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Inequality in “The Lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara

Socio-economic inequality is the unfair distribution of resources and opportunities to the different groups and races in a country. In the contemporary world of capitalism, this problem is widespread in almost any society. Capitalists have secured the means of production while workers provide the labor force. Corporates and business owners are in stiff competition for the available resources and opportunities, placing laborers in a compromising position. Such inequalities cut across all categories of workers, including the skilled, unskilled, white-collar workers, and blue-collar laborers. These inequalities have led to the unequal provision of services in public and private sectors, thus infringing on citizens’ social and economic rights. I chose this story to investigate economic inequality because this issue is interesting to me as it is prevalent across many nations in modern times.

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One of the central ideas in Toni Cade Bambara’s short story, “The Lesson,” is economic inequalities. Children in this story are from a poor background characterized by homelessness and dilapidated houses (Cartwright 62). They find shelter in what Miss Moore calls the slums. She takes the eight children on a field trip on Fifth Avenue, one of the city’s most expensive toy retail outlets, where they discover that the money used to purchase one toy could feed a large family. Miss Moore helps these kids realize the value of money by noting that the price tagged on one toy is phenomenal.

The glaring disparity between the rich white people and the poor black African Americans like Sylvia and her neighbors is outstanding. A fiberglass sailboat costs $1,195, while a clown goes for $35 (Bambara 5). The kids compare these toys with their cheap gadgets, which are easily damaged not because of being handled carelessly but due to their low quality. Sylvia is surprised by what the price of one toy could do to her family – buy bunk beds, pay rent and the piano bills, and even enough money would be left to make a family visit her grandparents. This is the great lesson that Miss Moore wants to pass to the eight children – economic disparity is widespread in the US, but they should not let that define their lives; with hard work, they could better their lives.

The kids give different views on what they think of this form of inequality. For instance, Sylvia’s cousin, Sugar, wonders whether democracy exists in a country where some people live in abundance while others survive in abject poverty (Bambara 6). Sylvia is agitated because of this disparity, mainly when she sees a woman wearing a fur coat in hot weather. In general, most of the characters in the story live in want; for example, it is evident that the majority do not have their desks where they can work. However, Mercedes appears to live better as compared to all the other seven children even though they come from the same neighborhood. Her parents can afford to buy her some relatively good items, which, to some extent, draws a degree of hate and anger from the other children.

The theme of inequality also plays out in the fact that Miss Moore and the eight children together with their parents live in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. Whereas a few miles away, there is the high-end F.A.O Schwartz, where the rich and wealthy Americans live in luxury. This is a strong indication of the widespread economic disparity between the poor African Americans and the well-to-do families of the white people. As such, the ghetto communities have poor infrastructure and disenfranchised social systems, as it has happened in many countries across the globe. Sylvia further emphasizes the theme of economic inequality through her fixed interest in money and how she could use it. Even before they all arrive at the toy store, she enumerates some of the items she uses money on, such as buying groceries for her family (Bambara 6). On the other hand, Sugar wants them to use Miss Moore’s cab fare in purchasing chocolate layer cakes, barbeque, junk food, and movie tickets. However, Sylvia terms these items as a luxury they cannot afford. This aspect shows how the scarcity of crucial resources and basic needs has influenced the lives of children.

Similarly, the theme of economic inequality is evident when sharp contrast is witnessed between Sylvia and Miss Moore. Sylvia refers to Miss Moore as a nappy-head bitch with a goddamn university degree; this shows how the young African-American girl discredits authority. The new world unveiled to her by Miss Moore certainly portrays her as a poor girl, and she does not take this kindly. She is much disturbed by the opulence she sees among the white people, which makes her question why money, resources, and opportunities are not divided equally (Gilyard and Banks 47). Sylvia concludes that poverty is shameful, and it is due to economic inequality.

Economic inequality has pushed Sylvia to appreciate the value and concept of money. The fact that she keeps Miss Moore’s four dollars is an indicator that the girl now appreciates the value of money. This is evident because before boarding a taxi to the toy store, she had no concept of what money can do. She has learned a valuable lesson in this scenario, unlike her cousin Sugar, who only thinks of buying sweets and chocolates with the four dollars. All of Sylvia’s friends are eager to purchase something from the F.A.O Schwartz toy store, but this is not possible because they are poor. In this passage, the author shows how all children are equal, but poverty denies them the privilege of getting gadgets that could make their childhood colorful and enjoyable.

