Articles + Essays
Karma Bambara, circa early 1980's
A Conversation with
Karma Bene Bambara Smith
by Myles E. Johnson
All photos courtesy of the Spelman College Archives & Karma Bene Bambara Smith
Home is an abstract notion. When you are away from home, you look for home in the foreign things. A crack in the building might remind you of an old lover’s smile. The sound of dancing leaves are the laughter of childhood friends. A drink of coffee on the balcony makes the world feel smaller and warmer, perhaps so small and warm that for a brief moment you think your mother is in the next room instead of across the world. I’ve been cherishing these moments since I’ve left Georgia for New York City.
The breeze quickly climbs through my Brooklyn apartment in mid-September and redecorates the space by shuffling papers and placing Autumn coolness where Summer humidity used to be. I’m scheduled to speak to Karma Bene Bambara-Smith, daughter of literary giant Toni Cade Bambara. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia which is also where she grew up. Karma’s legacy is her own, she has a layered career in the entertainment industry in public relations. Her legacy is also part historian which became her duty once her mother died of colon cancer in 1995 at the age of 56.
Bambara-Smith is a fully-formed woman, not a shadow of a giant, but she is her mother’s daughter in the best ways you can imagine: the wisdom, the power, the way she searches for honesty at every moment regardless of the constraints of space and time. She is not afraid to pause. She is a delight.
In her mother’s posthumous collection of fiction and essays, Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, Toni Morrison says of Toni Cade Bambara, “There was no doubt whatsoever that the work she did had work to do.” This lack of doubt was hereditary. Karma Bene Bambara-Smith has this
same sense of cool urgency and responsibility in her presence. She immediately feels like the beloved trope of the warm, strong black woman that makes us feel safe and turns the whole black diaspora into a family reunion. In the tradition of Auntie Maxine Waters, Mother Beyonce Knowles, Sister Maya Angelou, Great Matriarch Cicely Tyson. I know that I do not know her, but my heart, blood, and bones can’t be convinced she is not family.
The most marvelous thing about our talk, I think, is how smaller the world felt. How a legend was in my hometown amongst common folks. How I was in New York City looking a lot like my dreams, although the dreams in childhood did not include sky high rents or rats on the sidewalk. And how this moment was surreal, beyond my imagination, but at the first ‘Hello’ it all melted away. Mrs. Smith was family. I was an attentive nephew or younger cousin. And this was home.
Toni Cade Bambara, Karma, Nikki Giovanni, and Thomas Giovanni, April 1970
Karma with her father Gene Lewis, early1970's
Myles E. Johnson: Hello Mrs. Smith. How are you doing?
Karma Bene Bambara Smith: I’m fine. How are you?
M: Good. I wanted to talk with you about your time Georgia, your life, the work that you’ve done, a couple of questions about your mother, and just to catch up on what you’re doing.
K: Sure. That’s fine.
M: So like me, for much of your life you’ve lived in Georgia. What significance does Georgia hold for you?
K: I would definitely say Atlanta holds great significance. We moved here when I was 4 years old. Pretty much I was raised here. We left when I was 15 and moved to Philadelphia, but even when we left, I always knew I’d come back. No matter what, I’ll always consider Atlanta home. I moved back to Atlanta when I was 21 after I graduated from Howard University. I stayed here a couple of years and left again, but again, I came back in 1999. Even though I’ve lived in other cities, I’ve had long lasting relationships with people in Atlanta.
M: Got you. So on the topic of growing up, something I can’t ignore is that you grew up as the child of arguably one of the greatest American writers we’ve ever known. Surely, language was an important part of how you were raised. How has your upbringing influenced the way you wield language in both in how you communicate and write? I know that words and language were a big deal in my home, just having a black mother that wanted me to communicate clearly. I can only imagine if your mother is Toni Cade Bambara.
K: And when she’s an author and English professor, there’s a very specific way she wants you to present yourself. Well growing up, I had no idea it was different. I just thought that how households and parents were. As an adult, I hear from people that had conversations with my mom that if there was something she had an issue with, there was no winning that argument. I think I’ve even heard my uncle say that. Of course I didn’t see it, but have heard other people say that.
