Toni Cade Bambara was a native of New York City who devoted her life to her writing and her social activism. Throughout her career, Bambara used her writings to convey social and political messages about the welfare of the African-American community and of African-American women especially. According to Alice A. Deck in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, the author was “one of the best representatives of the group of Afro-American writers who, during the 1960s, became directly involved in the cultural activities in urban communities across the country.” Deck also pointed out that “Bambara is one of the who continued to work within the black urban communities (filming, lecturing, organizing, and reading from her works at rallies and conferences). In addition, Bambara established herself over the years as an educator, teaching in colleges and independent community schools in various cities on the East Coast.” Bambara’s influence derived from the combination of her duties such as writer and social activist. “It’s a tremendous responsibility and honor to be a writer, artist, a cultural worker…whatever you call this vocation,” she explained in an interview in Black Women Writers. Bambara showed the world from a different perspective through the eyes of a factory worker or welfare children. Her objective was to describe the urban black community without resorting to stereotype.
Bambara experienced, directly or indirectly, some of the toughest times in United States history, The Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement. These events played an important role in Bambara’s writing as she took notice to the economic and racial inequalities happening in the United States.
Beginning with the Great Depression, this event was regarded as having begun in 1929 with the Stock Market crash. The depression had devastating effects on the country. The stock market was in shambles. Many banks couldn’t continue to operate. Farmers fell into bankruptcy. Quarters of the working force, or 13 million people, were unemployed in 1932, and this was only the beginning. The depression lasted over a decade, with hundreds of thousands of Americans losing their jobs, businesses failing, and financial institutions collapsing. Bambara, born in 1939, experienced the backlashes of the great depression as a small child. Growing up poor, Bambara was encouraged by her mother to explore her imagination, to daydream and to follow her inner motives. The Lesson, a short story written by Bambara, is about a young girl named Silvia that over the course of one afternoon, she is forced to an unpleasant awareness of the unfairness of the social and economic system that prevailed in the 1960s. Sylvia lives in a slum neighborhood. Only one person in the neighborhood distinguishes herself Miss Moore. She is college educated and takes it upon herself the responsibility for the young ones education and exposes them to the world outside of their neighborhood and the truth it holds. On the afternoon the story takes place, she takes a group of children, including Sylvia, to F.A.O. Schwarz, an expensive toy store. When the group arrives at the store, Sylvia struggles with her sudden awareness of social class distinction. While the rest of the kids are having fun and asking questions, Sylvia is disturbed by what she sees in the toy store. She can’t figure out why they cost so much. She starts to compare these expensive toys to what she has and the comparison furthers her anger. After leaving the store, Sylvia confronts the truth of Miss Moore’s lesson.
She experienced poverty at its worst. The depression finally ended in 1941. With the depression over, the people of the United States finally had a chance to focus on another problem Separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks. “Colored balconies” in movie theaters. Seats in the back of the bus. Soldiers called out to protect little children who were trying to go to school.
It may be difficult to believe these were examples of conditions in America less than 40 years ago. The struggle to change these conditions, and to win equal protection under the law for citizens of all races, formed the backdrop of Martin Luther King’s short life.