The Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s
African Americans began taking a more active stance in the 1950s to end discrimination in the United States. The 1952 Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka successfully challenged segregation in public schools. Then civil rights leaders launched the Montgomery bus boycott to end segregation on southern transportation systems. For close to a year African Americans in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to ride the public bus system, and in November 1956, the Supreme Court declared such segregation laws unconstitutional. Meanwhile, despite the earlier court ruling, school desegregation was slow in coming. In 1957, when nine African Americans attempted to attend Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, the governor sent the National Guard to prevent them from doing so. The students were not able to enter the school until three weeks later and under protection from federal troops. Despite angry whites who resented this integration, most of the students graduated from Central High. In the midst of this crisis, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957. The first civil rights law passed since Reconstruction, this act made it a federal crime to prevent any qualified person from voting. Also that year, southern civil rights leaders formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SLCC), led by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to end discrimination.
(The entire section is 949 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
The story begins and ends in a predominantly black neighborhood in New York City, probably Harlem, but most of the action takes place outside and inside the Fifth Avenue toy store. The contrast between these two settings underscores Miss Moore's lesson in economic disparity.
Sylvia, the narrator, describes her neighborhood in the opening scene. She lives near all her cousins '"cause we all moved North the same time and to the same apartment and then spread out gradual to breathe." Although the children seem content at the beginning of the story, they resent the squalor that surrounds them as exemplified by the "winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn't halfway play hide-and-seek without a god-damn gas mask." Evidently, it's one thing for the children to complain about their homes, but another for someone else to do so. When Miss Moore rounds them up to start the trip, she emphasizes their poverty. Sylvia complains, "And then she gets to the part about we all poor and live in the slums, which I don't feature." They then take two cabs to their destination.
As soon as the children alight from the cab, they sense that they are out of their element: "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." After ignoring Miss Moore's lecture and ogling the merchandise in the windows, Sylvia...
(The entire section is 618 words.)
Point of View
‘‘The Lesson’’ is told from Sylvia's first-person point of view. This means that all the events are perceived through Sylvia. Despite this potentially restrictive viewpoint, Sylvia is able to present a wider view of her community. She compares Miss Moore to the rest of the adults. This shows how different Miss Moore is and also indicates certain cultural standards of the time, such as Miss Moore's wearing her hair "nappy," or curly, at a time when many African-American women straightened their hair, or that the adults dislike that Miss Moore does not go to church, indicating the importance of religion to the community. Sylvia also presents the different types of people who inhabit her community through the children in the group. Mercedes wants to be like the white people who shop at F. A. O. Schwarz; Flyboy seeks pity and charity as a result of his poverty and unstable homelife; Sugar, Sylvia's cohort, surprisingly shows both a desire to please Miss Moore and a clear-headed understanding of the inequities of American society. Sylvia's inner musings, her obvious intelligence, and her sudden feelings of anger when she is at the toy store show that she could very well grow up to be the kind of person that Miss Moore wants them all to be: one who resists and who invokes change.
The story takes place in New York City. The children live in an African-American neighborhood, most likely Harlem. The store...
(The entire section is 666 words.)
The most significant literary technique Bambara employs in the story is the creation of an authentic preadolescent voice. Sylvia's point of view supplies the story with its humor and its irony. The opening line emphasizes why Sylvia voice is so important to the message: "Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup." Sylvia's sass gives the narrative its fire and life. Sylvia can imitate her elders, and her description of her mother's expected response if the child were to ask for one of the toys is a vivid example: "I could see me askin my mother for a thirty-five dollar birthday clown. 'You want a who that cost what?' she'd say, cocking her head to the side to get a better view of the hole in my head." Sylvia's calculated pretense of not understanding Miss Moore's purpose in taking the children on the trip also creates the ironic and ambiguous ending.
The story's structure is also notable. The opening scene and closing scene mirror each other, both taking place by the mailbox in the neighborhood. Sylvia considers Miss Moore and her ideas "boring-ass" at the beginning, but at the end she is thinking, hard, about what she has observed, and "something weird is goin on. I can feel it in my chest." It's important that the newly reflective Sylvia be standing in the same place as the child who, just hours...
(The entire section is 270 words.)
The primary social issue in this story is the disparity of wealth, especially in America's larger cities. Sylvia emphasizes this point as she contemplates the thirty-five dollar birthday clown:
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 $1000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work they do and how they live and how come we ain't in on it?
