1 Martin Brandon Martin English 1002G 9 March 2009 “The Lesson” as an Analysis of Societies’ Economic Differences “The Lesson”

is a complex, layered story of a girl’s awakening to the unfair circumstances she was born into under the guise of a simple story about a group of children and a neighborhood woman taking a trip to a toy store. The theme of “The Lesson”, by Toni Cade Bambara, is analyzing the intense effects of socioeconomic class differences in America, and the hidden way a woman who rose above the prevailing racism and unjust economic differences of the time passes her message to children who desperately needed it. The underlying meaning of Bambara’s lesson is created using the rich culture and heritage of the stories’ setting, diction, and the complex and layered characterization provided by “The Lesson.” “The Lesson” is set in a time in which many African-Americans were moving north to escape racism and poverty. Although faced with much of the same in a newer urban environment, the African Americans that made cities like New York their new home brought an identity to their surroundings that is vital to understanding the culture a reader encounters in “The Lesson.” The culture is very interwoven with city living and their environment affects their education, family values, traditions and social standing. As Miss Moore says, “Where we are is who we are” (Bambara 140). The characters in the story live in apartment complexes close to their extended family because when they first came north they all lived together in the same apartment. This is an example of the poverty they live in. The places that the children socialize are littered with alcoholic bums that urinate all over, further emphasizing the poverty that members of their community endure. The action in the story begins at the mailbox with all of the children and Miss

2 Martin Moore. The mailbox is symbolic because it is where mail and information is received, and the lesson is started and ended at the mailbox. The next setting is the taxis that the group rides in. This is significant because a taxi is a luxury that the children’s families could never afford. This is shown by the children's amazement at the meter in the taxi. After they get out of the taxi they realize that they are on 5th avenue with people in fancy clothes. Sylvia points out when she sees a lady in a fur coat in the middle of the summer that she thinks white people are crazy. When confronted by the white people she does not understand, she denies the upper class’s values (Champion “Passing” 73). This is an example of how her neighborhood dictates her feelings about large groups of people. Because she lives in a place that white people are not likely to inhabit, her understanding of white culture is very little. This underlying barrier between the black members of their community and the rest of white America at the time would put these children at a great disadvantage because it distances them from a majority of authority figures, educators, and law enforcement. The next setting of the story is FAO Schwarz, a store that the children’s families would not be likely to shop at or even browse in. Miss Moore suggests that they look in the windows first because she wants them to notice the prices before they go in. This is because she wanted to demonstrate that the store is not a place that their families could buy anything in, and would not have any business visiting. It is likely that Miss Moore chose to visit a toy store to emphasize the amount of money that some Americans spend on items that are purely for leisure, and so that the items within the store would catch the children’s attention. She patiently waits for them to notice the prices and after they have digested this she suggests they go in, but waits and allows them to lead the way. When Sugar and Sylvia get to the door they stop and start to feel shame. This is because Sylvia and Sugar are beginning to understand the lesson that Miss Moore is teaching them.

3 Martin Mercedes, who has not noticed this, gets through and goes in. Sylvia then parallels the shame she felt in the Catholic Church with what she feels entering the toy store that people of her social class cannot afford. Connecting the two experiences shows that Sylvia is starting to understand the lesson. She doesn’t fully understand the feelings yet because when Sugar touches the boat, she childishly wants to hit someone. Violence is a reaction to the unknown that is very basic and shows Sylvia still has more to learn. After FAO Schwarz, they ride back home on the subway because Miss Moore wants them to compare the taxi and the subway after they have seen what they don’t have. This choice of transportation is an effective end to their trip because it allows the children to begin a comparison of their circumstances with those of the people that have money for the luxuries they are exposed to on the trip. This choice is effective when Sylvia realizes how much the money the toys cost would mean to her family while on the subway (Cartwright “Bambara’s” 62). They then return to the mailbox and Sugar verbalizes what Sylvia had previously had been unable to understand. Sugar is able to reflect on the money that others spend on toys and games, and how it is so scarce for the people of their community. After they walk away and Sylvia lets Sugar run ahead, Sylvia puts the lesson to use and thinks, “ain’t nobody gonna beat me at nothin.” The diction used by the characters in “The Lesson”, give the story a rich connection to African American culture. This culture is exemplified by George Yancey when he poses the question, “What other linguistic medium could I use to articulate the rhythm, the fluidity, the angst, … and the beauty involved in traversing the ghetto streets of youth than the dialect of African American English?” (“Geneva” 273) (Wright “Dialect” 73). The effect of the dialect of African Americans is fully explained by Katy M. Wright when she explains, “for through dialect, Bambara discloses and explores empowerment, disapproval, and celebration, and successfully challenges how those

