Growing Up

After reading Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” and ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” I found that both stories are comparable.   Both Bambara and Packer use young characters to highlight societies social and economic inequalities. These stories show immature characters grow into more mature people. These authors have placed these young people in more complex situations and at the end of each story, the character is able to understand society and the way things are in the more “real world”.

A young girl named Sylvia, who in the beginning of the story is reluctant to pay attention to Miss Moore’s educational events, narrates “The Lesson”. Miss Moore is a neighbor of Sylvia’s who volunteers to take Sylvia, her cousin, and a few other kids on the block, on trips around the city to educate them about the world in which they live. These children live in the slums of Harlem, and they are always thinking of illegitimate ways of attaining things. When in the taxi, Sylvia comes up with a plan that involves jumping out of the taxi so they wouldn’t have to pay for the fare; and also not giving the driver a tip because Sylvia decided “he don’t need it as bad as I do, so later for him. (56)” Miss Moore leads the children to a store on Fifth Avenue in New York City. This area is known to be wealthy and the stores along the strip contain very expensive items. Miss Moore leads the children to a store and allows them to window shop, and the children all rant and rave at which toys they want, until they start reading ridiculous prices on the tags. The children, especially Sylvia, are angry with Miss Moore for even bringing them to a store in which they cannot afford anything. Miss Moore proposes the question “Imagine for a minute what kind of society it is in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven. (60)” Sylvia’s cousin admits to learning “that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me. Equal chance to pursue happiness means an equal crack at the dough, don’t it? (60)” and Sylvia has too much pride to admit that something has been learned today. Or maybe she didn’t know what she had learned yet but that day at the toy store triggered something in her mind and she went to ponder about what she learned. This experience for Sylvia made her more aware of the economic inequalities, which in turn made her more mature. “She can run if she want to and even run faster. But aint nobody gonna beat me at nuthin. (60)” In these last few lines, Sylvia realizes there are other ways to succeed in life rather than jumping from the taxi so she doesn’t have to pay, or stealing something from the store.

The setting of “Brownies” takes place at Camp Crescendo which camp near the suburbs of Atlanta, for fourth graders.   Laurel, also known as “Snot”, is a young African American girl who is the narrator of the story. Another character in the story is Arnetta who is the ringleader of the brownie troop, and also likes to stir up trouble. Laurel and Arnetta’s brownie troop consists of all African American girls, and by the second day, their troop decided they were going to “kick the asses of each and every girl in Brownie Troop 909. Troop 909 was doomed from the first day of camp; they were white girls. (740)” Arnetta and Laurel, along with the rest of their troop, have never come into close contact with Caucasian girls, therefore, they stereotype troop 909 and begin to envy them. Arnetta claims she heard a white Brownie call one of her Brownie members, Daphne, a nigger; the reader knows this statement is untrue.  Arnetta didn’t stop there, she went as far as plotting revenge against the white girls: “We can’t let them get away with calling us niggers. I say we teach them a lesson. (743)” Although most of her troop did not agree with the revenge, Arnetta kept her timid peers in line by bullying them.  When they finally confront the white girl scouts, they that the girls have special needs. The confrontation was a bust, the leader of Troop 909 walked in and they tried to settle the argument. The troop leaders didn’t know whether or not the Caucasian girls really did call the other girls “niggers” because the girls did have special needs and they sometimes repeat things they hear.  On the bus ride home, the girls in Laurel and Arnetta’s troop are talking, and they are wondering why they have to go to a camp with special people; Arnetta answers: “ You know why… My mama and I were in the mall in Buckhead, and this white lady just kept looking at us. I mean, like we were foreign or something. (753)” Which leads the girls to the realization of the situation that just occurred. Laurel remembers a story her father had told her about the religious people painting their porch, and “it was the only time he’d have a white man on his knees doing something for a black man for free. (754)” Similar to when Sylvia in “The Lesson” came to the realization that there are other paths for her to take in order to succeed in life, that moment on the bus is where Laurel gets wise and matures. She states that she understands why her dad did what he did; why he, a black man, made a white family bust their behinds. Laurel says “When you’ve been made to feel bad for so long, you jump at the chance to do it to others. (754)” This is shown in the beginning of the story when Packer chooses to include that the African American children would call someone “Caucasian” if they did something that was against the norm; similar to what the whites did to them, by calling them niggers.

These two stories are similar in many ways. Not only are the narrators of both stories young girls, but through out the story, you can see their character mature, and become a little more wiser than they were in the beginning of the story. There is an indirect lesson that these narrators have learned by being put in certain situations, which causes them to further understand the society in which they live. In both stories, the African American narrators are stereotypical towards Caucasians. In “The Lesson” the children state that one must be rich in order to shop at that store, and every time they see something they would like to have, but is too expensive, they say, “White folks crazy. (59) “ as if white people were the only ones who could be wealthy enough to shop there. This is similar to the visualization in “Brownies” when it is stated “everyone had seen white girls and their mothers coo-cooing over dresses; everyone had gone to the downtown library and seen white businessmen swish by importantly…(741)” Both authors include the use of vernacular language by their characters. Although, Bambara included this style of language more often, both stories include this style because it is closest to the way one speaks; it gives the character a voice.

I feel as though both Packer and Bambara chose to put their characters in the situations that they were in because it is a reflection of our real world. Eventually children are put in situations that make them uncomfortable, and from this they must change something within themselves in order for them to overcome that feeling and be prepared for it every time is comes up again in their lifetime. Both lessons teach the girls that they cannot change the world, and what happens in it.

“The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara and “Brownies” written by ZZ Packer are comparable in many ways. In the beginning of both stories, the narrators are immature; they view and handle the situations they are in in a childish way. By the end of the stories, we see the characters “grow up” and maturely view the situation they are in find some way to explain why things are they way they are.


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