M: It’s so funny because that sounds like my mother. Your mother was also known for working in spaces with many other writers, artists, and academic scholars. She had friendships with many other powerful black women writers such as, Toni Morrison, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Audre Lorde and Sonia Sanchez, to name a few. What do you remember about her relationships with these women and her sense of community in collective writing spaces?
K: Growing up, when I would see them, I didn’t know they were famous. When I was younger I did not realize who my mother was and what connections she had. As an adult looking back, those core group of women stood up for each other and supported each other. If other people weren’t supportive, they jumped in for their sisters and for their work and art. It’s nice to have seen that. Our house was place of support, where anyone could stay.
I didn’t know this at the time, but when my
mom was doing those writer workshops, it was
because it was a course that didn’t get approved.
Since it didn’t get approved, she said, “I’ll find a
M: I am curious, me being and artist and wanting
different perspectives, how do you feel about
the state of black women as it pertains to both
publishing and film and how would you like to
see it go in all industries?
K: There definitely needs to be more representation
when it comes to art, film, and television. You see that argument a lot with black women filmmakers. Has it gotten better in the last 20 years? Yeah, but it’s no where near where it should be in terms of accurate representations. And I mean plural because 1 description doesn’t define us all. It doesn’t equal out to the people that are viewing film and television. Not just black women, but all women of color and all people of color.
M: What are you consuming these days? Are you consuming a lot of media?
K: Actually I’m not. Yeah, I guess at a certain point it becomes overload. Movies? Yes. I grew up watching movies. My mom was a film nut. As far as television, I can tell you only 1 or 2 things I watch.
M: I’m sort of the same way. Any favorite films?
K: People find this interesting, but I love action films. Any action films that comes out, I’ll likely see them. Before the Rialto [Theater] was the Rialto, me and my mom would go watch kung-fu flicks. That’s would we would do on the weekend. All the Bruce Lee and Bruce Li films. That was like 25-30 years ago.
M: Often the children of giants in the arts suffer from feeling, or truly being, overshadowed by their parent(s) legacy. Was this apart of your journey? If so, how did you (assuming you did) transcend this? I would think there would be a lot of expectations who you should be and what you should do with your life.
K: Yes. That’s something I’ve dealt with. Elementary school is when my mom entered my readers, with stories like “Raymond’s Run.” A lot of times my friends or peers wouldn’t believe she was my mother. How many Bambaras could there possibly be? But at that time they didn’t believe me. The teachers would say, “Are you gonna be like your mom when you grow up?” That was constant. I was always in honors classes and one year in high school, I failed an honors English class. When that happened I thought, Karma, what are you doing? Why are fighting it so much? But I guess it was a rebellious act that declared, “I’m not my mother.” Being like my mother is wonderful, but I had my own voice and preferences. My mom never put any kind of pressure on me. She would always ask, “Karma, what do you want to do? What’s your plan?” In college, I majored in film and ended up working in the entertainment industry and did that for 13 years. I wasn’t just because my mom was in the arts—a lot of my family was in the arts. Both my dad and uncle had acted before and were musicians. My dad also managed a lot of music showcases and my uncle was also a painter. But that’s an interesting question, because a lot of people don’t understand that.
K: Yes. “The most effective way to do it, is to do it.” I know she would ask me and a lot of people, “So what’s your plan?” I would tell her and her next question would be, “So what are you waiting on?” Of course I’m like, I guess nothing so here I go. Just do it.
M: We’re in another American racist crisis. There are these media moments that are like moral crises. What are your opinions on this current political moment?
K: We definitely see these crises more because of social media. That’s a great thing because if we see it more, we can organize more and do it quickly. Now you can even organize across the globe very quickly and get your voice heard. In terms of my opinion on the current moment, I really don’t know how to answer that question other than, “It’s scary as hell.” I have children. They are growing up and seeing it. They are very conscious of it, at least my older ones are.
M: It’s always interesting to hear from people that are old enough to have another perspective about what’s going on.
K: I think it would be interesting to hear teenagers answer that question. You have a lot of teenagers and youth that know exactly what’s going on and want to do something about it.
