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Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” explore the Black Empowerment Movement of the 1970’s. Although slavery had been outlawed for over a hundred years, lack of education and economy proved to be the modern day shackles for African Americans. As college educated African American women, Bambara’s Miss Moore and Walker’s Dee are pioneers of their time. These women are confident and defiant characters who utilize their educations in an effort to reclaim cultural identity and restore social and economic justice. “The Lesson” shows Miss Moore’s progressive approach towards Afro-centrism as an attempt to outreach and advance her race. This contrasts Dee’s narrow-sighted view from “Everyday Use”, who uses this pride to distance herself from her modest beginnings.
Miss Moore and Dee’s ideological beliefs are seen in their physical appearances. As a way to express discontent with the typical white Anglo-Saxon culture and fashions, African Americans begin to reclaim their African cultures to create an identity of their own. Dee and Miss Moore’s life in the 1970s places them in the Afro-Centrism Movement. Afro-Centrism is the belief that African American lineage can be traced back to ancient Egypt, which was dominated by a race of black Africans. This concept was developed as a psychological weapon against racism and oppression. As Sylvia describes Miss Moore in “The Lesson”, we picture her “nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup” (61). Miss Moore’s sense of style seems to be minimalistic, which is similar to that of her ancestors. In “Everyday Use”, Miss Johnson describes Dee’s new look upon returning from college: “…a dress so loud it hurt my eyes. There are yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun” (791). Dee’s new-found fashion sense seems to resemble native African garb, with a dress of free flowing fit and eccentric colors. Dee also fashions earrings down to her shoulders and several bracelets that are unusual for her time. Dee’s hair is described by her mother as resembling “…the wool on a sheep” (791). Both Dee and Miss Moore style their hair and dress in similar fashion, which provides as a way for them to distance themselves from the culture of the historically oppressive white race.
Miss Moore and Dee attend college, a rare accomplishment for women of their time, especially for minority women. In “Everyday Use”, Dee is awarded the opportunity for a higher education through the perseverance of her mother and the donations of the church and community. With the help of her family and community, Dee is able to escape the restrictive environment in the rural south. While little is known about Miss Moore’s upbringing in “The Lesson”; one can assume she is raised in another type of restrictive environment, an urban setting stricken with poverty. Miss Moore ultimately returns to this place to help its youth. Sylvia, one of Miss Moore’s pupils, says: “She’d been to college and said it was only right that she should take responsibility for the young ones’ education, and she not even related by marriage or blood”(61). Bambara uses Miss Moore to demonstrate how selfless leaders in the empowerment movement used their educations to provoke change. Although unappreciated, in “Everyday Use”, Dee spends time educating her mother and sister: “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two…” (790). Dee knows her mother and sister lack education and shares her gift of intelligence with them. In fact, Dee’s friendships evolve from those who she reads to. Her friends “…worshiped the well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye” (791). Dee’s eloquence projects beyond her family as she reads to anyone who will listen. Dee’s outspoken personality and Miss Moore’s eagerness to instruct the youth are important for spreading new values of black pride and empowerment.
Miss Moore and Dee are prolific entities for the advancement of their race; however, they exude dissimilar messages. In “The Lesson”, Miss Moore’s message revolves around money and its unequal distribution in American. She takes her group of students to a high-end toy store to show the children that some people spend an absurd amount of money on superficial gifts. This money is needed by the children’s families for the essential items in life. Sylvia explains: “She always waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (65). Her message is directed at these underprivileged youth in hopes that someday they will become successful people and be able to enjoy the “finer” things in life. While slavery had been abolished for many decades, there are still institutional factors oppressing the African American race. Miss Moore’s efforts are to free her people of these economic sanctions. In contrast, Dee’s message in “Everyday Use” is not as clear because she is younger than Miss Moore, and has not yet established her identity. Dee pushes for a cultural change in her people and consequently enters a conflict of generations. In “Everyday Use”, Dee changes her name to Wangero, stating: “I couldn’t bear it any longer being named after people who oppress me” (792). The name Dee is traced back to her enslaved ancestors and she wants to get rid of this association. Dee then returns home with a newly acquired respect for her origins. However, her demeanor showcases her family’s life as an artifact rather than an acceptable lifestyle. This distances her from them. Dee turns to her sister Maggie and says: “You ought to try and make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (795). Dee pushes her sister to follow in her non-conforming lifestyle, but inadvertently offends her family’s simple and content way of life.
While Dee is of earnest intentions for the improvement of her race, her demeanor can be viewed as ignorant and offensive to the older generations of African Americans. Dee wants the quilts and the butter churn as artifacts of the old generation of her race. In doing so, she’s turning her back on her mother and sister who still live in the times she has forgotten. Dee gasps, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! […] She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (794). Dee wants the quilts and other antiques to showcase her family’s way of life as the past and ignores the fact they are still living in the present. Dee’s clash with older African American generations can be seen as a hindrance to the black empowerment movement. In “The Lesson”, Miss Moore has a more structured approach to black empowerment and seems to have a deeper understanding of the issues. She realizes her race has plenty of obstacles to overcome without adding generational tensions caused by Dee’s tactics. Miss Moore says to the children, “Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. What do you think?” (66). Miss Moore asks this question to see if the children comprehend the lesson shown by visiting the toy store, a lesson of economic inequality. She knows that having economic freedom opens many doors presently closed to her people, doors that lead to: strong educations, freedom to live outside the “Projects”, and freedom to pursue a better life.
Miss Moore and Dee serve as important figures in their communities. Their messages are diverse; however, both call for a new beginning. While Miss Moore sees lack of financial freedom as a major factor in the demise of her race, Dee calls out to African Americans to be proud of who they are and where they come from. Both ideas form the basis for a movement towards black empowerment, which gives birth to the end of racism, social injustice, and cultural oppression.
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