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 that social injustice plays in her life. Miss Moore, with her "proper speech" (601) and desire to "take responsibility for the young ones’ education" (601), is a foil to Sylvia: educated, discerning, analytical. Her informed and realistic perception of the society in which they live qualifies her as an embodiment of truth within the story, and Sylvia’s rejection of her is thus symbolic of her overarching rejection of the truth. More than just refusing to acknowledge the verity of her poverty—"And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don’t feature" (601)—Syvlia even subconsciously runs away from it. "Don’t nobody want to go for my plan," Sylvia says, "which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que we can find" (601). Her compulsion to stray from Miss Moore suggests that on some subliminal level, she seeks to avoid confronting the truth that the lesson conveys about her indigent state. Upon arriving at the toy store, Sylvia notes: "‘This is the place,’ Miss Moore say, presenting it to us in the voice she uses at the museum. ‘Let’s look in the windows before we go in’" (602). That Miss Moore introduces the children to the store in her "museum" voice is indicative of her desire for the children to thoroughly analyze their new environment and synthesize what it might suggest about social stratification; Miss Moore means to show them that, like a historically significant painting in a museum, the society in which they live is worth studying intently. Although the explicit differences between the ghetto and Manhattan are immediately apparent, Sylvia initially fails to make the implicit connections between these external differences and larger social inequity. She boggles at the concept of a woman in a fur coat—"Then we check out that we on Fifth Avenue and everybody dressed up in stockings. One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is. White folks crazy" (602)—but fails to interpret what she sees in relation to the...