The War of the Wall

by Toni Cade Bambara

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What was the painter lady doing in town in "The War of the Wall"?

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In "The War of the Wall," the painter lady is in town to paint a mural on the wall at Taliaferro Street. At the end of the story, we discover she does this to honor both her cousin, Jimmy Lyons, who was killed in Vietnam, and the black community.

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Until the very end of the story, it is not clear who this "painter lady" is or why she believes she has some sort of territorial right to paint the wall on Taliaferro Street. She certainly doesn't feel the need to explain herself, and when criticized, she doesn't offer up any justification. The townspeople don't welcome her warmly, and the narrator is ready to paint over her mural as the story reaches its climax.

The first hint toward her identity is the opening paragraph. The narrator notes that carved into the wall on which the "painter lady" focuses her artistic efforts is the name of someone who is special to the community:

I’d sprained my neck one time boosting my cousin Lou up to chisel Jimmy Lyons’s name into the wall when we found out he was never coming home from the war in Vietnam to take us fishing.

Although tragic, this detail is buried in the narrator's angst over the painter lady's presence until the very end of the story. This lady isn't simply some New Yorker who "can’t ... get people to look at [her] work." She has a personal interest in the art on this wall because Jimmy Lyons, who never returned from Vietnam, was her cousin. The painter lady has created a tremendous mural which honors both her cousin, whose etched name is now represented in a beautiful rainbow, as well as the struggles and victories of the history of African Americans. She has painted many famous figures, such as Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, as well as the lesser known, such as the narrator and her father. And in this mural, she uses each face to tell a united story of the power of their race—including the story of the cousin she lost in Vietnam.

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The painter lady is in town to paint a mural on the wall at Taliaferro Street. This upsets the narrator and Lou. They see the "painter lady" as an interloper taking possession of "their" wall. It feels like their wall because Lou had chiseled her friend Jimmy Lyons's name on the wall when he died in Vietnam. The neighborhood children also play ball against the wall, and the older people sit in its shade.

As far as the narrator and Lou can tell, the painter is not even from their state, as the license plate on her car says New York. They are outraged that she feels she can appropriate their space for her painting.

The narrator and Lou even go so far as to buy spray paint so that they can repossess the wall by painting over the mural. However, when they get to the wall, they see a crowd around it. The wall is now painted with pictures of those such as Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Harriet Tubman, along with flags representing African nations. Lou and the narrator even find likenesses of themselves painted on the wall. At the end of the story, they learn the lady painter is not an interloper at all. She is a cousin of the deceased Jimmy Lyons and dedicates the wall to him. She paints the wall to honor both her cousin and the black community. When she is done, it is still "their" wall.

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The painter lady has come to town ostensibly with the purpose of painting a mural. It is not until much later that her real objective is made apparent to the youths who resent her presence at "their wall."

From the children's point of view, the painter lady has no right to do anything to the neighborhood wall, where they play handball and the old people sit in the shade. The narrator is especially displeased to think that this woman may paint over their friend's name, which she has carved as a memorial to a soldier killed in Vietnam. Ironically, the children who criticize the painter for invading their territory and marking off spaces on the wall are surprised on Monday after school when they come to spray paint over the artist's work.

On this once-chipped wall, the artist has depicted people from the neighborhood, along with the faces of famous people such as Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, "a handsome dude in a tuxedo seated at a piano" (perhaps Duke Ellington or Count Basie), and portraits of people from the neighborhood. These include the narrator's father and the narrator herself looking at a row of books. Her friend Lou spins a globe on the tip of his index finger as though it were a basketball. Suddenly, Lou drops the bag of black paint and rushes to the wall, running his fingers over the painted rainbow where Jimmy Lyons's name had been chiseled. Now the name is painted into this rainbow. The dedication of this beautiful mural reads as follows:

To the People of Taliaferro Street
I Dedicate this Wall of Respect
Painted in Memory of My Cousin
Jimmy Lyons

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