Another social issue the story tackles is the notion of inadequate parenting. Some of the neighborhood parents take very little responsibility for the whereabouts, much less the education, of their own children. This issue of parental failure is alluded to as Sylvia describes Aunt Gretchen:
She was the main gofer in the family. You got some ole dumb s—— foolishness you want somebody to go for, you send for Aunt Gretchen.... Which is how she got saddled with me and Sugar and Junior in the first place while our mothers were in a la-de-da apartment up the block having a good ole time.
The children's lack of respect for Miss Moore and their habitual use of profanity combine to create a tone that some readers have found objectionable. The lack of respect is clearly a plot device, because everyone except Sylvia develops a more favorable attitude...
(The entire section is 271 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1970s: In 1970, of the 25.4 million Americans who live in poverty, 7.5 million, or 33.5 percent, are African American. The average income cutoff level for a family of four at the poverty level is $3,968.
1990s: In 1995, 36.4 million Americans, including 27.5 million families, live in poverty. Almost 10 million individuals, or 29.3 percent of the population, are African American. At the beginning of the decade, 44 percent of poor children are African American, while 15 percent are white. The average income cutoff level for a family of four at the poverty level is $15,569.
1970s: In 1970, Americans in the lowest 5 percent have a mean income of $7,281, and the top 5 percent have a mean income of $119,432, in 1996 dollars.
1990s: In 1994, Americans in the lowest fifth have a mean income of $7,762. The top five percent have a mean income of $183,044.
1970s: There are 9.7 million Americans who receive some form of welfare. In New York City in 1968, one million people, or one in eight residents, receive welfare, and one in five New York children depend on welfare payments. One quarter of the city's budget is spent on welfare. A family of four receives $278 per month, which still places it below the poverty line.
1990s: In 1995, the United States spends just over $22 million on Aid to Families with Dependent Children. An average of 13.7 million people receive this form of...
(The entire section is 348 words.)
Topics for Discussion
1. Why does Miss Moore take the children to a posh Fifth Avenue toy store?
2. What is the lesson Miss Moore is attempting to teach?
3. Why does Miss Moore refuse to tell the children what her point had been?
4. What is the effect of the children's use of vulgar language in the story?
5. How do Sugar and Sylvia react differently to the lesson?
6. Discuss the other children in the story. Are they presented as individuals?
7. What do you think Miss Moore's motives are in spending time with the children?
8. How is Miss Moore different from the other women in the neighborhood?
9. Compare how Bambara would describe Miss Moore with some of Sylvia's descriptions of her.
10. Discuss Sylvia's last words. What are various ways to interpret these remarks?
(The entire section is 126 words.)
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Investigate the geography of the story. Get a map of New York City and plot the various sites on it.
2. Compare this story to other works of literature in which a child or pre-adolescent voice is used. Decide if the voice is consistently authentic. Are there any lines that sound as if written by an adult?
3. Investigate present-day disparities in living expenses in Manhattan and Harlem.
4. Discover the history of Harlem. What was the area like in its prime?
5. F.A.O. Schwarz has been featured in other works of literature and in several films. Research the store to see why it has captured the imagination of so many writers and directors.
6. Research the performance of children on New York City's mandatory assessment tests. What disparities remain in educational opportunities for children in different areas of the city?
7. Sylvia alludes to the fact that all of her family has moved to the city from the South. Research this migration to discover when and why it happened as well as whether it continues today.
(The entire section is 173 words.)
Topics for Further Study
This story aptly reflects thoughts that were prevalent in the 1960s, which was a decade of great social change. Could it take place now? Explain your answer.
Compare Sylvia and Sugar. How are they alike? How are they different? Which child do you think is most affected by the events of the day? Why do you think as you do?
Conduct research to find out more about the Black Power movement. Do you think Miss Moore ascribes to the beliefs of this movement? Why or why not?
Think about present-day society and the inequalities inherent in it. What groups of people do you think suffer from economic inequities? From social inequities?
Miss Moore proposes one solution to the economic unfairness that existed in the 1960s: poor people should demand their piece of the pie. Do you think her solution would work? What are other solutions that could have helped poor people?
For the children in ‘‘The Lesson,’’ F. A. O. Schwarz is a blatant symbolism of the failure of capitalism. What other symbols can you think of that might symbolize both the failures and successes of the capitalist system?
