21 January 2018
Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” is centered around a young African American girl and her friends who struggle to buy into the fact and fully comprehend that social injustice, more specifically to the story economic injustice, play a tremendous role in her life. Sylvia is the narrator and protagonist of the short story and is, at first, reluctant to confess that she and her family have fallen victim to a povertous lifestyle. She is innocent, unaware and unable to comprehend that the world she lives in and the world she will soon progress through has already started her out at a disadvantage, and that life will be a constant struggle for its entirety. However, slowly through the events that take place in the story, Sylvia is enlightened: she seemingly comes to term with the inexorable oppression she faces. Not only does she acknowledge it, her acceptance drives the burning fire of passion in the pit of her stomach to fight against the injustice controlling her life. Through the evolution of innocence to experience, Toni Cade Bambara sets to prove that to be passive and indifferent only fuels the inequity perpetually surrounding the lives of the oppressed, and that the power of knowledge is vital to rising above the struggle.
Miss Moore, the teacher with a college degree, reveals Sylvia’s naivetè towards the inequality her life contains. Miss Moore embodies the life of experience and perceives to understand the society to which they belong in, the massive social inequality. At first, Sylvia’s explicit comments seems to berate her teacher solely because she ruined her day of swimming and is forcing her to take a trip across town. Sylvia is bitter towards her teacher: “… and I’m really hating this nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree” (Bambara 98). However, the hatred for Miss Moore is deeper than just a pesky fly Sylvia can’t get rid of. She’s educated, methodical, and distinguished, but initially, Sylvia tries to stray away from that. In an attempt to evade the truth, Sylvia says, “Don’t nobody want to go for my plan, which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que we can find” (99). Sylvia, whether she just doesn’t know or is actually avoiding the truth, seems to resent her teacher for this new information. Again, her continuous attempts to stray from the lesson her teacher is trying to teach her shows, subconsciously, she may refuse or is too naive to see the path her life has been built, whether it’s out of embarrassment or just blindness.
The setting changes and the children walk through the streets of the populous city, a different environment than they live in. The disparity between the poor town and rich city is apparent, yet the kids fail to recognize it, it being the huge gap of change even just between infrastructure from the two places. Approaching their destination, Sylvia comments first on the strange style of clothing the other city-goers are wearing-“One lady in a fur coat, hot as it is. White folks crazy” (99), yet another failed connection to grasp Miss Moore’s lesson.