In Walter Dean Myers: A Literary Companion, critic Mary Ellen Snodgrass refers to ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ as an exemplum. This Latin word literally means ‘‘example.’’ In literature it is used to describe a story that one uses to make a point about morality. In medieval times, a priest might use an exemplum within a sermon to instruct his congregation how to act. Referring to this modern story as an exemplum calls attention to the fact that it uses the meeting of a frustrated teenager and a homeless man as an opportunity to illustrate the lessons that young members of the African American community may learn from one another about family, history, and pride. Just like Greg learns from Lemon, readers of the story learn by witnessing the experience of Greg.
Critics like Snodgrass would agree that the lesson readers take away from the story is similar to the one that Greg Ridley learns from Lemon Brown: that treasures lie in unexpected places, and pride and family love can be more valuable than fame and fortune. Lemon, a homeless man, teaches a teenager that those who live on the streets have rich stories to tell. He also convinces Greg to go home to his father and to take his stories and words of advice seriously. Just as Lemon’s son Jesse found inspiration in his father’s stories while serving on the battlefield, Greg might be able to hear something worthwhile in his own father’s stories, especially the one about overcoming his lack of education to become a postal worker. Before he meets Lemon, Greg feels ‘‘he had heard [his father’s] story too many times to be interested.’’ But by the end of the story, when he anticipates with a smile the ‘‘lecture’’ his father will give him, Greg seems to believe that his father’s story will help him as he tries to approach school more diligently.
Because the story is written for a young audience, its lesson is conveyed through a gentle lens. Despite a gritty urban setting, many details of the story are less harsh than they could be. For example, gang violence is absent from the story, and Greg walks the night streets without any apparent fear. It’s not clear that Lemon actually has the razor he says he does when Greg enters the abandoned house, and the thugs who threaten Greg and Lemon are armed only with a pipe, not a gun or a knife. Though Lemon is dressed in rags and lives on the streets, he seems to accept his situation without much protest. When Greg asks him if he is hurt after the encounter with the thugs, Lemon replies: Lemon is proud and tough. He does not apparently suffer from mental illness or health problems, as many homeless people do.
Such choices by Myers give the story a softer edge than it might have had at the hands of another author. Some might conclude, as a result, that the story is unrealistic. But recall that it was originally published in Boys’ Life the magazine of the Boy Scouts of America, and since then it has found its way into numerous middle and high school textbooks. It may be, then, that the same qualities that make the story an exemplum, ideal for these sorts of publications, make it seem safer than real life to others. It could be interpreted as a sort of fairy tale, an unlikely situation in which a boy finds a kind old man in an unexpected place, and everyone is safe and happy in the end.
And yet Myers does not always write such fairy tales. He has received numerous awards as an author for creating complex portrayals of the African American community, in particular for writing about realistic characters with whom young readers can identify. For example, critic R. D. Lane, in ‘‘Keepin’ It Real,‘‘ an essay about Myers’s work, has pointed out that the author’s ‘‘novels do not always end happily’’ and that ‘‘many of his characters do not evolve into fine, upstanding citizens.’’ Why, then, would Myers write ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ as a gentle fairy tale-like story? Perhaps this is because the lesson that Myers wants to teach ultimately has nothing to do with exposing young readers to the harsh realities of poverty and social problems. They likely know a lot about these already, courtesy of the evening news or maybe even their own life experiences. Therefore, his goal for this story may not actually be about being painfully realistic, but rather about offering fictional inspiration for solving a different kind of real world problem: the need for young African American men to find role models and success.
Indeed, this issue has been one of great concern in recent years to the African American community. In the wake of the civil rights movement, community leaders have repeatedly asked what still needs to be done to ensure a better life for African American boys. Many African American leaders and thinkers have weighed in on this issue. In 1995, for example, Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, an African American organization, organized the ‘‘Million Man March’’ in Washington, D.C. He sought men from around the country to unite in a symbolic effort to work with their communities to solve social problems. Writing in 2004, literary critic bell hooks suggested in her book Real Cool that African American men need to overcome a legacy of shame left by the history of slavery and racism. In words that could be applied to the character of Greg Ridley, she observed that black boys who ‘‘need to prove their value through performance’’ tend to become interested in sports because it is considered a ‘‘masculine’’ realm for success. ‘‘However,’’ hooks writes, ‘‘black boys who do not find their way to sports or are unable to succeed playing sports have little or no opportunity to regain lost self-respect,’’ which can lead to frustration or violence. Also speaking in 2004, comedian Bill Cosby, who had been the star of one of the 1980s most successful television series, raised eyebrows and made headlines when he criticized the African American community for failing to parent responsibly. In Cosby’s opinion, the problems of the African American community can be blamed less on racism from whites and more on African Americans’ own failure to take responsibility for their families. Robert M. Franklin, president of Morehouse College, a historically African American institution, has also weighed in on this debate, suggesting in his 2007 book Crisis in the Village that efforts to build hope for young people and families must come from within the African American community.
