A short story by Toni Cade Bambara
01 May 2007
On Action and Change
Toni Cade Bambara’s "The Lesson" revolves around a young black girl’s struggle to come to terms with the role that economic injustice, and the larger social injustice that it constitutes, plays in her life. Sylvia, the story’s protagonist, initially is reluctant to acknowledge that she is a victim of poverty. Far from being oblivious of the disparity between the rich and the poor, however, one might say that on some subconscious level, she is in fact aware of the inequity that permeates society and which contributes to her inexorably disadvantaged economic situation. That she relates poverty to shame—"But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody" (Bambara 604)—offers an indication as to why she is so hard-pressed to concede her substandard socioeconomic standing in the larger scheme of things. Sylvia is forced to finally address the true state of her place in society, however, when she observes firsthand the stark contrast between the rich and the poor at a fancy toy store in Manhattan. Initially furious about the blinding disparity, her emotionally charged reaction ultimately culminates in her acceptance of the real state of things, and this acceptance in turn cultivates her resolve to take action against the socioeconomic inequality that verily afflicts her, ensuring that "ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin" (606). "The Lesson" posits that far from being insurmountable, economic and social injustice can be risen above, but it is necessary that we first acknowledge the role that it plays in our lives, and then determine to take action against it; indifference, and the inaction that it breeds, can only serve to perpetuate such injustices. Sylvia’s languid regard for Miss Moore, whom she refers to as "this nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree" (601), is a reflection of her initial disregard for the role...