The Symbolism in The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara

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In The Lesson, Harlem, and Sympathy, the narrators overcome the silence caused by the pigmentation of their skin and find a moral courage to voice their opinions amidst double-standards. In The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara, protagonist Miss Moore educates local children about the unfair distribution of wealth and advises them to strive for a better life. Bambara instills the idea that intelligence and awareness exist everywhere and need to be awakened instead of silenced. Syliva, the African-American narrator from Harlem, believes Miss Moore moved to her neighborhood “with nappy hair” and “no makeup” (1). Sylvia’s hatred toward Miss Moore reveals her discomfort around an educated person and highlights her belief that black people could never be as established as white people. Miss Moore’s “proper speech” (1) makes the kids associate her with the white upper class resulting in the children “hating this nappy-head bitch and her goddamn college degree” (1). 

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Hence the narrator feels alienated from Miss Moore which emphasizes her awareness of her race’s marginalization in democracy and their inability to escape their social class. When Miss Moore takes Sylvia and her friends on a field trip to FAO Swartz, the children recognize the difference between the upper class and lower class. By asking the children to pay the taxi cab driver along with a ten percent tip, Miss Moore provides them with a real life math problem. Moreover, with her firing away of questions, Miss Moore makes the children voice their views about the high profile store on Fifth Ave. Despite Sylvia’s initial negative attitude and rude response to the excursion, Miss Moore succeeds in bringing to light the absurd prices of items and how thirty-five dollars can buy more important items in life than a clown. Overwhelmed by the expensive toys and a white woman wearing a fur coat during the summer, the children conceive that “white folks [are] crazy” (2). 

Bambara makes the time the story takes place clear in order to emphasize income disparities because most of the city’s population dwindles to those who cannot afford to leave in the summer. Sylvia imagines “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” (6) and realizes that the injustice done towards them stems from the lack of education in their poverty-stricken community. After being introduced to the unfair distribution of wealth and diverse democracy, the children understand that the African American community deserves the same respect as everyone else; however, they need to find the strength to voice their rights in order to create a good life on their own. The experience inspires Sylvia to work harder and believe that “ain’t nobody gonna beat me [her] at nuthin” (7). Injustice helps Sylvia focus on her anger and turn Miss Moore’s short trip from a “boring-ass” (1) arithmetic lesson to be a revolutionary experience. She makes Sylvia question the fairness of social and economic class stratification in the country. Miss Moore does not try to implement any preconceived theories she might have learned at educational institutions; rather she attempts to help them apprehend the significance that “poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (6).

The short but inspirational poem 'Harlem' by Langston Hughes addresses what happens to aspirations that are postponed or muted and stresses the need to strive for a better future. The brief, mind provoking questions posed throughout the poem reflect on the effects of delaying our dreams. The title “Harlem” references the historical part of New York that, in 1951, was known as a place where African Americans were mocked and denied in society. The “dream” (1) in the poem refers to the dream of freedom, equality, and dignity. While free from slavery, black people were enslaved by racism, pover, and social injustices. The phrase “a dream deferred” (1) comments on people whose dreams have been deferred against their will rather than choosing to defer their dreams. The line presents the opposition that while someone is dreaming and attempting to escape a bad life, someone else is causing the delay. “Harlem” preaches the dangers of setting aside dreams because of these circumstances. Hughes introduces the motif of decay suggesting that the dream deferred dries up “like a raisin in the sun” (3) and stink “like rotten meat” (6). The increasingly repulsive images speak to the ugly side-effects of repressing one’s dream for too long and remaining silent. Moreover, if one lets a dream “fester like a sore– and then run” (4-5), it will bleed like an infected wound and never heal. Hughes stresses the point that one cannot choose to let a wound be infected and, instead, needs to care for it. Blacks have the power to break free from racial inequality and obtain a better life if they speak up. The last line “Or does it explode” (11) addresses the notion that dreaming naturally occurs while explosions happen accidentally. Akin to the need to voice opinions amidst opposition, dreams happen out of necessity rather than choice and must be pursued.

“Sympathy” by Paul Laurence Dunbar uses a caged bird to symbolize the harsh treatment of African Americans and the need to reverse the downward class mobility. Dunbar relates to the social and economic judgement in the 19th century by comparing himself to the bird. By nature, a bird yearns to fly; however, a cage restricts the bird’s ability to be free. Akin to the bird, African Americans could not go certain places with white people and were denied basic freedoms in society. Dunbar depicts the confined space that traps the bird as “cruel” (9) and limiting. The bird can only “fly back to his perch” (8) inside the cage and “cling” (8) to it. The image of a bird beating his wing shows that his struggle in vain and evokes a sense of isolation. The bird’s bloody wings against “the cruel bars” (9), alludes to the history of violence that has defined African Americans. The bird would rather “be on the bough a-swing” (8-11). The wide open spaces of nature outside the cage have a sun “bright on the upland slopes” (2), “springing grass” (3), and flowers letting out a beautiful “faint perfume” (6). The contrast between the two setting highlights the misery the caged bird experiences. The juxtaposition of the cage and an open landscape, advances the motif of oppression by emphasizing exactly what the bird misses out on by being caged. Dunbar explains that “when he beats his bars” (17), the bird “would be free” (17). African Americans desire freedom and, like the bird, need to speak up exploit the discrimination in their lives. Although the “prayer” (19) may not be “a carol of joy or glee” (18), it is a necessary call for action.  

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