Examine "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston and "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara.  Both stories have an underlying theme of racial oppression; are there any other points of comparison and/or contrast...

Examine "Sweat" by Zora Neale Hurston and "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara.  Both stories have an underlying theme of racial oppression; are there any other points of comparison and/or contrast which unite these stories? Consider themes, perspectives, historical contexts, and other issues which unite the two authors and these specific writings.

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Both Toni Cade Bambara and Zora Neal Hurston are black, female writers who used dialect and subject matter to accurately depict their cultures. Hurston wrote during the Harlem Renaissance and Bambara was born at about that time, so they were not really contemporaries. Because they wrote accurately about their cultural experiences, however, their work does reflect some sense of racial oppression. 

In Bambara's "The Lesson," a young student named Sylvia is faced with the disturbing reality that she and those in her community are far different from those who can, for example, spend $480 on a glass paperweight. In this case, the racial oppression comes in the form of economic disparity. In Hurston's "Sweat," Delia earns a hard living by washing clothes for white people, also a form of economic disparity.

A more significant point of comparison, it seems to me, might be the theme of powerlessness and empowerment. Both protagonists both feel powerless to change their fates--until the end, where we have some hope for their futures. Sylvia goes off to spend some time thinking about what she did and saw that day at FAO Schwartz, and her final thought is that 

ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.

Delia is physically and emotionally abused by her husband; however, at the end of the story, she gets her life back. When her husband dies, ironically by the very thing he intended to use to torment her, she is now free to be and do something more, perhaps even what she was before she married Sykes. One of the porch-sitters describes the early days of Delia's marriage this way:

"But even so, he useter eat some mighty big hunks uh humble pie tuh git dat lil 'oman he got. She wuz ez pritty ez a speckled pup! Dat wuz fifteen yeahs ago. He useter be so skeered uh losin' huh, she could make him do some parts of a husband's duty."

Clearly Delia was not always what Sykes caused her to become; when he is gone, perhaps she will be empowered to be her true self again.

Another possible point of comparison between the two works might be the theme of isolation. Sylvia is isolated by her economic status and race, while Delia is isolated by her husband's abuse and betrayal.

Another possible comparison might be the theme of shame and pride. While Sylvia feels a sense of shame before walking into a store she knows is too expensive for her--or anyone she knows--to afford to shop in, at the end of her trip she recovers her pride and has a new sense of determination. Delia lives her life in shame. Her husband cheats on her and everyone knows it; he abuses her and she takes it. When he is gone, she has a chance to regain her pride. Both have hope for the future. 

Finally, the thing the two stories have most in common, as I mentioned above, is the authors' use of realism in dialogue, experience, and feeling to characterize the two female characters. 

One point of contrast between these two authors and these two works is the idea of social responsibility, using their writing to make a statement about social issues in an attempt to improve the human condition. While Bambara is quite concerned with both civil rights and the struggle for women's right and freedoms, Hurston was often criticized for her consistent lack of social responsibility. Their difference in focus was undoubtedly caused by their differences in profession: Bambara was an author and social activist and Hurston was an anthropologist. One tries to "improve" society and the other simply observes and records it. 

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