This essay explores the perspectives August Wilson’s Fences and Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” bring to the question of how race shapes the ability to find one’s individual voice. The two works take different approaches. Wilson explores the topic through the relationship of a father and son. It is only through the son’s confrontation of the father’s beliefs that he can find his voice. Bambara explores the topic through the relationship of an educated woman community member and a girl. The girl maintains a resistant attitude towards the woman throughout the story but that attitude does not prevent her from learning to think in new ways. At the end of the story the girl is on her way to finding a new voice.
Both August Wilson’s Fences and Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” explore issues of upward social mobility in America. Both works are situated within the 1950’s and 1960’s, during the Civil Rights movement and the end of legalized segregation. Troy Maxson in Fences is resentful of his son Cory because Cory has the opportunity to play football in integrated leagues while such an opportunity was closed to him. In “The Lesson,” the young teenager Sylvia resents the prices of toys in F.A.O. Schwartz. While some people spend $300 on a microscope, $480 on a paperweight, or $1,195 for a sailboat, people she knows can barely afford to spend such money on everyday necessities. The nature of Sylvia’s voice changes over the course of the story. Bambara uses the cultural guardian Miss Moore as a way to measure the growth in Sylvia’s character. Troy in Fences is a much older character with an adult son in his 30’s, a son ready to graduate from high school, and is anticipating the birth of a baby daughter. Living in a racially segregated society has scared Troy. Specifically, he played in segregated baseball leagues and never had the opportunity to test his skills in the major leagues. Both the play and the short story explore the difficulties of finding one’s voice as a black person in a segregated society. However, Troy in Fences has strict ideas about what is possible in American society based on his prior experiences while Sylvia has to the potential to create new possibilities.
Both Troy and Sylvia live in a racially segregated society but Troy believes nothing will change in American society while Sylvia is just beginning to become aware of the implications of living in segregated neighborhoods. Troy’s rigid attitudes about race are demonstrated in how he imagines what is possible for his son Cory. Cory plays football and has the option of taking a scholarship to play for a college team in North Carolina. Troy refuses to sign the papers and believes the best way to ensure Cory’s future is for him to work at the local A & P. When his wife Rose first talks to him about the scholarship, Troy’s response is “I told that boy about that football stuff. The white man ain’t gonna let him get nowhere with the football” (15). Troy’s motivation is not simply the welfare of Cory, making sure he does not suffer the same kinds of racial insults. Troy is also financially motivated. If Cory works at the A & P, then he earns his own money and Troy would no longer be responsible for him. In “The Lesson,” Sylvia has a more altruistic adult monitoring what is in her best interest. The adult, Miss Moore, is a college-educated woman who lives in the neighborhood and has appointed herself as a kind of cultural/educational guardian. Sylvia resents this woman’s interruption of her time to play and enjoy the summer. Whereas Troy limits Cory’s possibilities, the neighborhood teacher expands Sylvia’s. However, Sylvia does not recognize the value of the woman’s lessons until she works to understand the kind of people who have enough money to shop in F.A.O. Schwartz. When she first sees the sailboat and the class recites the description and price as a group, she does not believe her eyes or ears. Sylvia explains, “I read it again for myself just in case the group recitation put me in a trance. Same thing. For some reason this pisses me off. We look at Miss Moore and she lookin at us, waiting for I dunno what” (148). For the first time Sylvia recognizes the meaning of racial divisions and realizes she is on the outside looking in at the advantages other people can enjoy. Troy faced this moment of recognition long before the play begins and is unable to unlearn its lessons.
