Coming of Age: Hard Lessons Learned in the Short Stories of Walker, Tan, And Bambara
Coming of age themes are present in many short stories. The short stories "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker, "Two Kinds" by Amy Tan and like "The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara, are dependent upon a comparison between the values of old and young. All show the foolishness of parents and children in different ways and quite often the character who thinks he or she is the wisest is in fact shown to be the most ignorant. As young people struggle for self-definition they can frequently be callous and blind to the wisdom of their elders but older people can also be blind to the wisdom of the young.
This is illustrated most starkly in "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker, where the protagonist's eldest daughter Dee believes herself to have become highly educated and aware at college because of her adoption of her Afrocentric lifestyle. Walker, by narrating the story through the eyes of Dee's mother, demonstrates how affected and ignorant this new identity really is. When Dee is young she never brought her friends home because she was ashamed; now she proudly brings home her quote-spouting radical African boyfriend. In high school, "Dee wanted nice things. A yellow organdy dress to wear to her graduation from high school; black pumps to match a green suit she'd made from an old suit somebody gave me... At sixteen she had a style of her own: and knew what style was" (Walker). Now Dee has adopted a pro-African persona.
Dee comes home to her overweight mother and her shy sister Maggie (both of whom have helped support her education) and demands that her mother give her some antique quilts so she can hang them as decoration, in tribute to her ancestral past. She is horrified at the idea of the quilts going to Maggie. "Maggie can't appreciate these quilts...She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use" (Walker). To which her mother responds: "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will," remembering how Dee initially refused to take them with her to college because Dee considered them old and out of fashion (Walker). Symbolically, now that the quilts handmade by her grandmother are in fashion once again as is her African identity, Dee will embrace them although she did not before.
Walker humorously shows how Dee refuses to appreciate how what she considers artifacts and symbols of her personal identity were, in fact, intended for everyday use and were designed to be passed down for a functional purpose. Dee's adoption of an African name and her attitude shows that her Africanness is just as much an affectation as trying to seem more 'white' in high school. But as limited as her worldview may be, there is also a tragedy to her mother's viewpoint. Her mother also longs for a better life but is hampered by her low self-esteem, despite her intelligence, given that she lives in a culture where blackness is deemed wrong. Imagining herself on television, Mama fantasizes: "of course all this does not show on television. I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue" (Walker). Everyone in the story is thus affected by the objectification of both blackness and whiteness, both mother and daughter and Dee's fascination with being accepted by white culture and Maggie's lack of self-confidence are both symptoms of their mother's sense of inferiority.
This limited perspective of both old and young as well as a parent's desire for her child to embody an American ideal can be seen in Amy Tan's "Two Kinds." The protagonist's competitive Chinese mother is determined that her young daughter will be a prodigy like her friend's child Waverly Jong. She decides that the girl will become a star playing the piano just like Shirley Temple or the tiny pixie of an Asian girl she sees on the Ed Sullivan show. At first, the daughter tries to play along "In all of my imaginings, I was filled with a sense that I would soon become perfect: my mother and father would adore me and I would be beyond reproach" (Tan 1). However unintentionally, however, Jing-Mei (June's) mother communicates to her daughter that the girl is not 'good enough' to be her daughter unless she is good at something and her daughter begins to resist her mother's attempts to make her 'good' at something.
Eventually, when June's mother does secure her daughter piano lessons, the girl is able to avoid learning because her teacher is deaf. She is determined to prove her mother wrong -- that she is not a prodigy. She realizes "I did pick up the basics pretty quickly and I might have become a pretty good pianist at a young age. But I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different I learned to play only the most ear-splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns" (Tan 3). After a fiasco at a talent show in which June's lack of practice is revealed, her mother tries to force her to the piano once again -- June refuses. "This wasn't China," she thinks, viewing her mother's focus on her success as evidence that her mother only loves her conditionally (Tan 5). June is frustrated that her mother wants an obedient Chinese daughter yet the trappings of success in America -- she cannot have both she believes, but in her determination to craft her own identity she also hurts her mother and denies herself the ability to discover her true musical talent.
"The Lesson" by Toni Cade Bambara similarly portrays a standoff between old and young, with the 'old' represented by the affected Miss Moore, an educated black woman who is forced to live in an inner city neighborhood in pre-Civil Rights America and the narrator and her cousin Sugar and their friends representing youth. Over the course of the story, Miss Moore tries to teach the neighborhood children what 'real money' means by taking them to F.A.O. Schwartz on Fifth Avenue where 'white folks' are wearing fur coats in the middle of summer.
After seeing the prices on the items, the narrator is afraid to even enter the store: "when we get there I kinda hang back. Not that I'm scared, what's there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can't seem to get hold of the door" (Bambara). The prices of the items cost as much as rent and groceries for the children: "Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen's boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Grand-daddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too" (Bambara). The children are intimidated by the store, but refuse to say so.
But at the end of the story it is Sugar the narrator resents more than the white folks shopping at the store when Sugar says "that this is not much of a democracy if you ask me" regarding the class discrepancies revealed by the visit (Bambara). The narrator cares more about beating Sugar to the store so she can spend the left-over money of Miss Moore's cab fare than about the inequalities in her society. The narrator also seems to vaguely resent Miss Moore more than the social conditions of which Miss Moore is attempting to make…