Style and Technique

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The theme of the story is reinforced by several aspects of style that make it delightful instead of didactic or preachy, despite the fact that its central message calls for a revolution in attitudes and actions by both individuals and social institutions. Because the story focuses on the children, readers see how social and economic disadvantages are perpetuated and have lasting effects on future generations. Most important is the use of Sylvia as the narrator, because of her attitudes and her language. Sylvia has developed a smart-aleck, tough, self-centered stance to survive in the slum area. She is quick to think up or be involved with mischief, such as the time she accepts a dare to run into a Catholic church and do a tap dance at the altar. When she enters the church, however, with “everything so hushed and holy and the candles and the bowin and the handkerchiefs on all the drooping heads,” she cannot go through with the plan. She has a sense of rightness, which she believes she is above or does not need, but her sense of decency and fairness is a major part of her character. Although she initially brags that she is keeping the money from the taxi fare, by the end of the story she is not eager to go with Sugar to spend it. The fact that Miss Moore does not ask Sylvia for the change suggests that Miss Moore trusts that what Sylvia is learning is more important than a few dollars.

The most noticeable and significant aspect of style in “The Lesson” is its use of language. Sylvia’s speech patterns are lively and colorful, such as her comment when Miss Moore suggests she check the cost of a real yacht, that such an assignment “really pains my ass.” Her way of talking is realistic for someone who lives where she does. Her slang and wit show her to be a bright, observant, believable, and interesting character, someone the reader can like and care about. By the end of the story, it is clear that Sylvia is realizing that there is more to the world than her neighborhood, and that she will have to develop new knowledge and new strategies for dealing with that world, including, probably, learning more formal patterns of English used by people outside her immediate environment.

Historical Context

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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 when the buses stopped, riders were attacked by white mobs. In Jackson, Mississippi, state officials arrested the riders. Outraged, more than 300 additional Freedom Riders traveled the South to protest segregation. Their numbers pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission to strengthen its desegregation regulations. Additionally, the white mob violence led to increased national support for the civil rights movement.

In 1963, more than 200,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C., to encourage support for a new civil rights act designed to end segregation. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed the following year. It barred discrimination in employment, public accommodations, and gave the Justice Department the power to enforce school desegregation.

In June 1964, activists turned their attention to voter registration, launching Freedom Summer, a campaign to register African-American voters in the South. They focused on Mississippi, a state where only five percent of African Americans were registered to vote. Violence quickly struck when two white northerners and one African American were abducted and killed. Many African Americans, fearing reprisal, refused to register to vote. After a similar registration drive in Selma, Alabama, ended in a fierce attack on marchers, President Lyndon Johnson asked Congress to pass a voting rights bill. Five months later, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which put the voter registration process under federal control. Within three years, over half of all eligible African Americans in the South had registered to vote.

Black Power
Despite these successes, many African Americans grew to question the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. Some felt they should use violence for self-defense, while others did not want to integrate into white society. These African Americans adopted the slogan ‘‘Black Power,’’ which became widely used by the late 1960s. They argued for mobilization to gain economic and political power and even complete separation from white society.

Malcolm X was one of the Black Power leaders. He championed black separatism and believed African Americans should use any means necessary to achieve freedom. He was assassinated in 1965, but other activists carried out his ideas. In 1966 two college students founded the Black Panther party to promote self-determination in the African-American community. The Black Panthers armed themselves and patrolled the streets of their communities.

In August 1965, a riot broke out in an African-American neighborhood of Watts after an arrest. The riot lasted for six days and spurred more than one hundred riots around the country over the next two years. A federal report charged that white racism was largely responsible for the tensions that led to the riots. This report stated that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white— separate and unequal.’’

The War on Poverty and the Great Society
In 1962, Michael Harrington published his book The Other America, a well-documented study of poverty in the United States. It stated that more than 42 million Americans lived on less than $1,000 per year and shattered the widespread belief that most Americans had benefited from the post-war prosperity of the 1950s. The book also noted that racism kept many ethnic groups, especially African Americans, in poverty. Responding to such concerns, President Johnson launched the War on Poverty. In 1964, Congress passed a bill that authorized $1 billion to coordinate a series of antipoverty programs, including work-training and education programs.

Johnson also announced his desire to build a Great Society in which poverty and racial injustice would not exist. To this effect, Johnson persuaded Congress to establish national health insurance programs for elderly and low-income Americans. In 1965, Congress also passed an education act that allocated $1.3 billion to schools in impoverished areas. Other acts set aside billions of dollars for urban renewal and housing assistance for low-income families.


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Alwes, Derek. “The Burden of Liberty: Choice in Toni Morrison’s Jazz and Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 30, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 353-365.

Bone, Martyn. “Capitalist Abstraction and the Body Politics of Place in Toni Cade Bambara’s Those Bones Are Not My Child.” Journal of American Studies 37, no. 2 (August, 2003): 229-246.

Butler-Evans, Elliott. Race, Gender, and Desire: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Toni Cade Bambara, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Collins, Janelle. “Generating Power: Fission, Fusion, and Post Modern Politics in Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.MELUS 21, no. 2 (Summer, 1996): 35-47.

Heller, Janet Ruth. “Toni Cade Bambara’s Use of African American Vernacular English in ’The Lesson.’” Style 37, no. 3 (Fall, 2003): 279-293.

Kelley, Margot A. “’Damballah Is the First Law of Thermodynamics’: Modes of Access to Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters.” African American Review 27, no. 3 (Fall, 1993): 479-493.