Troy’s second son Cory does not have to face a moment of recognition for what it means to live in a racially segregated society. From his perspective, his life is full of possibilities and the only person standing in his way is his father. Cory does not physically enter the play until Scene 3 of Act 1. Before his appearance, he is the subject of discussion but the reader/viewer does not know what Cory thinks about his situation. There is an opportunity in Fences for Cory to learn an economic lesson, one similar to Sylvia’s lesson in Bambara’s short story. Cory asks his father to buy the family a TV. His father explains that given a choice between spending $200 or so on a TV or on tarring the roof, he would tar the roof. Cory does not believe his father lacks the money. Troy tries to drive the point home by asking Cory questions about his hypothetical choices. He asks him, “Now if you had two hundred dollars, what would you do . . . fix the roof or buy a TV?” (34). Cory’s answer does not register that there is only a limited pool of money to work with. He would buy the TV; then he would fix the roof when it started leaking. He is also comfortable introducing the idea of buying the TV on a payment plan. Although Cory sees Troy as an obstacle, Troy constantly explains to Cory that he fulfilled his duty as a father by providing for him and Rose. He tells Cory, “See that roof you got over your head at night? Let me tell you something about that roof. It’s been over ten years since that roof was last tarred” (34). At the same time that Troy is selfishly motivated to spend as little money as possible and keep his house, it is that same house which protects and provides for his family. The economic consequences of racial segregation are less clear cut in Fences than in “The Lesson.” In “The Lesson,” racial segregation creates and/or reinforces economic disparities. In Fences, racial segregation makes the competition over financial resources within the black community and family more intense.
Cory learns how to confront his father over the course of the play. He tries to explain to his father the opportunities he would have with a football scholarship and a college education. When his father insists that working at the A & P and learning a trade is the only way Cory will take care of himself, Cory understands the issue as one of affection. He asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” (38). For Troy, given his experiences living in a racially segregated society and trying to raise a family, the question of an emotional relationship with his son is a luxury. Such an emotional relationship is equivalent to the kind of luxury represented by the prices at F.A.O. Schwartz in “The Lesson.” Troy asks Cory if he has eaten, had shelter, and been clothed. He explains that he does not have to like Cory. He says, “It’s my job. It’s my responsibility! You understand that? A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you behind on my bedclothes . . . fill you belly up with my food . . . ‘cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you!” (39). The exchange between Troy and Cory reinforces the fence, the division, between them. Cory does not understand Troy’s approach to love. Troy expresses love by fulfilling his responsibilities as a provider. Cory’s question is an important one to him because he understands love in terms of the ability to fulfill one’s wishes and dreams. Implicitly, he wonders how his father could care for him while also blocking his only chance to fulfill his dreams.
In the next substantial scene between Troy and Cory, Scene 4 of Act 1, Cory expresses his defiance through his actions. He leaves the house on a Saturday morning without cleaning his room. In fact, his room is probably messier than it would normally be because he looked everywhere for a pair of cleats to loan to a friend. When Cory returns in his football uniform, the reader/viewer learns that Troy has gone to Cory’s coach, forbidden Cory to practice, and refused to see the recruiter. Cory tells Troy, “Just ‘cause you didn’t have a chance! You just scared I’m gonna be better than you, that’s all” (54). To Cory, Troy’s actions amount to a betrayal. In Scene 4 of Act 2, Troy and Cory have a verbal, then a physical confrontation. Troy has fathered a baby by another woman; the other woman died during childbirth; and, Rose is left to raise Troy’s daughter. Under these circumstances Cory finds his voice, which is also his manhood, and Troy maintains his status in the family. When Cory tries to enter the house, Troy asks him, “You just gonna walk over top of me in my own house?” (78). This fight between a father and son over who is going to be “top dog” represents a classic rite of passage. Cory’s response, instead of fear, is “I ain’t got to say excuse me to you. You don’t count around here no more” (78). Troy kicks Cory out of the house, they fight with a baseball bat in the yard, and this confrontation is the last time Cory sees Troy alive. Troy’s voice is silenced through death because he cannot adapt to changing racial dynamics in American society. Cory gains his voice through his confrontation with his father. It frees him from looking back on the past, the lost scholarship opportunity, and he moves on to take advantage of another opportunity, becoming a corporal in the U.S. Marines.
