The Lesson, written by Toni Cade Bambara, the question of inequality and poverty arises in response to the juxtaposition of the two neighborhoods in the story, Harlem and Manhattan. Bambara introduces children as the most important occupants of a typical New York slum, mainly in regards to their ability to escape the constraints of their own environment. As highlighted in the story, the elders of this African American community have accepted the social inequality and the economic conditions without question, which only hinders their ability to break away.
To contrast this complacency, Miss Moore is portrayed as an independent, educated, and liberal African American woman who not only recognizes the lack of democracy, but who also seeks to educate children and encourage them to demand more from their society. In order highlight the gap between the rich and poor, Miss Moore brings the children to F. A. O Schwarz on Fifth Avenue so they can learn firsthand of their own social conditions compared to the conditions of others. Through Sylvia, the story’s narrator, and her friends Sugar and Q.
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T, Bambara is able to shed light on the hardships of the poor, while also hinting at the need for a change of attitude within poor African Americans. Additionally, Bambara focuses on the meaning of money in each neighborhood. Sylvia, the most out-spoken and prideful of the group, immediately recognizes the differences between her community, most likely Harlem, and that of which Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. Although Sylvia cannot recognize her own neighborhood as a slum, or the occupants as poor in the beginning, she slowly realizes that everyone is not equal through the distribution of wealth.
Sylvia is angered by the prices in F. A. O Schwarz because she knows that the items for sale are just toys, and that these toys would never take precedent over other things her parents desperately struggle to buy. This is apparent when Sylvia thinks of the thirty-five dollar clown in the store: “Thirty-five dollars could buy new bunk beds for Junior and Gretchen’s boy. Thirty-five dollars and the whole household could go visit Granddaddy Nelson in the country. Thirty-five dollars would pay for the rent and the piano bill too” (Bambara 94).
Although Sylvia cannot directly face the injustices that surround her by speaking outwardly, she inwardly questions the frivolity of the wealthy in order to keep the realities of the situation at bay. Sylvia knows that the prices in the store are outrageous and that she could easily get the toys elsewhere, but what really bothers her is the fact that people actually have the money to buy the toys that are only imitations of the real thing. For instance, the price of the sailboat confuses Sylvia because she knows that not only can she build one herself for fifty cents, but that the toy boats costs as much as a real boat.
Sylvia demonstrates a maturity that allows her to separate her wants from her needs, which is what seemingly distinguishes the wealthy from the poor in the story. Sylvia’s shame to enter the store and her inevitable jealously only fuels her desire to find out how others are able to make money and buy expensive things; she questions why she “ain’t in on it,” which is only answered by her recollection of Miss Moore’s words that symbolize the connection between where you live and who you are. In the end Sylvia has gained a new perspective of herself, her community, and her race as a whole.
She recognizes the unfair advantage the wealthy have over the poor, which only stimulates her desire for a better future. Sugar, perhaps the most disgusted by the inequalities she is presented with, fascinates Miss Moore with her views on society. Sugar, like Sylvia, feels that the money spent on frivolous items like a paperweight or toy microscope would be enough to last a family like hers a lifetime. Sugar silently goes through the toy store in astonishment, touching the toy boat as if she were in a museum.
Sugar’s behavior in the store is indicative of her absorption in the atmosphere and in her own thoughts; normally Sugar has no problem being outlandish, but within this environment she is restrained and serious. For example, Sugar feels an inability to even enter the store, yet she is fully capable of entering a church with the intention of fulfilling a dare or yelling obscenities at a cab driver. It is clear that Sugar is amazed by the prices of the toys in the store, relating the price of the toy boat to the price of food: “You know, Miss Moore, I don’t think all of us here put together eat in a year what that sailboat costs” (Bambara 95).
Sugar’s response to Miss Moore’s question is surprising not only to Miss Moore but to Sylvia as well; Sugar feels a certain responsibility to speak about the inequalities and injustices that face her community because they now seem so clear to her. Before visiting Fifth Avenue Sugar had nothing to compare her neighborhood to, and most likely believed that everyone was equal, but now she recognizes that she lives in a completely different world than those in Manhattan.
Additionally, Sugar’s response demonstrates her strong beliefs because she was not reluctant to address Miss Moore and she continued to do so knowing that Sylvia didn’t want her to speak. Sugar’s views reflect the idea that the toys in F. A. O Schwarz indicate the inequality of society and the absence of democracy. Q. T. , the youngest member of the group, brings forth the idea of wanting something that is out of reach. Though Q. T. may be too young to fully understand the reasoning behind his poverty, he still recognizes that F. A. O Schwarz is a store predominately for wealthy people. Q. T. being the youngest, has the greatest chance of breaking the cycle within his own community because of his early recognition of the wealthy lifestyle. His obsession with the toy boat has the ability to manifest itself in his future life choices to become educated, wealthy, and equal to others. Q. T. ’s unwavering stare at the toy boat also serves as an accurate depiction of a child who has spent most of his life in the slums; Q. T. desires a toy that he inherently knows he cannot have and does not approach the situation with any animosity towards those who cannot provide it for him. Even at his age, Q.
T. holds maturity, like the rest of the children, which allows him to differentiate between practicality and impracticality. The Lesson, true to its name, depicts the invaluable learning experience of Sylvia, Sugar, Q. T. , and other children who also live in the poverty-stricken neighborhood of Harlem. These characters, unaware of their social and economic constraints, are forced to recognize, question, and examine why their lives differ from those who live in Manhattan. Through the trip to F. A. O Schwarz and Miss Moore’s encouragement, the children encounter a world that sharply contrasts to their own.
In seeing the prices of meaningless items in the store, the children immediately learn that they are faced with extreme injustices and have been simply excluded from the world in which they visit. Money, to these children, is the distinction between life and death, and yet to the wealthy patrons of the store, money is spent abundantly and carelessly. After witnessing the inequalities they face, the children vow to take control of their future before it’s too late.