Sylvia briefly describes the physical environment in which she lives. Conduct research to find out more about ghetto life in the 1960s in northern cities. Write a few paragraphs about your findings.
(The entire section is 221 words.)
Bambara's short stories often feature a hostile, powerful young black woman, and just as frequently, an older black woman appears as a mentor or guide. Most of the stories in Gorilla My Love, the anthology that contains "The Lesson," also feature female narrators. Many of them are young women who must confront experiences that force them to a new, often unwanted, awareness of life. From Tales and Stories for Black Folks, the most frequently anthologized of Bambara's stories, "Raymond's Run," also has as its heroine a young black woman who appears at first to be resentful and difficult. Her handicapped brother, Raymond, is both her greatest burden and her deepest love; her greatest pride is her own athletic ability. Although she can outrun everyone, and Raymond can barely run, it is only when she observes him in a race that she recognizes that the love is stronger than the resentment.
Although it is autobiographical rather than fictional, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has a great deal in common with "The Lesson" and "Raymond's Run" and is often taught in conjunction with Bambara's work. The voice of a young girl on the edge of adolescence and the often touching yet difficult experiences that nudge her toward adulthood are central to both Bambara's short stories and the first volume of Angelou's autobiography.
There are no film or audiocassette versions of "The Lesson," but David Michael Donnangelo, a...
(The entire section is 304 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love collects fifteen stories written between 1959 and 1972. Many of the stories have a child narrator, as does ‘‘The Lesson,’’ and they raise issues significant to the African-American community.
Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing (1968), edited by LeRoi Jones and Larry Neal, collects creative works that are part of the Black Aesthetic Movement.
Madhubuti's verse collection Don't Cry, Scream (1969) is representative of poetry produced during the Black Aesthetic Movement. His work is characterized by use of dialect and slang and the author's anger at social and economic injustice as well as his joy in African-American culture.
The play Dutchman (1964), by Amiri Baraka, is one of the writer's most well-known works. It illustrates the hatred between African Americans and white Americans through the chance encounter of a middle-class African-American man and a white woman. It also explores the political and psychological conflicts facing the African-American man in the 1960s.
The Black Woman (1970), edited by Toni Cade Bambara, is a collection of poetry, short stories, and essays by well-known African-American women writers. It was the first anthology of its kind published in the United States.
James Baldwin's essay book, The Fire Next Time (1963), warned white Americans of the violence that would result if...
(The entire section is 282 words.)
For Further Reference
Comfort, Mary. "Liberating Figures in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla My Love." Studies in American Humor 3.5 (1998): 76-96. This essay examines characters in all fifteen of the short stories in this collection.
Gidley, Mick. "Reading Bambara's 'Raymond's Run." English Language Notes 28.1 (September 1990): 67-72. Gidley provides an explication of the most frequently anthologized Bambara short story.
Hargrove, Nancy D. "Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla My Love." Southern Quarterly 22.1 (Fall 1983): 479-93. This essay explores the young characters in this anthology.
Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 10: Late Twentieth Century, 1945 to the Present—Toni Cade Bambara." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature—A Research and Reference Guide.
URL: http: // www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap l0 /bambara.html (last accessed November 20, 2001). This web page offers a full bibliography of Bambara scholarship.
(The entire section is 125 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bryan, C. D. B., Review in the New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1972, p. 31.
Butler-Evans, Elliot, Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker, Temple University Press, 1989, pp. 91-122.
Chevigny, Bell Gale, Review in the Village Voice, April 12, 1973, pp. 39-40.
Deck, Alice A., " Toni Cade Bambara,'' in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 38: Afro-American Writers After 1955: Dramatists and Prose Writers, edited by Thadious M. Davis and Trudier Harris, Gale Research, 1985.
Doerkson, Teri Ann, "Toni Cade Bambara,'' in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 218: American Short Story Writers since World War II, Second Series, edited by Patrick Meanor and Gwen Crane, Gale Group, 2000.
Hargrove, Nancy D., ‘‘Youth in Toni Cade Bambara's Gorilla, My Love,’’ in The Southern Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 1, Fall 1983, pp. 81-99.
Vertreace, Martha M., ‘‘The Dance of Character and Community,’’ in American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, edited by Mickey Pearlman, University Press of Kentucky, 1989, pp. 155-71.
Cone, James H., Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare?, Orbis Books, 1992.
This book examines the two most...
(The entire section is 270 words.)