Injusticeby Jay Sethna
Public Enemy, NWA, and Dead Prez are known in the hip hop world for their bilious lyrics pertaining to the racism and injustice Blacks encounter in today’s society. Through their rhymes they echo political events and inequalities their race faces-especially from the effects of white people. Living in such a pluralist society, injustices and hardships tend to be reflected on those minorities who hold no power in the world they live in. Sadly enough, ever since Africans were first brought to America they were unfairly exploited for their labor and today they are still facing many injustices that seem as if they will never dissipate. Living the first ten years of her life in Harlem, Toni Bambara wrote “The Lesson” in 1972 to reflect on the Black social movement and the hardships many Blacks face. Through the context of the story it becomes apparent that living in a society with great plurality, develops problems such as economic inequality and small opportunity. Furthermore, Bambara uses the characters in her story as metaphors to show the reactions many Black social figures displayed as a result to these problems.
In America, we typically pride ourselves because of our vast diversity and the many freedoms we uphold, for we believe that this is the reason America has become so successful. Though true in many ways, this assumption fails to recognize how wealth has been distributed so unevenly hurting the minority groups the most. One of the main arguments against economic inequality is that certain groups fail to possess enough intelligence to succeed in the workplace and therefore that race is stigmatized with the notion that they can’t handle many job positions. Bambara refers to this false conception, opening her story by having the speaker reminisce about the times when everyone in the area was “old and stupid or young and foolish” (Bambara 1). The speaker in the quote is reassessing the fabricated stereotype associated with Blacks and how they are viewed as being unintelligent in today’s culture. At the surface it may appear as if this deficiency is the reason why there is such an uneven distribution of wealth, but really there are many more underlying effects which impede heaps of Blacks from overcoming the oppression they face in today’s society. Even Miss Moore agrees that “money ain’t divided up right in this country” (Bambara 1) using one of her lectures to preach on that point. Researcher Gerald Jaynes states in his book, A Common Destiny: Blacks and American Society, that Blacks don’t share equal authority in many institutions and that they are usually absent from decision-making positions (103). This statement affirms how many Blacks are not given high level positions and are strongly discriminated against in the workplace. For this reason many Blacks are paid less than whites for the hard work they do, thus allowing for a widening gap between these cultures. By addressing how wealth is so unevenly distributed amongst Blacks and whites, Bambara’s story harps on the economic inequality the Black culture faces in America.
Bambara uses many other examples of the economic inequalities Blacks face in “The Lesson.” Of these include the culture of poverty that takes place within her story. While Miss Moore lectures her kids, she points out that “[w]here we are is who we are,” (Bambara 4) indirectly implying that by living in poverty one will tend to be stuck in that lifestyle. By living in an impoverished suburb such as the one in “The Lesson,” where there are signs of very little formal education, it becomes very hard to escape a life of being poor. Through this way, Bambara is alluding to the culture of poverty, a term used in James Henslin’s Essentials to Sociology to describe how the poor tend to get trapped in poverty (205). For those living in poverty, which Henslin ties as a racial-ethnic cause, 41% of those people tend to stay impoverished for over one year (Henslin 206). Problems such as these reflect how sticky poverty can become and how it is very difficult to overcome. The perpetuation of poverty affirms the economic inequality Blacks face because the low level jobs they are given makes them more likely to be laid off or paid less.
From the low wage jobs and economic hardships that millions of Blacks face, the only choice is to move into suburbs or cheaper priced areas. By moving farther away from cities and heavy populated areas this leads to an issue of segregation which hurts each culture greatly. In the beginning of the story the speakers talks about how most people on the block “moved North the same time” (Bambara 1) to refer to the Black relocations that took place within the sixties and seventies. Although this movement was mainly a response to the high costs of living in cities, the effects of segregation greatly hurt many Blacks. Gary Orfield reveals in his book The Closing Door that as Blacks were trying to build new urban societies problems arose such as “schools that did not function[,]…families [were] unable to get jobs from isolated inner-city communities,” and Black men grew angry that they could not support their families (1). Living in “reservations” such as these, Orfield adds that the segregation of Blacks typically leaves them “at the mercy of the white world” (Orfield 1-2). Not only do these new suburbs provide “fewer opportunities” (Bambara 5) but they also amplify the many economic inequalities that Blacks face today.
