“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara: Diverse Social Classes


The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara powerfully portrays the inherent presence of diverse social classes and income distribution. The premise of this narrative emphasizes the income disparity across different socioeconomic groups in the United States, how this separation frequently represents racial inequalities, and the significance of teaching people to recognize the existence of this disparity. The plot revolves around a journey organized by Miss Moore, an educated woman who took the responsibility to introduce the ill-mannered children of the community to the outside reality of their limited society. Additionally, the story paints what ghettos look like, where Sylvia, one of the characters, and her friends live. As a result, the reader receives a different perception of inequality, racism, and discrimination through the prism of the narrator’s story.

Main body

Discrimination has been present in the US for hundreds of years. Though the situation is slightly improving, the people of color during the time of Toni Cade Bambara had to undergo inhumane racism and Jim Crow laws. Toni Cade Bambara was a “filmmaker, activist, Black feminist theorist, author, and educator,” but she saw herself as a writer, a social worker, a teacher, and a parent (Kromidas 26). Her writing had a single goal: to protect the lives of Black people.

Therefore, Bambara’s literary interventions are inextricably linked to her liberation battles and visions, which necessitated a deliberate, inventive, and community re-forging of rules, beliefs, ways of being, and interacting (Kromidas 26). Bambara is one of the few writers who openly articulate a radical viewpoint encompassing children and the elderly (Halliday 50). Such an approach serves as a metaphor for being and becoming human with the transition happening throughout the lifetime.

Therefore, Bambara, having a related background and being concerned with the present problems, covered the black and white lives in the story. The author chose Miss Moore, a well-educated white woman, to help children from the slums of New York see the essence of life and inequality. She is the one who sees black kids’ problems and offers to help. However, the black children do not seem to know much about money, and some end up spending the money buying non-essential things.

In order to shed light on the important problems, Miss Moore takes children to the toy store to show the prices of the toys and the inability of many parents to purchase them due to income disparity. When they were at the store, Miss Moore and Sylvia saw a toy that cost money equal to feeding a certain percentage of hungry people in the country (Conor 77). The children became aware of the value of money and that the prices paid for toys at F. A. O. Schwarz, the toy store, were exorbitant.

Additionally, the social disparity is clearly illustrated by how Sylvia sees money. Her family has a lot of problems, and even $35 is enough to solve several of them. Looking at the livelihood of the children, the risk of getting infected with cholera, malnutrition, and other diseases associated with poor hygiene and lack of food is very high. Racism also continues in the part where the black youngster is depicted as a mentally challenged creature (Lewis 21). The high level of economic difference was associated with slavery back in the seventeenth century (Nunn 1). During this period, black people were forced to work and were not paid a cent. However, even after hundreds of years, the situation has not changed.

Nevertheless, some individuals are not scared to express themselves. For example, Sylvia is courageous enough to speak African American dialect. Bambara celebrates African American Vernacular English to celebrate the black people’s experience (Dieng 34). This language is associated with many secular words, especially the f-words. The language is spoken at a higher speed than the other languages. Sylvia says it even in public which clarifies that she is a product of slavery. Discrimination is associated with the limitation of the white to the black expression. Speaking African American Vernacular English in public requires a lot of courage.

Another example of disparity is shown later through Sugar’s views, the girl who believes that the country is not much of a democracy if people do not have equal access to riches. Sugar’s understanding of the government is every person has an equal right to access resources that might make them rich. When she sees a toy worth the price of feeding the whole community, she is surprised why some people would buy that while black people are dying of hunger. Sugar’s response pleases Miss Moore, but Sylvia is outraged by her betrayal (Dieng 82). That is pure evidence that mistreatment exists in the streets of New York City.

As for the literary devices used by the author, one of them is symbolism. This is seen throughout the plot by paying attention to toys and money. The expensive toys which the children saw may symbolize the riches which were unavailable to the masses. Additionally, money symbolizes freedom. While white people are liberated from discrimination and are free to do what they desire, black people live under mental and physical constraints. In the story, there is a strong correlation between money and freedom. If a person has money, they can eliminate all problems and cater to their needs.

Another literary device is the use of imagery. In this situation, Sylvia narrates the story and introduces the device. Through Sylvia’s vision, the reader understands the presentation of black and white people. In this situation, black people are viewed as poor and oppressed masses. On the other hand, white people are seen as sybarites who can afford everything in their life. After visiting the store, the girl realized that it was unfair for one person to have everything and for others to be “ain’t in on it” (Bambara 6). As a result, the first person leaves the reader with questions and emotions, or in most cases, both (McCarter 39). Thus, the narrator discusses how social inequality and materialism exist and how the black survive.


In conclusion, the story has pointed out the social disparities, and the discrimination black people face in New York. The reader gets a glimpse into the lives of black youngsters who come from low-income families, with little money, and have never had an education. The story depicts people’s lives in the early nineteen seventies after the civil rights struggle. During this time, a disparity was flourishing based on race and color, with the white earning far more than the black. However, with the help of Miss Moore, after visiting the store with expensive toys, the children realize that inequality exists, and they have to fight this discrepancy. As a result, this woman proved that inequality is not something acceptable but rather something that needs to be addressed.

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni Cade. “The Lesson.” Gorilla, My Love. New York: Random House, 1972. 85-96. Web.

Conor, Tomas. “The Early Developments of Black Women’s Studies in the Lives of Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, and Audre Lorde.” Black women Lives, vol. 10, no. 2, 2018, pp. 70-83.

Dieng, Babacar. “The Use of Aave in Toni Cade Bambara’s Short Stories: Erasing the Boundaries between Écriture and Orature.” Partage du savoir-Mélanges offerts en hommage au Professeur Mamadou Kandji: Tome 2, Sciences humaines et sociales vol. 2, no. 1, 2017, pp 33-85.

Halliday, Aria S. “Black Girls’ Feistiness as Everyday Resistance in Toni Cade Bambara’s: Gorilla, My Love.” Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, vol. 9, no. 1, 2020, pp. 50-64.

Kromidas, Maria. “Agent of Revolutionary Thought”: Bambara and Black Girlhood for a Poetics of Being and Becoming Human.” Jeunesse: Young People, Texts, Cultures, vol. 11, no. 1, 2019, pp. 19-37.

Lewis, Thabiti. ”Black People Are My Business”: Toni Cade Bambara’s Practices of Liberation. Wayne State University Press, 2020.

Nunn, Nathan. “The historical roots of economic development.” Science vol. 367, 2020, pp. 1-7.

McCarter, Kimberly. “Your Essay: What Your Teacher Expects.” (2020).

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