Muther, Elizabeth. “Bambara’s Feisty Girls: Resistance Narratives in Gorilla, My Love.” African American Review 36, no. 3 (Fall, 2002): 447-459.


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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 store. Their sense of uneasiness grows:

Then the rest of us tumble in like a glued together jigsaw done all wrong. And people looking at us. And it's like the time me and Sugar crashed into the Catholic church on a dare. But once we got in there and everything so hushed and holy and the candles and the bowin and the handkerchiefs on all the drooping heads, I just couldn't go through with the plan.

Not only does this new setting put the children on the defensive, it also presents Miss Moore another opportunity to remind them of what their homes lack. When Rosie asks what a $480 paperweight is used for, Miss Moore explains it is to "weigh paper down so it won't scatter and make your desk untidy." Figuring their mentor is "crazy or lying one," Junebug reminds her they don't keep paper on their school desks. Miss Moore uses the opportunity to contrast this environment with their own:

"At home then," she say. "Don't you have a calendar and a pencil case and a blotter and a letter-opener on your desk at home?" And she know damn well what our homes look like cause she nosys around in them every chance she get.

"I don't even have a desk," say Junebug,

"Do we?"

"And I don't even have a home," say Flyboy like he do at school to keep the white folks off his back and sorry for him. Send this poor kid to camp posters, is his specialty.

They return by subway to their familiar neighborhood, where they can all breathe easier for the finale of the lesson. "Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headache for thinkin so hard," Sylvia complains. Although Sylvia had feigned indifference to Miss Moore's lesson in the store, now that she is back in her element, she has regained control and plans to reflect on the lesson she has stubbornly resisted learning: " . . . I'm going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through."

Literary Style

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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 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 poor live, sometimes within only blocks of each other. It has also been seen as a land of opportunity. Starting in the 1910s, many southern African Americans migrated to the North—as did Sylvia's family—generally to find better employment and less racial prejudice.

The characters in the story, with the exception of Miss Moore, speak in a non-standard form of English. They do not always speak with standard grammar or inflection. They say words like ain't, drop the final g off words like pointing, and leave words out of sentences, as in ‘‘she not even related by marriage’’ or ‘‘white people crazy.’’ This aptly reflects how the people in Sylvia's African-American community talked. One of the first details that Sylvia relates about Miss Moore is that she has "proper speech,'' indicating how unique she is. The speech of Sylvia and her friends—though non-standard—is more common in their world.

Black Aesthetic Movement
The Black Aesthetic Movement, which is also known as the Black Arts Movement, was a period of artistic and literary development among African Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was the first major African-American movement since the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights and Black Power movements closely paralleled it. Black aesthetic writers attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the African-American mass audience. The movement sought to use art to promote the idea of African-American separatism. Typical literature of the movement was generally written in African-American English vernacular, was confrontational in tone, and addressed such issues as interracial tension, sociopolitical awareness, and the relevance of African history and culture to African Americans. Alice A. Deck wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "In many ways Toni Cade Bambara is one of the best representatives of [this] group.’’

"The Lesson'' demonstrates many attributes of this movement. Bambara draws on typical African-American urban culture in creating her characters and dialogue, and in focusing attention on issues of real concern. Miss Moore clearly advocates taking a strong position to achieve equality; she wants the poor African Americans to "demand" their fair share of American prosperity. The children demonstrate the racial tension they feel daily; they openly speak of how "crazy'' white folks are. By the end of the story, Sylvia and Sugar have clearly internalized Miss Moore's lesson.

Literary Qualities

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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 earlier, was determined to remain blissfully uninformed.

Social Sensitivity

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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 toward the older woman at the end of the story. However, the profanity, even though totally realistic, has created a problem for some teachers of younger students who want to teach the story but find the language problematic.

Compare and Contrast

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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 welfare each month.

1960s: In 1968, African Americans earn sixty-three percent as much as whites. The median household income for African Americans is $22,000 as compared to $38,000 for whites (in 1998 dollars).

1990s: In 1998, the median household income for African Americans is $25,500 and for whites it is $42,000.

1960s and 1970s: In 1968, 57 percent of non-whites complete high school. In 1972, 27.2 percent of African Americans who complete high school go to college, as compared to a national percentage for all races of 31.9 percent.

1990s: In 1995, 356,000 African Americans graduate from high school, and 183,000 enroll in college. In 1997, 39.3 percent of African Americans who graduate from high school go to college as compared to a national percentage for all races of 44.9 percent. Also, 13.4 percent of African-American students drop out of high school, compared to a national percentage for all students of 8.6 percent.

For Further Reference

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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: // l0 /bambara.html (last accessed November 20, 2001). This web page offers a full bibliography of Bambara scholarship.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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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.

Further Reading
Cone, James H., Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare?, Orbis Books, 1992.
This book examines the two most influential African-American leaders of the twentieth century and reveals that the visions of these two men were moving toward convergence.

Morrison, Toni, ed., "Bambara, Toni Cade,’’ in Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions: Fiction, Essays, and Conversations, Random House, 1996.
This work is Bambara's final collection, including short stories, essays, and interviews.

Tate, Claudia, ed., "Interview with Toni Cade Bambara,'' in Black Women Writers at Work, Continuum, 1983.
This interview is a lengthy dialogue with Bambara, in which she discusses her writing, creativity, and personal history.

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Critical Essays


Teaching Guide