Early life and education
Miltona Mirkin Cade was born in Harlem, New York, to parents Walter and Helen (Henderson) Cade. She grew up in Harlem, Bedford Stuyvesant (Brooklyn), Queens and New Jersey. At the age of six, she changed her name from Miltona to Toni, and then in 1970 changed her name to include the name of a West African ethnic group, Bambara, after finding the name written as part of a signature on a sketchbook discovered in a trunk among her great-grandmother's other belongings. With her new name, she felt it represented "the accumulation of experiences", in which she had finally discovered her purpose in the world. In 1970, Bambara had a daughter, Karma Bene Bambara Smith, along with her man Gene Lewis. Gene Lewis was an actor and a family friend.
Bambara attended Queens College in 1954, where almost the entire undergraduate student population were white. At first, she planned to become a doctor, but her passion for arts directed her to become an English major. As Bambara had a passion for jazz and different forms of art in general, she became a member of the Dance Club of Queens College. She also took part in theater, where she was designated as stage manager and costume designer. Bambara was among those who participated in folk singing when it first emerged in the 1950s, in which the songs had a political message inscribed in them. Bambara graduated from Queens College with a B.A. in Theater Arts/English Literature in 1959.
Work and study
Later on, she went on to study mime at the Ecole de Mime Etienne Decroux in Paris, France. She became interested in dance before completing her master's degree at City College, New York in 1964, while serving as program director of Colony Settlement House in Brooklyn. She also worked for New York social services and as a recreation director in the psychiatric ward of Metropolitan Hospital. From 1965 to 1969 she was with City College's "Search for Education, Elevation, Knowledge" (SEEK) program and helped with its' development. She taught English, published material and worked with SEEK's black theatre group. Bambara was also an English instructor for the New Careers Program of Newark, New Jersey in 1969. She was made assistant professor of English at Rutgers University's new Livingston College in 1969 and continued until 1974. She was visiting professor in Afro-American Studies at Emory University and at Atlanta University (1977), where she also taught at the School of Social Work (until 1979). Bambara was production-artist-in-residence at Neighborhood Arts Center (1975–79), at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri (1976) and at Atlanta's Spelman College (1978–79). From 1986 she taught film-script writing at Louis Massiah's Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia. Bambara also held lectures at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, where she conducted literary readings.
Toni Cade Bambara was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1993 and two years later died in Philadelphia, PA.