The War of the Wall

by Toni Cade Bambara

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Why is the choice of people the "painter lady" paints on the wall significant?

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In "The War of the Wall," the painter lady depicts civil rights leaders on the Taliaferro Street wall to remind residents of the continuing struggle for civil rights. She also paints the neighborhood residents in such a way as to encourage them to pursue education, art, music, and beauty. Finally, she paints her cousin Jimmy Lyons, who died in Vietnam, fighting for the freedom of his neighbors.

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In Toni Cade Bambara's story “The War of the Wall,” the narrator and her cousin Lou are furious when a big city “painter lady” comes to town and starts painting a mural on the Taliaferro Street wall. The kids of Taliaferro Street consider that wall to be theirs, and they certainly don't appreciate the intrusion. That wall holds plenty of memories, including the chiseled name of Jimmy Lyons, an older friend who died in Vietnam. In fact, the narrator and Lou decide that they will paint over whatever the painter lady has done, and they even spend their entire allowances on a can of white epoxy paint to do the job.

However, when they see the finished wall, they are stunned. The painter lady has filled part of the wall with portraits of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hamer. This is likely to remind residents of how far they have come and how far they still have to go in their fight for equality and to inspire them to continue the journey.

But even more shockingly, the kids and adults of Taliaferro Street find themselves immortalized on the wall. The painter lady has painted them! What's more, she has painted the adults as beautiful, cultured people with flowers, books, and a piano, and she has painted the kids with books and globes, compasses and microscopes, reminding them all of the wonderful journey of art and music and education and nature.

Then, the people of Taliaferro Street notice a depiction of a “fierce man” who is guarding the kids as they go about their activities. Lou gasps and runs to the wall. He recognizes the man and so does everyone else. It is Jimmy Lyons, who died in Vietnam, died for the freedom of the people of Taliaferro Street. The painter lady has left an inscription on the wall, dedicating it to the people of Taliaferro Street in memory of her cousin Jimmy Lyons.

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