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  Issue Date: 1 / 2018  
 

Toni Cade Bambara: Artist as Tutor



Michael Timko
 
       In the current political, social, and racial setting, it seems fitting to turn to art to seek possible solutions to the problems created by these forces. One possible avenue is fiction, especially that written by authors who in their works show both the problems and provide possible answers to those problems. One such writer is Tony Cade Bambara, who provides in her short story “The Lesson,” both one specific problem and one possible solution.
       
       Toni Cade Barbara, novelist, short-story author, essayist, reviewer, and teacher, was born in New York City, grew up in Harlem, and in 1970 changed her name to Barbara, the name of a West African ethnic group. She graduated from Queens College, City University of New York, with a degree in Theater Arts and English Literature in 1959. She also studied film dance before getting an M.A. degree at City College, CUNY, in 1964. She also taught at Rutgers University, Emory University, and Stephens College, Columbia University, and Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. In Atlanta she helped form the Southern Collective of African American Writers. She died in 1995.
       
       Bambara was a prolific writer. Her many publications include: Gorilla, My Love. New York: Vintage, 1972; War of the Walls 1976; The Sea Birds Are Still Alive: Collected Stories. New York: Random House, 1977; The Salt Eaters. New York: Random House, 1980; and Those Bones Are Not My Child. New York: Pantheon, 1999. She also wrote the script for Louis Massiah's film The Bombing of Osage Avenue, a work that won much acclaim.
       
       “The Lesson” appeared in Gorilla, a collection of short stories. It represents Bambara’s quintessential qualities as an author and her major interests as author and tutor. In approaching a work of fiction one looks at several aspects: action, protagonist and antagonist, characterization, conflict, dialogue, diction, point of view, setting, structure, and theme. Bambara’s “Lesson” contains, as one might expect from an accomplished writer, all of these, but those that strike the reader immediately are dialogue, conflict, character, and theme. These reveal immediately and forcefully Bambara ultimate objective in this particular story, the milieu in which the characters live, the various inequalities that exist in their lives, the issues they face, the manner in which they face them, and the aptness of the resolution.
       
       There are three crucial scenes in the story, ones that reveal Bambara’s artistry. The first is the opening, which reveals immediately the milieu, the various characters, and the issues they face. Sylvia, the main character, tells the reader what she thinks about “this lady” Miss Moore; she is one of the “old and stupid ones,” in contrast to her and Sugar, her friend, who were the only ones “just right.” Miss Moore is “the only woman on with no first name.” She has “nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.” In addition “she was always planning those boring-ass things for us to do.” She had been to college, which immediately indicates that she is quite different from everything and everyone that Sylvia knows. Even the grown-ups, the parents, talk about Miss Moore behind her back, but they seem to respect her. “They would,” Sylvia tells us, “yank our heads into some kinda shape and crisp our clothes so we’d be presentable for travel with Miss Moore.”

       
       The second vital scene occurs at F.A.O Schwarz, the fabulous toy store on Fifth Avenue. The students need two taxis to go to the story, and Miss Moore puts Sylvia in charge of one of them, giving her a five-dollar bill and telling her to give 10 per cent for the tip. Sylvia thinks of just keeping the money, but the cab arrives at the toy store before she can decide what to do. Sylvia decides she needs the tip money more than the cab driver does.
       
       It is here, the second crucial scene, that the reader begins to understand the author’s thematic purpose. “This is the place,” Miss Moore tells them. “Let’s look in the windows before we go in.” Then they go in and and see more toys and their prices. Seeing these prices the students finally begin to learn the “lesson” that Miss Moore wants them to learn: the economic inequality that exists and the difference in social classes, the different ways that people live. The prices of the toys are a revelation and a challenge: a sailboat costs $1, 195; a paperweight, the use of which Miss Moore has to explain, costs $480; a microscope costs $300. The reaction of the children shows that Miss Moore has had some success. Sylvia’s comments are especially telling. Looking at the paperweight, she thinks: “My eyes tell me it’s a chunk of glass cracked with something heavy, and different-color inks dripped into the splits, then the whole thing put into a oven or something. But for $480 it don’t make sense.” She is also overwhelmed by the price of the sailboat. “’Unbelievable,’ I hear myself say and am really stunned. I read it again for myself just in case the class recitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what.”
       
       Sylvia goes on: “Who’d pay all that when you can buy a sailboat set for a quarter at Pop’s, a tube of glue for a dime, and a ball of string for eight cents? It must have a motor and a whole lot besides. My sailboat costs me about fifty cents.” Even the other children are overwhelmed at the price and what appears to be wasteful. Even the other children chime in, some making astute comments regarding the price. Little Q.T, staring hard at the boat, asks, “This boat for kids, Miss Moore?” Rosie Giraffe, another student, chimes in, “Parents silly to buy something like that just to get all broke up. That much money it should last forever.” Q.T. responds, “ Must be rich-people shop here.” Sylvia again, although she really doesn’t like to talk to Miss Moore, says, “What I want to know is how much a real boat costs? I figure a thousand’d get you a yacht any day.” Miss Moore responds: “Why don’t you check that out and report back to the group?” Bambara ends this particular section by having Sylvia imagine what her mother would say if she asked her to buy a clown for her birthday. “Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Who are these people that spend that much for performing clowns and $1,000 for toy sailboats? What kinda work do they do and how do they live and how come we ain’t in on it?” Then Sylvia remembers Miss Moore saying that it don’t necessarily have to be way, poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie.
       
       The denouement or resolution of the story emphasizes the effect this visit has on on Sylvia, the main character. Barbara emphasizes the “lesson” she has attempted to convey to her class. Sugar, Sylvia’s close friend, tells Miss Moore, “You know, Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs.” Miss Moore “lights up like somebody goosed her.” She asks Sugar what she thinks about that. Sugar responds, “I think that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it?” Sylvia’s response to this exchange summarizes the impact of the author’s thesis on the main character. The story ends with the focus on Sylvia’s final thoughts on the day: We start down the block and she [Sugar] gets ahead which is O.K. by me cause I’m going to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. No matter what conclusion Sylvia may arrive at after she thinks the day through, the reader can fully understand Miss Moore’s attempt to convey to her students that they need not simply give in to the system. The should work towards gaining, n Sugar’s words, an “equal chance at the dough.”


Michael Timko is Professor Emeritus (City University of New York). His major interests are 19th-cetury literature and drama. He has published and lectured widely on both scholarly and popular subjects and is currently one of the editors of Dickens Studies Annual . He has published many articles on various subjects in The World & I over the past years.
 
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