The First Sentence of Bambara’s “The Lesson”

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Multi-award winning author Toni Cade Bambara was born on March 25, 1939, in New York, New York.  Bambara had an early interest in art and an extensive education in academics, politics, arts, and cultural matters.  She traveled internationally, eventually to earn a Master of Arts in American Literature from the City College of New York in 1965.  Bambara was the first to compile an anthology of African American women and had several well-received books of note that also highlighted the African American culture, much like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing.  Her writing style is conversational and dialectically focused.  In addition to her career telling stories, Bambara also taught and was active in community service.

Bambara is a true master of theme and that skill is evident in how much she can say with how few words.  She starts her short story “The Lesson” with the following sentence:  “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.”  This one sentence sets the tone for the entire story and demonstrates Bambara’s writing prowess in a variety of ways which can be analyzed by parts to prove the sentence’s depth and significance.  

It is clear that the character speaking is probably black because she references the new woman’s “nappy hair” in a conversational tone.  There is derision present in regard to the nappy hair, but it is not approached within the narrative as something completely foreign; thus despite there being a judgment about the women for having such hair, the reader can assume that the speaker must be familiar with nappy hair.  

The fact that the new woman was described as having “proper speech” makes that type of communication something other than what is expected.  The same inference can be made for the new woman not wearing any makeup.  These three things (hair, speech, and makeup) say a lot about the narrator’s experience.  In the narrator’s world, “real” (i.e., “successful”) women wear makeup, have nice hair, and speak without proper grammar.  To the narrator, a woman is defined by her ability to conform to sexual objectification and cultural stereotypes; and in so doing, this hypothetical archetypal woman would also be adhering to proper social codes and survival mechanisms of the narrator’s world by sticking with the status quo.  

The narrator’s appreciation of the feminized, objectified woman is marginally bolstered by her close friend’s name: “Sugar.”  This name is synonymous with cat-calls and misogyny.  While one cannot fully read this last point into the simple choice of a name from one sentence alone, the name itself does serve as an interesting mental echo for the reader—who experiences this introduction of the young girl named Sugar against all the reader’s other experiences of women named Sugar.  Thus, the connection is not too far off base.

The narrator’s introduction of the new woman, who is such a different character, so early on in the story clearly indicates that this new woman will have some sort of effect on the life of the narrator.  Themes of strong, black, matriarchal figures taking charge of families or communities are not uncommon and it is a logical assumption to make that this introduction suggests that, even only when viewing this very first sentence.  This consideration is bolstered by the willful attitude that the narrator exudes as these two traits conflict against one another, further foreshadowing a confrontation between the two.  

Through the narrator’s attention to makeup, female identity, and the “wrongness” that comes with ages that are either too young or old, the reader comes to understand that the narrator was an adolescent girl at the time the story took place.  This fact is quite poignant when viewed against the following observation: When the narrator chooses to open the sentence with “Back in the day,” it is a sad indication that the narrator never escaped the situation she is describing.  According to her, she and sugar were “just right.”  Thus her present and past viewpoints of the world are one and the same—the ignorant mind of a willful and uneducated youth is the “just right” way to view the world.  This is such a small detail, yet acts as an exceedingly tragic event of a momentous occasion.  

All of these little details set the theme of this piece.  There is a mentor/student relationship that the reader knows will be struck down; there is a resignation to conforming to low expectations, and even anger at considering the opposite; and there is the fierce clutching of righteousness by the main character.  Failed redemption, self-oppression as an apathetic response to oppression from outside sources, a refusal of the adage that “hindsight is 20-20,”  and simply anger itself are all themes of this piece.  They are also all able to be seen from the very beginning.  It is clear that Bambara was a master of her trade because she is the architect of such fine and intricate design as the one so intimately described above.

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni C.  “The Lesson.” University of Calfornia, Davis”, 1972.  Web. Accessed 9 Feb.  2013.

Doerksen, Teri Ann. “Toni Cade Bambara.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 218: American Short Story Writers Since World War II, Second Series.  2004.