4 Martin listening hear the voice of the marginalized” (“Dialect” 73). Through this, it is understood that the characters dialect and diction are a way of challenging societies’ norms. In a sense, their linguistic freedom is a form of empowerment. Specific examples of their culture’s linguistic differences are their contractions, removal of the suffix “ly”, lack of tense agreement, and removal of redundant conjunctions and prepositions (Wright “Dialect” 75-80). Complex and hidden characterizations pour from the lines of “The Lesson”, and create the meaning and underlying intent of the story. The use of flat and round characters, as well as characters with varying degrees of ability to change, make it possible to determine the varying degrees of effect that Miss Moore’s lesson had by the end of the work. Her tendency to seize every opportunity she has to teach a new lesson implies that she understands that the children need not only a lesson; they need an education (Cartwright “Bambara’s” 61). Miss Moore’s education and intelligence, as well as evidence of the lesson she tries to convey, are evident in many examples throughout the story (Cartwright “Bambara’s” 61). By the stories end, one can ascertain that Miss Moore serves to connect the children with the white world they are so distant from. Laurie Champion, in “’Passing it Along in the Relay’: Struggles for Economic Equality in Toni Cade Bambara’s ‘Raymond’s Run’ and ‘The Lesson’”, explores this connection to the white world when she states, “[some African Americans] associated individually with privileged whites but never became part of the privileged society, creating instead a divided subset of the African American community” (69). This connection and acceptance of the upper class’s education provide her the opportunity to provide the lessons the children need. Jerome Cartwright further explains this idea in “Bambara’s ‘The Lesson’” when he explains, “She has more money – enough to hire two cabs to take the kids to F.A.O. Schwarz and not worry about the $4.00 change that Sylvia has kept and

5 Martin which Miss Moore has surely not forgotten.” The money Miss Moore gives Sylvia is likely in an effort to teach Sylvia financial responsibility, which is an example of how Miss Moore hides a lesson in everything she does with the children. Sylvia is not quite ready for this challenge, however, and she decides not to tip the driver. This selfish action indicates an immaturity in Sylvia’s character that is likely to become the subject of another lesson by Miss Moore. Although Sylvia and Sugar think they have gotten away with keeping the rest of the money, the reader may assume that the money was a test of Sylvia’s responsibility. When she fails to do so, it is likely that Miss Moore allowed the remaining taxi money to become a gift that Sylvia would have been too proud to accept. Initially, Sylvia has no real understanding of true wealth and the economic differences Miss Moore is attempting to show the children (Champion “Passing” 73). Throughout the story Sylvia takes notice of the hints provided by Miss Moore, however, and the affects the lesson had are left to the reader’s speculation. The minor characters of “The Lesson”, although subtle, give the work depth and open it to analysis and interpretation. Aunt Gretchen, who serves to represent members of the black community who have been manipulated into submission, is an example of Bambara’s hidden cry for readers to open their eyes to injustices that still pervade our society. Characters such as Mercedes, who had no understanding of the lesson, emphasize Sugar and Sylvia’s understanding. Her value of the toys based on the fact that they are expensive is another method of Mercedes’ use in the story. The name Mercedes is an obvious signal that her character also is used to examine wealth. She is an example of those who accept the upper classes’ material wealth, without accepting the means to achieve it. Although people that place great value on material wealth, such as Mercedes, accept one aspect of the upper classes’ culture, these ends cannot be attained without also accepting the means to earning them. This reveals Bambara’s critical view of members of

6 Martin the African American community that glorify material wealth without also accepting education. At first glance Fat Butt is just a gluttonous character that serves to provide comic relief. Upon closer analysis, however, Fat Butt serves to represent the academic and intellectual potential of the children. This is accomplished by his interest in the microscope on display in the window. If the inner-city schools the children likely attended had funding to provide a better education, his interest in the microscope may have been an interest that sparked him to pursue an education in science. In Bambara’s creation of the setting, diction, and use of characterization, an inspiring intent is revealed. “The Lesson” invites readers to parallel the character’s circumstances with those of so many unfortunate people today and find little change. The lessons hidden in Miss Moore’s patient questions challenge and inspire Sylvia to wake up to the unjust conditions she and so many like her must bear for their entire lives. The complexity of “The Lesson” allows for unparalleled examination and interpretation. A full understanding of the story is elusive, and almost requires the reader to fully immerse himself in Sylvia’s culture and life. Luckily, Bambara’s literary craftsmanship allows for the immersion “The Lesson” demands. The level of characterization and detail that Bambara attains, with an adolescent girl who is deprived of a sufficient education as the narrator, is staggering. After giving “The Lesson” a full analysis, even readers whose life experience sets them far apart from the characters in the story can attain an understanding of their culture and struggles.