Kenneth Morton credit/copyright: Carole Brown

Helen Cade Brehon and Kenneth Morton
credit/copyright: Carole Brown

You have touched thousands of aspiring and seasoned writers, students, and just plain folks worldwide. Your fame has never taken the place of your love for our Black community, because you desired success for everyone you came in contact with—even strangers. Never once did you feel that you should receive disparate treatment because you were a published writer. Never once. Your work was never about you. It was if you helped others. Well, chile, you have done a mammoth job. In all of your interviews, you’ve always mentioned the community. I see you now conducting and teaching writing workshops in Heaven and the first words coming out of your mouth to your students is, “Do you have a plan?”

I treasure every autographed book or personal letter you ever sent me, one of which is your hand-written note transmitting my personal copy of The Salt Eaters, “You are some very special cousin. Do take very good care of your special self. Love, Toni.”

In another letter circa 1985 from Atlanta, you shared an update on your mother, cousin Helen Cade Brehon, “Helen’s fine, leading a performing arts troupe of senior citizens into the sho’ nuff golden age.”

Gonna sign off Toni with a “Toni-ism” that I shared with Karma:

It’s nice, ain’t it, to have your decisions/hunches/deeds affirmed and confirmed? ‘Cause it sure ain’t easy to keep putting one foot in front of the other without a few accolades every now and again that signals yeah, yeah, yeah, that was right.

With all my love and daily thoughts of you,

Cousin Carole

PhotoCarole Brown is a social worker who received her MSW from UC Berkeley in 1977.  Born and bred in Harlem, she relocated to California in 1960, returning home during the “Freedom Summer of 1963.”  During this brief visit, she worked at the Harlem Youth Opportunities Agency (HARYOU), where she became deeply involved in the Cilvil Rights Movement.  Carole was arrested and jailed overnight when she participated in the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park sit-in Baltimore, MD, sponsored by SNCC and CORE on July 4, 1963. Carole is one of the featured authors in her cousin Toni Cade Bambara’s ground breaking 1970 anthology The Black Woman. Returning to California, Carole founded and incorporated a nonprofit organization in 1984, (Women’s Employment Resources Corporation) that she directed until 2006. She continues to research; write grants; mentor youth; and provide needed services and information to single parent households as well as other nonprofit organizations.