The Path to Self-Discovery in Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” and “My Man Bovanne”
Toni Cade Bambara’s heritage comprises short stories, novels, and screenplays. She was also a social and political activist who fought for equal rights for all humans, no matter what their age, gender, or race is. Nearly all her works focus on the “reverence for the multidimensional nature of African and African American cultural traditions and black feminism” (Lewis 107). This topic is often combined and supported by the theme of self-discovery that is present in almost all her stories, especially early ones. Bambara’s first book called “Gorilla, My Love” offers a bright variety of short stories that can perfectly illustrate the realization of this theme. This essay attempts to show how the theme of self-discovery is developed in short stories “The Lesson” and “My Man Bovanne”, where Bambara uses multifaceted and deep characters to underline how difficult the way to self-discovery is.
The Lesson tells about a group of children taken for a short city excursion by their tutor and mentor, a black woman named Miss Moore. She takes them to Fifth Avenue and shows a shop where they see very expensive toys, like, for example, a toy sailboat that costs 1195 dollars. Seeing such high prices and comparing them to what their families earn make the children think about the way the society functions and whether it is democratic and grants equal rights to all people. The narrator is a school-age girl Sylvia who does not like being taken to Fifth Avenue as the lessons Miss Moore tries to give them prevent her from having fun with other children. Nevertheless, the message Miss Moore sends into the children’s minds resonates in Sylvia's and makes her “think this day through” (Bambara, 1992b).
It is very interesting to analyze how Sylvia’s identity is shaped by her family. She feels significant support from her parents who insist that she must defend her rights no matter what happens or who her abuser is. This situation implies healthy and strong family connections that are likely to help Sylvia to grow into a whole and self-conscious person. At the end of the story Sylvia says, “But ain't nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (Bambara, 1992b). This phrase is such a strong life principle that it cannot obviously be established in a day or a week. It is the family that made the girl feel so determined and self-reliant. However, the impact of the lesson the girl obtained from her excursion to the Fifth Avenue also contributed to her decision to be strong and build the life she wants for herself.
It is also necessary to highlight the impact of Miss Moore on the children’s psychology and self-realization. She tells them, “Where we are is who we are... But it don't necessarily have to be that way, she always adds then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie” (Bambara, 1992b). The self-discovery in “The Lesson” also means that children start thinking of defending their rights and fighting for the democratic future where their social group will be treated fairly. One of the children says, “Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough” (Bambara, 1992b). These children do not seem to suffer much from the relatively low income of their families, but when they see what useless things the rich buy and how much they cost, they start wondering what kind of world this is where such awful inequalities can happen. The lesson helps them understand the fact that they must study hard to get the power to make this world better. This lesson is not only about the rich and the poor. Miss Moore manages to teach the children that they are wholesome individualities who, provided they get good education, can improve American society.
Another story that also explores the theme of self-discovery is “My Man Bovanne”. The analysis of both these stories shows how different the ways to understanding one’s identity can be and how similar the outcomes may look like. “My Man Bovanne” is a story about a woman of about sixty. She asks an old blind man to dance with her at a party, but her children call her to the kitchen and accuse her of immoral behavior that ruins her image of a decent lady. At the end of the story she decides to invite this man to give him “a nice warm bath with jasmine leaves,” “a cup of lemon tea” and a “good face massage” (Bambara, 1992a). Hazel, the protagonist of this story, is in fact the only person who really cares about this old blind Bovanne. Others prefer to pretend that he does not exist.
Although the protagonists in “The Lesson” and “My Man Bovanne” are of different age and have different social status, they both seek to understand their true identity. Hazel is expected to be too old to have her own wishes and opinions. Her children believe that she should behave as they tell her to. Having seen that she merely dances with an old man, jne of them even says that she looks like “one of them sex-starved ladies getting on in years” (Bambara, 1992a). Her sons think that she is too old to understand the contemporary norms of behavior. Besides, they treat her as their own property or servant, though they do not realize it themselves. Hazel’s children try to be good to their mother and give her good advice, but they forget that she is a free adult woman with her own vision of the world. They ask her, “How you think that look for a woman your age?” (Bambara, 1992a), but it appears that they do not know how old she is. It means that they are too busy with their problems to take care of their mother and pay her attention she really deserves.
Although the experience of talking with her children during the party was not a pleasant one for Hazel, it helps her to find a way to self-discovery. She understands that she does not need to obey what her children say and she is determined to behave as she thinks is appropriate. Hazel says, “you entitled to enjoy yourself cause you a good woman” (Bambara, 1992a). Before that conversation in the kitchen, she used to think that she is her children. When she hears their quite abusive phrases, she feels shocked as she put all her life to the altar of motherhood. When Hazel understands that her children are not very interested in her wishes and feelings, it pains her, but it helps her to stop measuring her life according to somebody else’s opinions. She helps old Bovanne and does not feel any guilt about it.
In “My Man Bovanne” Bambara also deals with the problems of aging and the role of senior citizens in the community. The case of Hazel and Bovanne illustrates that these people are usually deprived of their identity, as they are considered useless for the society. What they do and what rights they have should be defined by the rest of the society, i.e. by young people. Here it is worth contrasting the protagonists’ problems in both short stories. Sylvia is a girl and her worries are obviously typical of a 10-year old girl or boy, though Hazel focuses on the problems of the aged population as she is in her sixties as well. However, the issues they deal with do not influence only one social group (children or senior citizens). They have roots deep in the system of social functioning and if the community could create an environment where these people did not have any problems with self-assessment and self-discovery, it would benefit everyone.
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Sylvia from “The Lesson” and Hazel from “My Man Bovanne” have different identities, but they are psychological and philosophical centers of both stories. The author focuses on their inner worlds, thus manifesting that any person of whatever age or race must have the right to define his or her path in life. This universal character makes both protagonists close and understandable to almost any reader. Lewis (2012) writes, “Bambara champions the everyday folk; she celebrates struggle and ALL who are part of it – from the artistic to the political to the person on the corner.” For Bambara, any human being is precious enough to be respected and honored. She also highlights that the relationship people have with their inner selves determine the way they are treated by others. In her short stories Bambara tries to show that the way to self-discovery is also a way to harmonious co-existence with the outer world.
In summation, finding the road to the inner self and defining one’s true identity is a crucial issue for modern society. Nowadays, when the American society tries to be truly and completely democratic, the theme of self-realization and self-discovery is becoming increasingly important in literature and mass media. Bambara’s literary works make a strong contribution to the process of helping any human to find his or her identity. She exerts every effort to persuade people to shape their ideas themselves and be aware of possible negative influence from outside that can deprive them of their identity or their rights. Bambara’s short stories are real masterpieces that are a tribute to human dignity.
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