The War of the Wall

by Toni Cade Bambara

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On the way to school one morning, the narrator and her cousin Lou encounter the "painter lady" working on their wall. The wall "belongs to the [residents] of Taliaferro Street," and has been theirs for years; the bigger kids play handball against it, the "old folks" sit in its shade, and the narrator and Lou chiseled their friend Jimmy Lyon's name on it when they found out he was never coming home from Vietnam. To make things worse, the painter lady is not even from the area; the license plates on her battered car indicate that she is from New York. Angry at the interloper, the children voice their displeasure, but the woman pays them no mind.

The painter lady is still there when the children return home from school. Lou is slightly impressed with the woman's skill, but the narrator reminds him that they are "at war" with her. Side-Pocket, a "cool" young dude, comes out of a nearby pool hall to watch the proceedings, and the little Morris twins venture over from across the street with a jug of lemonade and a tinfoil-covered plate of dinner for the visitor. When the twins shyly extend their neighborly offering, the woman cursorily acknowledges them, peeks at what is under the tinfoil, and abruptly returns it, saying, "Thank your mother very much...I've brought my own dinner along."

Furious at the rebuff, the narrator and Lou run to the firehouse to complain to the narrator's father. To their chagrin, Daddy does not seem terribly concerned, and talks about other things as they walk over to help at Mama's restaurant. Later that day, the narrator and Lou learn that the painter lady has lied about bringing her own dinner. The woman comes into Mama's restaurant, "starving," and quite obliviously creates a stir by asking endless questions about the ingredients used in the menu items to determine if they will satisfy the requirements of her ridiculously restricted diet. Mama holds her temper as long as she can, then she firmly tells the thoughtless guest, "You will get...whatever Lou back there [fixes]."

On the way home, the narrator and Lou try to get Mama to "open fire" on the painter lady, but Mama says she is sorry she was so impatient with the woman, who "seem[s] like a decent person" after all. Mama tells the children to "quit fussing," but all weekend long, they try to think of a way to "recapture" their wall. A late night news television broadcast about graffiti-covered subway trains in New York gives them the impetus that they need. Fiendishly inspired, the children rush to the hardware store after school on Monday, and purchase a spray can of epoxy with their allowance money.

Jubilantly, the narrator and Lou proceed to Taliaferro Street, where they are dismayed to find that a huge crowd has gathered. There are far too many people around to allow them to carry out their scheme, but their frustration turns into curiosity as they recognize neighbors and family members among the onlookers. Mama beckons to the children, and as they draw closer to the wall, they see that the painter lady is gone, and that the wall is finished. Bold colors outlined in black swirl around portraits of famous faces; Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman are among them, along with likenesses of African Americans who have excelled in education and the arts. Almost reverently, Side Pocket steps forward, and, pointing with his cue stick, highlights the flags interspersed discreetly in the designs, like leaves on a vine. "Ghana...Tanzania...Mozambique," he proudly intones, "...the flags...

(This entire section contains 782 words.)

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of, black, and green."

The most amazing aspect of the wall, however, are the renderings up near the top. The narrator is astonished to recognize the Morris twins, painted in intricate detail at the centers of vivid red and yellow flowers. A boy "spinning a a basketball" is Lou, without a doubt, and a girl looking at a row of books bears an uncanny resemblance to the narrator herself. A "fierce-looking man" who looks like Daddy stands guard over the children, "defending their right to do what they [are] doing."

Suddenly, Lou runs forward, and runs his hands over a colorful rainbow. The painter lady has found the chisel marks, and has inscribed Jimmy Lyon's name in the colorful arc. There is an inscription at the base of the wall, and one of the twins to goes up to look at it. In a clear voice, she reads the painter lady's words: 

To the People of Taliaferro Street

I Dedicate This Wall of Respect

Painted in Memory of My Cousin

Jimmy Lyons.