M: Right. I work at a couple of places with Black and Latino LGBT youth and when I hear them talk about politics, I’m like, Oh ok. This is a sharp generation. As I get older, I notice how important it is for me to find any bit of control that I can because if left to the world, I’d be torn apart and simply crumble. How do you find peace?
K: Overall, I definitely find peace within my family—my husband and children. I have a good support group— a group of girlfriends that I’ve known since I was like four years old that live in Atlanta.
M: That’s beautiful. This next question is me being curious as a writer: What role does writing play in your life?
K: Apart from growing up with my mom as a writer, I was always encouraged to keep a journal and be aware of my thoughts. Journaling does help you to have perspective on your life and what direction you’re going in. What you thought you supposed to be doing 10 years, you may go: What was I thinking? Or you can go back and see that you were on the right path and continue in that direction. That is how writing has helped me. It also helps me to organize my thoughts.
M: I love that your relationship with writing is personal. I write for other’s consumption and I hope to get to that place where it’s also personal.
K: Now it’s kind of the opposite for me. I’m starting to write for other’s consumption. I edit in my head, which means it takes longer for the words to get on the page. My mother always told me, “If you’re going to write, just write. Stop editing in your head.”
M: I love that. What is something in the past that you’d like to give to people in the present? What is something that you hope for the future?
K: Don’t hold anything back. Learn from your past, but keep moving forward. On a very personal level, I hope for my kids to be very clear of who they are, what they want in life, and what they feel is right. Whatever they feel is right, I want them to speak it and live it without any fear of judgment from others.
M: I’m going to go ahead and take that in too, even though I’m not your child.
K: [Laughs] It can be hard for all of us. It’s hard for adults.
M: The thing about adulthood is that everything is happening to you at once—all while holding on to core values and sense of self and history, and attending to your moral compass. I love that you hope that for your kids at their early stage in life. Are there any projects and/or initiatives that you are working on that you can tell us about?
K: Just a little background, my mom worked on a couple of documentaries. One was the Bombing of Osage Avenue, another was W.E.B. DuBois’ Four Voices. The producer and director on that was Louis Messiah. She worked with him on those and taught screenwriting at his community video center in Philadelphia. Louis is now producing a documentary on my mom called The TCB School of Organizing, and I am working with him on this project. It’s highlighting her work and who she was, but also examining how she used her work to further those in the community and how important she though that was. It should be out sometime next year. I am also trying to develop film adaptations of some of her work.
M: That’s beautiful. I cannot contain how much of a fan I am of your mother. I always was loved literature. Something about your mother’s writing is so beautiful and skillful, but also accessible. When I read her work, I thought, Maybe I could do this too. I loved being able to speak with you about everything. So thank you so much.
K: Thank you.
Toni Cade Bambara teaching in the 1960's
Toni Cade Bambara in the 1960's
M: What made you go the corporate route? Did you go into that because you were around a lot of artists and felt that you needed to defend or represent correctly?
K: I really just fell into it. Years ago, I donated my mom’s papers to Spelman and sometimes I read correspondence to her from various artists. They’ve mention how they struggled to be an artist full time and had to get a day job so they can eat. I always found it interesting how my mom found way a way—and my uncle, meaning her brother. They found a way to be artists, but support themselves in that.
M: It’s definitely difficult. I moved from Georgia to New York in March. My dad is a jazz musician and my mother is an interior designer and they’ve always done it full time. So even when I didn’t know how to do it, it felt like: You need to figure it out, because they could do it. This my first year doing writing and editing and having it fully support me. So of course it’s a scary thing, but people like your mother, that have made it happen, motivate me. Do you happen to have a favorite quote from your mother?
Karma Bambara, circa late 1980"s
Karma with her mother at her graduation from Howard University in 1991.
Karma and her husband, Ronald Smith in 2015.
This content is not optimized for mobile devices. Please view on a non-mobile device.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer and author of children's book, "Large Fears." He cares about all the places pop culture, politics, black feminism, queer theory, and red wine meet. He can be found on Twitter (@hausmuva) and his published work is available at hausmuva.com.