During the early 1980s, homelessness in America increased rapidly. Myers was likely aware of this dramatic increase when he first published ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ in 1983. As Martha Burt writes in her book, Over the Edge: The Growth of Homelessness in the 1980s , homelessness was ‘‘not an invention of the 1980s,’’ but social service agencies did begin to report ‘‘a greatly increased demand for their services, reflecting the effects of high unemployment, a rising cost of living, and a retrenchment in government programs.’’ Burt estimates that homelessness grew about 22 percent each year from 1984 to 1987. Americans noted and grew concerned about this trend, especially since the 1980s was a decade in which, at the other end of the class spectrum, many wealthy Americans seemed to grow even more prosperous. The story of Lemon Brown illustrates a key questionAmericanswereaskingatthistime,ascyclesof boom and recession created both winners and losers, about what they considered most valuable, as a nation.Theexactcauseof Lemon’shomelessnessis not clear, but his sense of his own value as a person, with an important story to treasure and to tell, has not been shaken by his misfortune.
History of the Blues
Lemon Brown is an old ‘‘blues man,’’ a singer and harmonica player who once toured the South with bands and earned notice in newspaper reviews. Blues emerged, from roots in African music traditions as well as the historical experience of slavery, as a popular musical form in the early decades of the 1900s. Historian Burton Peretti, author of Lift Every Voice: A History of African American Music has noted that ‘‘the singer’s inventiveness was a hallmark of the blues,’’ meaning that the way in which a singer interpreted a song mattered greatly to its impact. ‘‘In a standard blues song,’’ Peretti explains, ‘‘no two stanzas were typically played or sung the same.’’ Performers such as singer Bessie Smith and guitarist Robert Johnson gained fame among audiences through their honesty and individualism, and their ability to use music to convey how they—and their audiences—felt about their troubles. Blues endures as a popular musical style because it provides a way to describe, endure, and understand struggles of the past and present.
The Impact of the Vietnam War on African American Identity
Myers published the story within ten years of the end of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. In ‘‘The Treasure of Lemon Brown’’ Greg learns that Lemon’s son Jesse was killed as a U.S. soldier fighting in a war that is not specifically named in the story, but is likely World War II. Myers was likely thinking about the more recent experiences of African American soldiers in Vietnam as he crafted Jesse’s story: the author finished his own military service before the Vietnam War, but one of his younger brothers was killed in combat during this conflict.
The Vietnam War has a poignant significance for African American military and social history, for while it was one of the earliest conflicts in which the American Army was desegregated, discrimination persisted. Moreover, many of the young men fighting the war came from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, a trend noted and felt deeply by the African American community. Writer Wallace Terry, who reported on African American soldiers in Vietnam for Time magazine, notes in his 1984 book Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans , that African American soldiers died ‘‘at a higher rate, proportionately, than American soldiers of other races.’’ African American soldiers in Vietnam, inspired by the civil rights movement at home, forged a sense of community despite the discouragement they felt. Terry reports that as the war continued they began calling themselves ‘‘Bloods’’ and found ‘‘a new sense of black pride and purpose’’ as they came together. While Myers gives less attention to the African American military experience than he does in other works, such as his 1988 Vietnam novel Fallen Angels , the fact that Lemon’s son was killed in a war suggests the extent to which Myers and others were reflecting on the war’s impact on the African American community even into the 1980s. While Jesse may be a minor character, it is his death at war that has allowed Lemon to see how much a father’s love can mean to a son, and this is the essence of his treasure.
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