Regardless of the stance taken in this ongoing discussion, those who have taken part in it have explored two key issues. First, they have considered to what extent racism has impacted the ability of African American men to be successful and help their families and communities. Second, they have contemplated what African Americans can do within their communities to help young men achieve pride and success. Looking at ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ within the context of this discussion offers a way to better understand why, in this story, Myers does not emphasize realism so much as role models. He sees friendship between older and younger generations of men as a potential solution to the problems for young black men wrought by racism and poverty. This approach is consistent with a community pattern that scholars Leon D. Caldwell and Joseph L. White write about in their essay ‘‘Generative Fathering: Challenges to Black Masculinity and Identity,’’ in which they argue that both biological and non-biological African American fathers and father figures must ‘‘participate in the transmission of African American culture and the nurturance of healthy children to sustain our communities.’’ This is, in effect, what Lemon Brown does: he protects a young boy from harm and teaches him about parents, children, and cultural heritage by relaying the story of his own relationship with his son. He steps in to help, not because Greg is his child, but because Greg is a child of his community who needs guidance.
Myers knew how important such communityoriented parenting was firsthand, for as a child, he was raised by people who were not his parents: his father’s former wife (who was, incidentally, not African American) and her husband. In an autobiographical essay he published in a collection about young adult authors’ lives called Speaking for Ourselves , Myers writes about his effort to figure out what was positive about being African American, especially in a world that ‘‘didn’t understand’’ him. Like any teenager, he was sure that his foster parents didn’t understand him either, but he came to realize that his foster father ‘‘gave me the most precious gift any father could give to a son. He loved me.’’ His foster mother, for her part, taught him to understand ‘‘the value of story, how it could serve as a refuge for people, like us, who couldn’t afford the finer things in life.’’
The lesson taught by ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ can be understood, then, as a combination of love and heritage, the two values Myers states that he learned from his foster parents, and two qualities he sees as imperative to the success of the African American community. First, the story asserts that there is no greater treasure a parent can pass on to a child than love, meaning both the love a parent gives and the love a parent teaches a child to have for oneself. ‘‘What else a man got ’cepting what he can pass on to his son, or his daughter if she be his oldest?’’ Lemon asks Greg near the end of the story. Through this question, Greg comes to realize what his father is doing when he nags Greg to study. It is his way of telling Greg he loves him and wants what is best for him.
Second, as Myers learned from his foster mother, a story can have a tremendous value in teaching a child who he is and why he should be proud of himself. This happens at multiple levels in ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown.’’ Lemon’s story of his life as a blues musician teaches Greg to have a greater understanding of both the humanity of a homeless person and the rich history of African American culture. Lemon’s story inspires Greg just as it once inspired Jesse, thus convincing Greg to pay more attention to the stories his father tells about his life. Though his love of basketball need not disappear, Greg realizes that African American history, as lived through the lives of his father and Lemon and Jesse, offers him other ways to feel proud of himself as a young African American man.
Finally, Myers uses this story as an exemplum aimed at teaching young African American readers to be proud of their community. Greg’s father is neither absent nor negligent. He has had a hard time reaching Greg, but with the help of Lemon, himself a father figure for Greg, he will succeed in helping Greg to have a good life. Perhaps Myers refuses to depict Lemon Brown tragically because he wants to emphasize that, despite the presence of social problems like homelessness and poverty, Lemon, and other elders like him are themselves treasures, full of strength and wisdom. Myers wrote in the essay ‘‘Writing and Revising ‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’’ that he was inspired to write the story after having ‘‘seen, in an old newspaper, an advertisement for a blues singer,’’ wondering about his life story, and then wanting to write about someone discovering ‘‘what I had discovered, the past life of a human being.’’ Though the story of Greg’s encounter with Lemon may be ‘‘unrealistic,’’ it inspires readers to consider community as a source of strength, one that might help young people like Greg to survive very realistic problems.
Maureen Reed, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Walter Dean Myers, Published by Gale Group, 2010