Point of View
“The Lesson” is told from Sylvia’s first-person point of view. This means that all the events are perceived through Sylvia. Despite this potentially restrictive viewpoint, Sylvia is able to present a wider view of her community. She compares Miss Moore to the rest of the adults. Not only does this show how different Miss Moore is, she also indicates certain cultural standards of the time, such as Miss Moore’s wearing her hair “nappy,” or curly, at a time when many African-American women straightened their hair, or that the adults dislike that Miss Moore does not go to church, indicating the importance of religion to the community. Sylvia also presents the different types of people who inhabit her community through the children in the group. Mercedes wants to be like the white people who shop at F. A. O. Schwarz; Flyboy seeks pity and charity as a result of his poverty and unstable homelife; Sugar, Sylvia’s cohort, surprisingly shows both a desire to please Miss Moore and a clearheaded understanding of the inequities of American society. Sylvia’s inner musings, her obvious intelligence, and her sudden feelings of anger when she is at the toy store show that she could very well grow up to be the kind of person that Miss Moore wants them all to be: one who resists and who invokes change.
The story takes place in New York City. The children live in an African-American neighborhood, most likely Harlem. The store they visit is on Fifth Avenue in midtown, which is a much more expensive part of New York. For much of its history, New York has been a place where the wealthy and the poor live, sometimes within only blocks of each other. It has also been seen as a land of opportunity. Starting in the 191 Os, many southern African Americans migrated to the North—as did Sylvia’s family—generally to find better employment and less racial prejudice.
The characters in the story, with the exception of Miss Moore, speak in a non-standard form of English. They do not always speak with standard grammar or inflection. They say words like ain ‘t, drop the final g off words like pointing, and leave words out of sentences, as in “she not even related by marriage” or “white people crazy.” This aptly reflects how the people in Sylvia’s African-American community talked. One of the first details that Sylvia relates about Miss Moore is that she has ”proper speech,” indicating how unique she is. The speech of Sylvia and her friends—though nonstandard—is more common in their world.
Black Aesthetic Movement
The Black Aesthetic Movement, which is also known as the Black Arts Movement, was a period of artistic and literary development among African Americans in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was the first major African-American movement since the Harlem Renaissance, and the civil rights and Black Power movements closely paralleled it. Black aesthetic writers attempted to produce works of art that would be meaningful to the African-American mass audience. The movement sought to use art to promote the idea of African-American separatism. Typical literature of the movement was generally written in African-American English vernacular, was confrontational in tone, and addressed such issues as interracial tension, sociopolitical awareness, and the relevance of African history and culture to African Americans. Alice A. Deck wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “In many ways Toni Cade Bambara is one of the best representatives of [this] group.”
”The Lesson” demonstrates many attributes of this movement. Bambara draws on typical AfricanAmerican urban culture in creating her characters and dialogue, and in focusing attention on issues of real concern. Miss Moore clearly advocates taking a strong position to achieve equality; she wants the poor African Americans to “demand” their fair share of American prosperity. The children demonstrate the racial tension they feel daily; they openly speak of how ‘’crazy” white folks are. By the end of the story, Sylvia and Sugar have clearly internalized Miss Moore’s lesson.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Toni Cade Bambara, Published by Gale Group, 2001.