In this lesson, we’ll look at ‘The Lesson,’ a short story written by famous black writer Toni Cade Bambara.
We’ll also take a brief look at Bambara herself, along with an analysis and the themes of her famous short story. Then afterwards, you can test your knowledge with a quiz.
An Angry Young Woman
Meet Sylvia, the first person narrator of Toni Cade Bambara’s short story, ‘The Lesson.’ Sylvia is around ten years old and lives in Harlem in the 1960s.
She’s black and pretty angry, but doesn’t quite understand why she’s angry or its connection to being black. But that’s not to say she isn’t intelligent. On the contrary, she’s rather sharp, as shown throughout the story.
In this lesson, discover what she learns during an important day in her life.
Who Was Toni Cade Bambara?
To better understand ‘The Lesson,’ it might be helpful to know a little about the author. Toni Cade Bambara spent the first ten years of her life in Harlem. She may have been a lot like Sylvia herself.
She credits these years with having a profound effect on her writing. The descriptions of Harlem and the characters in the story are very realistic and vivid. The reader can imagine the smell of the city air, hear the traffic, and picture the characters.Bambara wrote several film scripts, two novels, and several collections of short stories. ‘The Lesson’ first appeared in the collection Gorilla My Love (1972).
Bambara died of colon cancer at the age of 56 in 1995. Some of her other published works are: The Black Woman: An Anthology (1970), Tales and Stories for Black Folks (1971), Sea Birds are Still Alive (1977), and The Salt Eaters (1980).
‘The Lesson’: Plot Summary
‘The Lesson’ takes place on a seemingly ordinary day in Harlem, probably in the 1960s. Sylvia, the narrator, and a small group of neighborhood children visit an F.
A.O Schwartz toy store in another part of the city. Miss Moore, an educated black woman who frequently takes the neighborhood children on educational outings, accompanies them.Sylvia makes it clear that she would much rather be doing anything else.
The toy store seems like an unlikely place for a field trip, but Miss Moore has a point to make.The children are shocked to see a $480 price tag on a paperweight. They don’t know what it is, so Miss Moore explains, ‘It’s to weigh paper down so it won’t scatter and make your desk untidy.’Sylvia disparages the other children and tries to instigate them to misbehave, but they are more interested in a handcrafted toy sailboat for $1,195. At the end of the day, Miss Moore asks the children, ‘Well, What did you think of F.
A.O. Schwartz?”White folks crazy,’ remarks one of the children.
When Sylvia goes home that afternoon after being introduced to a lesson in social injustice and economic inequality, she feels unsettled.’Miss Moore looks at me sorrowfully, I’m thinkin. And something weird is going on, I can feel it in my chest.’ She and her cousin Sugar go off to play, but Sylvia has learned a fundamental life lesson.
A Narrator With an Attitude
As the first person narrator, Sylvia tells the story from her point of view. Sylvia has attitude. She sets the tone in the first sentence with her conversational tone and Harlem dialect.
She hates Miss Moore. ‘Miss Moore was her name,’ Sylvia says, and the reader can almost hear the sarcasm in her tone. In a judgmental voice, Sylvia adds, ‘This lady just moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.
‘Sylvia makes disparaging remarks about the other children, too. For example, she nicknames one of the other kids ‘Big-Butt.’ Sylvia is a bit of a bully and sometimes tries to control the other kids. When Miss Moore asks Sylvia’s cousin Sugar a question, Sylvia stands on Sugar’s foot so she won’t answer. She makes fun of the characteristics of the others throughout the story, a means of creating their characters also.
Themes In ‘The Lesson’
‘The Lesson’ may or may not be a hopeful story depending on the reader’s interpretation.
To some extent, ‘The Lesson’ is about racism, but more so about poverty and how poverty limits opportunity. The children in this story are being taught not so much to expand their horizons and improve themselves, but that the world is unfair.Sylvia can’t explain why she hates Miss Moore, because she has no real reason to hate her. Rather, Sylvia may hate what Miss Moore represents: education and civility. Perhaps the ‘lesson’ Sylvia has learned from this experience is that she has a choice. She can continue to be angry and disdain the qualities and life she has been denied (represented by Miss Moore), or she can do something to change her destiny.
The story ends with Sylvia and Sugar running off to play. Sylvia comments, ‘She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin.’ The ending is inconclusive, typical of many good stories. It’s up to the reader to interpret what happens next. Will Sylvia live her entire life and become bitter and even more resentful, or will she use her strength and determination to grow up to be rich and famous?
‘The Lesson’ is a short story about a group of African American children from low income families who visit an expensive toy store, where they learn that the world is anything but fair.
The experience has an especially profound effect on Sylvia, the first person narrator, who begins to realize not only that the world is unfair, but that because of her race and circumstances she faces additional challenges. The reader is left wondering how Sylvia will face those challenges.