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Additionally, economic inequality brings a sense of dishonor and shame, as shown in the story. Sylvia and the rest of the children cannot walk freely into the Schwartz toy store and buy expensive toys because they are poor and black – the kids think this profiling based on one’s economic status is shameful. Sylvia and her cousin Sugar are uncomfortable to enter the toy store because of their skin color, race, and class (Bambara 7). It takes the other children to push them into the store. Inside the shop, one of the kids, Flyboy, does not understand how a paperweight works. This aspect is a clear illustration that the kids do not have a desk to write their homework. The author tries to symbolize the state of learning in this oppressed community in the neighborhood. Miss Moore attempts to impart this concept into Sylvia, Sugar, and their friends’ lives.

Due to economic inequality, Miss Moore has chosen to use her position and education to influence these kids’ lives positively. She is giving back to the community by helping the children realize their potential and overcome social injustices and economic inequalities. Miss Moore is using a practical approach rather than a spiritual one to fulfill her plan. She decides to expose the children to a high-end shopping area, which keeps Sylvia thinking. Miss Moore’s efforts are not in vain, as, in the end, one of the kids, Sylvia, is influenced positively. She has learned a lesson, and she needs more time to ponder over it. This may mark the beginning of a real transformation in the ghettoized neighborhood.

“The lesson” by Toni Cade Bambara is not just a story of a young African American girl named Sylvia and her friends – it is an awareness of the real struggles experienced by poor black children and their families. Economic inequality between the poor and the rich stands out clearly, and it defines how people perceive the world. Sylvia knows that she is less privileged, and she has no problem with that. When Miss Moore comes into her life, her perception of how things should be done changes completely. Specifically, it happens when she sees the sharp contrast between the wealthy white people at the F.A.O Schwartz toy store and her oppressed society back in the slums. When Sylvia is introduced to luxury by Miss Moore, her view of the world changes for the better. She can now identify the economic disparities that exist in her society after seeing how the rich live in comparison to the survival that the poor in her neighborhood have to endure.

Sylvia retaliates to her newly learned socio-economic injustices by resistance to the new picture of the outside world’s consciousness. She attacks any advancement towards her economic freedom and perceives it as a threat. She mocks and ridicules all the other kids who seem to support Miss Moore’s teachings. For instance, when Mercedes describes her lovely stationery, Sylvia counters that description with hurtful words (Bambara 7). Mercedes is punished for supporting Miss Moore’s ideologies, and this shows how Sylvia discredits the teachings from her educator. Ultimately, she leaves the toy store full of emotions, ranging from anger, jealousy, and confusion. Her inner struggle for change is fully awakened, and she can now fight for her rightful position in the socio-economic map and the welfare of her fellow black African Americans (Graves 215). For Sylvia, attaining this goal is a struggle, which explains why she feels ashamed of being less privileged than the people who buy expensive toys at the F.A.O Schwartz store.

Toni Cade Bambara’s “The Lesson” is about the social and economic injustices experienced in many societies in the contemporary world. The story highlights the oppression and unfairness faced by the poor and minority communities in the US and the rest of the world. Miss Moore seeks to educate young children on the importance of self-realization and their position in securing a better future for everyone. She is the only woman who has obtained a college degree in her neighborhood, and, thus, she decides to use that knowledge to influence the kids positively. Her goal is to enlighten the children to recognize that the world outside the Harlem District in New York, free from social and economic oppression, is what they want. Economic inequality is a major problem in the current American society, and it affects minority groups disproportionately, as shown in this story by Toni Cade Bambara.

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni Cade. The Lesson. Random House, 1972. Cengage, Web.

Cartwright, Jerome. “Bambara’s the Lesson.” The Explicator, vol. 47, no. 3, 1989, pp. 61-63.

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Gilyard, Keith, and Adam Banks. On African-American Rhetoric. Routledge, 2018.

Graves, Neil. “Bambara’s The Lesson.” The Explicator, vol. 66, no. 4, 2008, pp. 214-217.

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