The Underlying Lesson in Toni Bambara’s “The Lesson”

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“The Lesson” was first published in 1972 by Toni Cade Bambara. Bambara was an author of fictional stories that made a strong statement about racial inequality and the uneven distribution of wealth within society. Bambara used her stories to make a political statement regarding the socio-economic situation of black people; particularly black women in society. The story “The Lesson” focused on a young black girl, her cousins, and a woman named Miss Moore, who was designated by the adults to provide the children with an educational experience. Miss Moore accomplished this through mini lessons and activities. The particular lesson being taught to the children in this story was on the distribution of money and the difference between being poor and being rich. In this story, the assumed influence of the middle class wasn't touched upon. The difference between poor and rich in this story is directly associated with being black or white. This is demonstrated through the dialogue among the children. Although Bambara is known for the obviously lesson being taught in the story, there is an underlying lesson also being demonstrated through this story. The key to ending the cycle of socio-economic disparity was teaching the children. This is demonstrated through Miss Moore’s series of mini lessons, the use of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), and the insight Sylvia gains throughout the story. 

The underlying idea that Bambara’s true lesson is the need for education has been revealed through the use of Miss Moore’s mini lessons. Jarome Cartwright reiterates the theme of education in his literary criticism of “The Lesson” (61). According to Cartwright, readers are often distracted by the issues of economic injustice being revealed, and they fail to see the underlying lesson of the story. “Rather than simply teaching a single lesson, the story is essentially about the value of lessons themselves, the value of learning and thinking” (Cartwright 61).  This is demonstrated in several examples throughout the story. Miss Moore gasps any opportunity to teach the children a lesson. Miss Moore starts the lesson of the day by talking to the children about money. However, when looking at the microscope in the window of the toy store, Big Butt says he wants it to look at stuff. Miss Moore takes this opportunity to talk to the children about all the miniscule things they can see using a microscope. 

In addition to taking random opportunities to teach the children, Miss Moore also challenges the children to think independently throughout these mini lessons. Instead of telling the children what to look at and what to think at the toy store, she gives them the opportunity to look at the toys and their prices. Then she asks them what they think of everything. She does speak with them about the comparison between a toy in the window and the cost of feeding a family, which sheds a clear light on the situation of the children, but she does not overpower them with her views. Miss Moore wants them to be able to think critically in order to learn from their experiences. The methods of teaching described by Bambara in “The Lesson” support the position that the underlying lesson was the need to educate the children. The story revealed a clear lack of sufficient education, which worked to perpetuate the socio-economic disparity among the children and their white counterparts. “Implicitly, the children do not need to learn one lesson: they need an education” (Cartwright 61). Cartwright exemplifies this point in his criticism of “The Lesson.” Bambara wrote “The Lesson” during a time when black children were often still being restricted from receiving the same education as white children. Although the schools had been integrated, the children in the story live in Harlem, which is a poor black neighborhood in New York City with a poor black school. The division of neighborhoods based on socio-economic standing and the use of neighborhood schools made it easy for children to remain segregated.

Bambara’s use of AAVE also accentuated the need for education in order for the children to succeed. African American Vernacular English or AAVE is the dialect used in “The Lesson.” Considering the time period of the story, AAVE is appropriate for the characters, who live in a working-class black ghetto. According to Janet Heller, author of “Toni Cade Bambara’s Use of African American Vernacular English in “The Lesson” (279), this is also the dialect Bambara would have learned to use growing up in Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. According to Heller, “AAVE fits the story’s themes, one of which is that the clack children in the story need to learn about the world outside their ghetto and another that wealth is unequally and unfairly distributed in American society” (280). AAVE demonstrates the separation between black and white cultures in the US. Additionally, it “emphasizes the children’s distance from mainstream white bourgeois culture and economic power” (Heller, 291). While the conversation outside the toy store demonstrates the children’s realization of the economic and racial disparities, their dialect demonstrates the actual disparities because it is a sign of a lack of formal education. When Miss Moore is initially introduced in the story, she is described as someone with “proper speech” (Bambara, 87). She is also the only character in the story with a college education. There is an implicit connection between the way the characters speak and their level of education. The children learn to speak in AAVE because it is how the adults around them speak because they have never received a formal education either. Although Bambara also uses AAVE as a means of celebrating African American culture, it is used as a sign of uneducated people, which reinforces the theme that the children need education. 

