The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara, 1972
The magic trick:
Using a formulaic plot to demonstrate a complex set of racial dilemmas facing children
Nothing out of the ordinary, plot-wise, here.
Neighborhood lady wants to help local children. Local children think she’s crazy. Local children learn valuable lesson. Neighborhood lady earns their begrudging respect.
You know that game. So why care?
Well, A) there’s nothing wrong with that formula, and B) Bambara’s picture of childhood here is pretty great.
She gets the balance just right. They are obnoxious but likable; rebellious but harmless. Most importantly, they already are painfully ignorant to the world outside their ghetto, and they’re angry about it but too immature to understand just what they’re missing and why they’re upset.
So the plot might be formulaic, but there’s nothing ordinary at all about the complex combination of racial dilemmas facing the children in this story. And that’s quite a trick on Bambara’s part.
Same thing in the store. We all walkin on tiptoe and hardly touchin the games and puzzles and things. And I watched Miss Moore who is steady watchin us like she waitin for a sign. Like Mama Drewery watches the sky and sniffs the air and takes note of just how much slant is in the bird formation. Then me and Sugar bump smack into each other, so busy gazing at the toys, ‘specially the sailboat. But we don’t laugh and go into our fat-lady bump-stomach routine. We just stare at that price tag. Then Sugar run a finger over the whole boat. And I’m jealous and want to hit her. Maybe not her, but I sure want to punch somebody in the mouth.
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