Just as Wilson uses Cory to trace Troy’s development in the play, Bambara uses Sugar, Sylvia’s best friend to trace her development. “The Lesson” is told from Sylvia’s point of view and the first line of the story reveals her complacency: “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” (145). Sylvia sees herself as having a kind of street smarts unmatched in her neighborhood. She critiques the newcomer Miss Moore just as she critiques other adults in her community. Her description of Miss Moore reveals that the time period is one before black became beautiful, before black people had widespread opportunities to attend college, and before women started to redefine sexual expectations. Sylvia criticizes her Aunt Gretchen for allowing her sisters, including Sylvia’s mother, to impose on her time and her willingness to watch the children. In contrast to Sylvia’s distrust in adults, Miss Moore’s faith in Sylvia is demonstrated when she gives Sylvia five dollars to take the second cab to the toy store. Sylvia realizes her own leadership qualities and its limits when she thinks, “So I’m stuck. Don’t nobody want to go for my plan, which is to jump out at the next light and run off to the first bar-b-que we can find” (147). Although Miss Moore understands herself in a caretaker role in relationship to the children, Sylvia sees her as an imposter, in the sense that she is so confident in herself and her knowledge.
By the end of the story, Sylvia does not understand Miss Moore as a threat. Although Miss Moore designs this very important lesson, Sylvia refuses to give her the satisfaction of knowing the intensity of its impact. She asks Miss Moore a question despite her rule of never talking to her, thinking, “I wouldn’t give the bitch that satisfaction” (149). When Sylvia questions the purpose of the trip, Miss Moore detects the anger in Sylvia’s voice and asks her about it. Instead of responding to the questions, she indicates a readiness to leave the store. She thinks, “I’m mad, but I won’t give her that satisfaction. So I slouch around the store bein very bored . . .” (150). Miss Moore, with the best of intentions, has a way of talking over the kids’ heads rather than in terms they can understand. Miss Moore explains the economic disparities in terms of having unequal portions of the American pie. And Sylvia thinks, “don’t none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place” (151). Despite this gap in communication, the lesson inspires Sylvia to think about economic disparities: “Miss Moore lines us up in front of the mailbox where we started from, seem like years ago, and I got a headache for thinking so hard” (151). Because Sylvia refuses to give Miss Moore the satisfaction of knowing she has taught her anything, “Miss Moore looks at [Sylvia] sorrowfully” as the group breaks up (151). However, Sylvia does learn an important lesson, a lesson that requires substantial reflection. She thinks, as Sugar challenges her to a race, “I’m goin to the West End and then over to the Drive to think this day through. She can run if she want to and even run faster. But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nuthin” (152). Analyzing her immediate environment has been replaced by exploring more abstract questions of social justice. Although the other children ask questions during the trip to the store, the trip only has a lasting impact on Sylvia. The trip provides the same kind of competitive challenge posed by Miss Moore’s presence.
Both Fences and “The Lesson” explore the difficulty of finding one’s individual voice in a racially segregated society. Such difficulty is revealed through intergenerational disputes. Racial segregation in Fences highlights the restrictions placed on black people, restrictions in job opportunities and restrictions on dreams themselves. At the same time, the next generation can find their voices, realize their potential, as racial segregation becomes less rigid. The young girl Sylvia is only beginning to learn lessons about racial segregation in Bambara’s short story. Her adult mentor, Miss Moore, facilitates this lesson but Sylvia is competitive enough to want to understand its implications by herself without anyone’s help. Racism scars human relationships in both Fences and “The Lesson.” Each work also offers hope of healing through young characters like Cory and Sylvia.
Bambara, Toni Cade. 1972. “The Lesson.” Imagining America: Stories from the Promised
Land. 2002. Eds. Wesley Brown and Amy Ling. New York: Persea Books.
Wilson, August. 1987. Fences. 2007. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc.