The most important moment in Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” comes when Sylvia and her best friend, Sugar, approach the threshold of F.A.O. Schwarz toy store. Instead of going inside, they pause. They hesitate and “hang back.” For me it is this small, wordless gesture from the young black girls, who had once been so delightfully confident and full of exuberance, that attests to Bambara’s skill in capturing the subtleties of everyday life.
This week’s CORA Diversity Roll Call focuses on short stories, so I want to highlight the gifted writer Toni Cade Bambara and her first collection, Gorilla, My Love (1972). Bambara has longer fiction, of course, and she is well-known for her posthumously-published novel about the Atlanta Child Murders, but her craftsmanship in short story writing is potent and unparalleled. In “The Lesson” a young girl named Sylvia tells us about the day her strange new teacher, Miss Moore, a woman “with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup” takes her and her friends downtown to the famous New York toy store. What begins as innocent window-shopping turns into something much more serious as these black children realize that there are people in the world who can spend more on a birthday clown than their families spend on rent. Envious and confused, Sylvia decides to go inside the store to take a closer look. And then, in her wonderfully hard-edged narrative voice, there is this:
Me and Sugar turn the corner to where the entrance is, but when we get there I kinda hang back. Not that I’m scared, what’s there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door, so I step away from Sugar to lead. But she hangs back too. And I look at her and she looks at me and this is ridiculous. I mean, damn, I have never ever been shy about doing nothing or going nowhere.
It is a heart-breaking moment, this new awareness of difference and inequality, and on a deeper level – a loss of innocence. I know what it means to “hang back” and I fear for the day when my daughter experiences it too. But this is also the moment when Sylvia and the children in Miss Moore’s class begin to ask questions and pay closer attention to the world beyond their own doorstep. This is what makes “The Lesson” such an amazing piece. Despite its somber subject, Bambara’s story is ultimately about developing a strength that comes from facing the world with eyes wide open.
Don’t forget to check out the other posts in the CORA Diversity Roll Call: Short Story Stroll.