Due to the adversity Blacks face because of the vast economic inequalities many form “illegitimate opportunity structures”, a term coined by Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, in response to how they have very little opportunity. One of the first examples of this in the text is when the speaker talks about how she would rather “go…terrorize the West Indian kids and take…their money” (Bambara 1) instead of going on the field trip. By preferring to steal and bully others, instead of engaging in a social activity, Sylvia, the speaker, is trying to find an alternative way to escape “the dead-end-and deadening-jobs” (Henslin 145) held by many Blacks in her community. Since most of the kids in Sylvania’s community aren’t given the means to escape their low economic lifestyle, these kids look for ways to avoid living the same dead-end life as their parents or getting jobs which will get lead them no where. Another example of how the kids in “The Lesson” find an alternative way to get the stuff they want is when Sugar asks if she can steal when she peers into the display window (Bambara 2). This example buttresses how the lack of opportunity forces the kids in the story to create “illegitimate opportunity structures” to change their life.
Instead of creating “illegitimate opportunity structures” many kids attempt to change their life by attending school. In the historical context of this story the education Blacks received was either absent or lacked the quality to really improve their lives. In this story most of the kids, especially Sylvia, view Miss Moore’s attempt to educate with scorn making Sylvia comment how she hated Miss Moore and “her goddamn college degree” (Bambara 1). Sylvia and Sugar not only found reasons to deride Miss Moore but they also scoffed at “her feet, which were fish-white and spooky” (Bambara 1). Bambara symbolically refers to Miss Moore’s white feet to represent how she has assimilated into the white culture by getting an education. Miss Moore decides to mentor the neighborhood children because she realizes that there is little opportunity and a lack of proper schooling to motivate these children to value education. In fact a recent study shows that students who “come from low-income black families have been doing very badly” (Orfield 19). One of the main themes of this story is how Blacks have very little opportunity to proper education and therefore this leads to them not obtaining high paying jobs. As low-income Blacks graduate high school and try to attend college it becomes very difficult for them to obtain financial aid and even repay the high interest loans they must take (Orfield 20). For this reason many Blacks have no choice but to try and compete in a job market without a college degree. This sick cycle severely impairs Black minorities from escaping their chains of oppression.
Many civil rights activists have tried to break these chains through uncountable movements and protests. Bambara uses metaphor in her story applying traits of activists to the characters in her story. The speaker Sylvia and her cousin Sugar both portray similar characteristics found in Asa Philip Randolph. Asa Philip Randolph was one of the major African-American civil rights leaders who advocated his socialist views to help end the economic inequalities many Blacks faced. Through many instances in the story Sylvia and Sugar both illustrate their socialist views. When these cousins first enter the store on Fifth Avenue they both begin screaming “This is mine, that’s mine, I gotta have that, that was made for me, I was born for that” (Bambara 2). Saying this seems to show that they believe that everything should be shared and that they should have an equal chance to obtain all. Sylvia even ends the story criticizing democracy preaching that everyone is not given an equal chance to pursue happiness and compete for money (Bambara 4). From this last statement that Sylvia makes it becomes apparent that she shares many socialist viewpoints just like Asa Philip Randolph.
Another metaphor Bambara uses is in her character Rosie Giraffe. Although the name Rosie Giraffe may sound quite strange the name is mostly used for symbolism for two of the greatest forces in the Black civil rights movement. The first name Rosie symbolizes Red, the nickname given to Malcolm X because of his red hair. Furthermore, the last name Giraffe is a metaphor for the Black Panthers because both animals share spots. Rosie Giraffe is first described in the story as “waiting for someone to step on her foot…so she c[ould] kick ass” (Bambara 1). This description of Rosie shows the militancy and aggressiveness of both Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. As Rosie Giraffe is waiting to look for a fight the text suggests that she is more inclined to start one with Mercedes. The name Mercedes is also used as a symbol here to represent the opulence many Caucasians had in the 1970’s compared to the Blacks. Rosie’s proclivity to beat up Mercedes mimics the response the Black Panthers and Malcolm X had shown to the unfair distribution of wealth between the Blacks and the whites.
“The Lesson” not only connects metaphorically with modern civil rights movements but to the ongoing economic inequality that severely affects Black minorities today as well. In addition, the story also connects to the little opportunity available for Blacks. Sadly, ongoing problems such as these have been lucid ever since Africans were first brought to America. Bambara’s theme for this story is to allow her to audience to see the hardships Blacks face in a pluralist society. Although a prejudice such as this will take decades to subside Bambara’s attempt to raise awareness can help marginally desist this discrimination.