Speech Equals Class: an analysis of the correlation between African American Vernacular English in “The Lesson” and social status
“Get at me” which in short translates as “talk to you later” is just one term from many in African American Vernacular English, also known as AAVE. This language is a tool that can be crafted to take on many different forms. It may not be an easily understood tongue but once it is deciphered AAVE can be used as a tool to make more comprehendible certain life lessons. In the short story authored by Toni Cade Bambara entitled “The Lesson”, the use of African American Vernacular English makes evident the inequity between social classes.
AAVE does not just accompany this finding but also makes it more presentable to an audience that can connect with AAVE due to personal situations and invites those that may be ignorant to the terminology inside the minds of characters such as Sylvia, “Fat boy” or Rosie Giraffe to name a few. Language has power to do many things and here it shines a light on various inequities that are evident between social classes within the society of this story.
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The reading begins by setting a stage for the reader. We commence in an apartment complex in New York that seems to be very torn down and aged. Many of the Children around are using a quantity of slang terminology; for example [… “and pissed on our handball walls and stank up our hallways and stairs so you couldn’t halfway play hide-and-seek without a goddamn gas mask.”(662) anyone that hears a phrase like this coming from a youth could only imagine the upbringing that the child has or the type of household that her or she resides in.
In society, one is moved to believe that when anyone speaks severely broken English or is unruly that their economic ranking is on the lower end of the scale. African American Vernacular English is a language that at times does reinforce the belief stated in the previous sentence, but one could also argue that the way one speaks has nothing to do with their financial background or social status and that a person just speaks how they speak.
Next, there is Mercedes, one of the children that chose to denounce the African American Vernacular English and associate herself more with the verbal communication abilities of Miss Moore. Mercedes dresses nicer than all the children and carries herself in lofty regard, though she is impoverished and nowhere near equivalent to the “wealthy” she makes an attempt to intermingle by speaking suitably and by having comprehension of certain things that the other children do not. Hearing Mercedes speech someone that does not know her may be swayed to accept as true that she belongs to a middle class family or wealthier.
In this story AAVE not only illuminates the children’s financial lack, it also makes clear the youth’s educational disproportion. In fact on page 663 sugar says, “And the starch in my pinafore scratching the shit outta me and I’m really hating this nappy-headed bitch and her goddamn college degree.” Bambara was wise in her utilization of African American Vernacular English. This idiom allowed for the reader to explicitly and vicariously take on the body of the narrator. As a reader of this story one may actually be able to understand the depth of these children’s imbalance. The use of Ebonics in this story allows the reader the opportunity to feel the injustice crowned upon the characters of this short story.
Now Sylvia chooses to speak about how much she hates Miss Moore and her degree; such rage and intensity in her voice, Sylvia inadvertently shows us the envy she holds for Miss Moore because of the education that this elderly woman has obtained.
The story even tells us on page 662 that the people of the neighbourhood talked about Miss Moore behind her back; this gossip was due to the fact that they also envied the intelligence that Miss Moore holds. However, since they themselves were not intellectuals they spoke ill of her to compensate for their inequity also surely using some AAVE of their own. One could argue that the reasoning behind Bambara’s contrast of two separate types of people, one being educated and the others not so much, accompanies the information written in the second paragraph of this paper by saying people speak as they choose and social class does not determine whether or not one has been educated or not. On the other hand “The Lesson” proves the previous to be true time and time again. Even when the children reach the “upper class” neighbourhood they are stunned to see people wearing posh clothing and buying expensive gifts and sorts. This later leads to more torn English as opposed to what is known as call Standard American English.
Next Janet Ruth Heller, the author of Toni Cade Bambara’s Use Of African American Vernacular English in “The Lesson” and also in affiliation with Western Michigan University, introduces a type of African American speech that is torn to an extent greater than AAVE. This is known as “eye dialect”. A reading from page 282 of Heller’s essay describes “eye dialect” as […variations from the normal spelling that do not indicate significant dialectal differences in pronunciation.” To many, this fascist of AAVE gives characters a form of uniqueness or individuality.
