Toni Cade Bambara's Use of African American Vernacular English in "The Lesson"
Heller, Janet Ruth, Style
In Toni Cade Bambara's short story, "The Lesson" (1972), the narrator, Sylvia, speaks and narrates in African American Vernacular English (AAVE). This is an appropriate dialect for Sylvia, who lives in a New York ghetto, is a working-class black child about twelve years old, and has a strong feminist attitude. AAVE is also a dialect that Bambara herself would have learned growing up during the 1940s and 1950s in New York City's Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant communities. AAVE adds realism and humor to Sylvia's narrative. The dialect also reflects Bambara's pride in her ethnic heritage. Finally, AAVE fits the story's themes, one of which is that the black children in the story need to learn about the world outside their ghetto and another that wealth is unequally and unfairly distributed in American society. In "The Lesson," most of the have-not children in need of education speak AAVE. This dialect emphasizes the children's distance from mainstream white bourgeois culture and economic power. However, Bambara also celebrates AAVE as a vehicle for conveying black experience: Sylvia uses AAVE to express her self-confidence, assertiveness, and creativity as a young black woman.
Gavin Jones points out that, by the late nineteenth century, ethnic dialects provided American writers with "a voice for social commentary and political satire" (5). Dialect literature questions "sociolinguistic wholeness" (51). Writers like Paul Laurence Dunbar valued dialect for its realism as well as "its power to structure a political response to larger social, cultural, and racial issues" (Jones 20). Such writing implies resistance to the dominant culture, destabilizes the privileged dialect/discourse, and portrays "subversive voices" that present "alternative versions of reality" (11, 13, 46).
Bambara's fiction reflects the perspective of her black contemporaries. Sylvia Wallace Holton explains that, by the 1960s, many African Americans were alienated from aspects of lire in the United States. Especially traumatic for blacks were "White resistance to Civil Rights legislation, the loss of a number of important leaders," and the Vietnam War, which blacks considered racist. African Americans became interested in the movements that emphasized Black Power, Black Pride, and black nationalism (144-45). Holton analyzes the work of black writers like Amiri Baraka who experimented with AAVE in fiction. "Committed to writing for a black rather than a white audience, Baraka [...] refuses to be bound by the rules of 'white' literature and language. Instead, he expresses himself [...] in a normative but distinctive black speech" (180). Bambara carries on this tradition of cultural nationalism in her fiction and essays.
Barbara Hill Hudson's research indicates that in literature by African-American women writers, "the Standard speakers display conformist behavior, while the Vernacular speakers use more creative, individualistic behavior." Colorful, striking language is part of this individualism (120, 161, 185, 192). Denise Troutman argues that black women often use an assertive, outspoken style of speech (219). In general, the African-American community values sophisticated verbal skills and associates such ability with intelligence (223, 234). Furthermore, Richard O. Lewis has pointed out that African-American writers use AAVE to emphasize their political and social commentary. AAVE can effectively convey the characters' "strong emotion. The language of these characters marks impropriety; it signals commission of some taboo act that transgresses society's limits. These challenge phrases indicate conflict between authority figures and subordinate figures" (27). Lewis's analysis applies to Sylvia: she is a rebellious youngster who dislikes having to learn summer lessons from Miss Moore, an older woman and the authority figure in the story. Sylvia's language, which includes cursing, expresses her self-confidence, nonconformity, anger, frustration, and inventiveness. …