The Lesson by Toni Cade Bambara

One of the depressing things (or exciting, depending on your energy level) about the world of books and writers is that each time you get to thinking you’re getting a handle on the important names and important books and good things out there in the whole wide world you come across somebody you’ve never heard of, who’s accomplished and brilliant and talented and special and you realize that you’re never going to read it all or know it all or nothing.

Take Toni Cade Bambara. I’d never heard of her before I opened my book of short stories. Black writer from the 70′s, grew up in Harlem, New York City, and wrote just about everything. She said of herself,

I was raised by my family and community to be a combatant. Forays to the Apollo [Theater in Harlem] with my daddy and hanging tough on Speakers Corner with my mama taught me the power of the word, the importance of the resistance tradition, and the high standards our [black] community had regarding verbal performance. While my heart is a laughing gland and my favorite thing to be doing is laughing so hard I have to lower myself on the wall to keep from falling down, near that chamber is a blast furnace where a rifle pokes from the ribs.

To which I say, god damn. So I read her story entitled, ‘The Lesson’, and following my stint as a middle school teacher up in Aventura, this whole story rang true. The number one thing this story has got going for it is this incredible voice. Just look at this first sentence:

Back in the days when everyone was old and stupid or young and foolish and me and Sugar were the only ones just right, this lady moved on our block with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup.

It’s like, BLAMO! Right out the door you’re hit with rhythm, with style, and you know already so much about the narrator it hurts. From there is flies by, a short story that lives up to its name, and it just leaves you with a fierce little ache as the narrator at the end of it runs after her best friend, determined, obdurate, stubborn and proud, but deep down, unable to deny something has changed.

What do I get out of this tale? Voice. Like Mr. T’s autobiography, this story rises and falls on the strength, the authenticity of the narrator’s voice. Her very language is a reflection of who she is, where she comes from, where, perhaps, she might be going. Bambara perfectly capture’s a tough, smart, willful kid’s arrogance and defensiveness, and shows you more about her culture and life through her language and thoughts then any amount of exposition could ever accomplish.
So, if you feel like reading something with plenty of zap and emotional truth, something that’ll tug at you and make you take a deep breath as you look up from the last page, check out Bambara. I sure will.

Speak Your Mind

*