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Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays and Conversations.

Toni Cade Bambara. Ed. with a preface by Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1996. 266 pp. $23.00.

Reviewed by

Alice A. Deck University of Illinois

The posthumous publication of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions fills the void I felt open up in my intellectual endeavors when I learned of Toni Cade Bambara's death in 1995. Bambara was part of a major late-twentieth-century renaissance of African American women fiction writers which includes Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, ntozake shange, and Paule Marshall. Though she had not published a book in the fourteen years prior to her death (her research, teaching, and writing had turned to African American film and independent black film makers), a re-reading of her two collections of short stories (Gorilla My Love [1972] and The Sea Birds Are Still Alive [1977]) and of her one novel (The Salt Eaters [1980]) shows that Bambara was a very contemporary writer. She believed in the simultaneity of art and politics, and understood the value of what she wrote in service to the black community. Hence, community activists, cultural workers, and social workers figure prominently in all of her fiction. There is a strong undercurrent of mutual love and respect in the black community in Bambara's world: Children can talk to strangers without fear of harm, older black women are grandmothers to everyone, and men and women are spiritual healers who assist the people in their recovery from dealing with racism and economic exploitation. All of this and more is contained in the stories, essays, and interviews in this latest collection.

Some of the stories in the fiction section of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions first appeared in print in the early 1980s in Essence magazine ("Baby's Breath"), First World ("Luther on Sweet Auburn"), and Image ("War of the Wall"). Of the three remaining stories in this section, "Going Critical" is the most poignantly complex, centering as it does on a terminally ill mother, Clara, and her adult daughter, Honey. During a picnic on the beach, Clara moves between vivid memories of her days as a community activist/organizer and her present conversation with Honey about her impending death. One is tempted to read this as Bambara's coming to terms with her own terminal cancer, primarily because of Clara's visionary optimism - "'They say, Honey, that cancer is the disease of new beginnings, the result of a few cells trying to start things up again'" - and her appeals to Honey that "'. . . you say the words over me, hear? No high-falutin' eulogies, OK? Don't let them lie me into the past tense and try to palm me off on God as somebody I'm not, OK? . . . Cause I'm not at all unhappy . . . . I've still my work to do, whatever shape I'm in. I mean whatever form I'm in, you know?'"

The second half of Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions contains two lengthy essays on African American film (Spike Lee's School Daze and Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust), one on the politics of film making, and three autobiographical pieces. Of these, Louis Masiah's interview with Toni Cade Bambara, "How She Came By Her Name," resonates the longest in my mind. Here we learn more about Bambara's personal life than she was ever willing to reveal in earlier interviews. We learn that she was named Miltona Mirkin Cade at her birth in 1939, in keeping with a tradition among African American parents at that time to name their children after their employers. She renamed herself Toni as a very young child. Many years later, while pregnant with her only child and trying to decide on a name, Toni Cade drew on her admiration for the Bambara and Dogon peoples of West Africa and settled on Bambara as a surname both for herself and her daughter Karma. In addition to information about her re-naming herself, we learn in this interview that she also pieced together an extended family of "grandmothers," "uncles," and "cousins": "Because we came from a tiny family (my mother was an orphan, and my father the son of a runaway), I was always looking for grandmothers because I didn't have any, and everybody else had some. . . . I wanted uncles and cousins, which I didn't have, so I began adopting people in the same way people adopted me." All of this helps us understand Bambara's insistence in all of her fiction on portraying the African American community as one extended family, with the sidewalk in all of her neighborhoods functioning as an open-air living room.

Toni Morrison's "Preface" is an added bonus to this collection. She explains her long relationship with Bambara as her editor at Random House and what she sees as most valuable about all of Bambara's writings. It is a moving tribute from one black woman writer to another, and it is clear that the two had developed a close friendship based in part on a shared respect for and understanding of the vibrancy of African American storytelling.

Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions extends the life of Toni Cade Bambara. It confirms what we already know about her artistry and informs us on personal and political matters that allow us to better understand what she saw as her mission. This collection will be useful in scholarly research and teaching of late twentieth-century African American women writers.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Deck, Alice A.
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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