Toni Cade Bambara's Use of African American Vernacular English in "The Lesson"

By Heller, Janet Ruth | Style, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Toni Cade Bambara's Use of African American Vernacular English in "The Lesson"
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.