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The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara: The Struggles of African American Women after The Civil War

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But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothing’ is an ironic choice of words coming from a lower-class young African American girl growing up in the brutal streets of in New York City. In the short story, ‘The Lesson’ Toni Cade Bambara illustrates the lack of opportunities for African American women after the civil war. Being a woman of color limited one’s socioeconomic class and suppressed the importance of self-motivation in one’s life. Bambara grew up in two of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods, Harlem and Bedford. The trails, tribulations and moments of uncertainty she faced are illustrated in this short story.

Bambara transposes these difficulties in her personal life into to a short story written in the third person limited, then transitions to third person omniscient, an intriguing point of view not typically chosen by literary writers. Sylvia, the protagonist in this short story must decide between letting her socioeconomic status limit her or push herself to reach places she never thought possible. The motivation behind this short story is to provide readers with an awareness of the different social classes that cause cultural decides within communities. Although Sylvia was born into poverty it did not restrict her ability to turn her life into something meaningful.

The narrow-minded characteristic of Sylvia limits her capability in interpersonal skills, causing her to avoid lessons that would benefit her personally. Sylvia’s animosity toward her antagonist, Ms. Moore, undermines the impact she would have had on Sylvia life toward the end of the short story. From the beginning, you can feel the annoyance Sylvia has towards Ms. Moore’s common but educational ramblings. For instance, Silvia states, ‘She’s boring us silly about what things costs… how money ain’t divided right in this country she gets to the part about we all are poor and live in the slums, which I don’t feature. And I’m ready to speak on that’. Although someone might think of Sylvia as an ignorant child raised in ‘slums’, doomed from the day she was born, I think of her as a young afraid woman who is scared to face reality or step out of her comfort zones. Bambara wants to point out the lack of knowledge and exposure minorities had after the conclusion of the Civil War, conveying that living in the ‘slums’, and being poor, was ordinary, normal and acceptable. This marks the beginning of the conflict. Though Bambara implicitly states as much, Ms. Moore is the gateway to knowledge for Sylva.

The persistence of Ms. Moore is teaching about the relative prices of toys in the ‘Slums’ as compared to those on display in wealthier neighborhood eventually cracks the surface of Sylvia’s thick skin. The vivid imagery inside the F.A.O Schwarz store creates a moment of suspense and longing as Sylvia looks through the glass of the store. However, as she ponders the price of the expensive toys, she comes to understand that these can only be purchased by the wealthy, which she clearly is not. The reality of life’s skewed economic privileges takes effect and begins to shake Sylvia’s unbreakable spirit. This is where the conflict begins. Sylvia contends, ‘But I feel a funny shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door’. By focusing only on present moment, Sylvia overlooks the lesson Ms. Moore is trying to convey: the impact behind finding inspiration and motivation as a tool to achieve accomplishments in life eventually being able to buy things you couldn’t when you were unable to. Although, Sylvia hates the concept behind college education, she is beginning to realize and understand that she has the power to change the circumstances she is currently living in. As a matter of fact, Sylvia states, ‘But it don’t have to necessarily has to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people has to wake up and demand the piece of the pie’. In spite of the fact, that Miss Moore centers on the immense hole between the abundance of New York City’s tip top and the neediness of their neighbors, Bambara calls attention to the monetary inconsistencies exist within Sylvia’s circle of companions. Albeit none of the kids can bear the cost of the toys in F.A.O. Schwarz, there is, in reality, some decent variety in their salaries.

Sylvia inversely accepts the possibility of change in the stagnant socioeconomic status defined by minorities in New York after the Civil War. Sylvia points out, ‘Something weird is going on in my chest’. That ‘weird’ feeling is an understanding that they are going to reside within an existence in poverty, the inverse of being wealthy. Considering this, their unfortunate situation does not prevent them from accomplishing more; it does, however, put a few questions they may have had into context. Without the possibility of instruction like this, they may have stayed ignorant of this information. To have the young children talk about this straightforwardly to each other is a critical development. Notwithstanding her initial negative reaction to the trip, Sylvia’s opportunity to witness the huge difference among rich and poor appears to move her to work harder. Toward the end, she thinks ‘Ain’t no one going to beat me at nuthin”. Overall, the treachery has helped her rationalize her outrage.

In Bambara’s short story ‘The Lesson’, she promotes self-evaluation and encourages people to embrace change with healthy acceptance. To complete this task, one must ask oneself “What is wrong?” What is missing in one’s life on a literal, moral and group level. The misconception behind is that even though one has control over one’s life, it’s hard to say that moving up the socioeconomic ladder is realistic. Although, motivation is an important factor when trying to overcome an obstacle what’s missing is how does one encounter people who are willing to share the importance of education in a neighborhood lacking knowledge. Also, the acceptance of failure and how we can learn from it is also an important moral lesson. But in the end that might be Bambara’s goal to emphasize the importance of motivation and remaining optimistic realizing that knowledge can come from people who you least expected. No matter how big the dream you’re not going to let anybody beat you at nothing.

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The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara: the Struggles of African American Women after the Civil War. (2020, October 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 23, 2022, from
“The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara: the Struggles of African American Women after the Civil War.” GradesFixer, 10 Oct. 2020,
The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara: the Struggles of African American Women after the Civil War. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 23 May 2022].
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