The Story of a Teenage Democracy
Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson,” tells a story from the point of view of a black young girl, Sylvia, who lives in Harlem, New York. The story begins when Miss Moore, an educated black woman, moves on their block. One summer day, Miss Moore takes the kids to an expensive toy store. The lifestyle of the kind of people who go to the store usually and the price of toys makes the kids uncomfortable. When Miss Moore asks them that what they learned from their short trip, one of the kids, Sugar, answers that “this is not much of a democracy” (Bambara 391). The story is a social and political statement about a society, New York City, which does not treat its citizens equally.
Sylvia is the narrator and supposed protagonist. She is a sarcastic, mean girl who believes no one in the society understands anything but her and her friend, Sugar. She says at the beginning of the story: “everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right” (Bambara 385). She knows more than her age and she is growing so fast. She understands things that other teenagers do not. All these makes her critical of herself, her family, and especially Miss Moore that seems became a good target for Sylvia since she moved to the neighborhood, for instance when Sylvia describes Miss Moore by saying, “She was black as hell, except for her feet, which were fish-white and spooky” (Bambara 385). Sylvia does not like her for some reason. Miss Moore is educated; she loves to teach and wants to be nice to kids. None of these makes sense for Sylvia. She cannot trust anybody or anything but her friend Sugar who is the active voice of Sylvia. Sugar actually does what Sylvia thinks about. Sugar and Sylvia are two friends that complete each other. This is why after the tour at the toy store and after all the thoughts and observations that Sylvia have had, Sugar is the one who answers Miss Moore’s question, about what they have learned, by saying, “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?”(Bambara 391). Sylvia is a static round character who does not change much during the story, but she forces the readers to think about themselves and the society they are living in.
“The Lesson” is a social-political statement. This is why the main character, Sylvia, struggles inside and outside. The internal conflict in the story happens between Sylvia, her beliefs and her picture of the world that although is real, it is not something that she wants to see. But it seems she does not want any changes. Sylvia loves the way the things are because then she can complain about them and she can be happy that no one understands as much as she does. This is the reason that she becomes sarcastic when she talks about Miss Moore’s education. On the other hand, the external conflict is between Sylvia and the society or the entire world, which, in this case, turns into the toy store. The toy store is the monster. She hates everything about the store, toys, staff, people who go there regularly for shopping and her nemesis, Miss Moor. She hates Miss Moore so much and she does not deny it: “hated the way we did the winos who cluttered up our parks and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn't halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask” (Bambara 385). She sees Miss Moore as the symbol of all the problems and discriminations in the society. That is why Sylvia does not want to give Miss Moore any kind of satisfaction, “I say to Miss Moore though I never talk to her, I wouldn't give the bitch that satisfaction” (Bambara 389). The entire story for Sylvia is the battlefield. She fights against the unfair society that does not treat its citizen equally, the society that forces a teenage girl like her to grow up so fast.
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." 2013. 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology. Ed. Beverly Lawn. 4th ed. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2004. 393-402. Print.