Study Guide

The Lesson

by Toni Cade Bambara

The Lesson Analysis

Historical Context

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 Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s
The SLCC advocated nonviolent resistance to achieve its goals, and many non-SLCC members took up nonviolent protests of their own. In February 1960, four African-American college students staged a sit-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. Within weeks, similar demonstrations had spread throughout the South. White racists responded angrily to these demonstrators, and sometimes their harassment escalated into physical attacks, but the demonstrators remained impassive. By the end of the year, many restaurants throughout the South had been integrated.

In May 1961, a northern-based, integrated civil rights group launched the Freedom Rides to protest segregation in interstate transportation. These young activists set off by bus from Washington, D.C., with the intention of traveling through the South, but...

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The Lesson Setting

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 and her friends follow Miss Moore into the...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

The Lesson Literary Style

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.

Setting
The story takes place in New York City. The children live in an African-American neighborhood, most likely Harlem. The store they visit is on Fifth Avenue in midtown, which is a much more expensive part of New York. For much of its history, New York has been a place where the wealthy and the...

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The Lesson Literary Qualities

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...

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The Lesson Social Sensitivity

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...

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The Lesson 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...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

The Lesson 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...

(The entire section is 126 words.)

The Lesson 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...

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The Lesson 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...

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The Lesson Related Titles / Adaptations

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....

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The Lesson 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.

...

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The Lesson 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:...

(The entire section is 125 words.)

The Lesson Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
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...

(The entire section is 270 words.)