Before even reaching the second paragraph of “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara
Before even reaching the second paragraph of “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara, some readers can acknowledge that African American Vernacular English (AAVE), well known as Black English, is being used. On the other hand, some readers see the dialect as “slang” and “bad” grammar, but do not understand the weight it carries. It is spoken mostly by black people who grow up in the ghetto like the first-person narrator, Sylvia, and the other characters, Sugar, JuneBug, Q.T, Big Butt, FlyBoy, and Rosie Giraffe. The character with “proper speech” is Miss Moore, the only one with a college education. She comes to the neighborhood and takes it upon herself to teach the kids when school goes out for the summer. Throughout the story, readers are looking through the lenses of a young working-class black girl living in Harlem, viewing how money, class, and race affect her life without her realizing it, yet. Sylvia’s use of AAVE in the story delivers realism and portrays how she thinks, feels, and speaks about the situations in her life, giving readers a chance to see the world from her perspective. The overall theme of social inequality along with additional themes of education class, economic, and race inequalities are highlighted with the understanding of the narrator’s language, point of view, and tone.
The first conflict is the theme of education class inequality brought up by Sylvia and the way she feels about Miss Moore. Sylvia reveals her toughness and begins to describe Miss Moore as a lady with “proper speech and no makeup” and then admits her hatred for Miss Moore by expressing strong words such as “black as hell,” and “nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree” (Bambara 1). The language Sylvia uses to express her rage for Miss Moore include curse words, but it helps to understand her powerful attitude and her sense of individualism. She envies the fact that Miss Moore is educated, and she continually reiterates that fact, meaning she is not used to being around educated people. In Leila Naderi’s essay, “An African American Study of ‘The Lesson’, Toni Cade Bambara’s Short Story,” it is suggested that “Miss Moore’s educational background allows the kids to associate her to the white bourgeois class which emphasizes the kids’ distance from her. . .the children feel alienated from her which indeed is the consequence of the awareness of their being marginalized state by the dominant culture.” Within the children’s community, everyone is the same color, everyone speaks the same language, everyone lives under the same conditions, and no one is educated. Because African Americans were among the many minority groups to be pushed to the outskirts of society, and denied any involvement with mainstream culture, the children unwelcome any outsiders not realizing they suffer from education, class and social exclusion. Although Miss Moore is a black woman, the fact that she is educated disqualifies her as one of them and classifies her with working-class whites. Due to Miss Moore’s education, she speaks proper English and not AAVE, another reason she is outcast by the children. The two different languages show the class inequality serving as a clear distinction between the educated and the uneducated.
The other conflicts within the story is the theme of race and economic inequality between the whites being wealthy and the blacks being poor. Miss Moore kicks the lesson off by informing the kids “how money ain’t divided up right in this country” as she hails a cab for them (Bambara 2). Their destination is F.A.O Schwarz, an expensive toy store on the upscale side of town where they begin to window shop because they cannot afford anything in the store. Miss Moore uses the toy store as a symbol of where the kids are in terms of economic inequality. The first thing out of Sugar’s mouth is, “Can we steal?” (Bambara 2), a clear separation of the moral code between the rich and the poor. This highlights that the kids already partially know their economic position and are compelled to steal in order to overcome it. They begin looking at the price tags of the items in the store and notice a paperweight for $480. Meanwhile, they do not know what a paperweight is. The children are completely shocked at the prices and instantly the tone becomes bitter. Sylvia recognizes that it does not make sense, along with the other kids, because they make certain remarks such as “white people crazy,” “that much money it should last forever,” and “must be rich people shop here” (Bambara 3-4). It is evident to the children that wealthier people shop at the store despite the “slang” being used to describe the prices of the toys. Miss Moore “makes them question the fairness of social and economic class stratification in a country which appears to be the representative of Democracy” (Naderi 3). They are beginning to realize that wealth is not equally distributed, especially when they admit that they do not have desks in their house, but people have $480 just for a paperweight.