Despite her strong resistance to Miss Moore, even Sylvia’s revelation strengthens the theme of education. The narrator throughout the story is a young girl named Sylvia. Sylvia is poor, black, living in Harlem, uses the AAVE dialect, and resents Miss Moore attempted to teach them all the time. Despite this, she has her own personal revelation in the story. When Miss Moore is trying to get the children to talk about how they felt at the toy store, Sugar spoke up about the social disparity she saw looking at the toys. Although Miss Moore was excited with Sugar’s revelation, Sylvia did everything she could to get Sugar to stop talking, including standing on her foot. John Goodwin, author of “Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ and Bambara’s ‘The Lesson,’” reiterates the importance of Sylvia’s revelation. “She saw toys that privileged members of society could afford, but she could not” (Goodwin, 2006). According to Goodwin, Bambara used this draw the reader’s attention to the fact that hard work and proper use of money could resolve the society conflict (129). In the end of the story, Sylvia says to herself “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.” On the surface, it would appear she is referring to a footrace with her friend. However, she is referring to life. Miss Moore’s trip to the toy store made Sylvia realize she wasn’t going to let anyone hold her back. Going back to the underlying theme of the importance of education, not letting anyone beat her means she needs to pursue a strong education in order to rise above the racial barriers and socio-economic disparity. 

Bambara depends a lot of communal interaction to make a point in her stories, and “The Lesson” is no different. Miss Moore helps the children realize their identity as a group within greater society. The neighborhood they lived in, their dialect, their lack of education; all these factors bonded the children as a group. As explained by Mickey Pearlman, author of American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space, “Bambara’s stories present a decided emphasis on the centrality of community.” He explains further that for Bambara, “community becomes essential as a locus for growth, not simply as a source of narrative tension” (Peralman 159). Bambara uses a community context within her story because she is addressing the community as a group. The underlying theme of the need for education applies to the entire African American community. Having grown up prior to the civil rights movement, Bambara understands how hard it was for the black community to earn the right to an education. It was important to her for people within the black community to understand the importance and ongoing need for education in order to end the racial economic disparity that existed in New York City and elsewhere. 

Bambara also tells the story from the viewpoint of a narrator; in this case, Sylvia. This point of view puts the reader in the mindset of a twelve-year-old poor black girl. This intensifies the impact of Sylvia’s revelation for the reader. Without Sylvia being set as the narrator, the reader would be unclear as to the thoughts and motivations behind Sylvia’s actions. However, the reader is privy to her thoughts through her mental commentary on the events of the day. The most important of these thoughts is her final declaration of the day. Although Sylvia does not admit it to Miss Moore, Miss Moore had an impact on Sylvia. Sylvia’s quest for education has begun because she has made the solid decision that she will not go through life letting people be better than she is. Although it is not clear what all the children go home thinking, it is clear they are affected. Mercedes decides she wants to save up money to buy a toy from the store at her birthday. Sugar verbally recognizes the economic disparity. Additionally, the economic disparity is recognized as a racial issue. When talking about the price the of the sale boat, the children decide that white people are crazy for paying that much for a toy. They do not say rich people are crazy, they specifically say white people are crazy. This is an important point made in connecting the economic and racial issues of the time. 

Although AAVE is used to symbolize a lack of education in the story, Bambara often uses AAVE to celebrate African American culture. It is a dialect unique to the poor African American community. Even within the poor white communities, AAVE was not used. Although it is used as a symbol of their poverty and position within society, Bambara does not use her stories to discourage or put down people who speak in AAVE. Contrary to this, she uses it to create a cultural distinction between the people living in Harlem and people living in other areas. There are multiple references made throughout the story that are culturally significant to New York City, and more specifically, Harlem. Even the use of FEO Swartz as an expensive toy store is culturally significant to New York City. FEO Swartz has been a symbolic location in New York City for decades. Bambara, herself, is from Harlem, which makes her use of the area as a setting personal to her. These stories, although fictional, are based on the reality of the area. Although they are not literally, they could be true stories. 

Bambara wrote several short stories during the same time period she wrote “The Lesson.” They each use dialect, cultural references, and revelations to highlight the racial and economic disparities that exist in society. She also uses her short stories as a vehicle to teach others her lessons. In this case, her story carried out multiple themes and lessons to be learned by the reader. They included the recognition of racial economic disparity, as well as the need for education. Bambara is very clear that she believes without education, the economic disparities seen between races will not end. It is up to the individuals to seek out and become educated because in many poor areas, the available education is not the best education. Miss Moore is set up in the story as the example for the children to live up to; an educated black woman, who returned to Harlem to help lift up others. 

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni. "Bambara's "The Lesson"." Redirect to Teaching Writing with Computers. N.p., n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <>.

Cartwright, Jerome. "Bambara's ‘The Lesson.’" Explicator 47.3 (1989): 61. Print.

Goodwin, John . "Marquez’s ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’ and Bambara’s ‘The Lesson.’" Explicator 64.2 (2006): 128-130. Print.

Heller, Janet. "Toni Cade Bambara's Use of African American Vernacular English in ‘The Lesson.’" Style 37.3 (2003): 279-293. Print.

Pearlman, Mickey. American Women Writing Fiction: Memory, Identity, Family, Space. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 1989. Print.