That amidst all of the inequality that the children are forced to face this terminology gives them something to own that others cannot have, in a sense a way of balancing out the injustice to be had in this short story. In opposition to the previously stated, Heller believes that “eye dialect can even make a character appear stupid.” Also that it may [… distance the reader from her characters and degrade them.”(282) Though Bambara does choose to use African American Vernacular English she does not go as far as authors like Holton who’s intent is to degrade or lessen the intelligence of the character. Bambara just wanted to show that there are some communal differences that need to be acknowledged and uses AAVE to do so.
Next the belief that African American Vernacular English is a sign of social or economic status is highlighted in an essay written by Craig, Holly K.; Thompson, Connie A.; Washington, Julie, A.; Potter, Stephanie L. entitled Phonological Features of Child African American English. In paragraph four the essay provides “Low socioeconomic status (SES) relates to higher levels of AAE when low SES is determined by the young student’s eligibility for the free or reduced-price lunch program based on federal guidelines. This information can also find support within the story “The Lesson”. It is evident that the children were not wealthy and that even in their adolescent ages the children understood the value of money. In fact, they even once took the price of a toy and broke down how long a family could live off that amount of money.
Bambara’s use of the AAVE flows so freely and a reader can so easily be engulfed in it because this is Bambara’s first tongue. Toni Cade Bambara, just as Sugar and Sylvia, spent her years of adolescence living in the slums of Harlem and was forced to stand up against the same adversities. Bambara wanted to teach the children a lesson of “anomie” this term in short means that we all have realistic goals but due to social class or economic imbalance everyone has to go about a different way of achieving those sensible aspirations.
To add in this short story, “The Lesson” it is evident that the children even recognize the economical divergence presented to them. This is evident when Q.T. says on page 665 “Must be rich people shop here.” The child’s English is broken, yes, but he knows that a “wealthy” class of people shop in this in F.A.O. Schwartz. The children are all aware of the imbalance and their dissimilar choice of words only magnifies the obvious. These characters are underprivileged and nearly poor.
The narrator of this story, Sylvia, also expresses knowledge of these social differences and shows no hesitation in using AAVE to communicate her feelings. In paragraph twenty-six Sylvia says in response to the price of a toy, “for some reason this pisses me off.” The reason behind her anger is that she could never afford such a plaything.
In her world and that of the other children in this story, only the most elite could play with this toy, and these select few live on a planet only fantasy to her; but if she were honest she would be uncomfortable in the presence of these types of people and in their world. Sylvia feeling “pissed off” is in direct relation with the fact that she is impoverished. Of course, she would love one of these expensive toys but she cannot afford them.
Slang like many other languages may be hard to understand. AAVE has many terms that mean the same thing, but through emotions and situations combined with these terms, we tend to become more knowledgeable of its purpose. African American Vernacular English is a language that was birth out of the slums of society, birth out through many hardships and travailing. This language is not just another large group of idioms, it expresses more than just words.
AAVE reads into the trials and tribulations of societies impoverished and was created as a response to Sylvia’s concluding thoughts on page 667 “But ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothing.” Despite all of the communal disagreement that is apparent in this pocket-sized narrative Sylvia refuses to be beat and regardless of if she knows it or not her “lesson” was learned and the key component in her learning this “lesson” was African American Vernacular English.
To conclude Sylvia now sees the inequity present in her life. Rena Korb agrees and opens her essay entitled [Critical Essay on “The Lesson”] by saying “The lesson she wants to impart is the economic inequity that exists in the United States, and for the most part, she succeeds admirably in her goal.
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Bambara, Toni C. “The Lesson.” Writing About Literature in the Media Age. New York: Pearson/Longman, 2005. 662-667.
Craig, Holly K., Connie A. Thompson, Julie A. Washington, and Stephanie L. Potter. “Phonological Features of Child African American English.” Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research 46 (2003): 623-636. Literature Research Center. Lansing Comm. Coll., Lansing,Mi. 25 Mar.-Apr. 2007. Keyword: african american vernacular english.
Heller, Janet Ruth. “Toni Cade Bambara’s use of African American Vernacular English in “The Lesson”.” Style 37.3 (Fall 2003): 279(16). InfoTrac OneFile. Thomson Gale. Lansing Community College Library. 27 Apr. 2007
Korb, Rena. “Critical Essay on “the Lesson”” Short Stories for Students 12 (2001). The Gale Group. Lansing Comm. Coll., Lansing,Mi. 23 Mar.-Apr. 2007. Keyword: Toni Cade Bambara “the lesson”.
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