Poverty and Wealth
The children in “The Lesson” all come from poor families. They live in apartment buildings where drunks live in the hallways that reek of urine; they live in what Miss Moore terms the “slums.” The children’s families, however, exhibit somewhat varying degrees of monetary security. Mercedes, for instance, has a desk at home with a box of stationary on it—gifts from her godmother—while Flyboy claims he does not even have a home.
The children, however, surely understand the value of money, and they easily comprehend that the amount of money charged for the toys at F. A. O. Schwarz is astronomical. They compare the handcrafted fiberglass sailboat, which costs $1,195, to the ones they make from a kit, which cost about 50 cents. Sylvia further thinks about what her family could buy with the $35 a clown costs: bunk beds, a family visit to Grandaddy out in the country, even the rent, and the piano bills. The disparity between the way the rich people live and the way Sylvia and her neighbors live is the lesson that Miss Moore wants to impart.
The children internalize this lesson in different ways. Sugar questions whether a nation in which some people have so much but others have so little is truly a democracy. Sylvia grows angry at the disparity that she sees, and she also recognizes the potential showiness of wealth, as represented by the woman who wears a fur coat despite the hot weather. Mercedes, in contrast, aspires more to be like the white people who spend so much money on toys.
The poverty in which the children live is further emphasized by Sylvia’s constant attention to money and what she can use it to buy. Even before the group arrives at the toy store, she acknowledges what she uses money for, such as the grocer, presumably to buy groceries for the family. Barbeque, which she suggests purchasing with Miss Moore’s cab fare, is a luxury, as is the chocolate layer cake and the movie tickets and junk food on which Sugar suggests they spend the remaining money.
Although race is hardly specifically mentioned, it is the undercurrent of the story. That race is not made a point is not surprising; in Sylvia’s world, everyone is African American. The only person who inhabits the exterior is Miss Moore, who actually is “black as hell.” Miss Moore’s otherness stems not from race, but from the way she is different from the African Americans who predominate in the neighborhood. She has a college education, she wears her hair in its natural curls instead of straightening it, as many African-American women of the era did, and she insists on being called by her last name.
Two important ideas—that wealth and race are intrinsically linked and that white people and African-American people are different—are revealed in one brief sentence: when Sylvia sees a woman wearing a fur coat even though it is summer, she says “White folks crazy.” Skin color is mentioned only a few other times, when Sylvia relates that Flyboy tries to get the white people at school ”off his back and sorry for him” and when Rosa Giraffe reiterates Sylvia’s belief that white people are crazy. By the time the children leave the store, it is clear to the reader that they believe that only white people have so much money to spend—and to spend so foolishly.
Bambara has used her writing as an attempt to empower the African-American community; she believed that African Americans needed to pursue a policy of resistance against the racism inherent in American society. Such a policy is evident in ”The Lesson” as Miss Moore encourages the children and her neighbors to question the inequality in the world around them. On the way to the toy store she tells the children that “money ain’t divided up right in this country.” After the children leave the toy store she urges them to think about their society “in which some people can spend on a toy what it would cost to feed a family of six or seven.” She is encouraging them to think about the world in order to resist it. She has already told the children that they live in a slum, and as Sylvia recalls,
“Where we are is who we are, Miss Moore always pointin out. But it don’t necessarily have to be that way, she always adds, then waits for somebody to say that poor people have to wake up and demand their share of the pie.”
Miss Moore’s task of promoting resistance is formidable, for Sylvia questions “none of us know what kind of pie she talking about in the first damn place.” However, her tactics do have some effect on the children. She raises anger in Sylvia, though Sylvia can’t articulate why she is mad. She also has gotten Sylvia, and several of the other children, thinking about these inequities. At the end of the day, Sylvia goes off alone to ponder the day—and thinking about something is often the first step to taking action to change it.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Toni Cade Bambara, Published by Gale Group, 2001.