Moreover, Sylvia and Sugar experience the feeling of shame before entering the toy store, coming from their sense of inferiority placed on them by society. The now defenseless Sylvia admits, “Not that I’m scared, what’s there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow, I can’t seem to get hold of the door, so I step away for Sugar to lead” (Bambara 4). Before now, Sylvia was the proud one, sure of herself, the leader of the group and now she hangs back allowing Sugar to lead, emphasizing her confusion. Dermot McManus explains the sensitivity Sylvia experiences in this situation in his review “‘The Lesson’ by Toni Cade Bambara.” He recognizes that “they feel out of place based purely on their class and the color of their skin. In Sylvia and Sugar’s eyes, they do not feel worthy enough to shop or go into F.A.O Schwartz”. Not being familiar with her feelings, Sylvia becomes upset and again the tone has changed, allowing readers to see underneath her hard-shell. She angrily says, “For some reason this pisses me off” when she notices the price of a toy sailboat and asked, “Watcha bring us here for Miss Moore?” (Bambara 3). Her anger is mixed with envy because she is now aware of her poverty and knows she cannot afford any of the toys based on her circumstances. Sylvia’s anger toward Miss Moore is because her innocence is being taken away. This experience challenges the perception she has of herself and her place in society. At this point in the story, the assertive, tough, and street-smart girl is vulnerable and now unsure of herself because of the differences between her world and Fifth Avenue. Until now, a world beyond the ghetto did not exist and now she is forced to become aware of the injustice surrounding her life.
Clearly, the harsh exposure to the inequalities faced by black people is affecting Sylvia whether she wants to admit it or not. She insists on leaving the store and on the train back to their neighborhood, she imagines asking her mother to buy her a $35 clown toy, but now that she understands the value of money, she sees a clear difference between her experiences with money and the amount of money white people have on Fifth Avenue. Nancy Hargrove wrote a literary criticism of the story in her essay “Youth in Toni Cade Bambara’s Gorilla, My Love.” She points out Sylvia’s “realization that what its costs would buy many items desperately needed by her family, and her anguish at the injustice endured by the poor” (Hargrove 3). Sylvia explains how many things could be bought with $35 and questions how someone else could have enough money to just spend on a toy:
Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s
boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit
Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the
rent and the piano bill too. Who are these people that spend that much for
performing clowns and 1,000 for toy sailboats? What kind of work they
do and how they live and how come we ain’t in on it? (Bambara 5)
The reader can sense Sylvia is feeling powerless about her situation of being born into poverty, and without saying it, she finally understands Miss Moore’s saying, “poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (Bambara 5). Sylvia struggles with herself when the realization of her disadvantages is brought to light and it becomes an unpleasant eye opener.
Now, they are all back in the neighborhood where they started and Miss Moore asks them for their opinion of the toy store, and again “white folks crazy” is said. The dialect of the statement not only is a symbol of poverty within the black community, but it is also another connection to the theme of economic and race inequalities because the kids specifically say that white folks are crazy for money spent on toys instead of saying that rich people are crazy (Milne). Surprisingly, Sugar says, “You know, Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs” (Bambara 5). Excited that her lesson was understood, she urges Sugar to continue but Sylvia repeatedly steps on Sugar’s foot insisting she discontinues making sense of Miss Moore’s lesson. Sylvia does not want to allow Miss Moore any satisfaction, but she also wants to distance herself from the reality. If Sugar was to continue, the truth would come out and there would be no denying the problems within the African American community, which is exactly what Sylvia is trying to do. In order to protect herself from the painful grasp of unfairness and the shame bought to her from being poor, Sylvia resists admitting the lesson because her pride will be crushed, “the pride that she wears like shining armor” (Milne). Sylvia confess that she needs to walk the day off and without her as the first-person narrator, readers would not know if she understood the lesson in its entirety. Sylvia now conscious of the inequality she faces, her experiences at the toy store made her stronger as seen in “aint nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (Bambara). With Sylvia’s point of view, readers know that her thought of refusing to be beat refers to the awareness she gained throughout the day, even though she has learned the odds are not in her favor, she will not let her background continue to confine her.
Understanding the realistic use of Sylvia’s dialect and tone gave readers a way to connect with her and her community on a personal level, bringing truth through the eyes of a young black girl. Sylvia’s point of view and narration gave an authentic view to the trials and tribulation of innocent children growing up in poverty, bringing their experiences of social inequalities along with education class, economic, and race inequalities to light. Unfortunately, the children had no knowledge of a wealthier world outside of their ghetto until visiting the toy store, opening awareness to the black issues in society. Miss Moore being a black woman understood that although an education is important, college does not teach life lessons for people in the slums. Miss Moore taking responsibility to direct the kids comes from her knowledge of the unfairness for black people at the time, preparing the kids for their future.